Yuletide Green: The History & Lore of Evergreens

Many modern traditions today stem from ancient rituals. By understanding the origins and sources of these practices, you can infuse a greater sense of sacredness and ceremony in your modern-day celebrations. 

In today’s blog post, you’ll learn:

  • The symbolism of the Evergreen Trees
  • The history of why people bring Trees into the home during Christmas time
  • The pagan ritual and lore that surround Mistletoe, Holly, and Fir trees
Photo by Emily Doyle

Throughout the world, there are so many wonderful traditions that are celebrated this time of year that involve the usage of plants, especially Evergreens!

Have you ever wondered where these origins stem from and why we have customs such as bringing a tree into our home and decorating it? Well, because this is something we felt curious about too, we decided to take a deeper look into some of these traditions and how they came to be. 

The Evergreens are rich with symbolic meaning during the holiday season, carrying with them traditions that have been practiced for hundreds of years! Some of our most noticeable celebrated Evergreens are Mistletoe (Viscum album), Holly (Ilex aquifolium), and the Fir tree (Abies spp); all of which have an ancient history and carry significant meaning and symbology.

Evergreen trees such as the Fir tree (Pseudotsuga – among many other species) remain a vivid green color throughout the cold winter months,  when most plants either become bare or die. This “ever-green” quality symbolizes everlasting life. Despite the darkness resulting in literal and metaphorical hibernation, life moves on and springs forth again. 

For centuries, people of ancient times have celebrated the Winter Solstice with the intention that the Sun god will be well and return for summer so that life can bloom once more. The early Romans celebrated the solstice during the festival of Saturnalia to workshop Saturn, the god of agriculture. In honor of this day, people would decorate their temples and homes with boughs of Evergreen trees, often using Fir. This historical occurrence may be why we hang wreaths on our doors today. 

Photo by Emily Doyle

The custom of placing a Christmas tree in your home dates back to Germany in the 16th century. Since then, it’s become a tradition to bring a Fir tree into the home. Martin Luther (a 16th-century Protestant reformer) is believed to start the practice by lighting candles and stringing them into the trees to capture the image and feeling of awe he felt when he looked up at the twinkling stars in the sky. 

This tradition made its way to America in the early 1700s by German settlers in Pennsylvania. However, it was widely viewed as pagan and many folks did not accept it nor the other customs associated with it. People were so displeased with the introduction of these rituals that even the singing of Christmas carols was perceived as a mockery of the sacred day. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when there was an influx of German and Irish settlers, that bringing a tree into the home and decorating it became more mainstream and accepted. 

Around 1846, Queen Victoria, who was popular with her subjects, was depicted with her family under a Christmas tree. This image popularized the tradition and made it into an acceptable fashion, even for those living in America. 

“Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe,” by Edward Hornel and George Henry 1890

MISTLETOE (Viscum album)

There are many different variations of Mistletoe (Viscum album) that have been used throughout the ages, as it can be found spread throughout the world. It’s considered a parasitic evergreen that grows on different kinds of trees and shrubs such as Willow, Oak, Pine, Fir, Hawthorn, and Apple. 

Have you ever wondered why there’s a tradition to kiss someone beneath a twig of Mistletoe? One of the earlier stories of this plant relates to the ancient times of Celtic Druids, where they valued Mistletoe for its ability to bloom in the winter. The Mistletoe shrub would still flourish with its green leaves while the other trees were bare; to them, this represented everlasting life. The Druids would remove Mistletoe from Oaks, which were considered sacred trees, with a golden sickle in a ceremony on the 6th day after the new moon. Mistletoe was valued as a remedy that ensured fertility, which might be the origin of the romantic tradition of kissing beneath the Mistletoe that has formed over the year.

Mistletoe (Viscum album), Gems From Holmes, circa 1904

Another story of Mistletoe comes to us from Norse mythology. Frigg, the Goddess of Love, had a son, Baldur. Because he was prophesied to die, Frigg secured an oath from all of the animals and plants that they would not harm him. Unfortunately, she forgot to consult with Mistletoe. 

