The Plants of Christmas
As you snuggle in on this peaceful day of celebration, one has the opportunity to consider all of the other forms of celebration taking place around the world. December is a month packed with a great variety of holidays from many cultures and belief systems. From Christmas, to Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and Omisoka to name only a few. This is the month that celebrates the return of the light in the Northern Hemisphere, or in the case of Hanukkah a celebration of light in darkness. During this month, cultures celebrate the birth of Christ, the blessings of life and harvest, or the passing of the old year into the new.
In this short holiday article, I will share a bit on the history of Christmas, and offer a brief historical, symbolic, and medicinal synopsis of some of the plants that are so central and important to these well known celebrations. After all, human health and plant health are intertwined through food and medicine, it only makes sense that plants would also be central to the spiritual health and representation of a holiday.
What does Christmas Celebrate?
Christmas, literally means "the mass for Christ" and is the central day in which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. In truth we do not know when Christ was born, as this day was chosen by Pope Leo I, a bishop of Rome (440-461).
Prior to the Christmas we know, December 25th marked the day in which Romans celebrated Saturnalia where Saturn, the god of agriculture, was worshiped. Lasting about a week, Saturnalia was characterized by feasting, drinking, and gift-giving. With Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, many of these customs were later absorbed into Christmas celebrations.
Christmas is a wonderful combination of the old and the new as it holds its roots in the symbolism of the ancient pagan world. Christmas also holds old ties with Yule when we consider the adoption of the Christmas tree. As a small contrast, we have additional ties to the old world with the modern symbolism of Santa Clause which has its roots in the story of Saint Nicholas.
What we know of Saint Nicholas is that he was a bishop from the city of Myra (now a part of modern Turkey). Saint Nicholas had a deep compassion for the poor and sought to help young children, orphans, and widows with donations of goods and money. The jolly Santa Claus we know and love today comes from our not-so-distant past. It was Coca-Cola who came up with the modernized image in the 1930s and used it as a targeted marketing campaign for their beverages.
What Herbal Allies are Central to Christmas?
The symbolism behind the evergreen tree is one we all know and love, the Christmas tree. The evergreen of the tree often symbolizes the eternal symbol of Christ and that of life after death. In earlier legends it is said that a fir tree grew out of a fallen oak. That fir tree bearing life from the dead oak became the symbol of Christ – being triangle in shape it represents the trinity – and from there came the idea that the tree should be a symbol of new and eternal life.
The concept of the more modern Christmas tree emerged in western Germany during the 16th century as Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them with gingerbread, nuts, and apples. The custom became fairly popular and continued to spread to the royal courts across Europe up until the early 19th century. Unlike now, prior to the early 19th century in places like the US, having a Christmas tree was often viewed as a foreign and pagan custom.
While the Christmas tree originated in Germany, it was Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who popularized it in the 1840s and 1985s. The reason for this was due to Victoria’s mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld who was German and thus grew up having a decorated tree at Christmas time.
In addition to its symbolic representation at Christmas, pine has a long standing history in Northern and Western Herbalism as a medicinal plant. Cultures around the globe have used the needles, inner bark, and resin for a variety ailments. Internally, pine is a traditional remedy for coughs, colds, allergies, and urinary tract and sinus infections. Topically, pine is used to address skin infections and to lessen joint inflammation in arthritic conditions.
The poinsettia is native to Central America, centralized to an area of southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alacon where they flower during the winter. The ancient Aztecs name for them is cuetlaxochitl. From the poinsettia came purple and red dye for clothing and cosmetics, and the milky white sap was used in traditional medicine to treat fevers.
The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are thought to represent the Star of Bethlehem which led the wise men to the infant Jesus. The red colored leaves are said to symbolize the blood of Christ, and the white leaves are considered a representation of his purity.
In more modern practices of herbalism, poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) has quite a few uses. Traditionally all parts of the plant are used. It is said to assist with the removal of warts, and used in the traditional treatment of skin wounds, ulcers, and skin diseases. Additionally, it is considered to assist with lactation (milk production) in new mothers. Some of its other properties include anti-inflammatory actions and as an external ease for bone breaks and contusions.
Please keep in mind that although it is beautiful, Poinsettia is considered a toxic botanical. Please do not self dose, consult an informed practitioner regarding use.
Much like the Christmas tree, the beautiful evergreen of the holly is shown as the representation of eternal life. Christians have adopted the holly as the physical representation of Christmas. The tradition of this goes further back than the Christmas tree itself as early Christians and Pagans alike would bring its evergreen colors into the house during this time of year.
