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
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.