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Holiday traditions are have been passed from parents to children for generations. We raise the tree, display wreaths, set out poinsettias, affix mistletoe to our ceilings, and place odd things like spiders, pretzels and pickles on our holiday tree. These traditions, passed down from our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, are brimming with holiday lore and cloaked in mystery but add to the wonderment of the holiday.

Holiday tree

Martin Luther, a German monk known for the Protestant Reformation, is believed to be the first to bring the tree inside the home. In a nightly walk, Luther thought the stars shining through the evergreen branches were beautiful and reminded him of Jesus and he brought the tree inside to share with his family.


The Mexican legend entails a story of a poor young girl who did not have a gift for baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. Encouraged by her cousin that even the smallest gift would please baby Jesus, she fashioned a bouquet of weeds. When she laid them at the bottom of the Nativity scene, they burst into showy red bracts and all said it was a miracle.


Greeks and Romans gifted evergreen branches at the start of the New Year to wish good health and vigor. They are shaped into circles to represent joy and unity. The wreaths are hung on our door as an invitation to the spirit of Christmas to enter the home.


The Druids in Europe believed that mistletoe possessed supernatural powers because it remained green throughout the winter. Mistletoe hung above our heads promises us a future kiss from the one standing below. Tradition includes that once a kiss is had, one of the berries must be picked; the mistletoe loses its power once all the fruits are gone.


A story from Germany or Ukraine says a family that was too poor to decorate their tree received a little help from spiders spinning webs through the night. On Christmas morning when the drapes were pulled, the webs sparkled like our modern day tinsel.


An Italian monk fashioned bread dough scraps to resemble arms in a prayer. Those children who learned their prayers and verses were gifted the treat as a reward.


In German tradition, the pickle was the last ornament hung on the tree, hidden in the boughs. The child who found the pickle on Christmas morning received an extra gift.

Kelly Allsup is the University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator in Livingston, McLean and Woodford counties.


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