From pine cones to poinsettias, we like to bring the outside indoors during the festive season. But what else might be lurking under your holly and ivy?
By Kirsten Riley
Mistletoe – that traditional Christmas decoration and mediator of festive romance – is actually a hemiparasitic plant that takes its nutrients from a host shrub or tree. How rude! So it might not be surprising that its presence in our homes may elicit other nasty surprises, namely the Epstein-Barr virus which causes infectious mononucleosis, better known as glandular fever or kissing disease. In the 1820s, writer Washington Irving described mistletoe as being ‘the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids’. To refuse a man's advances under what Dickens called the ‘mystic branch’ was to invite bad luck, making a kiss almost obligatory. Thankfully, times have changed. So if you don’t want to be the unlucky recipient of a very unfestive illness simply say no to mistletoe.
Holly and ivy
'The Holly and the Ivy' is a popular folk Christmas carol, but the plants are also pagan fertility symbols with ivy characteristically representing the wicked woman, while holly stands as the emblem of stoic male virility. Just be careful not to confuse your berries this Christmas. Eating cranberries is de rigueur at the dinner table but holly berries can cause vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and drowsiness. The poisoning won’t be serious unless more than twenty berries are consumed, but we don't recommend you try it!
While real snow might not last long indoors, there are innumerable substitutes on the market that can recreate a winter wonderland in your front room. Some of them even feel like snow! These products are all safe to use, which is more than can be said for the artificial snow used in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Holiday Inn (1942) which were made from chrysotile, otherwise known as asbestos. It replaced cotton after a film set fire warden noted how flammable that material was. No such problems with asbestos! Marketed under names like Pure White, White Magic and Snow Drift, asbestos was used for all sorts of decorations including baubles, statues and wreaths prior to World War II, when it was requisitioned to insulate ships and aircraft. So be careful of the white stuff if you're buying vintage this year.
The poinsettia plant is a symbol of the festive season that we’re all familiar with. Previously used by the Aztecs as an antipyretic medication (to reduce fever), this red, star-shaped flowering plant is indigenous to Mexico and Central America, where it is known as 'Noche Buena' meaning Christmas Eve. Its English equivalent isn’t so evocative, named simply after the man who introduced it to the United States in 1828, Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist, physician and the first US Ambassador to Mexico. While we might see the poinsettia as just a diminutive potted shrub, left to its own devices in warmer climates it can flourish up to 15 feet tall.
The humble pine cone is a welcome organic decoration among all the glass baubles and gaudy glitter of Christmas. But it's also a centuries-old symbol worshipped by many different cultures. The Greeks and Romans incorporated it into their religious belief, while in India and Egypt it was said to represent spiritual enlightenment. Often associated with fertility, Celtic woman would lay a pine cone under a pillow to improve their chances of conception. And if you think these ideas were all in their head, you'd be right. The pineal gland – located deep in the centre of your brain and responsible for the production of melatonin – is named after the pine cone.
Evergreen trees have been used indoors for centuries by Christians and pagans alike, as a symbol of everlasting life with God and as a reminder of the upcoming spring, respectively. The Romans even used fir trees inside their temples during the festival of Saturnalia. In the UK, we have Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to thank for our observance of the Christmas tree, as it is Germany that's credited with its invention as we know it today. According to folklore, the first person to add lighted candles to a tree was also German – the 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Well before 'elf' and safety.
It's not only baubles hanging from your Christmas tree. Aphids, spiders, lice, moths and beetles are just some of the insects that take a free ride into your home on the evergreen express. It's estimated that around 25,000 of the critters could be lurking in there! Upon entering the warmth of the indoors, the bugs awake from hibernation only to be quickly killed off by starvation and desiccation. What a festive thought. But, as you almost certainly have animals living on your face, these creepy crawlies shouldn't worry you too much. Merry Christmas!
About the contributors
Kirsten is Wellcome Collection's Web Editor for Social Media.
Stay connected with email updates from Wellcome Collection
Be the first to know about our upcoming exhibitions, events and other activities, with extra options for youth, schools and access events.