Historical Notes of Traditional Christmas Foliage

by Peggy Firth
Christmas decorations of natural foliage, whether real or fake, are often used as table centerpieces, front door wreaths, on fireplace mantles and of course, the Christmas tree. Many Tarot cards feature some of the traditional foliage we associate with Christmas. If you are curious about the historical uses of traditional foliage that have their roots in spiritual practices, read on…


This plant arrived from Mexico in the early 1800s and its leaves have been recently propagated into a variety of lighter colors. Since the leaves of the poinsettia turn red in dry climates around the Christmas season, the poinsettia has be associated with the spirit of Christmas. The legend of the poinsettia revolves around a poor Mexican girl who gathered weeds along the roadside fashioning them into a bouquet to present to the Christ Child at a Christmas Eve celebration. Suddenly, it is told, the bouquet burst into bright red leaves known as “flores de noche.”


The Romans used various foliage during their festivals, particularly during their annual winter Saturnalia festival which celebrated the return of Saturn. The British felt that holly leaves, believed to be endowed with magical powers, helped drive away evil spirits. The sharp thorns found on the leaves of holly symbolize the crown of thorns Jesus was forced to wear while its red berries reminded them of the blood which Jesus had to shed. The British also felt that a distinction between “he holly” and “she holly” was based on the nature of the leaves. The “he holly” was characterized by the thorns while the “she holly” referred to the shine on the leaves.


Kissing under the mistletoe has been a Christmas tradition since the settlement of our country and has had significance as early as the Greeks, who associated mystical powers and their customs to this partial parasite. The rare oak mistletoe was venerated by the Celts and Germans and used as a ceremonial plant by early Europeans. On the sixth night of the moon, white robed Druid priests cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle for their celebrations.

For ages, the plant was thought to be propagated by bird droppings on tree branches. It was thought that life could spring spontaneously from dung. However, later it was observed that the plant was spread by seeds which passed through the digestive tract by birds. “Mistle” is the Anglo-Saxon word for dung and “tan” is the word for twig... ”dung on a twig.”


Trees of pomegranates are found in the drier regions of the world, particularly the middle east. The red apple-sized fruit is thought to resemble the womb and has symbolized fertility, abundance and marriage. We also find pomegranate imagery used in the Rider-Waite deck as well as many types of emblems through the ages. Pomegranates decorate the gown of the pregnant Empress of the Rider-Waite Major Arcana and the backdrop of The High Priestess.

Christmas Tree

The Scotch Pine tree is a considered a superior Christmas tree, however, many types of evergreens, including small thyme bushes cut into the shape of a fir tree, are used as Christmas trees. The Scotch Pine with its crisscrossed branches was thought to resemble the cross of Jesus. 

The Egyptians treasured evergreens as well as date palm leaves which were brought into their homes to symbolize life’s triumph over death. The Romans celebrated the god of agriculture and decorated their homes with evergreens and exchanged gifts of food, coins and lamps.

Later, the Druids used evergreens during their solstice rituals. Evergreen branches were placed over their doorways to keep away evil spirits. In the late middle ages the German and Scandinavians placed whole trees inside their homes to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. Decorations such as candles and brightly colored bulbs and toys were added.

Today we may decorate with traditional foliage for the wondrous colors and smells, however,  those living in the sunbelt are finding more ways to use native plants to decorate their homes. The traditional colors of Christmas are often softened to reflect semi-arid land with its lighter, brighter landscapes. 

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