Besides the cedar, other evergreens were used to build the Temple, including cypress, fir and juniper (also called cabinet wood, see 2 Chr 2.)
Another favorite evergreen of the Christmas season is the fragrant balsam. A form of balsam was used to make an expensive medicine in the ancient Middle East, known as the Balm of Gilead (Gn 27:25 and Jer 8:22). Balsam has also been used in holy chrism, the main oil of sacramental anointing.
Another evergreen plant is ivy — as in the carol “The Holly and the Ivy.” It’s true that, in Celtic countries, druids used holly and ivy — representing eternal life and fertility — in their mid-winter celebrations. However, the ivy also has a biblical history: It was used by the Jews in the ceremony that purified the Temple under the Maccabees around 150 B.C. Ivy, along with other vines and palms, was carried in celebration into the Temple (2 Mac 10:7). And holly, with its sharp spines and red berries, quickly became a favorite of Christians because it reminded them of Jesus’ crown of thorns.
Back to that pagan, white-berried mistletoe. Yes, the druids used it to symbolize resurrection, as did the Vikings. It was associated with the Norse god, Balder, who was killed with a mistletoe spear, and yet returned to life in three days because of the tears of his mother, Frigga.
But why do we kiss under the mistletoe? Well mistletoe grows on other trees, usually oaks. For Scandinavian warriors, the plant symbolized peace — or at least a truce. Any warriors who met under an oak tree adorned with mistletoe were not allowed to fight that day.
Moving from greenery to the various flowers of the season, we find poinsettias, called Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) in Mexico. While the Aztecs prized the flower, a 16th century legend of a poor girl with no gift to bring for the infant Jesus on Christmas ties it to Christmas. She collected weeds and they turned red when she brought them to church.
A similar story surrounds the Christmas rose — which isn’t really a rose, but a member of the Helleborus plant genus. Various species of this flower can bloom anytime from December to April. (This is why some varieties are known as the Lenten rose.) The legend is that another poor girl met the Magi on their way to Bethlehem and despaired of being able to bring a gift as fine as gold or frankincense. She began to cry and roses sprang up from her tears.
There are also Christmas cactus — which traditionally bloom in the autumn and can be trained to bloom at Christmas — and even a Christmas camellia, a native of Japan that didn’t arrive in the U.S. until the 19th century.
The cyclamen plant, in shades from white to red, also blooms at Christmas. “Florist’s cyclamen” is native to the Middle East and grows in the Holy Land. Also, the cyclamen’s heart-shaped, variegated leaves can often form a Christmas tree pattern.
A final plant that we don’t really see in decorations in this season, but which does grace many a holiday table, is the olive. This universal symbol of peace grows abundantly in the Middle East and is used for food, medicine, lamp oil and soap. Olive oil is also used for anointing and has long symbolized the Holy Spirit. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” says “the olive tree was considered the symbol of fruitfulness, blessing and happiness, the emblem of peace and prosperity.”
Which, of course, makes the olive a perfect symbol for the Prince of Peace.
Sources: “Symbols of Christian Art and Architecture”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “All the Plants of the Bible;” “A Handbook of Symbols of Christian Art;” “The Catholic Source Book;” catholicculture.org; atlantabotanicalgarden.org; Christmas-tree.com.