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Holiday Lore & Traditions

A traditional holiday wreath with holly, berries and evergreens.

We all celebrate the holidays in different ways. Each family has their own traditions and warm memories from years gone by. Some of us celebrate Christmas, some Hanukkah, some Kwanzaa. Many of our traditional Christmas customs originate from Winter Solstice celebrations. The plants associated with each are an important part of tradition and symbolism.

Winter solstice is the 21st of December. Solstice literally means “Sun Stands Still’ and for a few days around this time of year the sun appears to stand still in the sky. Nearly all cultures and faiths have some sort of winter solstice celebration. They have been with us for thousands of years starting at the beginning of agriculture among people who depended on the return of the sun. We have incorporated many of the plants from traditional winter solstice celebrations into our own- holly, ivy, evergreens, rosemary and mistletoe. How did this come about?

Holly remains green throughout the year when deciduous trees like the oak shed their leaves. Decorating with it throughout the home has long been believed to bring protection and good luck. Placing a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland since holly was one of the main plants that was green and beautiful with its red berries at this time of year. Norseman and Celts planted a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of holly leaves gave rise to its association with lightning and in fact holly does conduct lighting into the ground better than most trees.

Like other evergreens, ivy symbolizes immortality and eternal life. In England it is traditionally used in kissing balls with holly and mistletoe. It has also stood for fidelity, healing and marriage. Ancient Romans thought it brought good luck and joy. It was worn as a crown or fashioned into wreaths or garland.

Evergreen trees play a role in solstice celebrations. Early Romans and Christians considered the evergreen a symbol of the continuity of life. Fir, cedar, pine boughs and wreaths were used to decorate homes. Small gifts were hung from the branches in groves. This may have been where the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree or Yule tree in December originated. Other sacred trees of the solstice are yew, birch, arborvitae and ash.

Rosemary trained as a Christmas tree with a lavender topiary friend.

We often see rosemary plants trained into a Christmas tree shape. Rosemary is evergreen in the winter and blooms at the same time making it the perfect plant for the holidays. Traditionally rosemary was spread on floors at Christmas as people walked over the herb releasing the fragrant scent and filling the home with blessings and protection.

How did our fascination with mistletoe get started? From earliest times it has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of Greeks, Celts, Scandinavia, England and European folklore in general.The Druids believed the mistletoe’s magical powers extended beyond fertility. It was believed to cure almost any disease and was know as the “all healer”. Sprigs fixed above doorways of homes were said to keep away lightning and other types of evil. Because the plant has no roots it was believed that it grew from heaven.

Kissing under the mistletoe probably came from the Greek/Roman belief that it bestowed fertility and had life-giving power. In Scandinavia it was considered a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or fighting spouses could kiss and make up. However this tradition originated it’s a good one.

Traditional plants symbolic of Hanukkah are the citron, myrtle twigs, willow twigs and palm fronds. The Four Species are waved together along with special blessings as part of the synagogue service or at home.
Kwanzaa, another celebration of light, features the harvest foods of Africa: ears of corn, fruit and nuts. It is a secular celebration observed during the last week of December to celebrate the “fruit” or accomplishments coming out of the year of labor.

Around the world, holiday celebrations have their own special meaning. With friends and family, embrace your own traditions and have a wondrous holiday.

Holiday Wreaths from the Garden

holiday wreath.2048After a hiatus last year I again had the pleasure to join my neighbors at their annual wreath making party. This is the 11th year this group has gotten together “rain or shine” according to hosts Barb Kelly and Martha Radcliffe.

The wreath making extravaganza lasts for over a week and friends and relatives come from far and wide to create the most amazing wreaths. But it’s the work of Barb, her husband Reggie and neighbor Martha who make it all possible. This year pouring rain didn’t stop them from seeking out their favorite plants to snip. For a week or so they cut and prune and piled everything up for those of us who drop by to use freely as we create our wreaths.

One of my fellow wreathers this year came all the way from Roseville as they wreath display.1920always do. Her sister and niece Jaelyn had a wonderful time making their wreaths but hers was well over 2 feet across and weighed about 30 pounds. “I like everything big”, she said with a laugh, “including big wreaths and big hair.” You hear the description “this one’s a Kardashian” in the group. These amazing creations are created from so many bundles of greenery, flowers and berries that they end up weighing more than you’d think.

Barbs_wreath2Barb, who’s house and garden we invade, creates lots of wreaths, the bigger the better. She holds the record for making the biggest wreath while Martha holds the record for the most wreaths. Both use them in their own homes and to give away as gifts to friends and neighbors. Used to be Barb would give one to her secret pal in her bunco group but they all come now and make their own wreaths these days.

