Merry Christmas! The season celebrating the Nativity begins.
True, this is the last night for TV Christmas — pardon — “holiday” specials. On radio the carols cease at midnight. Yet, for Catholics, Christmas is just getting on track — and among the most potent symbols of the season are the greens used to decorate homes and offices — even if, these days, they’re often artificial.
Mistletoe, pine, laurel and ivy lent their beauty to the décor of the 12-day midwinter Yule celebration of Norse and Germanic paganism. As these peoples were converted to the Gospel of Jesus the pagan “Yuletide” became “Christmastide”, popularly known as the “Twelve Days of Christmas” ending on Epiphany, January 6th. Liturgically, however, Christmastide lasts an entire 40 days, until the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd.
Of all Christmas greens, Holly (botanical name: Ilex — Ilex Aquifolium being the most common variety) was especially venerated by the peoples of the north. Holly was baptized into Catholic lore through tales spun by parents as bedtime stories for their children. Throughout the Middle Ages these yarns were written down by chroniclers and set to music by minstrels.
Medieval Europeans placed boughs of Holly over home doorways (“Deck the Halls,” you see) to drive away evil spirits. In some parts of Ireland, the Christmas Holly was kept until Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. It was used as the fuel to be burnt under the griddle on which was cooked the pancakes customarily eaten on that day.
One strand of Christian folklore has it that Holly sprang up in Galilee from the footsteps of Jesus as He told His apostles about how, in Jerusalem, He would be spat upon, scourged and crucified (Matthew 16:21). Another legend tells how the crown of thorns was made from the Holly bush’s sharp, thorny branches. Its white berries, stained by Christ’s Precious Blood, turned bright red in shame. The carol, “The Holly and the Ivy,” shows how the sufferings and death of Jesus give meaning to His birth:
The Holly bears a prickle / As sharp as any thorn; And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ / On Christmas Day in the morn.
The Holly bears a berry / As red as any blood And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ / To do poor sinners good.
With all the Scripture that can be read into it, Holly, the robust winter shrub, is considered the Christmas floral decoration par excellence in Catholic symbolism. Holly is the only Christmas green considered worthy of being artistically reproduced for vestments worn by deacons, priests and bishops at Mass during Christmastide.
Across the centuries, Holly has been held in high regard. One example, from 1861, sounds like amusing eccentricity, when the Duke of Argyll insisted that a prospective road be rerouted so as to avoid cutting down a venerable Holly tree on his property.
A few years earlier, in 1840, Charles Dickens had Ebenezer Scrooge compare Christmas merrymakers to vampiric money-suckers: “If I could work my will,” Scrooge complained to his nephew, “every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”
Many Catholic churches display pine trees in the sanctuary but Holly alone may adorn the altar itself for the Masses of Christmas and the forty days following. The Holly’s crisp, shining, jagged, evergreen leaves and brilliant, ruby-red berries are perfect reminders of the thorns, the nails and the blood of Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary, the heart of every Mass.
In his article, “The Mystery of Christmas,” the insightful liturgist Dom Prosper Gueranger, explains Christmas as a season of holy paradox:
The Word of God, whose generation is before the day-star, is born in time -- a Child is
God -- a Virgin becomes a Mother, and remains a Virgin -- things divine are commingled
with those that are human -- and the sublime, the ineffable antithesis, expressed by the Beloved Disciple in those words of his Gospel, THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH, is repeated in a thousand different ways in all the prayers of the Church——and rightly, for it admirably embodies the whole of the great portent which unites in one Person the nature of Man and the nature of God. The splendour of the Mystery dazzles the understanding but it inundates the heart with joy.
A word about Desert Holly, the unrelated New World variation (Ariplex Hymenelytra): Its leaves and reddish berries resemble those of the deciduous Holly, but the leaves are silvery or snowy white with a soft, leathery texture. Attesting to its hardiness Desert Holly, part of the family of saltbushes which thrive in an extremely dry environment, dominates in Death Valley. Feel free to use it for Christmas decoration.
Over the next few weeks the marvel-filled accounts we will consider explain how much our forebears desired that the birth of Jesus touch their everyday lives. Stories about flowers, herbs and spices sought to explain how their unique taste, fragrance and medicinal properties made food more flavorful, ornamented humble cottages, relieved pain, lightened daily toil — and kept the Faith resonating in young hearts.
This catechetical approach allowed parents to demonstrate how God’s love echoes throughout His creation. It also showed how integrity, bravery and constancy are virtues blessed by Jesus our Redeemer.