'Tis the season to Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly. And Christmas trees. Here are 5 tips for decorating the house with cut greens and for buying Christmas trees, as well as a bit of holiday history.
To 'Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly' actually comes from the ancient Druids. However all ancient cultures, including the Greeks and Romans, believed that evergreens had sacred powers that allowed them to stay green and alive when the earth was cold and barren. For the goddess of the harvest slept, and might never come again. But the evergreens promised that all was not dead and spring would come again.
So they cut those magical evergreens and decorated their houses to celebrate the winter solstice. The Romans drank a lot too, presumably for warmth and reassurance, and thus it became a holiday time. To avoid persecution, the early Christians also decorated with evergreens and Christmas became their holiday.
However, that 'Holly in the Halls' was to ward off the evil spirits of the Druid pagan myths. They worshipped holly and ivy and mistletoe. It is interesting that these Celtic celebratory greens were all poisonous. More interesting is they were used medicinally by the priests and shamans.
Tips for buying Christmas trees and greens
1. BEST CHRISTMAS TREE IS THE FIR TREE: The longest lasting indoor trees are the varieties of fir trees, which tolerate the heat indoors best. All trees should be fresh cut, and when you snap a branch the needles shouldn't fall off. (Don't buy dried out storage trees.) When you get home, put the tree immediately in warm (not cold) water, even if you don't set it up and decorate it immediately.
2. WORST TREE INDOORS is hemlock. Blue spruce is not good either for it quickly drops its needles, which are sharp and prickly. Pine should never be used indoors. Not only does it dry out very quickly, but it is very, very flammable. (Remember, its resinous sap was used to caulk sailing ships.) Also never use candles near indoor evergreens, and turn off the lights when you leave the room.
3. OUTDOOR GREENS: Actually spruce is fine outdoors, good for wreaths, and lasts well. Ditto for outdoor pine decorations which will often stay green until February.
4. BEST INDOOR CUT GREENS - KEPT IN WATER: Again firs are best, and they smell good, especially balsam fir. The sleeper surprise is arborvitae. It holds up very well and is not prickly. Best yet, you probably have some that you can prune, and save money buying greens. Leucothoe, andromeda and rhododendron hold up pretty well (but don't cut that big fat center bud on the rhododendron, for that is next spring's flower).
5. WORST CUT GREENS INDOORS are hemlock and holly. If you cut holly, put it in water immediately. And definitely use the round leafed Japanese varieties, not the sharp, prickly ones the Druids liked. (Watch that shaman.) Cut holly may last indoors for 1 or 2 weeks. Spruce doesn't last, and drops those sharp needles. Mountain laurel is poor. And boxwood smells like cats.