notre dame montreal

The plants of Christmas and what they might mean

Family sermon for Christmas morning by the Reverend Charles Royden


There are very many traditions at Christmas which are not really Christian but which have been given Christians meaning. We have a choice at Christmas we can choose to reject everything which isn’t in the Bible — this was a method unsuccessfully adopted by Thomas Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols and decorated trees.
Or we can try and make sense of some of the symbols around at this time and try and see them from a Christian perspective.

I want to remind us of some of the important Christmas plants which are around in our homes and suggest some things which we might learn from them. 

It has been common throughout time for people in Europe to take evergreen plants into their homes at this dark time. The evergreens represented fertility and life at the darkest time of the year the winter solstice. So decorating our homes at midwinter originates from pagan times when, throughout northern Europe, branches were cut and displayed as a symbol that the sun would return.

The Christmas Tree

This is perhaps one of the most important icons of Christmas. Although commonly believed to be Prince Albert, it was in fact Queen Charlotte, in the 18th Century, who brought the first ever Christmas tree to Britain from Germany, introducing the custom of decorated indoor trees to this country. The custom did not at first spread much beyond the royal family. Queen Victoria as a child was familiar with the custom. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old princess wrote, "After dinner...we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room...There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees...".

It was after her marriage to her German cousin, Prince Albert, the custom became more widespread. In 1841 when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert erected a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle


This is perhaps important because it bears fruit at the time of the Winter Solstice. You all know the tales, any male and female meeting under a hanging of mistletoe are obliged to kiss. Druids used the plant as an aphrodisiac and in Scandinavian tales it symbolises peace and love. Apparently if enemies met under mistletoe they would have a time of peace.

Mistletoe grows on lots of trees, you can see it all around Bedford, even on the trees by Tesco's. Mistletoe depends on birds to disperse its seeds. Its white fruits contain a sticky pulp that clings to a bird's bill. As the bird wipes the pulp off against a branch, it spreads the mistletoe's seeds. Sometimes when you look at Misteltoe it will appear golden and it has been called the ‘Golden Bough.’

It is a good plant for Christmas if it reminds us all of peace, Jesus is after all the Prince of Peace.

Euphorbia pulcherrima, commonly named poinsettia. Pulcherima  means 'most beautiful'  it is a species of flowering plant native to Mexico. Mexicans call it the flower of the Holy Night, it is also  known as 'Christmas Star.'  The plants' association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus' birthday. The tale goes that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson "blossoms" sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. From the 17th century, Franciscan monks in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations.

Holly and the Ivy

These are very much a part of our Christian Christmas tradition. Birds love holly and ivy because of their red and black fruits as a valuable source of food even in the depths of winter. Traditional Christmas carols celebrate the holly and the ivy, but their use as winter decorations very much predates the Christian festival.


The Ancient Britons felt that ivy protected them against goblins that were at their most malicious in winter. The custom of decorating homes with ivy and evergreens dates back to pre-Christian times when they were associated with the power of eternity and represented life continuing through the winter. Ivy again has a long pagan history. The God Bacchus is often shown with an Ivy wreath on his head or surrounded with Ivy. It was believed that Ivy warded off drunkenness. Some drinking vessels were made from Ivy wood because it was thought it would prevent you from getting drunk.


The Romans sent holly branches with presents during the December festival of Saturnalia, believing the prickly leaves drove evil spirits away.
The wood of the Holly is heavy, hard and whitish; one traditional use is for chess pieces, with holly for the white pieces,


So which is the most important Christmas flower?

  • Is it the evergreen Christmas Tree pointing upwards to direct our minds to everlasting life?

  • Is it the Poinsettia with its star like leaves, reminding us of the Star of Bethlehem which guided the Magi?

Perhaps it is the Holly. Christmas has meaning for us because it celebrates the birth of Jesus. The birth of Jesus is something which was written about because of what Jesus went on to do.
It was the death and resurrection of Jesus which mattered for the early Christians. So much so that it is only Luke and Matthew who tell us the nativity stories.
The Holly speaks to us all at once in the thorns and the berries and the green leaves of death and life. That Jesus came to die and that through his death he can be born in our hearts and bring new life to us at Christmas time.

1 The holly and the ivy,
when they are both full grown,
of all the trees that are in the wood,
the holly bears the crown.
O the rising of the sun
and the running of the deer,
the playing of the merry organ,
sweet singing in the choir.

2 O the holly bears a blossom,
as white as any flower,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
to be our sweet Saviour.

3 O the holly bears a berry,
as red as any blood,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
to do poor sinners good.

4 The holly bears a prickle
as sharp as any thorn,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
on Christmas Day in the morn.

5 O the holly bears a bark,
as bitter as any gall,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
for to redeem us all.

6 The holly and the ivy,
when they are both full grown,
of all the trees that are in the wood,
the holly bears the crown.