A Winter’s Tale – 2020

Our annual Christmas ghost story.

After all the excitement of Christmas the almost hungover-like lull of Boxing Day had taken hold. It was just after midnight. The house was quiet save for the sound of the wind rattling the loose eavestrough and the occasional crackling of a log in the fireplace. It had been a clear night with the moon waxing its way to fullness. But that wind had come up bringing with it a scuttering of clouds that threatened to blot out any light from the moon or stars. A fox barked in the parkland behind us and was faintly answered by a neighbourhood dog.

A fragment of a sharp blast of cold wind found its way into the room. These old houses are riddled with cracks and crevices and the wind always finds a path. There was a chill to the room; another log and perhaps a small snifter of brandy could restore some warmth. As the warmth spread I picked up the book on the side table and idly leafed through it as the brandy spread a warmth through my body. A Warning to the Curious and other Ghost Stories by M. R. James.

Of course a Ghost Story! We always tell a ghost story on Boxing Day. There are the sort of chills that a brandy can chase away but the chills that James provokes stay with you for a good long while.

Now off to Bedfordshire – and perhaps once we’ve shaken off the chill and snuggled up we may have an undisturbed sleep! Or will we?

The word for December 26th is:
Chill /CHil/: [1. noun 2. verb 3. adjective]
1.1 An unpleasant feeling of coldness in the atmosphere, one’s surroundings, or the body.
1.2 A metal mold or part of a mold, often cooled, designed to ensure rapid or even cooling of metal during casting
2.1 To make cool or cold.
2.2 To horrify or frighten someone.
3.1 Chilly
3.2 Very relaxed or easygoing
Old English cele, ciele ‘cold, coldness’, of Germanic origin.

Christmas Eve – 2020

“Glory to God in Heaven, and upon earth peace, Good News to the children of men.” It was that as the Angels went from them into Heaven, the shepherds spoke one with another and they were saying, “Let us go as far as Bethlehem, and we shall see this event that has occurred as THE LORD JEHOVAH has revealed to us.”

Luke 2:14-15 – Aramaic Bible in Plain English

As the final candle is lit on the Advent wreath
signifying a new light being brought
into the world let us
of those around us.

A Christmas Bouquet – V

1992 – Star of Bethlehem

The last of the Christmas Flower medallions celebrates the celestial body that was said to appear in the heavens on Christmas Eve over 2000 years ago.

The final medallion is the Star of Bethlehem or Ornithogalum umbellatum, a member of the asparagus family. A perennial it grows from a bulb and flowers in the late spring and early summer. Unlike many of the other plants associated with Christmas it is not winter hardy. Native to Europe, North Africa and Asia it has become popular as an ornamental garden plant in North America because it is hardy and easy to grow. Unfortunately that ease of growth has meant it has become invasive in the wild and is difficult to eradicate.

For a relatively small plant it produces masses of conspicuous flowers in a six pointed star pattern. The flowers open late in the day which has led to it being known by such names as nap-at-noon, sleepydick, or eleven-o’clock lady. The petals close at night or on cloudy days. Unlike many of the other flowers associated with Christmas it is not winter hardy.

The plant is amongst Leonardo da Vinci’s botanical drawings and in his painting of Leda and the Swan Leda holds the flowers in her left hand. Legend has also associated it with the journeys of Crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land.

The name Ornithogalum is related to the white colour of the flowers; in some species, they resemble bird droppings. A biblical passage in 2 Kings 6:25 relates an account of a siege in Samaria in which the desperate population consumed the bulbs of the Ornithogalum umbellatum – though in the King James version it is translated as doves’ dung??? It has been suggested that because the botanical name does translate “birds’ milk” the good scholars at Cambridge may have made a booboo! The bulb of the plant is eatable by humans but toxic to animals. They were much favoured in the solutions created by Edward Bach for his homeopathic brandy and water distillations in the 1930s. However a claim that they were beneficial in the treatment of some cancers has been disproven.

It is said that after having served its purpose in guiding the Magi to the Christ Child the star of Bethlehem fell to earth and shattered into pieces that were scattered across the world. Those shards took root and became the flower that we know today as the Star of Bethlehem. It became a symbol of purity and hope, atonement and reconciliation in Christian iconography.

The word for December 24th is:
Star /stär/: [1. noun 2. verb]
1.1 A fixed luminous point in the night sky which is a large, remote incandescent body like the sun.
1.2 A conventional or stylized representation of a star, typically one having five or more points.
1.3 A famous or exceptionally talented performer in the world of entertainment or sports.
2.1 To have (someone) as a principal performer
2.2 To decorate or cover with star-shaped marks or objects
Old English steorra, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch ster, German Stern, from an Indo-European root shared by Latin stella and Greek astēr.

