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.noun2.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.
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.
If Holly and Ivy are the two best known of the Christmas flowers it may well be because of the popular eponymous folk carol. I was surprised when searching for the connection of these two plants to Christmas to find it was not as old a carol as I thought it to be. Though its history may go back to medieval times the first mention of it is in 1823. None the less the association of holly and ivy to Christmas is a long one that stretch back to the pagan festivals of the winter solstice.
1988 – Holly
There are over 480 species of holy or llex however the one that most of us are familiar with is the English holly or llex aquifolium. An evergreen with a normal life span of five years. It is also dioecious with distinctive male and female plants with the type of flower it produces indicating the sex of the plant. Only the female produces berries and then only if there is a male plant nearby. The berries mature in November or October and are eaten by rodents, birds and larger herbivores when ripe and soft. They are toxic to humans and are especially dangerous for domestic pets.
The male flowers are yellowish and appear in axillary groups. The female, flowers are isolated or in groups of three. They are small and white or slightly pink, and consist of four petals and four sepals partially fused at the base. Only the female produces berries that are bright red or bright yellow and has a stone at the centre. They contain illicin which has a bitter taste. The plant is hardy and can withstand drought and cold.
It the 13th and 14th centuries it was grown as fodder for cattle and sheep and in traditional medicine was used as a laxative and diuretic. It was also said to be a relief for fever. On a musical note it was also a favoured wood in the making of the Great Highland bagpipe. And as any fan can tell you it is also the wood in Harry Potter’s wand.
Christians adopted the use of holly as a festive decoration from Druid, Celtic and Roman traditions, and changed its symbolism changed to reflect their beliefs. The Druids held the holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life and cutting down a holly tree brought misfortune and tragedy. It was thought if hung in a house holly plants would offer protection against lightening and bring good luck to the household. The Romans held the same belief – perhaps brought over from their Celtic conquests – and decorated their homes with bough of holly during the Saturnalia. It was thought to be a plant sacred to Saturn the god of agriculture and the harvest.
In early Christian calendars Christmas Eve is shown as being templa exornatur, meaning “churches are decked,” continuing the traditions of the pagan feast Christmas replaced. Several symbolic meanings were given to holly. The prickly leaves resembled the Crown of Thorns placed on Christ’s head; indeed some claims were made that the crown was made of holly. The red berries are reminders of the drops of blood he shed on the cross. One legend says that until they were stained by blood from the cross the holly berry was white. Another source claims that the white flower rep Mary and from her sprang the seed that shed his blood for our salvation.
One strange folk tradition I had never heard maintains that if you hang holly with leaves that are spiky in your home at Yuletide the man will rule the house for the coming year. However if the leaves are smooth then the woman will rule. Hmmm…. may depend on who went out to harvest the boughs!
It is rather strange that the ivy is mentioned only in the first line and refrain of The Holly and the Ivy. The symbolism of the Holly is explained in exhaustive detail but of the Ivy we hear naught. The constant refrain of “And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ” suggests that she is represented by the Ivy. And in Medieval folk lore Holly represented the male and Ivy the female.
1981 – Ivy
Ivy or Hedera (grasping plant) are a genus of climbing or creeping evergreen plants that thrive both outdoors and indoors. They were native to Eurasia and North Africa but were introduced into North America and Australia. Rooted into the soil they spread or climb rapidly and have featured in landscaping both as a ground cover and climbers. Climbers can reach a height of over 30 metres (100 feet). Young shots attached themselves to the supporting face with small arial roots that offer support not nourishment.
The greenish-yellow flowers are produced in the late autumn and early winter. The berry is bluish-black or dark purple and ripens in late winter and early spring. Nectar and food for birds and insects from the onset of winter until the last frost. The ivy bee Colletes hederae is completely dependent on ivy flowers, timing its entire life cycle around ivy flowering. A wide range of invertebrates shelter and overwinter in the dense woody tangle of ivy. Birds and small mammals also nest in ivy.
