We think of plenty of things from nature when we think about Christmas – our decorations are often inspired by beautiful plants, birds, and other nature. But where did these traditions come from? RSPB Scotland’s Allie McGregor explores the beginnings of some traditional Christmas flora and fauna.
The roots of traditional Christmas flora and fauna
Associating mistletoe and romance goes all the way back to Norse mythology when it was symbolic of love and friendship. Despite its link with paganism (it is sometimes banned from church decorations for this reason), it is commonly linked with Christmas
The kissing tradition is believed to have stemmed from either the Norse legend of Baldr, which established mistletoe as a symbol of peace, or the mistletoes status as a symbol of fertility.
Robins can be found all over our Christmas cards and often inspire the decorations in our homes. There are a few Christian tales linking the robin with Christmas, and it's wintery look emphasises it's connection.
A further reason for the image of robins on cards particularly is found in Victorian times. In the 1800s, British postmen wore red-breasted coats which resembled the robin red-breast, earning Victorian postmen the nick-name: Robins. These 'robins' were delivering Christmas cards, and so the traditional depiction begun.
Poinsettias bloom in December, making them an ideal holiday flower. Many mistake the poinsettia's leaves as flower petals, but the flowers are actually the smaller, yellow buds in a poinsettia's centre
The plant's association with Christmas began in 16th-century Mexico, where legend tells of a girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus' birthday and was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. When she arrived at the church with her offering the plants became bright red.
Poinsettia was popularised more widely as a Christmas plant thanks to marketing by Albert Ecke, a German immigrant in the US who sold it as a ‘Christmas flower’.
Santa has been around a lot longer than his reindeer. The first recorded reference to a reindeer pulling the sleigh was an image in an illustrated children’s poem published in 1821 as part of a paperback titled The Children's Friend: A New-Year's Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve. Most of the reindeer we know and love today came a couple of years later with the publication of the now famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (Often known as ‘Twas the night before Christmas’). The poem named eight reindeer:
“"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen! "On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!” *
Rudolph himself is an even more recent addition, created by Robert Lewis May in 1931.
For many who celebrate Christmas the season starts as soon as they pick out the perfect tree and bring it home to decorate. But how did this become such a key tradition?
The modern Christmas tree traces back to Germany in the 16th century, where Protestant Germans brought decorated trees into their home. The tradition of decorating with evergreens at Christmas was long established, but decorating an entire tree was unknown in Britain until the beginning of the 19th century, and didn’t become popular until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert put a tree up in Windsor castle in 1841.
Several decorating traditions have followed the popularity of the Christmas tree across the world, one of the more unusual ones being ornamental pickles.
These are just some of the ways we bring nature into our Christmas traditions. If there are others you’re an expert on let us know! On behalf of all of us at RSPB Scotland, I hope you get to enjoy your time with nature, family, and friends this week, and have a very Merry Christmas!
*Dunder and Blixem are now also known by other variations such as Donder/Donner and Blixen/Blitzen.
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