Christmas rose

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hellebore (hĕlˈəbôr), name usually for plants of the genus Helleborus of the family Ranunculaceae (buttercup family), Eurasian perennials with attractive palmately divided leaves and flowers of various colors. Hellebores are noted for their early blooming, particularly the black hellebore or Christmas rose (H. niger), with evergreen leaves and white or greenish blossoms that resemble wild roses. Hellebores and other species have been used medicinally but are highly toxic. Species of the genus Veratrum—which are also poisonous and medicinal and which yield an insecticide—are variously known as false, or American, hellebore and white hellebore; they are unrelated plants of the family Liliaceae (lily family). Hellebore is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Ranunculales, family Ranunculaceae.
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Christmas Rose

Black Hellebore, Snow Rose, Winter Rose

This five-petalled rose blooms around Christmas time and so acquired the popular names "Christmas rose," "winter rose," and "snow rose." Although at first glance the flowers appear to be white, the petals also carry a faint hint of pink. Botanists have identified the plant as a member of the buttercup family and have named it Helleborus niger. This Latin designation translates to "Black Hellebore," a name which refers to the plant's distinctive black roots. In the nineteenth century the Christmas rose was widely cultivated in England for sale during the Christmas season. This practice faded in the twentieth century. The French, however, still enjoy decorating their holiday tables with bouquets of Christmas roses. In Germany the rose continues to serve as a Christmas symbol.

The Legend of Madelon

The following folktale explains not only the origins of the Christmas rose, but also its association with the season. On a winter's night long ago a poor shepherd girl named Madelon beheld a strange procession approaching the field where she kept watch over her sheep. It was the Magi on their way to Bethlehem. Madelon gazed in awe at the rich gifts the Wise Men brought with them for the Christ child and began to cry with shame. "I cannot give even a single flower," she thought, "since the fields are covered with snow." Suddenly an angel appeared and asked the girl the reason for her tears. When Madelon explained, the angel gestured towards the road to Bethlehem. Beautiful white roses spilled across the path. Madelon gathered an armful of the gleaming flowers and joyfully followed the Magi. When she arrived at the manger Mary kindly bade her enter and offer her gift. As the fingers of the infant Jesus brushed against the petals, they took on the pink glow we still see today in the Christmas rose.

A Swedish Tale

A Swedish legend explains the origins of the Christmas rose in a different way. Once upon a time a beautiful garden flourished in the middle of the Göinge forest each Christmas Eve. Flowers sprang up from the ground, trees bore leaves and fruit, birds sang, and butterflies rippled through the air. One year a kindly abbot and a suspicious monk who had heard rumors about the Christmas paradise set out to find the place. After roaming through the cold, dark, barren forest they finally stumbled across the garden. Even after seeing it with his own eyes, the doubting monk still refused to believe in the miracle. Instead, he decided that it was an illusion created by the Devil. At that moment the magic garden vanished and never came back. Only the Christmas rose remained, to remind us of the miracle garden.

In another version of the story a poor family forced to live out in the middle of the woods discovered the Christmas garden. They enjoyed the miracle for many years before telling the abbot of its existence. When they led the abbot and his monk to the place, the monk's disbelief caused the garden to disappear forever. As it faded away the abbot clutched the flowers at his feet and managed to save a single bulb. The plant which grew from the bulb produced beautiful white flowers the following year at Christmas time. They called this reminder of the miracle garden the Christmas rose.

A French Legend

The French offer yet another tale explaining the origin of the Christmas rose. A long time ago a slow-witted young man named Nicaise lived in a village near the French town of Rouen. The parish priest, his guardian, assigned him the task of ringing the church bells. One Christmas Eve, after receiving a scolding from the priest for his foolishness, Nicaise climbed the bell tower to ring the bells for Midnight Mass. After completing his task, he fell asleep there. In his dream one of the gargoyles that decorated the rainspouts of the old stone church came to life. The gargoyle boasted that he was the Devil in disguise and began to flatter the lonely and rejected boy. The gargoyle told Nicaise that he liked him very much and offered to grant him three wishes. Nicaise happily accepted the Devil's offer, wishing for intelligence, wealth, and a beautiful wife. As an afterthought, he also asked for some flowers to decorate the church for Christmas, but the Devil angrily refused this last request. Then the Devil informed Nicaise that he must pay a price for the granting of the three wishes. "Exactly one year from now," the gargoyle leered, "I will return and take away your soul as payment. Your only hope of escaping this fate is to make flowers bloom in the winter snow."

In the year that followed Nicaise enjoyed being wealthy, smart, and married to a beautiful woman. But as Christmas drew near, he began to fear the return of the Devil. On Christmas Eve he confessed his fears to the priest, who was horrified at what Nicaise had done. The two knelt before the altar, fervently praying for divine help. As midnight approached, Nicaise prepared himself to climb the bell tower and ring the Midnight Mass bells one more time before being carried off by the gargoyle devil. At that moment a group of children burst through the church doors excited by what they had found outside - flowers growing in the snow. The Christ child had answered their prayers by sending the Christmas rose. (See also France, Christmas in.)

Further Reading

Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Hottes, Alfred Carl. 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies. 1946. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Lagerlöf, Selma. The Legend of the Christmas Rose. New York: Holiday House, 1990. Ross, Corinne Madden. Christmas in France. Chicago: World Book, 1988.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Christmas rose

an evergreen ranunculaceous plant, Helleborus niger, of S Europe and W Asia, with white or pinkish winter-blooming flowers
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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