A Christmas Bouquet – IV

Unlike the previous seven medallions the next two Christmas Flowers have little connection with the story of the Nativity. In the case of the first the association comes from its flowering habits. With the second it is rather tenuously based on an obscure legend from the Black Forest. I guess Towle said they would create ten Christmas flower medallions so ……

1990 – Christmas Cactus

Found in the coastal mountains of Brazil the Schlumbergera is better known here in North America under common name of the most popular cultivar: the Christmas Cactus. However it does have many other names: Thanksgiving Cactus, Holiday Cactus, Crab Cactus and in Brazil May Cactus. All based on the time of the year at which it blooms. May? – yes Brazil being in the Southern Hemisphere it’s winter in May. Though according to the Farmer’s Almanac there is a difference in the leaves of a Thanksgiving and a Christmas cactus: the former are spiked while the later have a scalloped appearance. Apparently over the years unscrupulous florists have confused the two in the trusting public’s minds!!

In its native habitat the Schlumbergera doesn’t need a soil medium but can survive in tree crotches and rock crevices where organic material has collected. It can also grow at high altitudes and tolerate a degree of mountain cold. As a cultivar it prefers damp but not wet soil and cool temperatures. The bears tubular flowers lending towards the red spectrum and producing quantities of nectar which makes them perfect feeding grounds for hummingbirds. The plant can be propagated either through seeds distributed by birds or from stems that have broken off and rooted. Unlike many of the other plants associated with Christmas it has no toxic effect on either humans or animals.

Cultivation was began in the early 19ths century and the plant was grown in greenhouses and conservatories throughout North America and Europe. They were popular for the bright colours and autumn and winter flowering. During the 1800s many hybrids were created including Schlumbergera ‘Buckleyi’ named after William Buckley who breed what we know as the Christmas cactus. Waning popularity at the turn of the 20th century meant the loss of many of the early cultivars. However with renewed popularity in the 1950s cross-breeding began to encourage a wider variety of colours with increased hardiness. Despite being classified as “easy to grow” as houseplants they do required certain conditions and care (a quick Google search of the name reveals mostly “care of” sites) but often reward that care with a brilliant display as Christmas approaches.

1991 – Christmas Chrysanthemum

An ancient flower the Chrysanthemum was first cultivated in China as early as the 15th century BC and it is estimated that there are over 20,000 cultivars in the world today. Originally a wild flower, often thought of as an herb, it developed into a widely cultivated ornamental flower with thirteen recognized bloom forms. There are two distinct categories of mums: garden hardy and exhibition. The former are adaptable to harsh climates and required little care; while the later are more fragile but ultimately produce spectacular displays of an amazing variety: bonzai, topiary, and artistically trained forms.

In some parts of Asia the white and yellow chrysanthemums are used to make a tea and in Chinese cooking steamed or boiled mum leaves are used as a green. The Koreans have a wine that is flavoured with chrysanthemum and both the Chinese and Japanese use it as a flavouring and garnish in various dishes.

Several species of Chrysanthemum are cultivated for their natural insecticidal properties however those same toxins can be harmful to pets and fish. They are also recognized as a way to reduce indoor air pollution.

Most legends concerning the chrysanthemum come from China and Japan, and indeed in Japan it is the symbol of the Imperial family and images of it appear on passports, coinage, and the term Chrysanthemum Throne signifies the Emperor himself. The flower is thought to have originated in China and according to a legend, about 3000 years ago, an emperor was told of a magic herb that would restore his youth. But it was to be found only on the Dragon-fly Island in the Sunrise Sea (Japan) and only youth could find and collect. Desperate to find this youth restoring herb the Emperor sent a dozen young women and a dozen young men to the Island. He gave them a golden chrysanthemum to offer the natives of the Island in exchange for the precious herb.

After a perilous journey, buffeted by cyclones and attacked by sea serpents, they arrived on the Island. However finding neither inhabitants nor the herb and fearing the wrath of the Emperor, they chose to stay and planted the golden flowers as a reminder of their homeland.

But what of the Christmas Chrysanthemum?

There is one German legend that links the white chrysanthemum with Christmas. It is told that one bitter cold Christmas Eve in the depths of the Black Forest a poor woodcutter and his family were sitting down to their meagre meal. As the father spoke the blessing, thanking God for what little they had, they heard a wailing sound. At first they thought it was the wind but it became louder and more pitiful. The poor man opened the door and found a beggar child crouched beside the doorstep, half frozen and blue with cold. He brought him in and his wife busied herself finding blankets to warm the near dead child. They shared their thin broth and hard bread with him, warmed by their fire and slowly he revived.

The child arose from the stool by the fireside and suddenly the room was filled with light and as the worn blankets fell from his shoulders a shining white robe with a golden girdle was revealed and a golden halo encircled his head. Thanking them and proclaiming that he was the Christ Child and on his way to Bethlehem, the small glowing figure made his way out of the cottage through the snow into the forest. And there beside the doorstep where the frozen beggar child had lain were two pure white chrysanthemums. And the woodcutter, his good wife and their family were filled with an inexpressible joy. To this day white chrysanthemums are brought into homes in Germany on Christmas Eve to show a willingness to give shelter to the Christ Child.

The word for December 22nd is:
Cultivar /ˈkəltəˌvär/: [noun]
A plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding.
1920s: blend of cultivate and variety
Mid 17th century: from medieval Latin cultivat- ‘prepared for crops’, from the verb cultivare, from cultiva (terra) ‘arable (land)’, from colere ‘cultivate, inhabit’ + late 15th century: from French variété or Latin varietas, from varius.