Curious Nature: Celebrating (with) nature
Walking Mountains Science Center
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly,” “Rockin’ around the Christmas tree,” and “A partridge in a pear tree,” all evoke memories of frosty mornings and saccharine treats. These three song lyrics, along with many more holiday traditions and celebrations, all share the common denominator of celebrating winter holidays with vegetation.
After all, what would Christmas be without a tree and wreaths adorning our doors? It would be like New Year’s Day without black-eyed peas, Kwanzaa without persimmons, or Hanukkah without olive oil.
Few other holiday seasons devote the attention to trees and plants like those celebrated in the depths of winter. The winter holidays we celebrate today are a conglomerate of old-world winter solstice celebrations and modern religious revelries.
The history and legends regarding the role plants play in our holiday festivities are intricate and often not well understood. Beyond the typical Christmas tree and wreaths, many people exchange gifts of poinsettias and Christmas cacti, kiss under the mistletoe, and Jews around the world honor the olive oil that sustained the Eternal Light through the celebration of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
In the celebration of Hanukkah, menorahs were traditionally lit to honor the miracle when the olive oil expected to last just a few days lasted the total eight days that it took to get more oil. Olive trees, Olea europea, responsible for providing olives that make olive oil, are native to the Mediterranean, the region that is also regarded as the birthplace of modern civilizations and the Fertile Crescent.
There is evidence of Neolithic peoples collecting olives as early as the eighth millennium BC, and the tradition continues to this day. The story of Hanukkah comes from a time when Antiochus IV, son of King Antiochus III The Great, ruled the Seleucid Empire and drove Hebrews from their customary lands in and around Jerusalem, between 215 BC and 164 BC.
Maccabee, the leader of the Jewish rebellion, took back the temple only to find barely enough olive oil left to light the Eternal Light, showing their constant devotion to God, for one night. Miraculously, the lamp burned for the eight days that it would take for fresh oil to be pressed. Thus, without Oleae uropea and the knowledge to press the fruits and produce oil, it is possible we would have neither the Festival of Lights nor one of the more recognizable symbols of winter celebrations, the menorah.
From plants that saved a civilization and empowered a persecuted culture, we jump to a legend of an important plant that might just ensure our species continues to reproduce. Mistletoe, Viscumcruciatum, is a semi-parasitic shrub that can be found hanging above doorways, arbors, and anywhere we so-called romantics may try to sneak a kiss.
It is believed that kissing under mistletoe may have had its beginnings during the Greek festival of Saturnalia. Those who are credited with developing modern culture believed kissing under mistletoe would bestow fertility to the couple and Scandinavians at a similar time period believed it to be a plant of peace and would call truces under the plant or warring spouses would “kiss and make up” under the plant (keep this in mind as the in-laws extend their stay or the Christmas roast gets overdone!).
Plants play an everyday role in our lives and they take a focal point during our winter celebrations as we brace for the impending cold. It has long been understood that we protect what we use and know, and we are more likely to care for a species if we understand the role it plays in our daily lives.
During the holidays this year, I urge you to learn about the greenery you bring into your home and celebrate not only with your loved ones, but also celebrate the amazing and transcendent species that deck your halls and bring joy to all this holiday season.
Peter Suneson is a former Walking Mountains Science Center staff member and currently the outreach and education specialist for Eagle County Open Space. This holiday season you can find him snowshoeing or splitboarding in the backcountry looking for that perfect tree to deck his halls.