Loki, the God of Mischief, used an arrow made from the Mistletoe to kill Baldur. In one variation of the story, Baldur was resurrected from the dead. In celebration, Frigg made Mistletoe into a symbol of love and gave all those who passed beneath it a kiss. 

Even now, kissing underneath the Mistletoe is a popular tradition in many European countries and North America, and carries the promise of marriage, happiness, and long life. In the Middle Ages, there was a custom where one would pluck a berry beneath the Mistletoe for each kiss taken and finish once all the berries were gone. 

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

HOLLY (Ilex aquifolium)

When I think about the winter plants of the holiday season, I inevitably think of Holly (Ilex aquifolium). With its bright red berries and sharp glossy leaves that withstand the cold months, it’s one of the most well-known winter trees.

The Holly tree is an Evergreen native to most of central and southern Europe and can grow upwards to fifty feet tall. Its beautiful berries are used as an affordable way to decorate the home throughout the holidays, especially in places where they flourish, such as Ireland. 

Holly is chock full of myth, symbology, and tradition that relates to the Druids, Celtics, Pagans, and Christians. For example, the Druids viewed the Holly tree as a sacred plant that provided protection against evil spirits. The berries also represented the menstrual blood of their Goddess, and the boughs were cut and brought into the home since the leaves were viewed as a magical source and would bring back spring. Some additional sources speak of Pagan Romans sending Holly branches to those who were important to them as a good wish for the New Year festivals. 

In another magical application, Ancient Celtics would place the leaves and branches around their doors and windows to ward off evil spirits. They believed that by bringing in parts of the Holly tree, they would provide shelter for the woodland fairies, who would bring good luck into their homes in return — but beware of cutting down a whole tree as this might bring bad luck!

Familiar Wild Flowers by F. Edward Hulme, circa 1890

In Celtic Mythology, the Holly tree was considered the Evergreen twin of the Oak tree. While the Oak tree controlled the light half of the year, the Holly controlled the dark winter months. Holly was associated with the Celtic and Norse gods of thunder since it has the same ability as Oak to resist lightning, with the thorns on the leaves acting as conductors. 

When studying the ethnobotany and history that surrounds specific plants, it’s always interesting to note themes that are present cross-culturally. With Holly, we see both the Celts and the Druids using it for protection. From an astrological perspective, Holly is the prime example of a plant ruled by Mars (sharp leaves, bright red berries). With Mars as the archetype warrior and protector, this lens merges perfectly with the stories and traditions that surround this plant. 

One of the famed stories of Holly told in Christianity once the religion spread throughout Celtic Ireland was that the thorns represent the crown Jesus wore when crucified, the berries symbolize the blood he spilled for the sins of humankind,  and the leaves represent life after death. The tree has been coined “Christ’s Thorn” in numerous different languages throughout northern Europe, such as in Sweden and Norway. 

There are so many traditions, stories, and mythologies that encompass modern-day celebrations. I find it inspiring to learn about the origins of these traditions and how they still exist and are celebrated today, even if the underlying meaning isn’t always present, such as bringing a tree into the home during the Christmas season. I feel like it’s important to remember the deeper symbolism behind these traditions and to share this knowledge with the younger generation so that we can revive the vibrant history that has woven the tapestry of ceremony and ritual w have today.   

We’d love to hear if you have a particular plant, herb, or tree that you celebrate this time of year! How do you celebrate with it and how did that tradition come alive? Learning about these plants and their history can really deepen our understanding of how our ancestors used to connect with nature, which in turn teaches us to do the same and reignite our relationship to our ancestry too.

Sending warm holiday wishes and a happy Solstice from all of us here on the Evolutionary Herbalism team!

Written by Christine Young from the Evolutionary Herbalism team

Christine Young has been apart of our EH team for over 3 years now and practices out of Colorado. She is a Clinical Herbalist and Certified Holistic Health Practitioner. She works as the Student Support manager here on our team, while seeing clients where she incorporates mind body practices along with nutrition and herbalism, teaches classes, and leads meditation workshops. She also enjoys cooking with wild foods, growing her own herbs and vegetables, and making her own herbal medicine for her growing family.

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