Tomorrow, our Christian friends celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Arguably, Jesus was born sometime in September, not December. It’s a sensible and in no way disrespectful notion, shared by many Christian scholars. In fact, associating the birth of Jesus with much older mid-winter rites brings existing cultural richness to the event because it ties the birth of the Christian savior to much, much older rites.
In this sense, the date is symbolic, and it’s symbols in plants that is on my mind this Christmas Eve.
A botanical profusion
The Bible spans thousands of years of human history and so reasonably includes frequent mention of plants — more than 140, some say. Many of these are directly, or indirectly, associated with Jesus. The fig tree, for example, is the heart of a very powerful teaching, and linen (from flax) is said to have wrapped Jesus’ body.
Look more closely at one plant associated with Jesus, the ubiquitous Passion Vine (Passiflora spp.). The dark inner markings are said to recall Jesus’ cross. The cross, of course, represents Christ’s passion; this singular meaning of the word is emblematic in itself, really.
And the name of the vine? In German, it is Christus-krone, among others; in Spanish, Espina de Cristo. Further, the circles around the inner cross are variously interpreted, relating mostly to the circular nature of life; and the outward-radiating ‘spokes’ indicate hope, or they may represent the whips used on Jesus.
There is more here:
n Ten petals represent ten faithful apostles.
n Three stigmas recall three nails; five anthers are related to the five wounds in Jesus’ body.
n Blue and white colors represent purity, and heaven.
While some symbolic associations require an English major for explication, some are very direct. Jesus spoke of Lilies of the Field, for example. Grapes are an important part of the story; recall that Jesus’ first miracle was multiplying grapes and bread at the request of Mary. Gardeners relate to the story of the farmer sowing wheat but finding some weeds in his fields. And, famously, the “Crown of Thorns” was so called because this thorny plant, not reliably identified, was used to fashion a “crown” which was placed on Jesus’ head.
Other plants have fascinating Biblical references, too. The mustard seed, mentioned by Luke and Matthew, is used by Jesus as emblematic of heaven: a very small seed, properly nourished, becomes Heaven itself. And the dogwood? This tree, not the New World species, is of small stature as penance for having been used to fashion the cross.
What is the deal with these symbols? We use symbols in at least two senses, I think. You are seeing the least complicated case now because you are reading symbols. These marks on a page — text — obviate the need to shout from room to room; everyone understands what the letters and words really mean. More profoundly, these same symbols are time machines, allowing communication from millennium to millennium. And when you read the word “millennium,” you understand it to mean 1,000 years, yes, but really it means a very long stretch of time, adding definition to the symbol and to the discussion.
And that is the second sense of the word: a symbol is more than an objective stand-in. There is a subjective sense, too, one that enriches by reaching into our shared cultural heritage. The Christian cross is a genuinely simple thing made from two pieces of wood, particularly arranged. What’s so special about this arrangement? Nothing, really, if you live on Mars. But if you live on Earth, you know that this figure is something else.
Another example: each year, one hears the lament that the “spirit of Christmas” lasts but a few short weeks. This phrase is packed with cultural reference. It is a very simple way to say something very complicated.
The sophistication of a circle
In this sense, symbology is a simple cipher. There is much more to this notion of symbols, however, in cases where experiential congruence is less obvious. A circle of any size may represent any other circle. What do we have when our circle represents something more? The circle of birth, life, and death, for example? Here is the power of symbols. More than a simple stand in, a symbol becomes a multiplier, adding richness and texture. How?
By dipping into our broader life experience. What does the “circle of life” mean to you? Surely the meaning has a universal aspect, portions of which are universally understood. These are the foundations of the symbol that allow all of us to approach the idea with at least some basic semblance of shared social knowledge.
Whatever your faith, we can all thank our Christian brothers for the spirit of familiarity and goodwill the season fosters. I thank all of my readers, of every faith and of no faith, and wish you all a happy holiday season.
Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture for 27 years and is president of MSA Design, Inc. Web site: www.msadesign.com