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Christmas Plant Lore and Legend
by Val Adolph
by Val Adolph


Val Adolph is a humorist and garden writer who tries not to write about 'how to design gardens and grow plants'. This means looking at the lighter side of both, but also looking at plant history - who discovered them and how people of other times and places used them. She invites you to visit her new blog as well as her website at

December 19, 2014

As you bring greenery into your home to decorate this holiday season, give a thought to the story behind these special plants.


The Romans brought holly indoors to celebrate the feast of Saturnalia. This was a wild and unrestrained feast that was later replaced by the gentler celebration of Christmas.

Across Europe people believed that holly was a protection from the dangers of witchcraft, and they planted a holly tree near their house to keep away demons and subdue house goblins. The Celts thought holly was a holy tree with happy spirits living in its branches and they hung holly over their door to ward of evil.

Like other evergreen trees, holly was used in rites celebrating the winter solstice to ensure the return of green leaves in the spring.


Mistletoe was a sacred plant to the Druids. Dressed in white robes they would cut this parasitic plant from the branch of the tree with a golden knife. Mistletoe was said to protect its owner from evil and a youth was sent house to house with mistletoe to announce the new year.

Balder, the Norse god of peace, was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. When he was restored to life at the request of other gods mistletoe was given to the goddess of love, and it was ordered that whoever stood beneath mistletoe should have a kiss.

The name mistletoe comes from old English words for bird lime and twig. This is because the seeds are spread after having been eaten by birds and taking root in the soft bark of a tree branch. Bill Casselman, in his book Canadian Garden Words chooses to interpret this as meaning “shit on a stick”. Remember that the next time you stand under the mistletoe.


Now, to be honest I have no idea how the tradition of bringing cedar boughs inside to decorate your house arose. But you could make up your own legend. Where do you suppose all the other legends came from?

“One cold winter night a baby was born in a barn in Northern BC, while a gale blew driving snow in through the barn door. The dad was a carpenter heading north to look for work in the oil industry. His mom, very young herself, had no idea how cold it could be in the north and she had brought no warm clothes for the baby. Frightened and alone, the two tried to wrap the baby in their own rough clothes, and they snuggled as close as they could to the cows and sheep in the stalls. Still, it was so cold they thought their fingers would freeze and they were afraid the baby would not survive the night.

Outside, beside the barn, an old cedar tree drooped its branches almost to the ground. “My soft branches would keep the baby warm,” it thought, “If only I could wrap them around him.” Then, at the stroke of midnight………

Now, finish this yourself and you have your very own Christmas legend. Change the place name if you like, as you make it your own family story.

I wish you happiness at Christmas.

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