I recently ran across some gardening articles written by Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension professor from the University of Vermont. As I am currently in the process of decorating my house for the winter season, I am going to skip past the growing aspect of this column and share a little about the history of using evergreens for the holiday season. The following is a portion of what Dr. Perry wrote.
Many people usher in the holiday season by decorating their homes with evergreen boughs, sprigs of holly, garlands and mistletoe. Although now considered a Christmas tradition, writer Lisa Halvorsen explains how this practice is not something recent, dating back many centuries.
The Greeks and Romans were among the first to bring evergreen boughs indoors in winter. They were amazed that the evergreen remained green year-round, even during the bleak winter months, and decided that it must have supernatural powers. To them it symbolized nature and the promise of spring when the earth would be verdant again.
In the 1800s greens were used in this country to make memorials to honor loved ones who had died. Evergreen boughs and other greens were woven into wreaths, crosses and stars and placed on graves in cemeteries. During the Victorian era, the custom of bringing evergreen boughs and other greens into the house at Christmastime was revived. Many people made elaborate arrangements for mantelpieces and tables using boughs, ivy, laurel, yew and hemlock.
A kiss under the mistletoe, another popular American custom, came from Scandinavia, where according to mythology Balder, the son of Frigga, the Norse goddess of love, was struck dead by an arrow made of mistletoe. As Frigga wept, her tears fell onto the mistletoe and turned into small, white berries. She declared that mistletoe should no longer be used to kill, but to encourage love. Thus, anyone found standing beneath the mistletoe must be kissed.
Holly and ivy are often used together in holiday decorations, a tradition that stems from a Middle Ages belief that holly was male and ivy female, and so the two should be intertwined forever. Holly also was thought to have protective powers, while ivy stood for love.
The tradition of decorating evergreen trees for the holidays began with Martin Luther in the early 1500s. Legend has it that he was walking through the woods one Christmas Eve and noticed how the sparkly stars shone through the branches of a snow-covered fir. Wanting to share the magic with his children, he chopped down the tree and brought it home. He decorated it with candles to represent the stars.
In the 1600s, families in France decorated fir trees with gold foil, paper roses, apples and sweet treats at Christmastime. German immigrants brought this same tradition with them when they settled in America. However, Christmas trees did not become widespread in America until the 1800s. Although first sold commercially in New York City in 1851, it wasn’t until four years later, when President Franklin Pierce placed the first tree in the White House, that many Americans adopted the tradition. Electric Christmas tree lights were invented in 1882 by Edward Johnson, Thomas Alva Edison’s assistant.
This year, as you deck your halls with holiday greens, think of the history behind these traditions and of the many before you who incorporated greens into their rituals and celebrations.
This time, Happy Decorating!
The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange County.