There has been some question as to the damage that ivy can do to trees and other supporting structures. It isn’t considered parasitic and any damage done is minimal. While ivy does take hold in cracks and crevices, it isn’t strong enough to create them or harm a solid brick wall. However the roots can damage other surfaces, including old brick and brick that is showing signs of weakness and cracking. In areas where it was not a native plant ivy has become invasive and overtake the native vegetation. In some places it is now banned as an ornamental plant. The berries are mildly toxic and the falcarinol in the leaves can cause dermatitis. An interesting sidebar is that it has also been shown to destroy breast cancer cells.
As with its Christmas cousins Holly and Mistletoe, the Ivy was given spiritual significance by earlier cultures that believed its presence protected a house from evil spirits. Greek athletes were awarded crowns of ivy and a Roman going out on a binge would wear an ivy crown to prevent drunkenness. Such a wreath was worn by Bacchus, the god of wine, who also carried a staff entwined with both grape and ivy vines. To the Druids ivy represented peace and, because it grew rapidly, fertility.
Many of the Christian associations, though not directly related to Christmas, stem from these earlier beliefs (pax the Bacchus reference if you were Presbyterian). It was once a tradition that priests gave newlyweds ivy – its twinning nature was seen as a symbol of love and friendship. Because it clings to dead trees and remains green, it was viewed as a symbol of the eternal life of the soul after the death of the body in the medieval Christian church.
On a non-religious note – perhaps related to that Bacchic tradition – it was often used outside British pubs and taverns to advertise that they sold wine as well as ale. As to its power to ward off inebriation, a friend of a friend assures me it doesn’t work. In fact wandering around with a crown of ivy could well draw unwanted attention from the authorities.
The word for February 20th is: Deck /dek/: [verb] To clothe in a striking or elegant manner. Early 15c., from Middle Dutch decken “to cover, put under roof,” a nautical word, from Proto-Germanic *thakjan (source also of Old Frisian thekka, Old High German decchan). From 1510s replaced Middle English thecchen, from Old English eccan. As in: “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!”
Continuing the posts on the Christmas Flower medallions that hang on our Christmas Tree. They were created by Towle Silversmiths between 1983 and 1992.
1985 – Poinsettia
The idea that what we admire most in the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a flower is a highly understandable misconception. The large colourful bracts or modified leaves surrounding the small unassuming flower of Euphorbia pulcherrima (Most beautiful Euphoria) do present a glorious show.
Poinsettias are native to Taxco del Alarcon in southern Mexico and the region. The Aztecs called them cuetlaxochitl or “flower that grows in the residue” The bracts were used to make a red dye for clothing and make-up. The milk-white sap (latex) was a treatment for fever.
The botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning “beautiful Euphorbia” – Euphorbiaceae being the name of the subspecies not as could be thought a fascinating Italian Renaissance lady. Other names include “Mexican flame flower”, and “Fire flowers of the Holy Night”, but we know it by the more common name Poinsettia.
During his time as US Ambassador to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett, a South Carolina plantation owner, became intrigued by the flower. In 1826 he sent specimens back to his greenhouses in the US. He began growing them and sending them as gifts to friends and botanical gardens. They were first thought of as cut flowers and were not marketed as pot plants or for landscaping until the early 1900s.
But what is the link to Christmas?
As with many of the plants linked to the holiday, in its natural habitat it “flowers” during Christmastide period. The religious association began in Mexico sometime in the 16th century with the story of a Mixtec girl named Pepita who was too poor to bring a gift to Christmas Eve mass for the baby Jesus. She picked a small bouquet of weeds from the roadside and placed them at the foot of the chapel creche. Suddenly the small bouquet burst into a ring of right red flowers; the villagers declared it was as beautiful as the Star of Bethlehem and gave it the name Flores de Noche Buena. Later the vivid red would be compared to the blood that flowed from Christ’s wounds at Calvary and in Spain it became known as the Flor de Pascua or Easter flower.
1986 – Laurel
There are more than 30 varieties or sub-varieties of the Laurel, an evergreen which can be found in most parts of the world. The one we are familiar with from both mythology, history, art, and cookery is the Bay Laurel or Laurus nobilis.
According to Greek mythology the god Apollo became enamoured of Daphne, a priestess of Gaia, the Earth Mother, and attempted to seduce her. To protect her from the god’s advances Gaia turned Daphne into a laurel tree. The besotted god used his powers to grant eternal youth and immortality and to render the tree evergreen. He then fashioned a wreath from the leaves of the tree and wore it as an eternal remembrance of his love. Laurel wreaths were first awarded to the winners at games in honour of Apollo and then became a general symbol of high honour and victory.
