The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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December 7, 2001 Issue
Foundations of Faith

Plants call us to branch out in Christmas message

Some non-traditional plants give message
of Christ's birth too



Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

It's time for holiday decorating. Trees and garland, wreaths and poinsettias festoon houses and stores.

We see spruce and holly, chestnuts roasting on the fire, pinecones and ivy draped over doorways.

But why use these plants? Many, of course, come from cultural tradition and even pagan festivals that have become Christianized.

For example, the mistletoe -- the plant you kiss under -- was used in many pagan traditions. Mistletoe is a symbiont -- it both benefits and lives off another plant -- and was prized by the Celts when they found it growing on oak trees. Among other things, they considered mistletoe a protection against lightning. For Scandinavian warriors, the plant symbolized peace -- or at least a truce -- which might have led to the modern kissing tradition. Any warriors who met under a tree adorned with mistletoe were not allowed to fight that day.

Our modern Christmas tree tradition traces back to Germany and became popularized under Queen Victoria, honoring her husband, Albert's, Germanic background.

But many of the plants so familiar to us at Christmas have much deeper traditional roots -- roots that go back to the Bible.

First and foremost are the evergreens, long recognized as symbols of eternal life and God's everlasting faithfulness. And the most prized evergreen in the Bible is the cedar, the largest and finest of which were the cedars of Lebanon, used to build Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. The Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible says that the cedars "were considered the most beautiful and majestic of all trees and thus became a symbol for strength, glory and royal power (Ps 91:13; Song 5:15; Ez 31:3).

Botanical artist Winifred Walker notes that the ancient cedars of Lebanon were often 120 feet tall and 40 feet in girth.

Besides the cedar, other evergreens were also used to adorn the Temple, including cypress, fir and juniper (also called algum or cabinet wood, see 2Chr 2.)

Another favorite evergreen of the Christmas season is the fragrant balsam. A form of balsam was used to make an expensive medicine used in the ancient Mid-East, best known as the balm of Gilead (Gn 27:25 and Jer 8:22).

Besides these well-know trees, there are other plants mentioned in the Bible that we may not realize are evergreens. These include:

• Cinnamon, which grows best in sand and was prized in ancient times as a medicine as well as the food flavoring we now use in cider. Cinnamon is listed among the ingredients of the anointing oil recipe given to Moses by God (Ex 30:23). Also included in the recipe were myrrh, cane, olive oil and cassia ( a plant closely related to cinnamon). Cinnamon is still used today as an ingredient in the oil of the sick.

• Carob, from the pods of the locust tree, sometimes called "St. John's bread tree" because this is what Matthew records as John the Baptist's main food (Mt 3:4). The locust mentioned in Matthew is not the bug we see in the fields. Instead, the locust tree is an evergreen in the Holy Land and its pods contain a sweet, gooey substance that provides good nutrition. Carob seeds were used by ancient goldsmiths for weight measurements giving us the term "carat weight."

• Palm -- perhaps one of the most important plants in the Mid East. The date palm produces fruit, oil and timber. Rope can be made from its bark and baskets woven from its fronds. It is the palm whose branches were used by the crowds to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem (Jn 12:12) and were carried in triumph by the elect in the Book of Revelations (7:9).

• Ivy -- The ivy, often a pagan symbol in ancient times, was incorporated by the Jews into the ceremony that purified the Temple under the Maccabees around 150 BC. Ivy, along with other vines and palms, was carried in celebration into the Temple (2Mac 10:7).

Besides evergreens, many other plants have religious significance and symbolism and can be used at Christmastime to remind us of the stories of salvation history. Some of these are:

• Nuts -- Besides the religious symbolism of new life coming from death, the sprout growing from the hard, dead shell of the nut -- various nuts are mentioned in the Bible. These include chestnuts, also called plane trees, mentioned as being in the garden of God (Ez 31:8). Acorns represent the oak tree, sometimes called "terebinth," of Moreh in Canaan, where God promised the land to Abram (Gn 13:6-7). And Aaron's staff flowered and grew almonds overnight as a sign of God's approval (Nm 17:18).

• Apples, of course, serve as a reminder of Adam and Eve. Traditionally, when held by Christ, the apple also represents salvation.

• Columbine, whose name comes from the Latin columba, meaning dove, is a traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit. The seven blooms on a stalk represent the seven gifts of the Spirit.

• Holly -- with its sharp points and berries -- serves as a reminder of the crown of thorns,

• Iris, called the sword lily, represents the Virgin Mary and the prophecy of Simeon that a sword would pierce her heart (Lk 3:35).

• Olive, the universal symbol of peace, grows abundantly in the Middle East and is used for food, medicine, lamp oil and soap. Olive oil is also used for anointing and symbolizes the Spirit. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that "the olive tree was considered the symbol of fruitfulness, blessing and happiness, the emblem of peace and prosperity."

And, of course, grapes and stalks of wheat remind us of Christ eternally present to us in the Eucharist.


(Sources: Symbols of Christian Art and Architecture; The Catholic Encyclopedia; All the Plants of the Bible; A Handbook of Symbols of Christian Art; The Catholic Source Book; the Hebrew Lexicon at crosswalk.com)


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