Christmas plant legends, symbolism add something special
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 12:00 AM
Since the beginning of time plants have not only provided sustenance and shelter, but have become so interwoven with our daily life that they developed into symbols of nearly every aspect of life.
The religious, legendary and symbolic meaning attached to plants has been handed down to us through the ages and today we still use many special plants in accordance with their age-old symbolism, at Easter, Christmas, St. Patrick's and numerous other holidays and special occasions.
Since the Christmas season is upon us, I'd like to share with you the religious legends and symbolic meanings associated with some traditional Christmas plants and some not so traditional plants.
English ivy and holly have been associated with religious rites and festivals since the time of ancient Rome and Greece.
Ivy was one of the plants dedicated to Bacchus by the ancient Greeks.
Holly was used by the Romans during their Saturnalia festival.
The use of holly and ivy was adopted by the Christian church; just as so many other features and elements of heathen worship were used from time to time on the principle that it is easier to absorb popular customs than to eradicate them by condemnation.
English churches began to use holly and ivy at Christmas in the reign of Henry VI (1422).
With the passage of centuries, holly and ivy have lost their original heathen connotations and are today welcome in the church and home as evergreen symbols of everlasting life.
Many plants other than the holly and ivy were exorcised of their pagan symbolism by a new association with Christianity.
As the Christian missionaries spread across Europe, they converted flowers as well as people.
The rose was one such plant.
The plant's beauty suggested divinity to pre-Christian peoples and the ancient Greeks and Egyptians revered the rose.
Rather than ban this lovely blossom, the church fathers re-consecrated it to the Virgin Mary.
There is a Christmas story about the quaking aspen.
The tree itself may be unfamiliar to some of us since its native range is further north, but it shares a peculiar characteristic with our common bottomland cottonwood tree--the ability of the leaves to move or 'quake' at the slightest breeze.
Legend says that as the holy family was fleeing from Herod all the trees in the woods bent their heads in adoration except the aspen.
The infant Jesus cast a disapproving look at the tree.
It was immediately seized with uncontrollable mortification and began to tremble.
It has not ceased trembling since.
The herb rosemary has been associated with the Virgin Mary.
Mary is said to have draped her azure cloak over a white-bloomed rosemary bush during the flight from Egypt.
The plant embraced the blue of the Virgin's garment and the rosemary's blooms have been a delicate shade of blue ever since.
Rosemary, unknown to many, has another Christmas association.
Rosemary, as well as thyme, was among the three or four herbs upon which Mary and the Christ Child bedded in Bethlehem, and so both herbs have been included in Christmas crËches.
These are just a few of the plant legends associated with Christmas.
Most of these beautiful legends are just that, legends.
But understanding their significance and incorporating them into our family holiday traditions can enhance our enjoyment of the holiday season.
We can also take a cue from the Christian monks and use the symbolism of these holiday plants to teach others, particularly children, the Christmas story.
One Christmas tradition that seems to have no significance at all is having cauliflower for Christmas dinner.
There are any number of "Christmas cauliflower" recipes, but no one seems to know why.
Perhaps it is the closest thing to a white Christmas we Southerners can depend on.