“Against the Feast of Christmas, every man’s house, as also their parish Churches, were decked with Holm (live oak), Ivy, Bayes, and whatsoever the season of the yeere afforded to be greene. The Conduits and Standards in the streetes were, likewise, garnished.”
—John Stowe, The Survey of London, 1618.
Christmas Flowers –
Linda Hemming Flower Guild Aquia Church
In England and in Virginia, Christmas decorations were a common sight inside churches. The approach of the holiday was an excuse to sweep the church clean, clear out the dust and cobwebs, and carry in boughs of greenery. Garlands of holly, ivy, mountain laurel, and mistletoe dangled from the church walls, encircled pillars, and clung to second-story gallery railings, freshening the sanctuary with their clean, woodsy scent. Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist who visited Philadelphia at Christmas time in 1749, wrote that “Pews and altar were decorated with branches of mountain laurel, whose leaves are green in winter time.” Source:Williamsburg Christmas, 1999, pg. 28.
The use of evergreens at this time of year dates back to the early tribes in Europe and the ancient Greeks and Romans. “The plants that do not die” were sacred, a symbol of life itself. Many of the greens we use today were given Christian meanings for the Christmas season.
Christmas rose – grown in England, a true Christmas flower, and native to central Europe, it blooms in the depths of winter. Legends link it with the birth of Christ. A young shepherdess sees the wise men and shepherds bringing gifts to the Christ Child. She begins to weep because she has nothing to off e r, not even a simple flower. An angel, seeing her weeping brushed the snow away, revealing a lovely white flower tipped with pink – the Christmas rose.
Holly – with its glossy green leaves and red berries it became a symbol of Christmas for early Christians. It was used in houses and churches, and called holy tree. The world holly may have come from this name. The plant came to stand for peace and joy; people often settled quarrels beneath a holly tree. Planted near a home, it was said to frighten off evil spirits, and protect the dwelling from thunder and lightning. A sprig of holly on the bedpost brought happy dreams.
Ivy – it is a symbol of the new promise of eternal life. This is especially fitting for Advent. In England, as in early colonial America, people thought of the sturdy holly as masculine, and the clinging ivy as feminine.
Laurel – in ancient Rome, the first Christians decorated their homes with laurel, or bay (sweetbay), as well as holly. It too was a symbol of eternal life.
Mistletoe – a symbol of Christmas joy. To kiss someone or to be kissed under a bunch of mistletoe is often a part of Christmas fun.
Poinsettia – a favorite in the United States with its red, starshaped flower. A native of Central America known as Flame Leaf or Flower of the Holy Night, it was brought here around 1825 by Dr. Joel Poinsett, our first ambassador to Mexico. A Mexican legend tells of a poor girl who, with no gift to offer M a r y, picked some flowering weeds along the roadside. The moment she placed them before the Virgin’s statue, they turned into brilliant poinsettia blossoms.
Rosemary – an evergreen now used to season foods, is also a Christmas plant. During the Middle Ages, people spread it on the floors of their homes. As it was walked on, a pleasant aroma arose. It is a symbol of remembrance. According to tradition , the shrub is fragrant because Mary laid the garments of the Christ Child on its branches.
Sources: World Book Encyclopedia and Holly, Reindeer, and Colored Lights: the Story of the Christmas Symbols by E. Barth.