The Story Of “Christmas Rose” ! Ancient Christmas Folklore! Magical Christmas Herbs!
A well-known English plant, the Helleborus niger or “Christmas Rose,” is a true Christmas flower. Sometimes known as the “Snow Rose” or “Winter Rose,” it blooms during the depths of winter in the mountains of Central Europe. One of the easiest and most rewarding of garden plants to grow, the ability of the Christmas Rose to bloom during the darkest months of the year when everything else is frozen solid, makes it a valuable asset to any garden. The Christmas Rose produces flowers from late Fall until early Spring. These evergreen perennials grow to be approximately 15 inches tall and have shiny, dark green leaves of a leathery texture. Each flower stalk bears a single 2 inch to 4 inch white bloom (often tinged with pink).
By tradition, the Christmas Rose (whose roots are poisonous) should be planted by the door in order that it might welcome Jesus Christ into the home.
LEGEND OF THE CHRISTMAS ROSE
The Legend of the Christmas Rose is a charming tale of a little shepherd girl named Madelon. As Madelon tended to her sheep one cold and wintry night, Wise Men and shepherds passed by Madelon’s snow-covered field bearing gifts for the Christ Child. Following, Madelon saw the Magi present gold, myrrh and frankincense to the baby…even the humble shepherds had brought fruits, honey and doves to give to the babe…but Madelon had nothing, not even a simple flower for the Newborn King. Standing outside the stable where Jesus had been born, poor Madelon wept, wishing that she had a gift she could carry to the infant. A watching Angel, taking pity on Madelon, caused the snow at the feet of the small girl feet to vanish, thus revealing a most beautiful white flower whose petals were tipped with pink, formed by the Angel from the tears which had fallen from the eyes of the little shepherdess. Overjoyed, Madelon presented her gift at the manger of the baby Jesus…her gift of the Christmas Rose.
The Christmas Rose is also associated with Saint Agnes, Patroness of Purity, Chastity, Betrothed Couples, Virgins and Rape Victims.
Saint Agnes is honored as one of the four great virgin martyrs of the Christian Church. She was beheaded at the age of 12 or 13 early in the Fourth Century during the reign of Diocletian, the Roman emperor who ordered the last great persecution of Christians which began in early 303 A.D. Having no desire to marry, Saint Agnes was prepared to die for the sake of her faith and virginity as the “Bride of Christ” rather than become the wife of a Roman prefect’s son.
Saint Agnes is among the most widely honored of Roman martyrs and one of the most popular Christian saints. After her death, she was buried in her parents’ household cemetery located a short distance from the city limits of Rome. Initially, a modest chapel was placed over the saint’s grave but after Christianity became one of the lawful religions of the Roman Empire, the shrine of Saint Agnes was enlarged and transformed. According to legend, Constantina (the oldest of Constantine’s daughters by his first wife, Fausta) was afflicted with leprosy and reputedly cured of the disease after praying Saint Agnes’s tomb.
The shrine, known today as the “Basilica of Saint Agnes Outside the Walls,” is famous for its mosaics, galleried nave and for housing the relics of the saint in an ornate silver sarcophagus solidly encased beneath the altar.
Saint Agnes has played a prominent role in Christian art, frequently depicted as a young woman bearing a palm leaf or sword while cradling a lamb. The symbolism of the lamb is suggested both by her innocence and purity…the Latin word for “lamb” is agnus. The association of Saint Agnes with the Christmas Rose is one of purity, represented by the flower’s delicate white blossoms.
The Feast of Saint Agnes (celebrated on January 21st) is marked every year in Rome with a custom which is rich in symbolism and tradition. Two very young lambs from the sheepfold belonging to the Trappist Fathers of the Monastery of Tre Fontane near Saint Paul’s Basilica are crowned and placed in straw baskets, which have been carefully decorated with red and white flowers and streamers: red standing for the martyrdom of Saint Agnes, and white for her purity. The lambs are then taken to the Basilica of Saint Agnes where a solemn feast day Mass is held. Shortly after, a procession composed of young girls in white dresses and veils…as well as carabinieri in uniforms and hats of red and blue…bear the lambs upon their shoulders and proceed down the center aisle. The lambs are ceremoniously incensed and blessed before being shown to the Pope at the Vatican and finally given over to the care of the Benedictine Nuns of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, who rear them until Maundy Thursday, at which time they are sheared.
