Epiphany and Carnations
So that’s it, then. Christmas is past, the New Year has begun and it’s back ‘tae auld claes an’ parritch’ as used to be said in the days of my youth. I do hope that you have taken down all the decorations … or decided not to take them down at all … for Christmas decorations left in place after Twelfth Night will bring bad luck on the house unless you plan to leave them up for the entire year.
Twelfth Night is, of course, the night before the twelfth day or the evening of the fifth of January. Traditionally, Twelfth Night is the final day of Christmas merrymaking, the day when our ancestors took down the greenery used to decorate their humble homes … mainly holly and ivy … which had served a dual purpose during the darkest days of winter, for the greenery in the house had provided a warm and secure haven for the tree-spirits. With the onset of longer days, the tree-spirits needed to be returned to the wild to get on with their essential work of encouraging the vegetation to grow if there was to be a satisfactory harvest.
There was also thought to be a real chance that, although the tree-spirits were grateful to have been spared the chill of the last days of December and the first days of January, they would resent being detained longer and would start to wreak mischief in the erstwhile happy home.
And I assume that you did not include the three magi … be they wise men, astrologers or kings … in your Christmas tableaux, for they are the symbols of Epiphany and should not have put in an appearance before 6 January, to stay in place until Three Kings’ Day, which is Candlemas or 2 February. Well, not to worry; the old tradition of Epiphany is fading from the public memory and I don’t know of any misfortune that will befall you if you got this wrong.
The public memory has also forgotten that the flower particularly associated with Epiphany if the Carnation … Dianthus caryophyllus … the word dianthus coming from the Greek words dios’ and anthos, meaning ‘divine flower’, while caryophyllus means ‘smelling of walnut leaves’. The Greek botanist Theophrastus, probably the first man to attempt to classify plants into categories according to their form and structure, is generally credited with having accorded the carnation this remarkable accolade. According to a German legend, carnations bloomed at Christ’s Nativity, but they have been connected for centuries with love, fascination and distinction, with the colour of the blooms adding variations to this general theme. Light red carnations are said to represent admiration; dark red blooms stand for deep love and affection; white carnations symbolise love and good luck; and purple flowers indicate fickleness. Curiously, while carnations are associated with weddings and happy celebrations, our French neighbours regard carnations as signs of misfortune and bad luck; and they are associated in France with funerals and are often given to the bereaved in condolence for the death of a loved one.
There is an old Christian legend … which is contrary to known historical fact … that carnations were seen for the very first time as Jesus carried his cross to the place chosen by the Romans for his execution at Calvary. According to this legend, pink carnations sprang up from the ground at his mother Mary’s feet, where her tears fell as she watched her son’s agonising death. From this unfounded story has sprung the association between pink carnations and undying maternal love. However fanciful that story, the English herbalist John Gerard, who lived from 1545 to 1611, had good news for all carnation-lovers when he wrote, “He that doth looke upon beautiful things cannot have his minde not faire.” Now that I like!
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society