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Moment of Nature for Dec. 26, 2014

Hanging of the greens -- a holiday tradition

Posted: December 24, 2014 11:09 a.m.
Updated: December 26, 2014 1:00 a.m.
Photo courtesy of Liz Gilland/

Holly and cedar branches decorate one of many planters around Camden.

 

When this appears in print, it will be the day after Christmas and I hope the day was a meaningful one for you. The candlelight church services will be over, meals will have been eaten, the presents opened and the relatives come and gone (or not). What still remains, though, are the “hanging of the greens.” This includes wreaths, door drapery, mantel mounds, banister baubles and of course the Christmas tree. Whether your greenery is real, artificial or some of both, its use and display are steeped in tradition from centuries ago.

Contrary to popular belief, the use of Christmas greenery in and outside of the home did not originate from secular commercialism but is soundly rooted in symbols and practices of Christian witness and testimony. Whether you are of the Christian faith or not, allow me to share with or remind you of the meanings of some hanging-of-the-greens traditions.

Christians prepare for Christmas during the season of Advent. Advent comes from the Latin word adventus,which means “coming.” This is the four weeks leading up to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Many churches celebrate the Sundays of Advent by lighting four candles (one each week) on an evergreen wreath.

The origins of the Advent wreath are found in the folk practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples who, during the cold December darkness of Eastern Europe, gathered wreaths of evergreen and lighted fires as signs of hope in a coming spring and renewed light. The wreath’s symbolism of the Advent marks the light into the world by Jesus’ birth.

The circle of the wreath and the evergreens which make it up both signify God’s mercy and love. Some traditions attach meaning to using different greens such as ivy (symbolic of clinging to God’s strength), cedar (symbolic of eternal life available through Christ), holly (symbolic of Jesus’ crown of thorns) and bay (symbolic of curative power over victory over sin and death).

To expand further on Christmas greenery symbolism read on.

Ivy. Symbolic of clinging to God’s strength, ivy is a traditional decoration for the Advent season. With holly symbolic of Christ’s persecution, mistletoe’s curing affect and ivy symbolic of clinging to God’s strength, Christians can rejoice in both the suffering and the healing of Jesus Christ. Here in the south, we use a different type of vine called smylax as a substitution for ivy.

Cedar. In ancient times the cedar was revered as the tree of royalty. The Old Testament tells of the tall cedars of Lebanon used as timber in the construction of Solomon’s Temple and Palace. It also signified immortality and was used for purification. Cedar branches are used as a sign of Christ and his second coming, in justice and righteousness to purify hearts. Therefore, cedar is symbolic of eternal life available through Christ.

Holly. The early church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins. Instead, church fathers suggested the use of holly as an appropriate substitute for Christmas greenery. For Christians, passages from Isaiah reflect the sufferings of Jesus, who saved them from their sins by death on the cross and by his resurrection from the dead. Hence, in ancient times, holly was considered signs of Christ’s persecution. Their prickly leaves suggest the crown of thorns, the red berries the blood of the Savior and the bitter bark the drink offered to Jesus on the cross.

Bay. The leaves of the bay plant are symbolic of curative power of the victory over sin and death. Decorative Advent wreaths made from bay boughs are used during the holiday season.

Mistletoe. Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, druids used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. They would gather this evergreen plant (which is parasitic upon trees) and use it to decorate their homes. They believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion. Scandinavians also thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony. They associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe may have derived from this belief. Because mistletoe was believed to have a curing affect, it became a symbolic reminder of Jesus’ power to cure all the ills of the world.

Pine and fir. Because the needles of pine and fir trees appear not to die each season, the ancients saw them as signs of things which last forever. The Old Testament book of Isaiah tells us there will be no end to the reign of the Messiah. Therefore, wreaths of evergreens are hung, shaped in a circle, which itself has no end, to signify the eternal reign of the Christ.

Last but not least is a South Carolina connection now widely ingrained in holiday green’s traditions, the

Poinsettia. Poinsettias are native to Mexico and were named after America’s first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett. He was a native of South Carolina and who’s name graces Poinsett State Park near Sumter. He brought the plants to the United States in 1828. The Mexicans in the 18th century thought the plants were symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem. Thus, the poinsettia became associated with the Christmas season. The actual flower of the poinsettia is small and yellow, but surrounding the flower are large, bright red leaves, often mistaken for petals.

So, as you take down, dismantle and pack away or discard your greenery in the coming week, I hope you remember that it was not all just for show but signified the true meaning of the season. Happy New Year!

Author’s note: Many thanks to Stewart Kidd, Lay Minister at Lyttleton Street United Methodist Church for use of his reference information.

 

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