The Winter Flower

By Sharon Naylor

September 16, 2011 4 min read

In the depths of winter, with the ground covered by fresh-fallen snow, a certain type of rose is known to bloom. Known as the snow rose or winter rose, this white flower with pink-tipped petals blooms during a time when most other flowers and plants are gone from sight, and it is more than just a delightful surprise; it has its roots in Christmas legend.

The story of the Christmas rose endures through holiday folklore in many cultures, becoming a symbol of faith, love and devotion to Christ. Many know the story of the three wise men following the North Star, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The Christmas rose legend is that the three wise men, followed by a caravan of shepherds bearing modest gifts of fruits, honey and a dove, encountered a poor shepherdess girl named Madelon, who wept because she had no gifts to offer to the Christ child.

Madelon looked everywhere, but she couldn't find a single bloom in the snow-covered fields, nor any other natural item she could present as her gift. An angel floating above her saw the girl begin to weep in frustration after her great efforts to find something, anything, to give to the baby Jesus.

In her book "100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names," author Diana Wells recounts the legend's big moment: "Her tears fell in the snow, and a hovering angel landed and showed her the Christmas rose poking through the snow to use as her gift." Madelon looked down and saw the beautiful rose growing right at her feet, which she plucked to present to the baby Jesus. In legend, the Christmas rose became a sweet and simple offering, yet a symbol of deep Christian faith.

Now, in modern times, where winter roses or snow roses grow naturally -- in the U.S. as well as in central and northern Europe, among other locales -- a tradition is to pluck the Christmas rose and present it to an altar or Christ icon in church. In regions where the Christmas rose does not grow, the faithful may break off a branch of a cherry tree and place it in water in a warm room from the beginning of Advent until Christmastime, when it will often bloom.

Wells says: "The Christmas rose is certainly a miraculous plant. For one thing, its seeds are spread by, of all things, snails. They eat the oil covering the seed and carry the rest away in their slime. Certainly a different process than that of being born from tears, but slime and tears glitter equally on moonlit nights, and both are mysterious."

Legend experts say that the flower was supposed to have bloomed outside the stable, but scholars report that this flower is not native to the Holy Land. In ancient times, this flower, known by its scientific name as Helleborus (derived from the Greek word hellein (to kill) and bora (food)) was used as a natural remedy with dangerous side effects. Tales about the ancient Helleborus' medicinal effects include madness, illness and death when the rose was used to treat melancholy or worms in children.

Despite the dark stories of long-ago medicinal uses and their unfortunate results, the Christmas rose in bloom appears as quite the miracle. "The flowers are literally frozen solid," says Wells. "And yet, when the ice falls away, the petals are soft and fresh as spring blossoms. There is surely a scientific explanation for this, but some just marvel at it anyway."

If you'd like your Christmas floral d?cor to hold deep symbolism of your faith and devotion, incorporate Christmas roses in your designs, and consider the pink-tipped white Christmas rose as your offering at Christmas church services.

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