Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Many people usher in the holiday season by decorating their homes with evergreen boughs, sprigs of holly, garlands, and mistletoe. Although now considered a Christmas tradition, Vermont writer Lisa Halvorsen explains how this practice is not something recent, dating back many centuries.
The Greeks and Romans were among the first to bring evergreen boughs indoors in winter. They were amazed that the evergreen remained green year-round, even during the bleak winter months, and decided that it must have supernatural powers. To them it symbolized nature and the promise of spring when the earth would be verdant again.
In the 1800s, greens were used in this country to make memorials to honor loved ones who had died. Evergreen boughs and other greens were woven into wreaths, crosses, and stars and placed on graves in cemeteries. During the Victorian era, the custom of bringing evergreen boughs and other greens into the house at Christmastime was revived. Many people made elaborate arrangements for mantelpieces and tables using boughs, ivy, laurel, yew, and hemlock.
A kiss under the mistletoe, another popular American custom, came from Scandinavia, where according to mythology, Balder, the son of Frigga, the Norse goddess of love, was struck dead by an arrow made of mistletoe. As Frigga wept, her tears fell onto the mistletoe and turned into small, white berries. She declared that mistletoe should no longer be used to kill, but to encourage love. Thus, anyone found standing beneath the mistletoe must be kissed.
Mistletoe also played an important role in the Druid celebrations of the winter solstice. Because it appeared to grow in the air–the plant wound itself around the tree, its roots never touching the soil–the Druid high priests believed that it was a sacred plant. During the solstice, they would climb the trees, cut down the mistletoe, and toss it to the crowd below. It was considered bad luck if even a single sprig touched the ground. Catching the mistletoe ensured that livestock would be fertile and reproduce.
Holly and ivy often are used together in holiday decorations, a tradition that stems from a Middle Ages belief that holly was male and ivy female, and so the two should be intertwined forever. Holly also was thought to have protective powers, while ivy stood for love.
The tradition of decorating evergreen trees for the holidays began with Martin Luther in the early 1500s. Legend has it that he was walking through the woods one Christmas Eve and noticed how the sparkly stars shone through the branches of a snow-covered fir. Wanting to share the magic with his children, he chopped down the tree and brought it home. He decorated it with candles to represent the stars.
In the 1600s, families in France decorated fir trees with gold foil, paper roses, apples, and sweet treats at Christmastime. German immigrants brought this same tradition with them when they settled in America. However, Christmas trees did not become widespread in America until the 1800s. Although first sold commercially in New York City in 1851, it wasn’t until four years later, when President Franklin Pierce placed the first tree in the White House, that many Americans adopted the tradition. Electric Christmas tree lights were invented in 1882 by Edward Johnson, Thomas Alva Edison’s assistant.
This year, as you deck your halls with holiday greens, think of the history behind these traditions and of the many before you who incorporated greens into their rituals and celebrations.
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