University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Boone and Winnebago County Units

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Holiday Legends

I think the lore and symbolism associated with plants are fascinating. Historically, these teachings were shared as part of the holiday tradition. Therefore, my holiday gift to you is the legends related to some of our plants.

The Christmas tree has an extensive history and numerous legends. Decorated trees may be traced back to the ancient Roman winter festival of Saturnalia. Trees were ornamented with pieces of metal in honor of Saturn the god of agriculture.

During the middle ages, the Paradise Tree, which symbolized man’s fall and salvation, became popular in churches and upper class homes. Fir trees were hung with apples symbolizing man’s fall, small white wafers representing Holy Eucharist, and sweets symbolizing the sweetness of redemption.

After observing the beauty of stars winking through the trees in an evergreen forest one night in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther added candles to the Christmas tree.

In the United States Christmas trees were not popularized until about 1850. Prior to that time Christmas trees were mainly found in homes of German immigrants.

Nowadays we use many types of evergreens for Christmas trees, but the pine and fir have their own special legends.

As Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus fled to Egypt many plants hid them. One evening the family stopped near a large old pine tree. The tree invited them to spend the night inside the hollow in its trunk. After the family was inside, the tree folded its branches down around the family, hiding them when Herod’s soldiers passed. In the morning the Christ Child blessed the pine tree with an imprint of his tiny hand. If you cut a pinecone in half lengthwise, you will see the hand in the cone.

From northern Europe comes the tale of the fir tree. When Christianity was spreading though Europe three angels, Faith, Hope, and Charity, were sent to Earth to put lights on the first Christmas tree. Their mission was difficult because they had to find a tree as high as hope, as great as love, and as sweet as charity. The tree also had to contain the sign of the cross. The angels’ search came to an end when they found the fir tree of the frozen north. (If you break off a fir needle and look at the stub on the branch you will see the cross.) They lit the fir with stars to make the world’s first Christmas tree.

Another interesting holiday legend pertains to the cherry tree. On December 4, St. Barbara’s Day, young unmarrieds should cut a cherry tree branch and put it in water. Whoever’s cherry branch blooms on Christmas day will marry within the next year.

Rosemary is another plant with extensive holiday traditions, symbolism, and legends. Associated with remembrance, friendship, and fidelity, rosemary was used extensively during the Medieval Period. An altar decorated with rosemary imparted special blessings and protection to the worshipers. Floors of churches and homes were strewn with the herb. The traditional boar’s head for the Christmas feast was decorated with rosemary.

Two rosemary legends relate directly to the Christmas story. Rosemary flowers were originally white. One day during the flight to Egypt, Mary draped her blue cloak over a rosemary bush. The rosemary flowers turned blue and the whole plant took on the lovely color and fragrance of Mary’s cloak.

In a similar legend, Mary dries the baby Jesus’s clothes on a fragrant bush after laundering. The plant’s name, rosemary, and its blue flowers are in remembrance of its humble service to the Holy family.

The legend of the poinsettia comes from its native land of Mexico. A poor little girl had no gift to give the Christ Child at Christmas Eve service. Her cousin assured her that no gift was too small if given with love. She bent down and picked some weeds by the roadside for a bouquet. At the church she knelt by the nativity scene and offered her humble present. Suddenly the weeds changed into brilliant red flowers. From that day on the flowers were called “Flores de Noche Buena” or “Flowers of the Holy Night.” We know them as poinsettias.

Symbolism and plants are important in modern holiday celebrations. Kwanzaa honors African American culture and values. Two of the seven Kwanzaa symbols of involve plants. The symbols are placed on a mat, which is the visual center of the celebration.

Mazao, represented by fruits, nuts, and vegetables, symbolizes work and the African harvest festival that is the basis of Kwanzaa. Joy, sharing, unity, and celebration are the fruits of working together as a community.

Ears of corn symbolize fertility, children, and the future of the family. Each ear represents a child in the family. One ear is called vibunzi; two or more ears are termed mihindi. If there are no children in the family, two ears of corn are placed on the mat to represent the children of the community. This reflects the belief that every child must be loved and nutured by the community, not just the family.

Look around this holiday season and think about what the plants are telling us. Happy holidays!


December - January 2003: Stacking Up Firewood for Winter | House Plant Care | Holiday Legends | Winter Injury on Arborvitae

Past Issues

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