The sharp leaves are said to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Christ, while the berries represent his blood.
In earlier traditions, and before it was associated with the more modern concepts of Christmas, holly was seen as a sacred plant of the Druids. While other plants wilted in the harsh grasp of winter, holly remained green and strong, and its branches bore bright red fruits even in the harshest of conditions. It is said that the Druids regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life which plays very nicely into the ancient practices associated with the winter solstice, and the even older practices of Saturnalia when the god of agriculture was worshiped.
When we consider the medicinal values of Holly (Ilex aquifolium), its leaves were used as a traditional northern herbal remedy for the treatment of fevers, joint pains from rheumatism, swelling, water retention (edema), chest congestion, laxative, cardiovascular stimulant, and as a diuretic. The berries of the holly are toxic, and the leaves themselves are considered a toxic botanical as well. However, seeing the historical and traditional uses of some of our oldest winter symbols is always a treat.
Please keep in mind that although it is beautiful, Holly is considered a toxic botanical. Please do not self dose, consult an informed practitioner regarding use.
Kissing under sprigs of mistletoe is a well-known holiday tradition, but this little plant’s history as a symbolic herb dates back thousands of years. The Greeks were known to use it as a cure for everything from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders, and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder noted it could be used as a balm against epilepsy, ulcers and poisons. The plant’s romantic overtones most likely started with the Celtic Druids of the 1st century A.D. Because mistletoe could blossom even during the frozen winter, the Druids came to view it as a sacred symbol of vivacity, and they administered it to humans and animals alike in the hope of restoring fertility.
Another famous chapter in mistletoe folklore comes from Norse mythology. As the story goes, when the god Odin’s son Baldur was prophesied to die, his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, went to all the animals and plants of the natural world to secure an oath that they would not harm him. But Frigg neglected to consult with the unassuming mistletoe, so the scheming god Loki made an arrow from the plant and saw that it was used to kill the otherwise invincible Baldur. According to one sunnier version of the myth, the gods were able to resurrect Baldur from the dead. Delighted, Frigg then declared mistletoe a symbol of love and vowed to plant a kiss on all those who passed beneath it.
Like many of the evergreen plants, in modern Christmas tradition it is seen as the representation of eternal life. However, in modern herbalism there has been notice of its use in cardiovascular issues and cancer as it has powerful anti-tumor and anti-angiogenic qualities.
Please keep in mind that although it is beautiful, Mistletoe is considered a toxic botanical. Please do not self dose, consult an informed practitioner regarding use.
I hope you have enjoyed this article and have found a bit more cheer on this special day.
In health, wellness, peace, and good tidings
Petra Sovcov - CHT
" Hawthorn, white and odorous with blossom, framing the quiet fields, and swaying flowers and grasses, and the hum of bees." - F. S. Flint
Hawthorn was one of the first herbs that I learned about when I was going to school at Dominion. I remember thinking nothing of it, save for the fact that I loved how bright and vibrant the berry was, and enjoyed the fact that it was an herb that changed its useful parts with the season. In spring one uses the flowers and leaves, and in early fall one harvests the berries.
It was not until my third year of schooling when I was doing my clinical hours with our clinic director that I had my first real introduction to this amazing ally. I recall that we had a pretty intensive cardiovascular day. We were covering examinations, pathologies, anatomy, and reviewing appropriate herbs, dose, and methods of effect in the body. During this time our clinic director started having benign heart palpitations which she asked us to listen to. I remember clearly hearing the difference between a regular beat and the slight pause in her rhythm as she allowed all of the students to listen. I also recall the knowing smile on her face as she said "Now, let me take a dose of hawthorn, lets wait a few minutes and we will listen again". It was perhaps fifteen minutes later that she invited us to listen to her heart again. Sure enough, it was the steady glug-glug of a regular heart beat.
I understand that this is a singular case situation and that this herb is not appropriate in all cases or all individuals, and that results are not always the same. However, the experience of it really offered me perspective on the beautiful relationship between human health and plants. Since then, this has been my go to herb for so many issues related to general cardiovascular health, including using it on myself.
