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Holiday ­Traditions

Each of our Christmas ­evergreens tells a story

      Early Americans celebrated a long Yuletide from December 15 to Epiphany on January 6. Europeans started earlier on December 6, Saint Nicholas Day. In every tradition, evergreens have been part of the celebration.
     Why do we decorate our homes with boughs of pine and holly?
     Evergreens are imagined to have magical properties. Remaining green year-round, they have intrigued people when many other plants were brown and dead. Thus they have come to symbolize immortality and hope. Making wreaths and garlands from evergreens is an art dating to ancient Middle Eastern and Asian civilizations. 
      For pre-Christians, when winter arrived and all else was brown and dead, evergreens were manifestations of abiding life within the plant world. They were deemed sacred plants, giving people a way of contacting the spirit of growth and fertility. Particularly precious were plants like holly, ivy and mistletoe, all bearing fruit in winter.
      Pre-Christians also believed that their actions affected the cycle of the seasons, and they had to petition nature to bring good weather, a bountiful harvest and good fortune. Eating, drinking and singing with neighbors helped them make it through the winter solstice when they believed evil was lurking everywhere until the new year.
     Holly was one of the favorites. The early Irish thought holly was the home of tiny, friendly forest fairies. Early Teutonic tribes considered themselves friendly humans as they brought boughs of holly into their homes to keep the tiny sylvan spirits warm. Holly also was used by the pre-Christians at the Saturnalia, a yearly festival in honor of the god Saturn, the god of seed time and of harvests. Ancient Romans decorated their dwellings with holly as darkness increased. On Calend’s Day (January 1) good friends would exchange branches of holly as good luck charms. The giving of gifts seems to be an offshoot of the gifts of the Magi but probably is more of a survival of the Roman tradition of gift-giving of boughs of holly. Throughout the old world, belief in the protective power of holly in winter was widespread.
      Early Christians frowned upon these pagan customs and forbade Christians to decorate their homes with greenery during Saturnalia, which lasted from December 17 to 23. In 320AD, the Christian church decreed December 25 to be the feast of the nativity, replacing Saturnalia with Christ as the light of the world.
 
The Holly and the Ivy
       Human love for nature slowly overrode pagan symbolism. As far back as the 15th century, it was customary at Christmas for every house and parish to be decorated with holly, ivy, bay or any plant that remained evergreen. First used to ward against evil spirits, holly became a symbol of life everlasting.
      One of the most beautiful Christmas carols, The Holly and the Ivy, depicts this symbolism in likeness to the life of Christ. The blossoms are as white as lily flowers, a symbol of purity, and the red berries symbolize the blood that Christ shed. The leaves represent his crown of thorns.
      Botanists have identified more than 300 species of holly. Our beautiful American native holly, ilex opaca, are aglow with clusters of red berries. They have appreciated the enormous increase in total rainfall this year.
      A lovely cultivar of ilex opaca is Sader Hill, which has large clusters of berries and wide leaves. Another favorite holly is San Jose, with extra large dark red berries that look like they’re polished. Some of my most favorite varieties include English holly (ilex aquifolium), Buford holly, Nellie Stevens, Centennial Girl, Yule Brite, Foster holly and Needlepoint holly.
      Another wonderful native holly is Winterberry, or ilex verticillata. After the first heavy frost, this deciduous holly shrub loses its leaves, and the bare stems are left with profuse clusters of bright red berries.
       Now is the time to fertilize holly for next year. Simply sprinkle some organic 10-6-4 around the drip line for a heavier set of berries.
 
Trees, Herbs and Cuetlaxochitl
       The Christmas tree goes back to a Viking legend. It is said that when Christianity was taught to the Vikings, faith, hope and charity were sent as messengers to seek out and light the first Christmas tree. They sought a tree that was as high as hope and as wide as love with the sign of the cross on every bough. The fir tree was selected to be a symbol of Christmas. If you examine the tips of any fir tree, you will see a perfect cross at the end.
      There are many symbolic herb plants of Christmas as well. Rosemary is said to have changed its flowers from white to blue in honor of Mary. Rosemary is easily trained into a little mini tree and has a pine-like fragrance. Add mini lights and mini ornaments for a darling table-top display.
      The poinsettia has blossomed into a traditional must-have during the holiday season. It comes to us from Mexico and Central America. The Aztecs called it cuetlaxochitl. They used the flowers in medicine and dyes. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Christian priests began using it in religious rituals. In 1825 it was brought to the U.S. by Joel Poinsett, who was the first American ambassador to Mexico. The plant has been popularized by the Ecke family of California. Today, numerous cultivars of poinsettia exist in every shade of red to pink to white and combinations.
 
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      Nothing beats fresh evergreens during the holidays. Doors, windows and even entire homes become fragrant with fresh greens. Plastic and acrylic just don’t measure up!
 
Maria Price, longtime owner of Willow Oak Herb and Flower Farm in Severn, joins us in 2019 with the column Gardening for Health.