The most popular plants at Christmas are poinsettia, mistletoe and holly.
A native plant of Mexico, the poinsettia was named after Joel R. Poinsett, the US ambassador to Mexico, who took the plant to America in 1828. It was used in the 17th century by the Mexican Franciscans for Christmas celebrations.
There is a legend behind the poinsettia. A little girl Maria and her brother Pablo set out for the nativity scene in the village, but as they had no gifts to put in the manger, they collected some common weeds and made a bouquet. An angel blest them, so when they put down the bouquet, the green leaves on top turned a bright red, and beautiful star like flowers appeared. Another version is that a young Mexican boy collected green branches on the way to the manger, so all the other children laughed at him. When he put the leaves on the manger, a star shaped flower bloomed on each branch. The bright red petals are not flowers as commonly thought, but the upper leaves.
The Mistletoe was an important part of the Saturnalia festival, and also of the ancient marriage rites, because of the belief that it had “life giving powers.” The Druids associated it with fertility, and the priests used it for ceremonies 200 years before the birth of Christ. They thought that it was special and magical because it had no roots, yet remained green through the winter. It was also known as the Celtic-all-Heal, as the Celts believed it had magical healing powers, and was an antidote for infertility, poison and evil powers.
The Scandinavians considered it a carrier of peace, so people who met under it had to call a truce. Even among the Romans, the tradition was that even enemies embraced if they met under a mistletoe. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe to ensure happiness and good luck in the New Year stems from a legend associated with Frigga, the goddess of love.
Evergreens represent endurance, while berries represent the resurrection of life. Since the 15th century, holly and ivy have been integral to Christmas. In northern Europe, the Christmas season was during the severe winter, and ancient people thought they heard ghosts and demons amidst the howling winds. They thought holly boughs were magical because they remained green, so they put them over their doors to keep evil away. They also kept boughs inside to add color and freshness.
There is an interesting legend about the origin of the holly. It is said that when Christ walked on the earth, the holly sprang from his footsteps. The pointed leaves represent His crown of thorns, while the red berries symbolize the blood He shed. Holly is supposed to be a masculine plant and confer protection and special luck to men, while Ivy is a feminine plant.
The red of the poinsettia and green of the mistletoe and holly are symbolic of the joy and new life at Christmas.