Now that we are in the season of a new kind of Christmas, I feel that hawthorn again is an excellent herb to be thinking of this time of year. Due to struggles with COVID, the inability to see family members, or to share in our usual traditions, can leave some of us feeling sick in our hearts, or in some cases even heart broken. This is of course not the same as a physical issue, but the bright red of the hawthorn berry, and the memory of its soft blossoms in spring reminds me that change is coming.
With that in mind, I welcome you to explore this beautiful herbal ally and to enjoy this materia medica printable.
Wishing you the very best over the holidays,
With “the most wonderful time of the year” fast approaching many of us seem to wonder what this would be like with the COVID restrictions on a local, national and global level. People usually look forward to the holidays when they have days off work to travel, spend quality time with family and friends, and enjoy various festivities in their communities, but this holiday season will certainly be different. Those of us who enjoy the luxury of having close relationships with family and friends, sufficient resources for gifts and vacations, and a place to call home would undoubtedly experience some unpleasant emotions due to the perceived lack of freedom in the current circumstances. On the other hand, the resulting wider isolation and lower expectations for fun during the holidays allow for less significant differences among people, which otherwise could lead to unhealthy comparisons. As someone recently shared with me “there is something comforting about the restrictions.”
Those who have experienced a recent loss, don’t have family or friends close by with whom to spend the holidays, or are going through a relationship conflict, a financial hardship or a difficult life transition might get quite triggered during this time of the year, which we associate with togetherness, warmth and joy. The flooding of commercials and films constructing the image of a “perfect Christmas”, along with social media posts of static ideals often make us measure our happiness up to unrealistic expectations, and may further undermine the emotional stability of those who find themselves in vulnerable situations. Thus, it is no surprise that the holidays are also associated with increased rates of anxiety and depression, substance and alcohol abuse, as well as binge eating. But as mentioned earlier, the pandemic put us more or less in the same basket: for most of us there will be less worrying which side of the family to visit on Christmas or how to host the “perfect” holiday event, less time and resources invested in gift hunting, less bookings and other travel logistics to consider, etc. Holding high expectations from ourselves and from others is probably one of the most significant predictors of frustration, thus with the former out of the picture we should expect that fewer people would feel overwhelmed by stress during the holidays.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, it appears that this holiday season could present us with an opportunity to keep it simple – instead of feeling like we’re in a contest to obtain as many joyful “points” with as many people as possible we could slow down and enjoy some time for self-care. What physical sensations help soothe your body, and what activities help clear your mind? Are there any hobbies/projects you’ve been interested in, but haven’t had a chance to focus on? Are there ways for you to improve your health? For example, added sugar, found not only in common treats but also in “healthy” energy bars and dressings, is rather addictive and disrupts the so-called dopamine reward system; subsequently, attempts to lower the levels of sugar in the bloodstream may lead to abstinence-like effects like headache, depression and decreased energy. Without getting into details, as a holistic counsellor I’d like to remind you that good nutrition and physical exercise can have positive influences on your hormone balance, which is essential for both physical and mental health. Speaking of which, I would also recommend that you have an honest reflection about your holiday triggers and put an effort into avoiding them to the best of your abilities.
Self-care practices, hobbies and other enjoyable activities that lie within your control are a few ways to fill up your free time during the upcoming COVID-restricted holiday season; in addition, some of my clients who struggle with the lack of control over the situation have considered cleaning and organizing their spaces, advance studying or creating meaningful rituals (ex. writing a daily wish for something to do/look forward to at the end of the pandemic). Nevertheless, I’ve become aware that there are other people who are not so concerned with having control or keeping busy, but find it quite difficult to meet their needs for connection and belonging. From my conversations with clients like these I’ve heard ideas such as working out, watching movies or playing board games simultaneously with family/friends, singing out loud or dancing (to connect with self), meditating or praying (to connect with a Higher Power), and making donations or (online) volunteering to support a cause or a social movement (feeling of belonging). I hope that you have found something that resonates with you.
For additional suggestions that may be useful to you consider registering for the CMHA free virtual webinar (a few dates are available) entitled “The Holidays, Your Mental Health & COVID 19”
Petra Sovcov is not a Medical Doctor (MD) nor a Naturopath (ND), she is a Clinical Herbal Therapist (CHT) and holds a Doctorate in Natural Medicine (DNM). The suggestions or recommendations made on this site are not meant to be a substitute for advice from your MD, or as a substitute for any prescriptions you may be taking. Suggestions followed will be the responsibility of the reader, and are stated with the intention of interest and education only. If you have a health issue, please see your primary care physician (MD) first and foremost.