This symbolism carried over to the Romans for whom the laurel became not only a token of victory but a sign of immortality, purity, prosperity, and health. Pliny the Elder advises the use of laurel oil to treat paralysis, spasms, sciatica, bruises, headaches, catarrh, ear infections, and rheumatism. Though it should be noted that his recommendations can be highly inflated! Amongst its other properties he lauds its ability, because it does not burn easily and crackles loudly when on fire, to ward off lightening and recommends to hang it at the outer door of your house. This may be one of the reasons that laurel leaves and wreaths have become a decorative feature in architecture over the centuries.
But why the Laurel Nobilis and Christmas?
Though there no direct link nor legend to associate the Bay tree to the Nativity laurel wreaths have appeared in Christian iconography as a symbol of Christ’s victory over sin and death for centuries. A victory that began with his birth in Bethlehem. And as a decorative element for the season being an evergreen its leaves are available to fashion into wreaths and festoons along with other winter greens as a promise of rebirth of spring and of mankind through Christ.
1987 – Mistletoe
When it comes down to it Viscus album or mistletoe is not the most pleasant of plants – it is a parasite, can be poisonous, and leads to licentious behaviour!
Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant that attaches itself to a host and extracts water and nutrients at the expense of its host. And it can be found on a host of hosts including apple, aspen, willow, juniper and oak; many of which experience side effects including reduced growth, stunting, and loss of infested outer branches. A heavy infestation may also kill the host plant.
It figures in folk medicine as a treatment for arthritis, high blood pressure, epilepsy and infertility. In South Asia it is used as an external medicine in poultices or compounds to heal broken bones. Ingestion of the leaves or berries can be toxic particularly if taken as an infusion.
In Pre-Christian times the white berries were associated with male fertility and referred to as sperm. The Druids saw mistletoe as the semen of Taranis the god of thunder; Greeks called it “oak sperm” and thought of it as talisman of fertility. The Norse legends turn it into a symbol of love, peace and friendship as recompense for its part in the slaying of the god Balder. The Romans also associated mistletoe with peace, love and understanding and hung it over doorways to protect the household. Hanging it over doorways was a feature of the feast of Saturnalia.
Which then perhaps brings us to how it worked its way into the Christian tradition of Christmas. Though there was some movement in the early church to ban it as a pagan symbol people continued to associate it with fertility and as a charm against evil spirits and bad luck. It was revered not only as an evergreen at a time when much else was bare of leaves, but also because it produced berries in the dead of winter. It hung in many church portals and was incorporated into services of repentance. Even today the Dean of York Minster Cathedral places a sprig on mistletoe on the high altar on Christmas Eve.
Just how it then went from being a sacred symbol to an excuse for grabbing a quick smooch as it hung over the doorway is not quite certain. There was some mention of it as early as 1784 in a musical entertainment in London. And it was said to have been popular with the serving classes before being taken up by the middle class – there was kissing under the mistletoe in one of the illustrations in the first edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ published in 1843. The original custom was that a berry was picked from the sprig of Mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when all the berries had gone, there could be no more kissing! It was also considered bad luck if the lady refused to be kissed.
The word for December 15th is: Symbol /ˈsimbəl/: [1.noun2.archaic verb] 1.1 A thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract. 1.2 A mark or character used as a conventional representation of an object, function, or process, e.g. the letter or letters standing for a chemical element or a character in musical notation. 2. To represent or stand for something else. Late Middle English (denoting the Apostles’ Creed): from Latin symbolum ‘symbol, Creed (as the mark of a Christian)’, from Greek sumbolon ‘mark, token’, from sun- ‘with’ + ballein ‘to throw’.
Roses have always had a place in Christian iconography particularly as a symbol of the Virgin Mary and as the sign of a miracle. During medieval times the red rose and its thorny stem became associated with the Passion of Christ. However Helleborus niger or Black Helleborn is not a member of the rose family but a perennial evergreen closely related to the common buttercup.
