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The origin of the Christmas Holly tree

Christmas decorations are said to be derived from a custom observed by the Romans of sending boughs, accompanied by other gifts, to their friends during the festival of the Saturnalia, a custom the early Christians adopted. In confirmation of this opinion, a subsequent edict of the Church of Bracara has been quoted, forbidding Christians to decorate their houses at Christmas with green boughs at the same time as the pagans, the Saturnalia commencing about a week before Christmas. The origin has also been traced to the Druids, who decorated their huts with evergreens during winter as an abode for the sylvan spirits. In old church calendars we find Christmas Eve marked templa exornantur (churches are decked), and the custom is as deeply rooted in modern times as in either pagan or early Christian days.

An old legend declares that the Holly first sprang up under the footsteps of Christ, when He trod the earth, and its thorny leaves and scarlet berries, like drops of blood, have been thought symbolical of the Saviour's sufferings, for which reason the tree is called 'Christ's Thorn' in the languages of the northern countries of Europe. It is, perhaps, in connexion with these legends that the tree was called the Holy Tree, as it is generally named by our older writers. Turner, for instance, refers to it by this name in his Herbal published in 1568. Other popular names for it are Hulver and Holme, and it is still called Hulver in Norfolk, and Holme in Devon, and Holme Chase in one part of Dartmoor.

Pliny describes the Holly under the name of Aquifolius, needle leaf, and adds that it was the same tree called by Theophrastus Crataegus, but later commentators deny this. Pliny tells us that Holly if planted near a house or farm, repelled poison, and defended it from lightning and witchcraft, that the flowers cause water to freeze, and that the wood, if thrown at any animal, even without touching it, had the property of compelling the animal to return and lie down by it.

The origin of the Christmas Mistletoe

Mistletoe is one of the Christmas traditions that is pagan with no Christian symbolism.   It belongs to the Viscaceae or mistletoe family.  All members of the family are either parasitic or hemiparasitic. The Latin word viscusas well as the Greek word ixias refer to the spermal viscosity of itsberries. These words are connected with the words visand ischu, which mean strength All of the Christmas mistletoes are hemiparasitic, which means they are only partially parasitic.  They receive a portion of their nourishment by sinking their roots into the branches or trunk of a a host tree, but they also contain chlorophyll and can make food by photosynthesis. Traditions of kissing under the mistletoe go back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia and kissing under the mistletoe was believed to confer fertility.  Many other cultures, including Celts and Scandinavians, considered the mistletoe to have magical powers.  Probably lending an aura of mystery to the mistletoe is its method of dispersal.  The berries are eaten by birds and the seeds must pass through the intestines of the bird before they will germinate.  Some have suggested that this dispersal method led to the name mistletoe which is composed of two Old English words, "mistel" meaning dung and "tan" meaning twig.   In actuality, the origin of the word mistel remains a mystery.

The original mistletoe is Viscum album, a European species that parasitizes a number of different tree species.  It has the traditional white berries associated with mistletoe and can grow into a moderate sized shrub.  It was introduced to California by Luther Burbank and it may occur in other parts of the US as well.  The more common mistletoes on the US all belong to the genus Phoradendron.  One species, P. tomentosum, is common in Texas and is sold nationally at Christmas time.  Other species, like P. villosum which grows on oaks, are important locally.  The berries of all the Phoradendron species are also commonly white, but may also be yellowish or even pink.






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