Symbols of Christmas - Greenery

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Saturday, November 27, 2010 at 8:06 PM

In these weeks leading up to Christmas it is so easy to get lost in the activities and shopping and overlook what Christmas is really about. Symbols of Christmas are all around us, if we just know what they're trying to tell us. Over the next few Sundays we'll be sharing some of this to help all of us remember the Christ of Christmas as we go through these days surrounded by the rich symbolism of Christmas. And throughout these weeks I'll be posting additional materials.

I'm beginning this week with greenery - specifically evergreens. Evergreens remain green throughout the year, including the cold, dark winter. They are unchanging, reminding us of the nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever." (Hebrews 13:8 NLT2)

My message on November 28 shares a good deal about this (and is available online on our Gateway website), and I may come back and put some of that material into my blog. But there's more material than I can possibly include on Sunday morning, so I'm sharing some of it here. 

In today's blog I'm sharing some of the legends (and actual origins) that grew up around some of the greenery of Christmas. I don't believe the legends are literally true - they are myths - but that doesn't mean they don't teach us truth. And some of the stories below are not legends but based on history. Together, legend and history have created symbols that remind us in this Christmas season of the Good News that "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11 NIV)

Legend of the Origin of Evergreens
As reported beginning in Matthew 2:13, shortly after Jesus was born, an angel appeared to Joseph to warn him to take the infant Jesus and his mother Mary and escape to Egypt. King Herod was looking for him in order to kill this new king who had been born. Herod sent soldiers to find this child of whom the Wise Men had spoken. No one could know that Joseph's young family was leaving or where they were headed. It was a difficult journey as they left under the cover of night and traveled through the night and next day. 

The Bible attests to these events, but now the story moves into the realm of legend. By mid-afternoon dust could be seen rising behind them, indicating Herod's soldiers were headed their way. Where could they hide or find protection? Quickly, Joseph led his family into a clump of cedars on a hill, which at that time of year had already lost their leaves. Immediately, the bare cedar twigs greened with color and thickened with growth to hide the Holy Family. The white berries of the cedar tree turned to sapphire blue to match the robe Mary was wearing and help her blend into the cedars.

The soldiers passed the young family, never seeing them, but since that day cedars and plants like them have never shed their leaves or lost their green because they sheltered the Holy Family. 

Legend of the First Christmas Tree
Seven hundred years after the birth of Christ, Pope Gregory called upon Winfred of England (later known as Saint Boniface) to serve as a missionary for three years to the pagan tribes of Northern Germany. One day, as he was traveling among the people there, he came upon a pagan ceremony in the forest to worship the spirit of the forest using a human sacrifice. Typically, in this pagan ceremony the blood of a child was sprinkled around an oak tree to please the god of the forest. Winfred begged that this terrible thing not happen, but he was ignored. In desperation to stop this horrific act and save the infant, Winfred grabbed a ceremonial ax and cut down the oak tree. The people were furious, but their anger quickly turned to amazement as they saw a small fir tree spring up to replace the fallen oak. A shaft of light caused each twig of this new fir to glisten. The people listened as Winfred told them the tree was a symbol of the birth of life through Jesus Christ. And this began the custom of the German people using a fir tree as a symbol to remember the birth of Jesus.

Legend of the Poinsettia
This legend from Mexico says that the Bethlehem star shone over the manger where Jesus was born. Its light was so bright that up sprang a beautiful flower that symbolized that moment. The plant was star shaped with pure white petals and golden star centers. It was considered the Flower of the Holy Night, symbolizing the Bethlehem star. This beautiful creation glorified and commemorated that holy night. But thirty three years later Jesus died on the cross. The petals became blood red to remember the sacrifice of the Christ who was born under the star in Bethlehem.

In the 17th Century, Franciscan priests found these beautiful red blooms, then called, "Cuetlaxochitle," growing on the slopes near Taxco, Mexico. In the early part of the 19th Century the first American ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Robert Poinset, also saw these beautiful red flowers (actually leaves) blooming profusely at Christmas. In 1828 he brought this brilliant tropical plant, known in Mexico as the "Flower of the Holy Night," back to the United States. Here it gained the name poinsettia, after the man who brought it to the United States.

Legend of the Holly
Legend has it that the crown of thorns made by the soldiers and placed on the head of Jesus early on the morning of Good Friday was made from holly leaves. In those days the berries were white, but when the crown was pressed down on Jesus' head, the blood that flowed from his head turned the berries a bright red.

Long before Jesus was born greenery was used in several cultures in special celebrations. The Jews used boughs of trees to adorn the booths they set up for the Feast of Tabernacles. As a part of a Roman celebration of the winter solstice, Romans lavishly decorated their homes and temples with boughs, garlands and flowers, and carried greenery in their processions. German tribes used green boughs to remind them that winter would not last.

As Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25, which closely coincided with the winter solstice celebrations, they took over some of these customs but gave them new meaning. Their green decorations and garland remembered the new life and salvation which the birth of Jesus brought into the world. They were meant to be joyful reminders of this holy time. 

Wreaths are circular, with no beginning or end, representing the eternal nature of God. The Christmas wreath is said to have originated with Jesus' crown of thorns, reminding us that the Child of Bethlehem is also the Christ of Calvary whose great love for each of us led him to die on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the world.