From the wool of the lambs are woven approximately 12 pallia a year, made by the Oblates of Saint Frances of Rome. The pallium is an article of ecclesiastical apparel consisting of a narrow circular band of white wool embroidered with six small crosses, bearing a weighted pendant in the front and in the back. The garment is slipped over the head and hangs down, front and back, in the shape of a “Y,” thereby draping the shoulders and symbolic of the sheep carried by the Good Shepherd. The pallium is worn during ceremonies by the Pope, metropolitan archbishops and patriarchs. Until an archbishop receives a pallium, he may not exercise metropolitan jurisdiction, and if he should be transferred to a new archdiocese, then he must request a new pallium. All archbishops are buried with their pallia, which are received directly from the Pope.
Leaves of costmary or alecost were used to add spice to holiday ale (also known as “wassail”) in olden Europe, while bay laurel, along with other forms of greenery, have been used in decorations since ancient European times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice. Bay laurel is associated with Apollo, God of Light, and serves as a reminder that the long Winter will soon melt into Spring.
Frankincense and myrrh were two of the gifts offered by the Magi to the Christ Child (the other being gold). Frankincese pods and myrrh gum are both scented plant materials which may be classified as herbs. Frankincense, also called Olibanum, has been used for centuries in religious rites and as a medicinal treatment for both internal and external ailments. It is a resin found in small thorny trees known as Boswellia Thurifera which grow in Africa, Yemen and countries around the Red Sea. The sap oozes from the trees, forming small white pod which harden upon contact with the air and turn yellow. These pods are then burned for their aroma. The oil of frankincense is calming and soothing and deepens breathing.
Myrrh was used by the Egyptians and Hebrews for incense, cosmetics, perfumes and medicines. It has also been used as an embalming tool. Like frankincense, myrrh was once considered to be a rare treasure. Again, it is a resin and is derived from the shrub Commiphora, which is found in Arabia and Abyssinia. Another name for garden myrhh is “sweet cicely.” The plant has fern-like foliage with dull white flowers and grows to be approximately three feet tall. Myrrh is an effective medicine for treating sore throats, infected gums, thrush and athletes foot. It contains cleansing agents, useful in countering poisons found in the body, and helps to stimulate the circulatory system.
Frankincense and myrrh are becoming available to day through dealers in potpourri materials. Blended with gold yarrow, they are used to create the “Potpourri of Three Kings.” Yarrow also bears signficance in the Christmas tradition in its own right. Sometimes called “carpenter’s weed” (because of its purported folk-healing powers against cuts), it is associated with Joseph the Carpenter, who was the earthly father of Jesus.
Rosemary is a small, perennial evergreen shrub of the mint family. Its leaves, bearing a tealike fragrance and pungent if slightly bitter taste, are used as a flavoring in foods such as lamb, duck and chicken. The plant has been used widely since around 500 B.C. and was once believed to strengthen the brain and memory functions. In Ancient Greece, students would braid Rosemary into their hair in order to garner success during exams. “Rosemary” is derived from two Latin words meaning “dew of the sea” (because it thrives where fog and salt spray meet).
Rosemary is a revered ceremonial herb which symbolizes remembrance, friendship and fidelity. It was thrown into, or placed on, graves and presented to those who grieved as a sign that the deceased would always be remembered. Even today, it is often placed on the graves of English heroes. It was also woven into the wreaths of brides, used as a decoration for churches and presented, tied with ribbons, to bridesmaids and guests.
Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife, wore a wreath of Rosemary when she embarked upon her ill-fated marriage to the English monarch. The floors of churches were strewn with the plant at Christmas and housewives would spread it upon the floors of their homes. As a poor man’s incense, it was often burnt in place of the real item.
There are many legends surrounding Rosemary…one being that it was used to awaken Sleeping Beauty…but perhaps the best known is one which states that the plant will never grow taller than the height of Christ and, if it outlives the 33 years of Jesus’ life, will grow outward rather than upward. Another legend claims that the flowers were originally white, only changing to blue when Mary, on the flight from Egypt, threw her blue cloak over a bush, thus changing its color and, at the same time, bestowing upon the plant its now distinctive fragrance. A variation of this legend holds that when the Holy Family fled to Egypt, they stopped to rest on a hillside. There, in a small stream, Mary washed the baby’s clothes, spreading the tiny garments on a fragrant bush to dry in the sun. For its humble service, the plant was named “Rosemary” and God rewarded it with delicate blossoms of the same heavenly blue as Mary’s robe.
