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Holiday greenery has a history that goes well beyond the Victorian Christmas tree we gather around today. Most of the holiday greenery we use to decorate dates back to the pagan holidays of the Romans and Northern Europeans when certain plants where chosen for their symbolic powers of restoration and protection.
In celebration of the Winter Solstice, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, during which they would decorate homes and temples, feast and revel in honor of their god, Saturn. In fact, you could easily distinguish a pagan home from a Christian home during the early days of the Church of Rome by the holiday greenery.
The Christians found decorating and revelry inappropriate and only gradually adopted the festive tradition as accommodations were made in order to convert more pagans to Christianity. The new believers persisted with many of the same traditions from their past which remain with us today.
Historically, the Romans used plants for symbolic, protective and curative reasons. The laurel wreath that adorned a Roman’s head signified special achievement in the arts, athletics or the military; or it warded off witchcraft if hung in the doorway. Ivy was a symbol of joy and happiness, thus associated with Bacchus, the God of Wine. Holly was a charm against evil spirits and chewed by warriors and athletes for courage and strength.
As the Roman Empire became Christian, holly came to symbolize the life of Christ. The white flowers symbolized his purity; the bitter bark, his suffering on the cross; the red berries were his blood; and the sharply pointed leaves, his crown of thorns. Rosemary continues to be a symbol of hope and remembrance and consequently is used during weddings and funerals, respectively. This herb is also sacred to Mary because its aroma was said to have been born when the baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes were hung on a rosemary bush to dry.
In northern Europe, Winter Solstice marked the beginning of the Yule season. Yule was a two-month celebration of feasting attendant on the slaughtering of herds before winter forage for the animals became scarce. The bounty was consumed out of necessity and decorations of greenery-adorned homes as a symbol of the hope of renewal come springtime.
The northern Europeans believed that woodland spirits lived in hollies and by bringing holly greenery inside during Yule, they were offering warmth and good cheer to these friendly spirits. Mistletoe has many pagan associations because of its mysterious ability to live high in treetops with no roots touching the ground. Its power to protect and cure, and its Scandinavian lore representing love and cooperation, made it a welcoming symbol adorning many a doorway. For Christians, it became symbolic of the incarnation. Jesus, as the son of God, was born into this world by an independent host, just like mistletoe flourishes suspended high among the branches of a tree.
In the 19th century, the Victorians re-popularized the pagan tradition of bringing in a decorated evergreen tree. Churchmen had first rejected holiday decorating because it was vulgar and superstitious; then in an attempt to win over pagan people, some traditions were adapted to fit Christianity.
As Protestantism took hold in northern Europe in the 16th century, churchmen once again resisted any pagan associations with the Christmas holiday, however, it is hard to erase the diversity of cultural traditions.
In America, the tree has become the center of our Christmas celebrations as it symbolizes rebirth and renewal. It is big business now, but perhaps we can reflect on its intended symbolism from time to time throughout the holidays, just the same.