Analysis: from trees and wreaths to the food we eat, plants are a hugely important part of our Christmas rites and rituals

Plants are a hugely important part of Christmas, from our trees and holly wreaths to our festive foods. But how much do you actually think about the plants that form the basis of our holiday season? I have confined myself to 12 plants, but this list could easily run to 24, 36 or more. However, festive literary devices exist for a reason...

Christmas tree: fir, pine and spruce

Probably the most iconic of Christmas plants is the Christmas tree. The smell of fir, pine or spruce, particularly indoors, immediately makes me think of Christmas. Every year, over 450,000 Christmas trees are bought in Ireland and, this year, sales are reported to be higher than usual

From RTÉ News, why 2020 is proving to be a bumper year for sales of Christmas trees

The most popular Christmas tree in Ireland is Nordman Fir, but trees can be one of several different species of fir, pine or spruce. The Christmas smell is from various chemicals released by the trees including a type of compound called terpenes (particularly pinenes) commonly found in conifers. Although Christmas trees as we know them today were popularised by the Victorians, the tradition of decorating a tree during mid-winder goes back to the Celtic holiday of Yule when it was common to bring a tree, often a spruce, indoors and decorate it.

Christmas wreath: holly

The Irish native holly is important for our animals over the winter, providing an important food source with its berries. Holly is found in many traditions associated with life. In both Celtic and Norse traditions, holly was associated with protecting dwellings from lightning and so was often planted near homes. In Celtic times, people brought holly inside in the winter months to ask for the blessings and protection. In Christian traditions, holly is often a component of Christmas wreaths, with the leaves representing Jesus' crown of thorns and the berries his blood.

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From RTÉ Archives, Cathy O'Halloran reports for RTÉ News on holly trees disappearing from the Irish countryside

Christmas kiss: mistletoe

The tradition of a "kiss under the mistletoe" goes back at least to Victorian times and some suggest that the practice has its roots in Norse mythology. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that roots itself in the branches of other trees and forms a spherical mass up to two metres across. Mistletoe was not recorded outside of Dublin until the middle of the 19th century, and, although it remains fairly uncommon, it can now be found in several counties on host species including hawthorn, lime and willow.

Christmas table: Poinsettia and Amaryllis

Both plants are beautiful with large, dramatic flowers and hundreds of thousands are grown every year and imported to Europe and North America for Christmas. They are often used as decorative centre pieces for the Christmas table.

Amaryllis, from South Africa, has been associated with Christmas in Europe and North America for a long time with a range of speculations as to why this is the case. It is likely that it is simply that they are easy to grow and can be forced to bloom over the Christmas period.

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From RTÉ News in 2014, nurseries are trying to keep up with Christmas demand for Poinsettias

Native to Central America and Mexico, poinsettia are associated with a Christmas myth in Mexico where a poor girl collected weeds as her only gift to leave at a nativity scene on Christmas Eve. The story says that the weeds transformed into beautiful red Poinsettia and hence they are associated with Christmas. They did not become part of our Christmas tradition in Europe until they were widely cultivated in the later part of the 20th Century, after they had become popular in North America. Over 150,000 poinsettia are grown in Ireland for the Christmas market and if you look after it properly, it will flower again next year (as will your Amaryllis).

Christmas dinner: sage, thyme, parsley, sprouts

Everyone thinks about turkey for Christmas dinner, but you probably also enjoy the flavours that are added to the meal by stuffing which often includes several (or all) of sage, thyme, and parsley. Sage is a Mediterranean herb while thyme and parsley are Irish natives – so you could consider growing them yourself. Loved or hated, sprouts are small members of the cabbage family and are incredibly rich in vitamins. There is no clear link between sprouts and Christmas, other than that this is the time of year when the crop is ready, which is as good a reason as any to get a vitamin C shot in sprout form.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline in 2013, listeners react to news that an entire crop of brussels sprouts have een stolen from Wicklow Organic Farm

Christmas nightcap: cinnamon

To me, one of the most "Christmas-y" of smells is cinnamon. Included in gingerbread, cakes, biscuits, hot chocolate, mulled wine and some speciality Christmas teas, the spice comes from the bark of several trees in the genus Cinnamomum.

Most of the world’s cinnamon is produced by India and China, and it has long been considered of great value. Cinnamon was considered a gift worthy of royalty in antiquity and is referenced in texts from Ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The association with Christmas is likely due to its use as a meat preservative in Medieval Europe. Although we do not need to preserve food in the same way anymore, the smell and taste of cinnamon has remained part of Christmas.

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From RTÉ Lifestyle, a recipe for cinnamon buns

We so often forget about plants or think about them as background (a phenomenon sometimes known as "plant blindness"), but they are front and centre over the Christmas season. Think about how much less our Christmas would be without these wonderful plants adding colour, warmth and flavour to our homes and tables.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