Then why is it called the Christmas Rose? Perhaps because unusually it blooms around what was Christmas Day on the Julian Calendar (January 7 on our Gregorian Calendar). And according to a popular legend on the first Christmas as the shepherds made their way to the manager, the small sister of a shepherd tarried behind the others, playing in the snow. When she arrived at the stable the shepherds had given their homage to the Infant and she had no gift to give. The child began to cry and and where her tears fell on the snow beautiful white flowers sprang up. Her tears turned to joy and she gathered the flowers up and gave them to the Christ Child. The baby and his mother smiled at her and she left high of heart and told everyone of the birth of the baby Jesus.
Since ancient times black helleborn has been used for its medicinal qualities and was known for both its purgative and sedative powers. It was also recognized as a toxin that in some cases that could cause a rather painful death. In the Middle Ages its magical (i.e. superstitious) powers were many, and contradictory. The flowers were strewn on floors to drive evil spirits out of a house; animals were blessed with it; and it was used to ward of the power of witches. However those same witches threw it into their bubbling cauldrons as they cast their evil spells. It was ground into a magic powder by alchemists that when thrown into the air around them made sorcerers invisible.
1984 – Hawthorn
The Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) has been considered a sacred tree since the time of the early Greeks and was revered for both its spiritual and medicinal properties by the Roman, the Celts , the Chinese and North American First Nations. For the Romans and the Greeks it was linked to hope, good fortune, marriage and childbirth. Garlands of hawthorn leaves adorned bridal parties, processions were lit by hawthorn torches and leaves were put in the cradles of Roman babies to ensure good fortune. For the Celtic peoples the hawthorn was known to be the favourite abode of the fairy folk and hawthorn groves were often the site of altars to the old gods.
It is said that during the Flight into Egypt Joseph left the sleeping Mary and Jesus to find water and food. Seeing Herod’s men approaching the magpies gathered boughs of hawthorn to cover the sleeping mother and child and protect them from their enemies.
It was also believed that the Crown of Thorns was made from hawthorn and this led to its close association with death in Medieval times. It was consider a sign of impending death to bring hawthorn into a house, a superstition that is still believed in some parts of England. It was also said that when Joseph of Arimathea came to evangelize England he had with him a staff made from the wood of the tree that had been used for that painful cornet. On his journey he stopped on Wearyall Hill in the area of Glastonbury and when he lay down to rest pushed his staff into the ground. When he awoke he found it had taken root, begun to grow and blossom. He left it there and though Hawthorn should only bloom once in a year by some miracle the Glastonbury thorn blooms twice a year: Spring and Christmas. There is on catch – as with the Christmas Rose it keeps to the Julian calendar and in 1752 when Britain adopted the Gregorian system the tree stuck to the old ways and bloomed on January 7th.
The story is told that during the Civil War a puritan tried to cut it down but was blinded by a splinter of wood before he could complete his task. The truth is that it was uprooted and burned during the time of the Commonwealth as a relic of heathen superstition but one of its castaway fragments – pilgrims were forever taking souvenir cuttings – found its way back to Glastonbury and until recently still bloomed on Christmas Day. Each year a sprig of thorn from the tree at St John’s church in Glastonbury is cut by the Vicar and the eldest child from church School and sent to the Queen.
Sadly in 2010 vandals were able to accomplish what that unknown puritan could not. On December 9th of that year the branches of the iconic tree on Wearyall Hill were deliberately cut off. When new shoots appeared the following year they were also removed in the dark of night. And again in 2012 a newly grafted sapling was destroyed. In 2019 the landowner decided to remove the tree however there are still what are said to be shots of the original at both St John’s and Chalice Well in Glastonbury.
The word for December 3rd is: Tradition /trəˈdiSH(ə)n/: [noun] 1.1 The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way. 1.2 A doctrine believed to have divine authority though not in the scriptures. Late Middle English: from Old French tradicion, or from Latin traditio(n- ), from tradere ‘deliver, betray’, from trans- ‘across’ + dare ‘give’. Not sure I’m passing any customs down but putting those medallions on the tree is a “tradition” in this household.
Telling the stories of the history of the port of Charlottetown and the marine heritage of Northumberland Strait on Canada's East Coast. Winner of the Heritage Award from the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation and a Heritage Preservation Award from the City of Charlottetown