When Heaven and Nature Sing

It is said that animals can speak on Christmas Eve, a power bestowed for just one night marking the miracle of Christ’s birth.    I feel as though animals communicate with me in their own silent way and frankly I think that no less a miracle. There are commonplace marvels you need to look for. I believe wholeheartedly in the miraculous nature of everyday things.

Natural metaphors have been used for centuries to inform the Christmas story, possibly because the enormity of the subject matter begs to be interpreted in universal yet simple terms. The most obvious natural element of course, is the presence of the brightly shining star over Bethlehem.

The manifestation of the star may be legend, or possibly is made up by Matthew in the New Testament.  However, some astronomers have hypothesized that the phenomenon was in fact a celestial event called a conjunction of planets.  Though rare (once every 800 or 900 years) there were three such conjunctions in 7 B.C.E. when Saturn and Jupiter appeared very closely together in the night sky.  The first time would have been in May of that year, theoretically when the three kings started their journey. Another such conjunction happened in late September, which would have coincided with the visit to King Herod.  The conjunction of planets then moved to the south (nearer Bethlehem) and was joined in orbit by Mars in December.  The bare bones of the Nativity story are supported at least by the stars.

The holly and the ivy are not just a Christmas song.  The lovely old carol refers to the holly as wearing “the crown”.  The prickly leaves of the holly represent the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion, the red berries are meant to be drops of blood.  Ivy must cling to something in order to grow, as we must to faith in God.  Dozens of other plants play a role in holiday folk tradition.  Pointsettias, Christmas cactus, mistletoe, Christmas fern and many others figure prominently in popular tradition.

Trees stand out in the panoply of Christmas stories.  Naturally, there is the Christmas tree, an evergreen whose perpetual living color symbolizes eternal life, which is perhaps today one of the most universal signs of the season.

The Yule log, the trunk of an entire tree, was meant to burn from end to end over the twelve days of Christmas. The log was placed with one end in the fireplace and the other sticking out into the room and was fed into the fireplace as needed.  Trees play such a big role in the holiday, and neither are birds left out. Cardinals and robins have long been associated with Christmas and the story of the robin’s role is particularly sweet.  It tells how the bird stayed near Jesus as he slept in the manger, keeping him warm by beating his wings beside a small fire and singeing his breast by proximity to the flame.

Stories with centuries behind them are rooted in something powerful.  They are an attempt to explain that which cannot be explained.  They go where current science (or any science at all) can take us.   It is no surprise that holidays like Hannukah and Christmas occur so closely together and are animated by our necessity for warmth and light.  These are the longest, darkest days of the year.  The best way to withstand them is to gather together in demonstrations of faith and celebrations of light. The winter solstice (the darkest day, literally, with the fewest hours of daylight) occurred this year on December 21, just four days before Christmas and less than a week from the final night of Hanukkah.  It’s all downhill from here, each new day lengthening with ever greater radiance. Sustain yourself and those you love with incandescence of whatever form you find illuminating.

Warm Wishes from us here at Hill-Stead.

See you on the trails in 2010,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

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