Barb says this year she thinks the one she made for her front door is one of her best. It’s not the biggest but features dark pink camellia buds and tiny red roses in addition to the deep red flowers of New Zealand tea tree. She added an ivory bow to complement her door.

Little Amanda was there with her Mom and one her friends Anastasia. I met Amanda a couple of years ago when she posed with her own creation for me. The kids will be making their own wreaths later in the week. One of these small fry is only 4 yrs but all are going to make wreaths too with a little help.

One gentleman made several square wreaths which were unique. Each wreath maker creates a different kind of look when choosing the plant material for their bundles. Some are meticulous in combining the exact same mix as they go around the wire frame. Others gather with abandon from conifers, variegated shrubs and other favorite plants that are piled high along the edges of Barb’s deck.

You can make a stunning wreath yourself from most anything you find around your garden. Barb, Reggie and Martha have favorite places they have scoped out to collect greenery including neighbor’s yards. They get permission from the homeowner first but have several people who look forward to the free pruning of their shrubs each year.

Some of the plant material that they harvest include conifers like cypress, deodar cedar, redwood, arborvitae and fir. Broadleaf evergreens such as camellia, bottlebrush, variegated pittosporum, variegated holly, green holly, silver dollar eucalyptus, boxwood, oleander, acacia. melaleuca and abelia are also good. For color, try snippets of leptospermum Ruby Glow, leucodendron ‘Safari Sunset’, camellia and rose buds and dry hydrangea flowers. Favorite berries are myrtus communis, texas privet, pepper berries, holly berries and nandina.

Take a few minutes to create a wreath or swag for your own home or to give away to friend and neighbors. It’s a fun way to celebrate the holidays.

Christmas Wreath Traditions

This is the story of a holiday tradition and how it all began. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Nine years ago just before the annual neighborhood Christmas bunco game and Secret Santa gift exchange, everybody in the group drew a name. Gifts were traditionally an ornament or small holiday decoration. Barb, her real  name, had been really busy that year and didn't have anything ready when the time came for the get together.  On a whim she went into her yard, cut some greens and foliage branches and threw together a wreath on a wire coat hanger. The gift was the hit of the party and so began the annual wreath making party. Everybody wanted a piece of the action.

Between rain storms this year the wreath makers met to share stories and laughter and listen to holiday music. I asked several of the original members if the group had an official name and was told "not really". Now the pressure was on and a name was decided. Gold Gulch Wreathers worked for everybody although one of the founding members lives in Forest Lakes where I live. Close enough was the consensus.

Part of the fun for the group is sourcing new materials to try in the wreaths. Barb and Martha and their husbands collect for a couple of weekends at the end of November and locate as much colorful and interesting foliage that they can find. This year they found a new source from a school in Watsonville who allowed them to cut grape vines, olive branches and several types of fir and cypress. They were able to harvest lots of variegated holly this year as the guard dog had moved out. The new owners were more than happy to have a free pruning for their shrub. Mostly though, they find materials in neighbors back yards and green waste cans.

Bright foliage added to mixed greens in a wreaths can really make a creation pop. This year we are experimenting to see how Safari Sunset leucodendron and Ed Goucher abelia will hold up. Both have reddish foliage. Another new item are purple-leafed varieties of loropetalum. It looks awesome when mixed with variegated pittosporum tobira. Rosemary and Mexican bush sage flowers are added for their wonderfull scent. Sprays of tristania berries hold up well in a wreath and add a touch of yellow to the other colors.

More material than ever was collected this year which is good because many of us will gather several times over a two week period to put together wreaths for gifts for family and friends. As many as 50 wreaths will be made by friends near and far including some nurses from over the hill who work with Barb's daughter, the bunco players and grandchildren. Martha hopes to break her record of 7 wreaths and is in competition with Barb for the fullest wreath. I witnessed these beauties being created. We call them "Kardashians", they laughed.

Everyone has their own method for putting together a wreath. Some gather bundles of the various greens and foliage in their hand, trim the ends and attach to the frame with wire. Some are more meticulous grouping each bundle with exactly the same mix. Others glue cones, berry clusters, driftwood, lichen, feathers, shells or flowers to grape vines. There's no right or wrong method when it comes to wreath making. As long as you have gloves, clippers and wire on a paddle it's easy to create beautiful wreaths for the holidays or any time of year.

I love the idea of neighbors coming together to enjoy each others company, This tradition has become a highlight of the season for many of us.