Skip to content

The Christmas Rose

December 8, 2008


According to legend, when the Magi brought their extravagant offerings of myrrh, frankincense, and gold and presented them to the Christ Child, a peasant girl stood outside the door quietly weeping.

She had sought the Christ Child. She, too, desired to bring him a gift. But she had nothing to offer, because she was very poor. She had searched the countryside over for one small flower to bring Him. The winter had been cold. She could find not even a single bloom to offer as a gift.

As she stood there crying, an angel passing saw her sorrow. Stooping down, he brushed aside the snow at her feet. And there sprang up a cluster of beautiful winter roses, waxen white with pink tipped petals.

“Neither myrrh, nor frankincense, nor gold,” said the angel, “is more fitting for the Christ Child than these pure Christmas roses.”

Joyfully the girl gathered the flowers and made her offering to the Holy Child.

Flowers at Christmas are not so unusual here in the Upstate. Even now, there are camellia blossoms and a few David Austin roses blooming in my garden. On our front porch, red geraniums are still offering a display suitable for the Advent season.

The Christmas cactus, also known as orchid cactus, is an easily grown favorite of the holidays. The pendulous stems of the Christmas cactus make a dramatic display. In our home we have several grouped together. Most of our plants were cultivated from a single plant given to us eight years ago following the death of our son Erik. For us, the Christmas cactus is an enduring symbol of hope.

The Christmas rose, also known as the snow rose or winter rose, blooms during the winter in the mountains of central Europe. Most horticultrists agree that the true Christmas rose is helleborus.  It is called the Christmas rose more for its rose-like flowers than for the reliability of seeing it bloom at Christmas time. A low-growing vigorous evergreen, it can bloom anytime from December to April, depending on conditions. The prolific flowers are usually white, with green-tinged centers that age to pink. In the Upstate, helleborus  is more commonly know as the Lenten rose because it it usually blooms after the first of the year.

The very first Christmas gift we received this year was a magnificent red poinsettia. The poinsettia is sometimes called the Christmas star or the winter rose. It is a subtropical plant that is native to Mexico and Central America.

The ancient Aztecs prized the poinsettia as a symbol of purity.  Mexico’s early Christians adopted poinsettias as Christmas flowers. In both Central and North America the plant is used as a Christmas decoration.

The poinsettia has a South Carolina connection. The plant made its debut in the United States due to the efforts of a South Carolina statesman. Born in 1779 in Charleston, the son of a French physician, Joel Roberts Poinsett studied medicine and law in Connecticut and in Europe.

From 1821 to 1826, Joel Poinsett represented South Carolina in the United States Congress. He simultaneously served as a special envoy to Mexico and was appointed the first American Ambassador to Mexico in 1825. During this time he visited southern Mexico, discovering the plant later named for him.

The bright red poinsettia, like the one that graces our dinning room table, has sometimes been called a Christmas rose.

There are many variations from diverse cultures on the legend of the Christmas rose. A Mexican legend explains that a child who could not afford a gift for the Christ Child picked weeds along the roadsides. A priest told the child that a simple gift, given in love, was acceptable in God’s eyes. As the child brought the weeds into the church, they blossomed into red flowers; hence, the miracle of the poinsettia.

Whether flowers at Christmas are helliborus, poinsettias, Christmas cactus, or geraniums protected on the front porch, their beauty brings added joy to the season usually associated with snow and ice.

Flowers that appear at Christmas are sometimes quite surprising. Recently, even after several killing frosts, I saw a knockout rose covered with reddish pink blossoms. The plant thrives in a protected area next to a south-facing wall. Surely it could be regarded as a Christmas rose.

I thought of the words to an old fifteenth century Christmas carol originally written in German and translated into English. The lyrics suggests that the Christmas rose symbolizes, for Christians, the true meaning of the season.



Lo, how a rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!

Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.

It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,

When half spent was the night.


Last Sunday, a first-grader with a pink ribbon in her hair came to my office before Sunday school. She brought a jelly jar filled with a bouquet of pansies picked from her mother’s flowerbed.

“Dr. Kirk, I brought you a Christmas present!” she said excitedly.

I bent down on one knee to accept the glass container filled with bright-faced purple, yellow, and white pansies. She gave me a big hug and exclaimed “Merry Christmas!’

I put the makeshift vase on my desk.

After the worship service, I admired the gift. Those flowers plucked from the garden by those tiny hands looked for all the world like Christmas roses to me.

Kirk H. Neely

© December 2008











Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: