Oh, by gosh, by golly, it’s time for mistletoe and holly. The only trouble is that in Bermuda, thanks to no bleak midwinter, we don’t have much holly and, as far as I know, absolutely no mistletoe. Holly is an important part of British Christmas decorations because of its mediaeval Christian symbolism—the white blossom representing the Virgin Mary’s purity, the red berries Christ’s blood and the prickly leaves the crown of thorns. Never mind. Our mild winters allow us a host of other plant options, some of which have their own Christian legends and symbolism. One of Bermuda’s favourites is the poinsettia, native to Mexico and named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico. He brought some poinsettias back to his home in South Carolina, where he began growing the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.
How poinsettias are connected with Christmas is recounted in the following Mexican legend: Once upon a time, there was a very poor little girl called Pepita who wanted to go to Mass on Christmas Eve. But she had no present to give to the baby Jesus at the altar. Her cousin told her that the baby would be happy with the smallest gift because he knew she loved him. So she collected wild poinsettias from the roadside and brought them to the altar to put them on the nativity scene. Suddenly the bunch of weeds burst into bright red flowers and became known as “Flowers of the Holy Night.”
Actually, the flowers on a poinsettia are nondescript. It’s the bracts that are the point. Often a brilliant red, their colour symbolises the blood of Christ and their shape the Star of Bethlehem. Poinsettias made their way to Bermuda by the 1850s. Today, the wild miniature variety, known as Joseph’s Coat, is very much a part of our natural landscape. But truth to tell, I’m not very keen on the larger Euphorbia pulcherrima species. Beautiful the plant might look in its pot during the twelve days of Christmas, but thereafter it withers reproachfully at an excruciatingly slow rate so that I can’t in all conscience throw it out for weeks and weeks. Still, poinsettias do grow in gardens throughout Bermuda as my friend points out. And they bloom every year at the beginning of the festivities.
I have better luck with the Christmas cactus, which in Bermuda obligingly flowers in time for the season and which I manage to keep going from year to year. The secret is leaving it largely alone and keeping it outside for most of the year so that it has equal hours of light and dark. It also has a Christmas story connected with it. According to a Brazilian legend, a little boy living in the Amazon jungle asked God for a sign that Christmas would come. When he woke up on Christmas morning he discovered all the cacti hanging on the trees had flowered during the night.
There are other plants growing in Bermuda that are good for making Christmas arrangements and, in particular, wreaths. Rosemary, so prolific in Bermuda since at least 1687, adds green and fragrance but it too has a story. Legend has it that on the flight to Egypt, after Jesus was born, Mary needed to wash Jesus’ clothes and hang them on a plant or a tree to dry. The palm did not bend low enough for her to hang the clothes on the fronds, while the sugar cane branches were too flimsy so the clothes fell to the ground. Finally, she successfully hung them on a rosemary bush, blessing the plant as a reward and giving it flowers the colour of her blue robe. Pomegranates, in Bermuda since at least 1617, can also look beautiful on wreaths, as Ronnie Chameau well knows. She uses dried half pomegranates so that the orange red shine of the rind contrasts with the rich red of the seeds, said in one ancient Greek myth to have sprung from the blood of Adonis, and in another to symbolise our seasons. The seeds that Persephone ate while in Hades mean that every year she has to spend the same number of months in the underworld as the number of seeds she ate. While she is in the underworld, earth experiences winter because her mother Demeter is in mourning and refuses to give fertility to the earth.
However, for a Christmas vase arrangement, nothing can beat the blossoms of the red powder puff shrub. The buds look a little like holly berries until they burst into balls sprouting fluffy filaments of flame. The symbolism? I don’t know of any, but they look great at Christmas!