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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Dec 19

Holiday Traditions

Posted on December 19, 2014 at 9:14 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

'Tis the season! We tend to get wrapped up (literally and figuratively) in the hustle-bustle and the hype revolving around shopping and gift-giving this time of year. Yet, as a gardener, it is the plants representing the season that capture my attention.

Decorating evergreen trees such as various firs, pines, and even spruce has become an American tradition. Poinsettias, Christmas cactus, holly, mistletoe, ivy, and amaryllis may also find their way into our homes. More often than not, there is little knowledge about what these plants represent, nor do we realize other countries often use different plants to decorate for the holidays, carrying on their own traditions.

 Traditional Holiday decor
 Traditional holiday decor
It was interesting to discover that the tradition of decorating the house with holly dates back to the days of the Druids. For them, the plant represented everlasting life. Ivy, on the other hand, symbolizes eternity and resurrection. Poinsettias are native to Mexico where they are known as Flor de Noche Buena, meaning Christmas Eve flower.

Scandinavia and the northern regions of Europe have the tradition of the Yule log, whereby a fire is lit for 12 days using remnants from the previous year’s fire. Whole trees were ceremoniously brought into the house and fed trunk first into the hearth. Tradition held that if the fire died within the 12 days, the consequences could be disturbing. This sounds like a tradition a superstitious person may want to avoid, yet the history is fascinating!

Many countries use different plants but with similar symbolism. Families in Bulgaria use wheat sheaves to adorn their homes, while Middle Eastern homes are often decorated with pomegranates. Both plants are a promise of prosperity and plenty. And Israel uses the olive branch as a symbol of peace.

Traditions go beyond plants. Coming from an Italian family, we served panettone, a type of dry fruit-like sponge cake. And yet Jack's father, coming from Switzerland, spoke of cheese fondue and special cookies that were popular this time of year.

This December I find myself learning more about traditional foods, especially from South Africa. On December 13 my granddaughter Justine married Nathan, a wonderful fellow who was born in that country. South Africans celebrate the holidays by preparing Malva/Lekker pudding. I checked with Nathan's mother Sue and my daughter to confirm the accuracy of information I found on a website and learned the following—this direct quote comes from my daughter:

"The ultimate South African dessert that Sue makes is called Jan Ellis, which is named after a South African rugby player. We, the American contingency, have lovingly renamed the dessert ‘Death Cake.’ It is so moist and simply melts in your mouth. Why? Because it is loaded with butter and cream, then topped with more cream and served warm (and, yum, my mouth is watering). It is a regular cardiac arrest special and always requested … sorry, more like demanded at any gathering! There was nearly an uprising and full-blown protest at Thanksgiving when it wasn’t initially on the menu.”

Whatever the tradition, whatever the recipe—enjoy the wonder of the season. Hold onto family traditions or start new ones. There you will find the treasure.


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