Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Holiday Traditions - Holly and Poinsettias, History and Legends

I came across this article from a county extension office in Kentucky about the history and legends surrounding holly and poinsettias and thought I would share it for the holidays.


Several legends are reported about holly. The ancient Romans considered this plant sacred. Holly was used to honor Saturn, god of agriculture, during their Saturnalia festival held near the time of the winter solstice. The Romans gave one another holly wreaths, carried it in processions, and decked images of Saturn with it. During the early years of the Christian religion in Rome, many Christians continued to deck their homes with holly to avoid detection and persecution by Roman authorities. Gradually, holly became a symbol of the holidays as Christianity became the dominant religion of the empire.

Early Roman Christians believed that the cross on which Christ was crucified was made of holly wood; the crown of thorns was created from holly leaves and the white berries became stained red by Christ’s blood. The white flowers were supposed to represent Jesus’ purity and birth.

During the Middle Ages people associated holly with good fortune. Hollies planted near homes helped protect these homes from thunder and lightning. The berries and leaves were used to ward off witches and evil spirits. It was believed that elves and fairies stayed in the holly and kept the house goblins from causing trouble. The Druids also believed in the protective power of holly, claiming that this was where the woodland spirits took winter refuge.

On the other hand, Medieval Europeans believed family bickering would result if holly entered the home prior to December 24. Holly boughs left up past the New Year would cause one misfortune for each leaf on a branch. (This also correlates with the often-practiced tradition of removing all holiday decorations prior to the New Year, to avoid bad luck.)

Medieval Europeans also believed that picking holly while it was blooming might cause death. However, plucking a piece of holly from church decorations would bring good luck all year long; holly hung in the barn would cause animals to fatten and flourish; and holly picked on December 25 would protect one from witches and evil spirits.

The Germans believed bad luck would befall anyone who stepped on the berries. They also believed that the first person to bring holly into the household each year, rules the household for the coming year.


Another popular plant at this time of year is the poinsettia. These plants are native to Mexico. Originally, these plants were cultivated by the Aztec Indians for their use in dyes and the preparation of fever remedies. This plant was introduced into the U.S. by the first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett.

One of the most colorful legends associated with poinsettias dates back to ancient Mexico. Legend has it that on December 24, villagers take flowers to the church to the baby Jesus. A young child, too poor to buy flowers, was sad that he had no gift to bring. An angel appeared and told the child to pick some weeds from the roadside and bring them, since any gift given with love would be accepted. As the weeds were placed in the church, the upper leaves of the weed changed into a bright red color. The Mexicans called this weed Flores de nocha buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night. Accounts differ whether it was a girl or boy that delivered the weeds to the church.

Please note: references to particular religions or ethnic groups are not meant to be discriminatory. Information concerning these legends is intended merely for their use in educational value. The University of Kentucky does not endorse nor deny any of these claims. Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

From the Franklin County Kentucky Horticulture Program, Kentucky Cooperative Extension, University of Kentucky

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