To Saint Thomas More (whose garden was lavishly planted with Rosemary) and Shakespeare’s Ophelia, the herb symbolized remembrance. It was cultivated in monastery gardens for medicine and food and, according to medieval legend, Rosemary decorating the altar at Christmas time would bring special blessings to the recipients and protection against evil spirits. It was also used to garnish the boar’s head at the Christmas feast and American colonists would use Rosemary as a scent for soap.
Until the Twentieth Century, Rosemary was a much sought-after Christmas evergreen. A gilded Rosemary sprig, for example, was considered to be a treasured gift. The reason for its later loss in popularity is unknown, but it is slowly starting to regain its former favor with the use of Rosemary in holiday wreaths and Rosemary topiaries used as small Christmas trees. An old English garden legend states that “where Rosemary thrives, the mistress is master.”
Botanically, Mistletoe is a particularly interesting plant, being a partial parasite. As such, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and sends out roots which penetrate the host and absorb the nutrients. Mistletoe is capable of growing independently since, like other plants, it is able to produce food by means of photosynthesis. Nevertheless, it is usually found growing as a parasitic plant.
Mistletoe comes in two varieties. That which is most commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and may be seen on trees from New Jersey to Florida. The second species (Viscum album) is European in origin. It is an evergreen shrub with thickly-clustered leaves and tiny, yellow flowers, which bloom in February and March. The sticky white fruit or berries of the Mistletoe are considered poisonous. It grows most often on apple trees, but may also grow on others…such as the lime, hawthorn, sycamore, poplar and fir. Occasionally, it can be found growing on the oak.
The common name of Mistletoe is derived from the old belief that the plant was propagated from bird droppings. This notion was related to the generally accepted principle of the time that life could spontaneously spring from dung. It was noted that Mistletoe frequently appeared on branches or twigs where birds had left their droppings. “Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung” and “tan” is the word for “twig.” Thus, in a literal sense, Mistletoe means “dung-on-a-twig.”
By the Sixteenth Century, botanists had discovered that the Mistletoe plant was actually spread by seeds which had either passed through the digestive tract of birds, or been deposited by birds sharpening their bills (to which the sticky berries had adhered) against the bark of trees. Traditions which began with European Mistletoe were transferred to the similar American variety by way of immigration and settlement of the New World.
From early times, Mistletoe has been regarded as one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of European fable and folklore customs. The Greeks and other ancient civilizations believed that Mistletoe possessed mystical powers. The rare Oak Mistletoe was highly prized by the Germans and the Druids (ancient Celtic priests), who used it as a ceremonial plant. It was considered to be a bestower of life and fertility, as well as being a powerful ward against poison and an effective aphrodisiac. It has been used by North American Indians to cure measles and ease the pain of toothache and dog bites. Today, Mistletoe is still used for medicinal purposes, but only in skilled hands.
Since to the Celtic Druids, both the Oak and Mistletoe were sacred, if Mistletoe were found on an Oak, then it was believed to be twice as magical. The priests called it “All Heal” and held a grand ceremony at Mistletoe-cutting time. In the middle of Summer, dressed in long, white robes, the Druids would journey deep into the woods in search of the plant. Then, with a magnificent golden sickle, the Arch Druid (most powerful of the priests) would cut it down, taking great care to catch it in a white cloth in order to avoid contamination by contact with iron or the earth, which would diminish its potency. Afterward, issuing invitations to all the spirits of the forest, sacred rituals were held among the tall oak trees to honor the Celtic gods. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the recipients of the Mistletoe would prosper. Mistletoe was long regarded to be both a sexual symbol and the actual “soul” of the Oak. Gathered during the Winter Solstice as well as during Midsummer, the Celts often used it in a decorative fashion for their homes. Such is the origin of the modern tradition to use Mistletoe for the adorning of houses at Christmastime.
During the Middle Ages, branches of Mistletoe were suspended from ceilings to guard against evil spirits. In Europe, the plant was placed above doorways to houses and stables, in order to prevent witches from gaining entrance. It was also thought Oak Mistletoe had the ability to extinguish fire. This was probably associated with an earlier belief that Mistletoe would come to a tree struck by a flash of lightning. In some parts of England and Wales, farmers would give the Christmas bunch of Mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year, which was believed to bring good luck to the entire herd, and Mistletoe placed in a baby’s cradle would protect the child from faeries.
