Magical Plants of Christmas

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Most of the plants we associate with the holiday season are from Europe or the Mediterranean. We know the holly, ivy, mistletoe, christmas rose, rosemary, hawthorn, bay and of course, evergreens while the New World is represented in Christmas legend by the poinsettia. What are the legends and lore surrounding these common plants ?


The Glastonbury thorn is connected with Christ's death as well as his birth. Legend has it that soon after the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain to spread the message of Christianity. As he lay down to rest from his weary journey, he pushed his staff into the ground beside him. When he awoke, he found that the staff had taken root and begun to grow and blossom. From that day onwards - every Christmas Eve the white thorn buds and blooms.

There is a tradition in England that a branch of the Glastonbury Thorn is taken and displayed each year in Buckingham Palace.

Rosemary is another plant with extensive holiday traditions, symbolism, and legends and associated with remembrance, friendship, and fidelity. Floors of churches and homes were strewn with the herb and the traditional boar's head for the Christmas feast was decorated with rosemary.

Two rosemary legends relate directly to the Christmas story. Rosemary flowers were originally white until one day during the flight to Egypt, Mary draped her blue cloak over a rosemary bush. The rosemary flowers turned blue and the whole plant took on the beautiful colour and fragrance of Mary's cloak. Similarly, in another legend, Mary dries the baby Jesus's clothes on a fragrant bush. The plant's name, rosemary, and its blue flowers are in remembrance of its humble service to the Holy family.

Christmas Rose. The helleborus nigra which flowers at Christmas time is a reminder of the purity of the Virgin Mary. A Spanish legend tells us of a young shepherdess named Madelon. As Madelon tended her sheep one cold wintry night, wise men and shepherds passed by the snow covered field where she was, with their gifts for the Christ Child. The wise men carried the rich gifts and the shepherds, fruits, honey and doves. Madelon began to weep at the thought of having nothing, not even a simple flower for the Newborn King. An angel, seeing her tears, brushed away the snow revealing a most beautiful white flower tipped with pink - the Christmas rose

The pointed leaves of the Holly represent the thorns of Christ's Crown. The green leaves represent eternal life, and the red berries represent the blood of Christ. It is said that holly was used to make the crown of thorns. At that time the berries were yellow. In honor to the blood shed by Christ the berries turned red. According to another legend, when the Holy Family was fleeing into the desert from Herod, they hid the baby Jesus in a holly bust. At that time, the leaves had fallen as the holly was not an evergreen. Mary prayed for protection, and the leaves grew - a deep green to hide and protect the baby Jesus.

Chrysanthemum comes from the Greek meaning "golden flower," but a German legend refers to another of the many colours of chrysanthemums

One cold, snowy Christmas Eve in the Black Forest, a peasant family was sitting down to a scanty supper when they heard a wailing. At first they thought it was the wind, but after listening for a while, they opened the door and found a beggar. They ushered in the poor man who was blue with cold, wrapped him in blankets, and shared their food.Instantly, the blankets were shed, revealing a man in shining white clothing with a halo around his head. Proclaiming himself the Christ Child he fled. The next morning, outside the door where he had stood, were two white chrysanthemums. Today, many German families bring white chrysanthemums into their homes on Christmas Eve, following the tradition of sheltering the Christ Child.

In central and northern Europe it is the custom to break off a branch of a cherry tree at the beginning of Advent and keep it in water in a warm room. The flowers burst into bloom at Christmas time

Poinsettia. Another charming story of a child bearing a gift is that of Pepita, a poor Mexican girl. As Pepita walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin Pedro, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy. "I am sure, Pepita, that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable ," said Pedro consolingly.

Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. Looking at the scraggly bunch of weeds, she felt more saddened and embarrassed than ever by her offering. She fought back a tear as she entered the small village chapel.

As she approached the alter, she remembered Pedro's kind words: "Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable." She felt her spirit lift as she knelt to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene.Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle right before their eyes.

From that day on, the bright red flowers have been known as the Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night.

Susanna Duffy is a Civil Celebrant, grief counsellor and mythologist. She creates ceremonies and Rites of Passage for individual and civic functions, and specialises in celebrations for women.

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