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Holiday Plant Symbolism

Discover the origins and stories of holiday plants with Richard Waterhouse, executive director of Buckhead Heritage and Victorian Symbolism tour guide.

Holly and Greenery
One of the rites of passage that takes place in Christian churches during the Christmas season is the hanging of holly and greenery. The purpose of hanging holly in pagan times was to convey the hope and expectance of spring. But Christians used it as a reminder of Christian suffering during the otherwise joyous Christmas celebration. Holly has come to convey the expectation of Christ’s death with its prickly leaves representing the thorn of crowns that Jesus wore during his crucifixion.

Many ancient civilizations believed all objects had spirits. Trees possessed kindly spirits. People would bring branches of trees into their homes to bless the house. With the advent of Christianity, the greens convey the expectation of the coming of the Christ Child again. The evergreens reflect God’s unconditional love.

The poinsettia conveys Christ’s nativity, Christmas, fertility, and eternity.

Many Christmas symbols are based on legends. The tradition of poinsettias revolves around a Mexican story. A small boy had nothing to offer the Christ Child on his birthday. He prayed at a church altar. The “Flower of the Holy Night” sprang up before him to answer his prayers. The bright red petals of the poinsettia are leaves. The plant was brought to the United States from Mexico in 1828 by a man named Dr. Poinsett.

German Christmas Tree 
The history of the Christmas tree goes back to the German states in the 16th century. Early Christmas trees had pagan connections, connecting to the winter solstice and the “sun-gods.” The green boughs of evergreen trees conveyed the return of spring after winter. Christians began using the evergreen tree to symbolize everlasting life with God. By the 19th century, the pagan-based Christmas tree had spread across Germany and beyond.

Have you heard of the German tradition that you and your family will have a safe and content holiday season if you have the following items on your Christmas tree?

Angel (God’s guidance)
House (protection)
Rabbit (hope)
Teapot (hospitality)
Bird (joy)
Rose (affection)
Fruit Basket (generosity)
Fish (Christ’s blessing)
Pine Cone (fruitfulness)
Santa (goodwill)
Flower basket (good wishes)
Heart (true love)


The cactus conveys protection, warmth, ardent love, and grandeur.

Christmas Cactus
Christmas cacti, known as Schlumbergera, are popular gifts for the holidays. They are named because these plants bloom during the winter. The idea of giving the cactus as a gift for Christmas has no religious symbolism. The Christmas cactus was originally a forest cactus that grew in southeastern Brazil. They grew as an epiphyte, which means that they gained nutrients from moisture in the air and rain. 

Richard Waterhouse is the executive director of Buckhead Heritage. He has been exploring symbols for over twenty five years. In 2000, he created an Oakland Victorian Symbolism Tour that he still offers occasionally. In July 2006, he began the monthly Waterhouse Symbolism E-Newsletter which now goes out to over 600 participants throughout the United States and Europe. In 2010, he wrote the book Sacred Symbols of Oakland: A Guide to the Many Sacred Symbols of Atlanta’s Oldest Public Cemetery. If you have questions about symbols or want to receive his newsletter, please contact him at

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