One very popular holiday tradition is the use of boxwood plants in decorations, both inside and out. They come in the forms of trees and wreaths, and make a beautiful addition to any holiday display. But where did this tradition arise? Who first had the idea of bringing these evergreens into the holiday tradition? The answer may surprise you!
A History of Boxwood
When most people think of boxwood around the holidays, they think of small standing trees, and decorative wreaths, all decked out for Christmas. What if I told you that the cultivation of boxwood, both for mundane and religious reasons, predated Christ by at least four thousand years? It’s true! In the 4000s B.C., the ancient Egyptians grew boxwood in their homeland. This was no mean feat, as boxwood grows poorly in the desert, but they made it work. After decades of hard labor constructing the Great Pyramid, pharaoh Khufu ordered the placement of dozens of boxwood plants around the pyramid’s base. This may be why they are called “Man’s oldest garden ornamental.” Later, other pagans around the world would adopt the boxwood in their customs and rites. Boxwoods are evergreens. Pagans across Europe saw that, when their trees lost their leaves and their plants withered and died, the boxwood kept its color and life. To them, the evergreens survived past the apparent death of nature in the winter. Boughs of these trees were brought into homes in a ritualistic safeguarding of the plants’ life force until nature regained her strength in the spring. This custom was very commonly found in the Norse and Germanic tribes of Northern Europe, and would eventually evolve into the common tradition of the Christmas tree and wreaths.
So how did our modern holiday tradition develop from this pre-Christian ritual? To find the answer, we wind the clock back a couple centuries, give or take a few decades. In the early 1800s, many Americans did not even celebrate Christmas. They were only a few generations away of being Puritans, who refused to celebrate the holiday, since the Bible did not expressly tell them to. In the 1830s, this started to change, and by 1856 A.D., Massachusetts had formally declared Christmas to be an official holiday. The 1850s saw a sharp upswing in winter holiday decorations, as one might expect, and boxwoods were commonly used, along with pine and holly.
Though not originally native to this part of the world, the boxwood found its way to the Americas during the colonial period, and was used in formal decorative gardens. In fact, it is still used in gardens in such high class locales as the White House and Versailles in France. It saw its peak of popularity in the 19th century, and today is commonly grown as a shrub or topiary. There are a number of kinds of boxwood available, the two most commonly known of which are the American and English. Indeed, it is a common misconception that these are the only two varieties. In truth, there are over a hundred distinct types of boxwood available around the world. Boxwoods trace back to North Africa, Western Asia, and Europe, but was imported to America circa the mid 1600s. During this time, the colonists used the wood for decorations and musical instruments.
Boxwood Trees and Wreaths
Perhaps the best well known form of boxwood decoration is the freestanding, small tree. Small branches of boxwood are affixed to a central framework with floral foam, and accented with popular decorations. Pine is sometimes used to compliment the boxwood, as are seasonal flowers like lilies. Mini carnations and roses are woven throughout the tree, as are seasonally colored gypsum and hypericum. Cushion poms are commonly used as well. Plastic and glass ornaments, such as colored balls round out the whole piece. Ribbons and bows, often red, are placed in the branches of the boxwood, along with candy canes. These small, free standing trees are ideal pieces to bring some holiday joy into small areas like dens, dorm rooms, and dinner tables. They make a terrific centerpiece for any of the places, reflecting holiday joy wherever they are placed. They range in size from 19” H by 12” W on up to 21” H by 13” W, farther to 22” H by 14” W
Wreaths are also popular. The wreath, like the tree, dates back to pagan Europe. Ancient Greeks and Romans wove laurel wreaths into crowns to celebrate victory. In Northern Europe, wreaths were made out of evergreen, like boxwood, to celebrate the Winter Solstice, the darkest, longest night of the year. Today, homemade and store bought wreaths are used in and outside the house to decorate and celebrate the Christmas season. In pre-Christian times, wreaths were woven out of evergreen with four candles placed in them, to represent the four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. This custom was later adopted by the Christian Church into what we now know as the Advent Wreath, with the four candles standing for the four weeks in the liturgical season of Advent, the time of waiting and preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas. A central, white candle is often added to these Advent Wreaths, to be lit on Christmas Eve itself.
This holiday season, pick up a one of a kind, custom made boxwood piece and bring home some green life this winter. Using evergreens to decorate for the holidays reach back into the distant mists of the past, when pagans ritually cared for these plants to protect the life force of the Earth during the cold, dark months of the winter. The tradition passed down from them, to early Christians, to America, to you. Make us at the Black Opal your one stop shop for holiday flowers this season. We promise, you won’t be disappointed!