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Plants have significance during the holidays

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NICEVILLE, FLA — A number of plants are strongly associated with the Christmas season, including mistletoe, poinsettia, holly and the Christmas tree. The history, symbolic meaning and legends of these plants are interesting.

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Larry Williams

The Christmas tree is said to date back to the eighth century. St. Winifred, missionary to the Scandinavians, supposedly chopped down a large oak. As the tree fell, it left a tiny fir tree unharmed in its path. After seeing how unblemished the tree was among the debris of the huge oak, Sir Winifred proclaimed to the townspeople that the tree should be a symbol to represent endless life.

Its branches point to heaven and stay evergreen and full of life. He called this fir the tree of the Christ Child and advised all townspeople to cut a fir tree, take it into their homes, gather around it and celebrate the birth night of Christ. “Use it to shelter loving gifts and acts of kindness and brotherhood,” he said.

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The pine Christmas tree was probably introduced in England during the reign of Queen Victoria. She decreed that a tree be brought to the palace and decorated each year for the Christmas season. Candles were placed on the tree to symbolize the Light of the World, and gifts were exchanged as reminders of all gifts from above.

Just how mistletoe became associated with kissing during the holiday season is a mystery. It’s thought to be based on a Scandinavian legend. It seems Balder, a Scandinavian god, was struck down by Loki, an evil spirit, using an arrow made from mistletoe. Seeing the attack, Frigga, the mother of Balder, declared that the plant must never again serve as a symbol of mischief.

Frigga, being the goddess of love and beauty, is said to have kissed anyone passing under the mistletoe. One mistletoe custom calls for the boy to remove a berry from a mistletoe plant and give it to the girl after a kiss. When no berries are left, the mistletoe loses its spell and no more kisses are available. Be cautious as mistletoe is poisonous if eaten.

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Holly, being evergreen, is said to symbolize everlasting life. The prickly leaves symbolize the crown of thorns, the berries are said to have been white before the crucifixion but turned crimson like drops of blood afterward. Holly was a sacred plant of the Druids in ancient Britain.

Our present-day poinsettia plant was a weed growing wild in Mexico when it was discovered by Joel Poinsett and brought to this country in 1836. In fact, by the time Poinsett got to the plant, Mexicans had been collecting the prized flowers for years and decorating their mangers with them as symbols of the star of Bethlehem.

Larry Williams is the Extension horticulture agent with the Okaloosa County Cooperative Extension Service, University of Florida. Contact Larry at 689-5850 or email lwilliams@myokaloosa.com.

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