During the midwinter festival, which became Yule and later Christmas, evergreen plants such as holly and ivy held much significance.
Their evergreen leaves and refusal to die back promised continuity of life after the hard winter. So they were brought indoors and became part of our seasonal decorations.
The Christmas tree is one of the evergreens that made it into the house in a spectacular way, taking centre stage at the heart of the festivities. Holly and ivy are also forever decking our halls, entwined in door wreaths and flower arrangements.
Glossy leaves, sometimes variegated with gold or silver markings, and bright red berries were the perfect symbol of this evergreen promise.
They have taken it one step further in South America. At least 30 million people enjoy holly tea known as mate every day. Mate is made from the crushed foliage of the South American holly Ilex paraguariensis, known as yerba mate.
Ivy is associated with the god of wine, Bacchus, which perhaps explains why many pubs were named The Ivy Bush. Often an ivy bush was placed outside an inn, to announce that the new wine was ready for drinking.
Apparently, you could prevent drunkenness by winding ivy around your head. But whatever you do, don’t eat any part of ivy as it is toxic.
Both holly and ivy were also useful to divine whether someone was in love with you or not. If you floated a leaf with a tiny candle on it across a bowl of water (no mean feat), you would be able to tell if your intended partner was a suitable match or not.
There are also many legends about the bad or good luck associated with these two plants. The safest time to bring them indoors was during the 12 days of Christmas when there is a truce with any evil spirits.
The most magic of plants connected to the festivities is mistletoe, actually a parasitic plant that grows on trees, notably apple trees.
Mistletoe was associated with fertility, and in some places, its abundance meant a good harvest would follow. No doubt the kissing under the mistletoe is the modern-day ritual of its fertility powers.
Now with a name change to Salvia rosmarinus, rosemary is supposed to be the shrub that gave shade and shelter to Mary and Joseph during their flight into Egypt.
The shrub’s white flowers turned blue after she placed her cloak on the plant to dry.
Legend still has it that it will bring happiness if you use it to perfume your house over the festive season.
Our lady’s bedstraw
Another herb with associations with the manger and stable of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem is Our Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum).
The story goes that the flowers were once scentless and white, but after the baby was laid in the manger, the flowers turned gold and became scented.
Thyme and sage
Both of these evergreen herbs come into their own as festive flavours, used either in cooking the poultry or in making the stuffing. They can be picked all through the year but in winter are particularly valued.
Bay (Laurus nobilis) is another of the evergreens that gives hope in the dark of winter that spring will come, and life will go on.
It can be grown in containers or in the ground, where it will make a tall tree in due course.
Used in cooking, bay leaves were also used to wreath or crown students when they achieved their baccalaureate.
Frankincense and myrrh
These two plants, along with gold, are the gifts the kings gave to the child in the manger.
Today we might use the derivatives of these two plants indoors in the form of aromatherapy oils or potpourri. Frankincense is the prepared gum from several species of Boswellia, and Myrrh is the highly fragrant dried resin from plants belonging to the Commiphora genus.
Garden centre Christmas plants
Poinsettias were once just available in red but now come in dusky pink and creamy white. They were introduced into the US from Mexico in 1820 and have been part of our festive decor ever since.