Christmas Botany


(This 821st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 24, 2006.)


A Christmas Cactus

Buffalo News file photograph


The historical background for the plants we have come to associate with Christmas and Hanukah often derives from pagan sources or connections with the winter solstice. Here is some information about some of them:


MISTLETOE. In Norse and Celtic myths these partially parasitic plants were considered an antidote to poison and a representative of good fortune. In one tradition drinking a tea made from the plant or rubbing it on the lips made that person fertile. These sources were transformed by the time of Victorian England into the required kiss under a branch hung over a doorway. Originally each suitor took a berry from the branch until no more kisses were permitted.


The word mistletoe is thought to derive from the name of the European mistle thrush. The association is apt for the berries must pass through the digestive system of birds like this thrush to germinate.


In this country mistletoe is a plant most often found in our southern forests. My wife tells how her father collected mistletoe for Christmas decoration in Alabama by shooting the tree limbs on which it hung.


HOLLY. Druidic myth had twins, the Oak King and the Holly King, competing cyclically. In summer oak leaves hid the holly and the Oak King was in power, but by the time of the Winter Solstice, December 21 this year, the leafless Oak King was subdued and the evergreen Holly King had his turn. At this same time, however, day length would begin to increase and the Oak King would slowly regain his power.


The winter solstice also marked the Roman Saturnalia, the celebration of the planet Saturn during which holly leaves served as gifts. Despite the disfavor of some early leaders, the first Christians took up this activity and soon extended it to associating prickly holly wreaths with Jesus crown of thorns, their red berries with his blood and the wood of the holly with the cross on which he was crucified.


CHRISTMAS TREE. The earliest "Christmas" trees were oaks decorated with candles and gilded apples by Druids at the time of the Winter Solstice. Our use of conifers came to us from Europe where such trees had long celebrated survival. Thus the name for cedars: arbor vitae, tree of life.


In the 8th century a monk, St. Boniface, dedicated the fir tree to the infant Jesus, thus replacing the oak as a religious symbol. By about 1600 evergreen trees were brought into homes at Christmastime.


But in this country a 1659 law made celebration of December 25 by anything but church attendance a crime. It was not until almost two centuries later that German and Irish immigrants undermined this puritan attitude toward frivolity. Finally Christmas became a legal holiday in 1859.


Just 23 years later Edward Johnson, one of Thomas Edison's assistants, introduced the idea of using electric lights to replace candles on Christmas trees.


CHRISTMAS CACTUS. Because of Santa's reindeer and songs like "White Christmas", we think of Christmas as associated with snow and cold. But of course it is also celebrated where snow and cold play little or no role. The Christmas cactus is a rain forest plant, not even a real cactus, that happens to bloom in mid-December. Because of this it has become a welcome houseplant in the North as well. Its lovely red blossoms appear just in time for this celebration.


POINSETTIA. Here is another tropical plant, this one closely tied to Mayan mythology in which it symbolized purity.


In Mexico where the flower grows wild, it has come to be known as the Christmas flower. A charming legend has it that a poor urchin named Pepita could not afford a gift to offer Jesus on Christmas Eve. She had been told, however, that any humble gift, if given in love, would honor her Savior's birth. Taking this to heart, the little child picked some weeds from the side of the road, carefully arranged them and placed them on the altar in the sanctuary. There a Christmas miracle occurred: the weeds bloomed into beautiful red and green flowers for Pepita had picked poinsettias.


This plant's common name honors Joel Robert Poinsett, our first ambassador to Mexico, who brought cuttings back to this country. -- Gerry Rising