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Christmas illustrations in the Library Reading Room

Lynn Parker
17 December 2013
The Library and Archives Reading Room is hosting a small but beautifully formed display of illustrations of festive plants. Assistant Art & Illustrations Curator, Lynn Parker, explains more.

In the Reading Room

If you're thinking of visiting the Reading Room at Kew, make sure not to miss the small (nine pictures) but beautifully formed display of illustrations of festive plants from the Collection.

Christmas flora

At Christmas-time, a variety of plants are central to the festivities: the holly wreath, poinsettia centrepiece, the sprig of mistletoe above the threshold and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all Yule-tide traditions, the Christmas tree have had a long affiliation with winter revelry in both Christian and pagan customs.

The unifying feature of most plants that have an association with Christmas is that they remain green throughout winter, offering hope during cold, meagre times, and solace that spring will come again.


Holly is a traditional decoration in Christmas wreaths, and there are many stories relating its red berries to the blood of Christ, and its foliage to the Crown of Thorns, but its association with the winter season predates Christianity; the Druids for example supposedly used it in their ceremonial headdresses. The bright red berries and verdant foliage symbolise new growth in the depths of winter. The fact that it was evergreen meant that it was believed to possess magical properties, and so was kept in the home during the winter months to protect against evil spirits.

Holly (Ilex aquifolium), watercolour on card, Ann Webster, 1950s

Christmas tree

The tradition of decorating a fir, pine or spruce at Christmas was first documented by the Estonian Chronicler, Balthasar Russow (1536-1600), who had observed the practice in Latvia in the 16th century, and it soon spread across Europe, although it was largely confined to Protestant areas.

By the 17th century, German Christmas trees were decorated with gingerbread and gold-covered apples, paper roses and sweets. The tradition was introduced to Britain during the early 19th century, but its popularity was established by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who in 1841 installed a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, recalling Victoria’s heritage, and her husband’s childhood in Germany.

By the 1840s the wealthy middle classes began to follow suit, and in 1848, a print of the Royal Family appeared in the 23rd December supplement of the London Illustrated News and, at its centre, splendidly decorated and lit abundantly with candles, is the Christmas-tree.

The Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is probably the most commonly-used Christmas tree in modern Europe, but the silver fir (Abies alba) and Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana) are also popular.

Fir (Abies), graphite and watercolour on wove paper partially drummed onto card, W. Richardson, ca. 1880s


Native to Central America, the Aztecs called them cuetlaxochitl and used the flowers to produce a purple dye, while the sap was made into a fever remedy.

In modern times, the plant gained popularity after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico in 1825, cultivated and sent live specimens to American botanic gardens. But its particular association with Christmas stems from a Mexican fable. A young girl, too poor to afford an offering at Christmas Mass, was told by an angel to gather weeds. When she placed them at the altar, they were transformed into crimson star-shaped flowers.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima syn. Poinsettia pulcherrima), watercolour on paper, General John Eyre, 1850s


During the 1920s, renowned poet of the New York Harlem Renaissance movement, Claude McKay (1889-1948), wrote the poem Flame-Heart, which uses the imagery of Caribbean fruit and flowers, including poinsettia, to evoke a sense of longing for home, undoubtedly drawing on European pastoral-style, but also endeavouring to develop a new, Jamaican-centred account of the tradition.

So much have I forgotten in ten years
So much in ten brief years! I have forgot
What time the purple apples come to juice,
And what month brings the shy forget-me-not.
I have forgot the special, startling season
Of the pimento's flowering and fruiting;
What time of year the ground doves brown the fields
And fill the noonday with their curious fluting.
I have forgotten much, but still remember
The poinsettia's red, blood-red in warm December.
I still recall the honey-fever grass,
But cannot recollect the high days when
We rooted them out of the ping-wing path
To stop the mad bees in the rabbit pen.
I often try to think in what sweet month
The languid painted ladies used to dapple
The yellow by-road mazing from the main,
Sweet with the golden threads of the rose-apple.
I have forgotten--strange--but quite remember
The poinsettia's red, blood-red in warm December. 

 A Merry Christmas from all at Library, Art and Archives.

- Lynn -


Christmas and New Year closure

  • The display is free to view in the Library, Art & Archives Reading Room until the end of Monday 23 December. The Library, Art & Archives will then be closed from Tuesday 24 December 2013 to Wednesday 1 January 2014 inclusive. We re-open on Thursday 2 January at 9am, and the display will be viewable until Friday 10 January.
  • On non-holidays and weekdays the Library is open from 9am to 5pm. All are welcome to visit and access is free!


21 December 2013
Love this blog, very interesting. The illustrations are beautiful too!

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