The Christmas story is filled with familiar scenes and characters, a harsh innkeeper, a stable, shepherds, wise men, angels and friendly animals keeping watch over a Babe in the manger. And, of course, the parents of that Babe. It is easy for me to imagine that those parents would have been even more anxious than any new parents. What did those angelic visitations and dreams really mean?
Poor Joseph doesn’t play a big part in the telling of the Christmas story, but Mary, the Virgin Mother has inspired artists, poets and story tellers down the centuries. She has even inspired gardeners who have looked in the faces of dozens of flowers and seen her purity, her history, and her attributes reflected there.
During the Middle Ages a tradition began of growing a garden dedicated to Mary. This Mary Garden included all the flowers that myth and legend assigned to her, beginning with the violet which sprang up outside the window after the Annunciation. As the Angel flew off he saw the new little flowers and blessed them with a sweet fragrance.
In a way, all flowers belong to Mary. May is her month, not because it can be considered a diminutive of her name, but because in May the gardens and fields all burst into glorious bloom.
Still, some flowers like the lily, have been associated with Mary for centuries. Medieval artists often portrayed her with a lily, “white without, and gold within”. The rose is also a flower dedicated to Mary.
There are other white flowers that reflect Mary’s purity: the humble snowdrop that blooms in the early spring, the white rose and the daisy. Lilies of the valley have been called Our Lady’s tears because they sprang up as Mary wept by the cross.
Some flowers reflect Mary’s life in the home. The tall verbascum with its yellow flowers has been called Mary’s candle, and foxgloves have been known as Mary’s thimbles.
Strewing herbs, tansy, thyme and spearmint, spread on the floor in medieval times to sweeten the air (and discourage insects) were also reflections of her sweetness.
Tulips are planted in Mary gardens, a symbol of her soul opening up to God’s grace. The strawberry which produces delicate white flowers and fruits at the same time is a symbol of her virgin maternity.
When the Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape Herod, they stopped along the way to rest, and to allow Mary to do some washing up of the Christ Child’s clothes. She spread them to dry on the rosemary bush growing nearby, and ever after, for this help to the new mother, it bore flowers as blue as Mary’s robe.
The pine tree also helped the Family on their flight. One night an ancient pine invited them to shelter in its trunk. In the morning, when Herod’s soldiers were passing, the pine drew its branches around the three protecting them until it was safe for them to be on their way. In token of this help, the Christ Child blessed the tree and I have been told that if you break a pine cone you will find the Child’s handprint in the center.
Mary is sometimes depicted “Clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars”, like the Woman in the Book of Revelation. Because of this passage, a Mary garden should include marigolds for the sun, lunaria or moonflowers for the moon, corn flowers for her crown and daffodils for the stars.
Legends about plants that we all have in our gardens are charming. But I think these legends must also have been tools for teaching about faith in a time when most people were not literate, when children learned the domestic arts including gardening at their mother’s knee, and when there was time for storytelling as families worked together.
Some churches have planted Mary Gardens on their grounds, and some people have included a space for a private Mary Garden in their gardens. In both cases the garden, with its carefully chosen plants, serves as reminder of the Holy Mother and her virtues and compassion, and as an aid to meditation.
Advent is a meditative season, a time to prepare for the arrival of poor Child. Perhaps, after the difficulties of the year with more to look forward to, we are all more aware of this than usual. Perhaps in our meditations we will find compassion, and hope.
December 6, 2008