Festive decorations are part and parcel of the modern Christmas season. Nothing captures the notion of decorating at Christmas time any better than the 1951 Meredith Wilson song, "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." The song lists such things as toys, bells, candy canes and a couple of plants - trees and holly - as harbingers of the approach of Christmas Day.
I suspect plants were some of the first items used for Christmas decorations. For sure, long before plastic and electricity came into existence, plants were there for the gathering. Today a few types of plants show up every year at Christmas as we "deck the halls."
One of the plants used in Christmas decorations is holly, especially species with dark green leaves and red berries. Then there's mistletoe, a semiparasitic aerial plant with a name suggestive of bird droppings. Before you go turning up your nose at such a name, consider that it is an indication of how the plant gets distributed. Birds eat the seeds and fly away, and well you can guess the rest of the story.
Poinsettias are another plant that is widely used to decorate at Christmas. These plants are native to Mexico and were discovered in the 1820s by the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. His name was Joel Roberts Poinsett - the plant is named after him.
Then there are Christmas trees. One popular Christmas song even pays homage to one of those plants. The lyrics in the German folk song, "O Tannenbaum," were written in 1824 and refer to a fir tree. While the original song did not mention Christmas, the Germans are credited with adopting the evergreen tree as a symbol of the season. It was the German settlers in America who introduced the concept of the Christmas tree to this continent.
It is thought that the Christian reformer Martin Luther may have been the first person to decorate an evergreen tree in celebration of Christmas. He is said to have placed lighted candles on the tree to mimic the stars in the sky. Evergreen trees decorated with burning candles might be pretty, but I'm not certain that is the safest way to celebrate Christmas. I'll just stick with plain old electric lights!
Ornaments are often added to the Christmas tree to make it look more festive. Even insect motif ornaments are available. Three of the insects commonly depicted in Christmas ornaments are associated with Christian theology. These are the butterfly, the honey bee and the ladybug.
The butterfly has long been an official Christian symbol for the resurrection of Christ. The reason is that the immature butterfly - the caterpillar - disappears into a cocoon and appears dead. It emerges from the cocoon as a beautiful and powerful butterfly.
The honey bee also represents the immortality of the soul and signifies the resurrection. The biology behind that symbolism is that during the winter months colonies of bees become inactive and seem to disappear only to reappear when the weather warms up. Some Christian theologians also hold that the bee's sting is associated with the Judgment Day. Other bee analogies include allegiance of the worker bees to the queen just as Christians hold the Virgin Mary in high regard. Also all of the bees work together to produce honey, a bee product that is mentioned 55 times in the King James Bible.
Ladybugs, more correctly called ladybird beetles, have a name based on the Virgin Mary. The common name for this group of beetles arose in the Middle Ages. During this time, insect pests called aphids would build up on flax crops. Farmers would seek divine help with the insect problem and pray to “Our Lady, the Virgin Mary.” Ladybird beetles are predators on aphids and when the red beetles with black spots showed up in the flax fields, the farmers assumed their prayers had been answered. They began referring to the beetle as “Our Lady's Bug,” a name that is commonly used today.
You can find other insect motifs among Christmas tree ornaments, including those of grasshoppers, dragonflies and even an occasional caterpillar. My favorite entomology-related ornaments aren't even insects. These are white-robbed angels. Not just angels but entomologist angels. One is a butterfly collector wearing a pith helmet and holding an insect net. The other is a beekeeper wearing a bee veil. Nothing like a couple of angelic entomologists as Christmas tree decorations