Christmas season is here. I absolutely love this time of year with the beauty of the weather changes and the symbolism with so much meaning. I become mesmerized by so many pieces of the holiday, from the beautifully decorated trees, the lights, the hot cider and so much more. As I really think about all of the decorating, food and beauty, I am amazed at how much of Christmas relates back to agriculture.
Trees are a centerpiece in the Christmas holiday, both for religious reasons and for the mere beauty represented. The Christmas tree can represent peace and good cheer worldwide. Back in history firs and evergreens were felt to hold new life because they did not die during harsh, cold weather. In the 1500-1600s many people decorated their homes with sprigs of evergreens. It wasn’t until the 16th century that people began to decorate the actual tree, Martin Luther is thought to have been the first person to add lights (candles) to the tree. The first Christmas tree farm was established in 1901 but have been commercially sold since the 1850s. Today there are more than 17 million Christmas trees harvested from farms annually on more than 309,000 acres. Iowa harvests more than 27,000 trees annually.
Mistletoe also has symbolism for peace and joy. In ancient times, when enemies met beneath the mistletoe in the forest and wooded areas, the had to lay down weapons and call a truce until the following day. It was this ritual that started the custom of hanging clumps of mistletoe and exchanging kisses beneath it as a gesture of goodwill toward each other. Mistletoe is an interesting plant because it is part parasite called a hemiparasite that grows on tree branches or trunks. This parasitic plant then sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and tap into and take up the nutrients from the tree. I, for one, am glad that I see it as a sweet tradition handed down through the generations. If it grows, there is probably a farmer who grows it. Or you can try to grow your own mistletoe!
I get excited to enjoy the holiday and hot wassail…but never really knew any of the history behind this custom. So what is wassail and wassailing? It is a greeting and a toast used in ritualized drinking – a holiday custom that wishes good fortune and good health. Wassail is the drink that was used for the toast…a spiced wine, of sorts or a mulled punch. The wine is made by adding spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg as well as slice oranges or apples. Well, my hot wassail was made from mulled apple cider…nonetheless I enjoy it when the season comes around.
The poinsettia that we buy in pots today is different from its original form. The original poinsettia was a larger plant that grew wild in southern Mexico. It was known for beautiful blooms and was also used for the medicinal properties that helped to treat fevers. America’s first minister to Mexico saw the striking plant and brought it back to the United States and grew them in his personal greenhouses. The original name of the flower was “flor de la Noche Buena” meaning flower of the Christmas eve. The minister was Dr. Joel Poinsett, to which the Poinsettia was named in honor of. Careful cultivation of this plant by agriculturalists over the last century have given us the many different colors of this beautiful plant.
Holly seems to be a traditional decoration for many decorators during the holiday season. It makes Christmas look beautiful. This tradition is pagan in origin. The vibrant plant not only sweetened the air, it remained deep green in color and reminded everyone of the spring to come with new life. The holly plant symbolized eternal life and the red berries added bright and constant color. The plant has also been symbolic of the winter holidays. Ancient Romans used it for decorating during Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to Saturn, a god of agriculture. Today we still use the brightly colored holly in our celebration and decoration of the Christmas season. Holly bushes are typically ornamental landscaping plants that can be found in all 50 states. Nurseries will sell bushes at various stages of growth.
Whatever the reason, whatever the time – I find that everywhere I look, I see agriculture abounding. Christmas is full of agriculture and I for one am very thankful. We here at Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and Happy 2017.