A sprig of Mistletoe carried or worn about the neck has been credited with many enigmatic capabilities…raise a terrible storm, bring in the fog, guarantee a safe journey, cure dreadful diseases, reduce the aches and pains of old age, grant protection from witchcraft and demons, and render poisons harmless. The Germans called this plant “Gut Hyl” and, despite its toxicity, used it in various potions as a universal remedy and fertility drug. The Norsemen believed it bestowed strength upon the athlete, the hunter and the swordsman and often named their weapons “Mistelsteinn” because of Mistletoe’s presumed magical and mighty effects.
According to Norse mythology, Mistletoe was the means by which Balder the Bright, god of goodness, beauty and wisdom, met his tragic end. When Balder was born, his mother, Freya, goddess of love and beauty, obsessed with concerns for the safety of her son, created charms and drew promises from every creature, plant and object that they would do him no harm. Unfortunately, Freya neglected to extract such a promise from the innocent-looking Mistletoe. Knowing Balder to be immune from injury, the other gods, in sporting fashion, used him as a target for their weapons. However, the corrupt god, Loki, made a dart from the Mistletoe and persuaded Balder’s blind brother, Hodr to take aim. The spear thrown by Hodr but guided by Loki, passed through Balder and struck him down. The death of Balder brought Winter into the world and caused Freya to weep so pitifully, that her tears transformed into the plant’s white berries.
In one version of this tale, the gods restored Balder to life and Freya then declared that the Mistletoe must ever after bring love rather that death into the world. Everyone passing under the plant was enjoined to embrace, while Freya bestowed a kiss of gratitude upon them in memory of the resurrection of her beloved son. In another, less joyful version, the death of Balder became a turning point in the history of the Norse gods, heralding the coming of evil and destruction of the deities in the doom of Ragnarok.
In Scandinavia, Mistletoe was also once considered a plant of peace and harmony, under which foes could declare an armistice or quarreling spouses could kiss and make-up. Custom dictated that, should enemies happen to meet beneath Mistletoe while battling in the forest, all weapons must be put away and a truce declared until the following dawn. Although this would not put a total end to the fighting, at least there would be one day of tranquility in the forests every once in a while.
With the advent of the New Year, Mistletoe becomes the legendary Golden Bough. Its withered yellow leaves were believed to assist its owner in the search for buried treasure. According to the story written by Virgil, Aeneas, leader of the Trojan refugees, carried the Golden Bough into the Underworld to seek news of his future from his deceased father. Other legends state that slaves might win their freedom by touching the sacred branch.
Although its pagan associations have often caused Mistletoe to be banished from Christian festivities, it remains a popular Christmas symbol of love and eternal life. It has been called “Herbe de la Croix” and “Lignum Sanctae Crucis” (“Wood of the Sacred Cross”) because it was believed to have been the tree which supplied the timber for the cross of Christ. For its part in the Crucifixion, Mistletoe was condemned to the life of a parasitic vine, in the same way the serpent was condemned to crawl upon its belly for its part in the fall of man. Some believe that an additional penance was required: that the Mistletoe was obliged to bestow good fortune and blessings upon everyone who walked beneath it from that time forward.
Like other evergreens, the Mistletoe is a symbol of immortality. Since it thrives in the trees rather than being rooted in the earth, it is considered to be representative of both the divine and the topsy-turvy. As a parasite, Mistletoe represents the feminine need for masculine protection and provision. Its white berries make this plant a lunar, female or fertility symbol. Diana (also known as Artemis), fertility goddess of the Ephesians, wore a crown of Mistletoe as an emblem of fertility and immortality.
Today, kissing under the Mistletoe is a popular Christmas custom. However, in observance of strict etiquette, one berry of the plant should be plucked off for each kiss. When the sprig runs out of berries, then there ought to be no more kissing. In some parts of England, the Christmas Mistletoe is burned on Twelfth Night, lest all the boys and girls who have kissed beneath it never marry, and any unwed lady who is not kissed under the Christmas Mistletoe is fated to remain single for yet another year.
Although holly is the only decorative tradition which remains of this once famous duo, the origins of both plants’ usage during the holiday season is an ancient one. The Romans were very fond of using holly during their Solstice celebration, known as Saturnalia. It was also closely associated with the God Dionysus. Gifts of holly boughs were exchanged during this time, since the plant was believed to ward off lightning and repel evil spirits.
