As the weather grows colder just after the winter solstice, the holiday season is reaching its peak. In nearby Middleburg, Christmas decorations adorn lampposts as parades go through town. Around Oak Spring, colorful evergreen wreathes are hung on doors and fenceposts, providing vibrant green amidst the drab browns of winter. Plants–especially evergreens and agricultural crops–gain an added significance around the peak of winter, as we seek reminders of summer’s warm bounty. In this blog, we look at several different holidays that fall around this time of year and dig into the plants that play such prominent roles in our winter practices.
At Oak Spring, Bunny Mellon always had a tree put up on the day of Christmas Eve. Decorated with handmade ornaments of animals, ships, baubles and figurines, and with a big straw star always coronating the top, the tree sat in the main hallway of the house. Right across from the tree, in the center of the hallway, mistletoe hung from the ceiling.
The origins of the Christmas tree lie in pre-Christian winter celebrations of people around the world. Various civilizations have long used greenery to symbolize life and rebirth in the midst of the shortest days of the year. Ancient Egyptians brought palm rushes into their homes, while farther north, Northern European communities decorated buildings with evergreens to bring in the new year and to keep away bad spirits. As Christianity moved out of the Middle East and into Europe, these older traditions became incorporated in the framework of Christian holidays. Conflict between Christian and pagan–what some have termed the “sacred and profane”–did not disappear as people brought old beliefs into the newer religion. The history of Christmas, and the Christmas tree, is characterized by this ongoing push and pull between holiday revelers and stricter religious adherents.
It was Germans, rather than the English, that brought Christmas trees into American culture. The Christmas tree as we know it today originates from Germany, where people had long brought greenery into the home. Accounts vary on exactly when the modern “Christmas tree” came into existence. In one story, the Protestant minister Martin Luther was walking home one night around Christmastime when he was struck by the beauty of the stars. Wanting to share that sight with his family, he placed lighted candles on the branches of their Christmas tree when he arrived home.
Christmas trees remained largely restricted to German-Americans until the mid-19th century, when it became popular in Britain. Along with increasing German immigration to the United States, the acceptance of the Christmas tree with British royalty made the holiday greenery fashionable, as opposed to something restricted to Germans and German-Americans. Relatively quickly, the Christmas tree had changed to become an essential Christmas decoration, something welcomed by people around the United States. Since that turning point, the habit of putting up a tree indoors and showering it in light and decorations has become a winter staple for many.
Of the three holidays, and the corresponding plants, that we discuss here, Kwanzaa is the most recent. It is also not a religious holiday, but instead proponents emphasize its role as a cultural one, a means of African Americans celebrating family, heritage (particularly African heritage) and culture. It is modeled after first harvest celebrations in various African communities, and the word “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili word meaning “first fruits.” It was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga.
Of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, two are agricultural: the Mazao, or crops, that represent collective labor; and the corn that represents youth and the promise of the future. The Mazao is considered the basis of the holiday, symbolizing the African first harvest festivals. Represented by nuts, fruit and vegetables, the Mazao stands for the role of community and hard work in collective prosperity. Similarly, ears of corn represent the community’s role in raising a child, as well as the future that the child embodies. It is interesting to note that corn is an American crop, rather than an African one, suggesting the holiday’s international roots and emphasis on Pan-Africanism.
It is important to note that Hanukkah (or Chanukah) is not a major holiday on the Jewish calendar, unlike Christmas on the Gregorian calendar. It is because of the prevalence of Christmas that Hanukkah has become such a well-known Jewish holiday to many Americans. Two of the most significant Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are both associated with the Jewish New Year (around the month of September).
The story of Hanukkah involves oil–olive oil, to be specific. According to Jewish tradition, about 2,200 years ago the Jews were fighting for freedom from the oppressive rule by a foreign king. After many years of fighting, they were victorious and once again took possession of the temple in Jerusalem. This temple had been defaced by the occupying army and the Jews had to rededicate the holy space. There was only enough oil to burn the temple flames burning for a single night, but instead the flames burned for eight nights. During the time of this miracle, they could make more oil. The eight candles of the menorah each represent one of the nights that the flames stayed lit.
Olive oil was both widely used and incredibly valuable in the ancient middle east and Mediterranean. As well as being used in food and for fire, olive oil was used for purification–the English word “messiah” even comes from the Hebrew word for anointment. Native to the middle east and first domesticated over 6,000 years ago, olives spread around the region relatively quickly, becoming an important part of Greek, Roman, Minoan, Jewish and other cultures through time. Its prevalence continues in the region today, although the vast majority of the world’s olive oil comes from Spain rather than the middle east. Hanukkah reminds us of the role of this essential plant and oil, especially as it lights up the winter windows of those who celebrate the Jewish holiday.
The holidays that we’ve examined here are not the only ones associated with this chilly time of year. What other ways do plants contribute to your holiday traditions? Let us know!