Traditions Behind Christmas Plants and Bushes


The Spruce / Letícia Almeida

You've waited all year to brighten and scent your home with holiday plants and bushes. However, you may enjoy your Christmas greens even more once you know the surprising Christmas traditions and lore that surrounds each plant. From ancient to modern times, every Christmas plant has a story that makes them even more special to have in your home during the holidays.

  • 01 of 07

    The Symbolic Poinsettia


    The Spruce / Letícia Almeida

    The poinsettia is one of the most iconic houseplants to give and receive as a gift during the holidays. Sub-tropical plants native to Mexico, poinsettias arrived in America during the 1800s by Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Ambassador to Mexico, who spotted the flowering plants on plantations in Mexico. He sent a few plants back to South Carolina, where he began to grow them, give as gifts to friends, and donate them to botanical gardens.

    Poinsettias have evolved into a symbol of Christmas because of their festive shape and meaningful colors. The shape of the poinsettia's flower is thought to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. A red poinsettia symbolizes the blood of Christ, and a white poinsettia flower represents the purity of Christ.

  • 02 of 07

    Holly for Good Luck


    The Spruce / Letícia Almeida

    The ancient Romans and Greeks were the first to deck their halls with boughs of holly. Holly bushes always stay green and need little to no maintenance, even during the harshest winters. It's holly's enduring characteristic which made the ancients believe the bush was sacred. In ancient times, holly was thought of as good luck because it never died, so Romans would send holly wreaths to friends, family, and especially newlyweds as a gift of goodwill and good wishes.

  • 03 of 07

    A Kiss Under the Mistletoe


    The Spruce / Margot Cavin

    It's tradition to kiss under the mistletoe during the holidays, but this parasitic plant that attaches itself to host branches of other plants has a bittersweet story behind it. The legend of mistletoe started centuries ago in Norse mythology, when a goddess used the plant to bring back memories of her beloved son who was slain with a weapon crafted from the plant. However, the legend has evolved from grief into one indicating rebirth or regrowth.

    Today, kissing under the mistletoe today indicates forthcoming happiness and fertility. Mistletoe is also said to be used in other unusual ways, such as placing it above a baby's bed for protection from evil spirits. A sprig placed under the pillow of a young girl is said to inspire the dreams of her future husband.

  • 04 of 07

    Yew for Everlasting Life

    yew shrub

    The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

    Yew shrubs, with their vivid red berries, are slow-growing, low-maintenance plants. The evergreen yew can also be used as an alternative Christmas tree, and its sprigs make lovely fresh holiday decorations. However there's a fascinating and long history behind the tree. The yew is said to be one of the oldest trees on Earth. The ancient Druids looked to the yew tree as a symbol of everlasting life, honoring it as a sacred plant. Throughout European history, yews were planted in churchyards to symbolize a long life. As a precaution, keep a yew tree outdoors because it's toxic to animals and humans.

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  • 05 of 07

    Ivy for Growth

    English ivy

    The Spruce / Cara Cormack

    Ivy, with its festive star-like leaves, is another Christmas plant known to ward off evil spirits as bad luck, as well as symbolize new growth. Ivy is a popular way to decorate Christmas wreaths, and it keeps green throughout the year.

    Holly and ivy tend to go together in song and in holiday celebrations. In ancient Christian symbolism, holly symbolized masculinity and ivy symbolized femininity. In modern times, ivy is used as an invasive landscaping plant. When pulled from the ground, it can be used to wind around holiday decor, but keep the fresh vines outdoors because some species may be too toxic to keep indoors.

  • 06 of 07

    Christmas Trees as Hope

    Christmas tree

    The Spruce / Margot Cavin

    It's not Christmas without a tree, but that wasn't always the case. Early European pagans would use evergreen branches to brighten up their homes during dreary winter month; however, Germany developed the Christmas tree tradition during the 16th century. It's said that a German theologian and religious reformer walking home on a winter night was inspired by the beauty of stars twinkling through evergreen tree branches. He recreated the optimism he felt by erecting a tree with candles in his family's living room. Though it took a while for Christian Americans to forget about how the tradition began with non-Christian pagans, the Christmas tree trend finally became widely accepted in this country by the early 20th century.

  • 07 of 07

    Christmas Cactus and Answered Prayer

    Christmas cactus

    The Spruce / Kara Riley

    Why would a cactus be so popular during the Christmas season? There are many legends about the Christmas cactus, but one particular piece of lore from Brazil tugs at the heartstrings. Legend has it that a poor little boy out in the humid jungles prayed to the heavens for a sign of Christmas. He prayed for days without results, until Christmas morning when he woke to find beautiful bursts of colorful flowers on the tips of the cacti branches. This stunning display of beauty continues to be a symbol of answered prayer. The Christmas cactus is another perfect holiday gift to give to others. Tropical in its origin, it grows indoors as a houseplant until the summer when it can be planted outdoors.