The Druids also held holly, one of the only vibrant plants to be found during the Winter, in high esteem as a plant of death and regeneration. Since its berries are red…the color of life and blood…it was perceived as a “female” plant, representative of the Goddess. Ivy, the accepted symbol of friendship, was believed to represent the consort of the Goddess and, therefore, “masculine” in nature. The ancient custom of decorating the doorway with entertwined garlands of holly and ivy represented unity between the dual halves of divinity or, alternatively, the ritualized battle of the sexes.
With the advent of Christianity, holly became associated with the word “holy.” Symbolically, it represented the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and it was believed that the berries of the holly plant, originally yellow in color, were stained red by the blood of Christ. The “Sans Day Carol,” a traditional carol from Cornwall in England, focuses on this aspect of the holly’s symbolism and the different colors of berries to be found on hollies. As mentioned, red was representative of Jesus’ blood, while white berries found on some holly trees symbolized Jesus’ purity. Green berries represented the cross upon which Christ died and black berries, the death of Jesus.
Poinsettias are native to Central America and flourish in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon, where they bloom in the tropical highlands during the short days of Winter. The ancient Aztecs called this plant Cuetlaxochitle and utilized it for far more than mere decorative purposes. From its bracts, they extracted a reddish/purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics. The milky-white sap (known today as latex) was made into a preparation which the Aztecs used to treat fevers.
Poinsettias were highly prized by Kings Netzahualcyotl and Montezuma (the last of the Aztec rulers) but, because of climatic restrictions and the high altitude, could not be grown in their capital, known today as Mexico City. Consequently, the plants were brought in by caravans.
Perhaps the first religious connotation placed on Poinsettias originated during the Seventeenth Century. Due to the plant’s brilliant color and holiday blooming time, Franciscan priests near Taxco, began to use the flower in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre, a nativity procession. It soon came to be symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem and quickly associated itself with the Christmas season.
The plant is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Ambassador to Mexico, who later founded the institution known today as the Smithsonian. While visiting the Taxco region in 1828, Poinsett became fascinated with the brilliant red blooms he noticed in the area. He immediately transported some of the plants back to the hothouses of his South Carolina plantation, where he began to propagate the plants, sending them to friends and botanical gardens. One recipient of Poinsett’s generosity was John Bartram of Philadelphia who, in turn, gave the plant to another friend, Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Buist is believed to be the first person to have sold the plant under its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima. It is thought that the plant became known by its more popular name of “Poinsettia” around 1836 when William Prescott, an historian and horticulturist, was asked to give the plant a new name as it became more popular. At that time, Prescott had recently published a book entitled “The Conquest of Mexico,” in which he had detailed Poinsett’s discovery of the plant. Thus, Prescott named the Poinsettia in honor of the American Ambassador’s discovery.
The botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima had originally been assigned to the Poinsettia by the German botanist, Wilenow. The plant had grown through a crack in his greenhouse and, dazzled by its color, Wilenow had given it the botanical name meaning “the most beautiful Euphorbia.”
The true flower of the Poinsettia is small and yellow but surrounding the flower, are the large leaves, often mistaken for petals. Commonly bright red in color, these leaves may also be found in white, pink or bi-colored varieties. In the wild, the Poinsettia plant grows as a large shrub or a small tree. Although not poisonous, many people tend to develop a dermal reaction, or minor skin rash, when exposed to the sap of the plant. With its lovely, red, star-shape, the Poinsettia is a favored seasonal flower, particularly in the United States. It is known today as the “Flame Leaf” or “Flower of the Holy Night” in Central America.
Not surprisingly, the “Legend of the Poinsettia” originates from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her small brother Pablo (in an alternative version, the girl is named “Pepita” and “Pedro” is her cousin). They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year, a large nativity scene was erected in the village church and the days prior to Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas, but were always saddened because they had no money with which to buy presents. They especially wished they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.
One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. Along the way, Maria stopped to kneel by the roadside and pick some weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. She had decided to take the posy as a gift for the Infant Christ in the manger scene. Of course, other children teased the pair when they arrived with their humble gift, but Maria and Pablo said nothing. They knew they had given what they could.
Then, as Maria lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene, the top green leaves miraculously transformed into bright-red petals. Soon, the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers and all who saw the sight were convinced they had witnessed a Christmas miracle. From that day forward, the bright-red flowers became known as the Flores de Noche Buena…”Flowers of the Holy Night”…for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.