On a December afternoon I watched one-year-old grandson Ronan-the-Barbarian crawl around the Christmas tree. He would stop, reach out his arm and dip his fist into the water in the tree stand. And then he would bless himself, tap, tap, tap in his baby way. At his eye level, it was not unlike a holy water font his father had helped him dip his little hand into many times. That yielded a revelation: he was seeing his evergreen world under the Christmas tree lights as sacramental. He was familiar as much as an infant could be with the rites of Mystery, and could in turn look to his very narrow world and associate special things with Holy Rites. Not that he could call it ‘holy’ or ‘sacramental’; but he could use it as holy and as sacramental. He could acquire the habit before the concept. The association doesn’t take too much brain power. It is beautifully natural.
When you look up a symbol of a Christian feast day the description often starts like this: in pagan days, it was originally thought that this holly, this star, this tree, this animal, this sun, this moon, this day possessed certain magical powers because of some significant attribute or cosmological disposition. I tend not to think that myself, that is, I tend to think the pagan mind originally made associations with nature the same playful way that our minds do, and perhaps did more easily in childhood. In time perhaps the pagans attributed magical powers to things, but is not the sun life-giving? Do not the stars rule the heavens with magisterial regularity? I tend to think the pagans we are always referring to just plain liked seeing the poetry in nature and its relevance to their lives and communities. I wonder if the dismissive emphasis on primitive religions is more a reflection of the Enlightenment’s inability to grasp transcendence of any sort.
That is a big topic to investigate. My smaller point is that the world over, all cultures, especially those close to the earth, have their symbols from nature that speak of higher things. Perhaps in times past, the collective imagination endowed them with magical powers, but even when the magic association no longer persists, the symbols and harbingers stir the national consciousness and memory.
The Christmas Symbol Of Holly
Holly is one of those Christmas symbols that is traced back to the Druids, and still speaks to the British today. (I believe the Druids get more respect these days than do the Christians. There are some notions of them being more indigenous than were their sisters and brothers who became Christian. Same bloodlines, but better P.R.) The Druids used holly in fertility rites. Under the Christian dispensation, holly easily lends itself as metaphor for the innocent and suffering Christ, source of eternal life. One of my favorite English carols encapsulates the lesson: the holly bears a berry, sweet as any flower and red as blood; it bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn; the holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall. The song suggests Aaron’s bud, Christ’s blood, the crown of thorns, the bitter gall. And bearing the crown “of all the trees that are in the wood,” the holly suggests the Kingship of Christ over all men. Among Christians, the holly becomes a sort of sacramental, for it points to Christ and makes us mindful of His life. By association, the holly becomes notionally holy, but not truly. It does not impart a blessing. (I say ‘sacramental,’ but not in the truest sense.)
The Christmas Symbol Of The Plum Tree
China has a most enchanting symbol of new life and perseverance during strife. That is the plum blossom. The plum tree blooms in winter. The branches of the plum tree are not luxurious with blossoms; rather they are striking for their elegance and humble display, even under a layer of snow. The whole aspect of the plum tree suggests inward qualities of grace perduring through times of struggle. In late winter, the pendulous branches of a plum tree are swaddled in strength and purity and the promise of new life, despite adversity.
If I were in charge of designating Christmas symbols to reach the Chinese heart, I would select the plum tree, for it bears its blossoms humbly on a still, dark winter’s night. It makes us mindful of the pure Child –Aaron’s bud, Judah’s rose.
Anything that points to Jesus, the wondrous babe lying in a manger, is a type of sacramental. Even so the lowly water in a Christmas tree stand.
Learn more about the fascinating irony of our most cherished Christmas objects, both sacred and secular, produced by the artists and craftsmen of Communist China in Christmas Blossoms. In their imaginations, in the depth of their hearts, what do these artisans think of the mangers, the shepherds, Santa Claus, and Mother Mary? Of the star, the bells, the holly, and the Wise Men? Most significantly, what do they make of the Holy Child Who exists at the heart of the West? A story for young and old, parents and children alike, this beautifully illustrated novella captures how the Christmas spirit endures and stirs hearts despite the antagonistic forces of commercialism and oppression—and it will touch your heart as well.
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