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By Ellen Probert Williamson
Plants have been used as decorations at Christmastime ever since the first Christmas in Bethlehem.
It started, according to an old tale, with a little shepherd girl who had no lamb, myrrh or gold to give to the Christ Child. She was showered with miraculous roses from heaven. She gathered them into a bouquet as a gift for the infant Jesus.
Many and varied are legends, customs, ideas and traditions that, for many centuries, have celebrated Christmas.
It was in the second century A.D. that Telesphorus, the second bishop of Rome, declared that church services should be held to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord.
In the year 320 A.D. Pope Julius I and other religious leaders specified Dec. 25 as the official date of Christ’s birth. In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi introduced Christmas carols into formal church services.
The first reference in print to Christmas trees appeared in Germany in 1531. (This was noted by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1834, when he put up the first decorated Christmas tree in Windsor Castle for the royal family.)
Christmas trees were first decorated with lights in the 16th century. It is believed that Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, was so taken with the Christmas night sky that he added lighted candles to the tree to “bring the lights of the stars” into the house.
King Henry VIII of England, tired of always having a roasted goose for Christmas dinner, instead ordered turkey and ham. This was in the early 1600s, but in 1643, the British Parliament officially abolished the celebration of Christmas at all.
Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas carols in England between 1649-60. He thought Christmas should be a solemn day, with the only celebration a sermon and prayer service in the church.
The first American Christmas carol, “Jesus Born,” was written in 1649 by a minister named John de Brebeur.
A wreath with holly, red berries and other decorations began to be used from at least the 17th century. Holly, with its sharply pointed leaves, symbolized the thorns in Christ’s crown of thorns. Red berries symbolized the drops of His blood, and a wreath on the door indicated those in the home celebrated the birth of the Saviour.
“Silent Night” was written by Austrian priest Joseph Mohr in 1818. Legend says his church’s organ broke down the day before Christmas. Since he could not imagine Christmas without music, he wrote a carol that could be sung by a choir to the music of a guitar. People in the little Austrian church sang “Silent Night” for the first time later that night. Now churches often sing carols and hymns to guitar music.
Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday in 1836. The last was Oklahoma, in 1907.
The first commercially produced Christmas card appeared in 1846 and featured a drawing of a family gathering happily toasting each other with glasses of wine, a shockingly decadent idea immediately condemned by the temperance advocates.
In 1850, President Franklin Pierce decorated the first official White House Christmas tree. And in 1937, the first postage stamp to commemorate Christmas was issued in Austria.
In 1945, a phonograph album containing Bing Crosby’s signature song, “White Christmas,” was released. It become the best-selling single ever, with sales of more than 50 million copes worldwide.
Poinsettias were introduced into the United States in 1825 by then ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett.
They grow wild in Mexico, and Poinsett brought some back for his garden in South Carolina. He gave some to friends and to botanical gardens, and from that time on Poinsettias have been popular and are now regarded as the official flowers of the holiday season.
All of the varieties of evergreen trees are used for Christmas trees, a relatively modern custom introduced during Queen Victoria’s reign in England.
Cedar trees are the most popular variety, possibly because of their wonderfully aromatic scent.
Cedars are mentioned frequently in the Bible, and the famed Cedars of Lebanon are still as they were in Biblical times.
(The temple of Jerusalem was built of cedar wood.)
The 12 oldest and largest of the Lebanon Cedars have been revered by every monotheistic religion. The Jews call them the 12 friends of Solomon; the Christians refer to them as the 12 apostles, and the Moslems call them the Saints.
It has been believed for centuries that an evil fate will befall anyone who injures one of these ancient trees.
The symbolism of plants and flowers adds much to the wonderful history of this sacred season.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.