Flowers often have symbolic meanings and associated customs. These can sometimes vary between countries and even regions within a country. The Chrysanthemum is just such a flower.
The golden yellow Chrysanthemum is an auspicious flower in Japan representing the imperial Japanese family. It also symbolises longevity, rejuvenation, nobility, autumn, harvest and goodwill. The white Chrysanthemum is frequently associated with death and chosen as a grave flower in many European countries, including Germany. It is therefore avoided as a gift. Yet, it can conjure up regional meanings of holiness and blessedness too. I first remember hearing about German Christmas customs at school from my German teacher who was from Southern Germany. Here, the white Chrysanthemum forms part of a Christmas tradition.
German Christmas Legend
The German tale begins on a snowy Christmas Eve in the home of a poor peasant family in the Black Forest. The family were eating a meagre supper when they heard a wailing sound outside. Initially, they dismissed it as the wind. When they opened the door to investigate, they found a beggar on their doorstep. They welcomed him inside and did their best to warm him up with blankets. They kindly shared their food with him, despite having so little for themselves.
Suddenly, the beggar threw off the blankets, revealing a man shining in white clothing with a halo above his head. He proclaimed that he was the Christkind (Christ Child) and left.
The next day, they saw two white Chrysanthemums where the beggar had stood. Remembering this legend, many Germans bring white Chrysanthemums into their homes on Christmas Eve. This symbolises that they are sheltering the Christ Child. Thus, the white Chrysanthemum is associated with birth rather than death in direct contrast to many other parts of the world.
The Christkind was the invention of Martin Luther during the 16th century Protestant Reformation. He wanted to distance the Protestant faith from the Catholic celebration of St Nicholas on 6th December. The aim was to focus Protestants on Jesus rather than a multitude of saints, while still keeping a celebration of Jesus’s birth. The bringer of gifts for children became the Christ Child instead.
All the various Christmas traditions have become muddled over time. The Christ Child became a female, angel-like figure with white robes, golden wings and a crown. St Nicholas lost his strong Catholic associations. Santa Claus or Father Christmas muddied the waters yet further.
St Barbara’s Branch
We probably all know that our Christmas tree tradition was brought to the UK from Germany by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. I heard about another German Advent tradition just recently: the Barbara Branch. St Barbara’s Day is celebrated on 4th December in Catholic regions of Germany. St Barbara met a particularly gruesome end. She was accused of heresy by her father, the pagan emperor Dioscorus, for converting to Christianity.
It is customary on St Barbara’s Day to cut a small branch or twig from a Cherry tree and place it in water inside the home. Sometimes other blossom trees like Apple, Forsythia, Plum or Lilac are chosen instead. The most authentic tradition uses Cherry. If lucky, the indoor warmth will encourage the cut stems to blossom on Christmas Day. This is seen as a good omen for the future.
References and Further Reading
- CGTN (2019): The chrysanthemum culture in Japan: beautiful, auspicious and royal. 10 September 2019.
- Christkindlesmarkt (?): A Symbol for Nuremberg: The Origin of the Christkind.
- Constanze (2014): Forget Santa: Meet the Christkind. German Language Blog. Transparent Language. 7 December 2014.
- Edelweiss (2015-20): Chrysantheme – Bedeutung der Blume. 1 August 2016.
- German Culture (2020): St Barbara’s Day
- Perry, Leonard (?): Legends of the Chrysanthemum. The Green Mountain Gardener. University of Vermont Extension. Department of Plant and Soil Science
- The German Way & More (2020): Barbarazweig and the St. Barbara Legend
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.
© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and BotanyKaren.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.