The Amazing Traditions of Giving Flowers
By: J. Marlando
A Brief History
On most days my wife always has a couple of vases filled with flowers around the house. Why? She says that flowers cheer up the gloomiest day and you know… they do! Like most men I would not think of “cheering up the house” with flowers but I certainly appreciate them when I discover them displayed in the house. The truth is, I only think of flowers on special occasions like on Mother’s day or…when I’ve forgotten a birthday or anniversary and have to invent a quick fix gift. Do not take me wrong—I love flowers! I think they’re beautiful in vases, in bouquets and in the garden.
My love for flowers, like yours, probably goes back to prehistoric times when flowers were thought to contain spirits. In fact, even into resent history indigenous peoples believed this and there are still those who do to this day. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem to at least some readers. There are a number of modern physicists that offer that all plants (all living things) have an inner-consciousness. And indeed, long before this thought was even uttered by physicists, which is still scoffed at by a great many scholars and other scientists today, my grandmother, a back-hills Kentucky woman taught me this very thing when I was a child growing up. She did not use the word consciousness but she would say that flowers and all other plants had spirits in them and she spoke to them often telling them that she loved them. I would later learn that the world renowned horticulturist, Luther Burbank, talked to his plants as well.
Ancient peoples believed that all flowers were connected to the spiritual and that nearly all flowers had healing properties.
Both Indian and Egyptian mythology gives the lotus flower sacredness and traces its origins back to creation itself. The beautiful blue lotus of Egypt is in the water Lilly family. Most commonly the flower symbolizes peace, tranquility, transcendence and enlightenment and because of its unusual flowering habits it tells the story, of rebirth. (We have water lilies growing inches above the water in our pond, sturdy, straight and strong; to the believer this points to the path of spirituality).
Mythology surrounds flowers. For the most commonly known is the story of Narcissus. He was the one that was so in love with himself that he couldn’t stop gazing in the water at his own reflection. The gods turned him into the narcissus flower which by the way, always looks down as if gazing at themselves in water. This, incidentally, is a Roman version of a more ancient Greek myth.
Staying with Roman mythology for a moment Flora was the Roman goddess of all flowers and still means “all plant life” in our modern language.
For the Greeks there was also Iris and Adonis. Iris was the goddess of the Rainbow and in fact, her name means “rainbow,” As for Adonis, the myth tells us that the droplets of blood from his fatal wounds turned into the (blood) red Adonis flower. And, while we are still in ancient Greece, the violet was deemed the sacred flower of the god Ares. Flowers, in all ancient societies, ended up on the altars for the gods and it is probably safe to assume that this tradition, in one form or another, perhaps goes back even into the earliest rituals of our Cro-Magnon ancestors.
Traveling further into history, the lily, symbolizing chastity, is symbolic of Mary, called Mother of God in many traditions. The rose has become an international symbol of love. Indeed, a gift of roses usually signifies love, as lilies beauty and/or purity. A single marigold typically represents sadness or sorrow. During the 1700s giving flowers with meaning was in fashion—the gardenia was typically given by a would-be lover; a way of saying I am attracted to you. A gift of violets meant, “I love you too.” There was virtually flower symbolism for every occasion way back when and we’ll be talking a little more about this later. For now, what I believe to be the most touching and dramatic meaning of flowers arrive from the Celts: They taught that the spirits of children that died in childbirth scattered daisy seeds over the earth to cheer up their sorrowful parents.
Today, the gift of flowers still represents our feelings and sentiments. And, even in our ultra modern times, a bouquet of flowers remains the most romantic gift there is. Flowers simply have a way of saying…I care about you and I love you.
Special Flower Giving Occasions
Especially back in the old Victorian days flowers were given specific meaning for gift giving. For example, Gladiolas meant that you had a crush on someone. Geranium stood for innocents. Pansies meant affection and Hyacinths forgiveness. Today giving a bouquet of flowers can mean anything from “sorry I’m late” to “It’s good to see you.” It depends on the occasion: births to funerals, helloes to goodbyes, first dates to weddings. Roses remain the most romantic flower to give, however, and nearly everyone attaches “love” to their meaning.
There are three major holidays when flowers are specifically given Easter being prominent among them.
Easter is primarily a Christian celebration but some historians trace its roots back to a feast day celebrating Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility. Another mythology is that lilies were found in the Garden of Gethsemane growing where Jesus’s drops of sweat fell as he endured his agony and prayed.
Today it is the Easter lily that is deemed the official flower for the season. I say season because the observance actually begins with “Lent” the 40 days period leading to Easter Sunday. The 40 days represents the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness before starting his ministry. The mythology also offers that Jesus fought a great many temptations from the Devil during the Lent period. The 50-day period following Easter includes a celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. With this in mind, white Easter lilies are also called the “white-robed apostles of hope.” This name refers to the resurrection making Easter the Christian religions most important holiday.
The Easter lily is comparably new to the Easter celebration, however. It dates back only to the 1800s when Easter was first rooting itself in the American culture after the Civil War.
Valentine’s Day is a time for gift giving of candy and flowers in our times but it wasn’t always about romance. The holiday is actually traced back to ancient Rome in a celebration honoring the She-wolf said to have raised Romulus and Remus. Romulus is said to have founded Rome after murdering his brother in a rage. The cave where Romulus and Remus was suckled by the She-wolf was named Lupercal thus making the celebration in honor of the fertility god Lupercus.
The Pagan celebration was rejected by the early Christians, however and so they renamed the holiday Valentine’s Day after the martyred St. Valentine. It is said that the Roman Emperor Claudius II made marriage illegal for young men because he believed that single men made better, stronger and fiercer soldiers. St. Valentine, the Catholic Priest, did not abide by the prohibition and married young men against the emperor’s order. As a result of his rebellion, he was executed.
What if this myth is based on truth or not we cannot be sure but it wasn’t until centuries later in any case when Valentine’s Day became a festival of romantic love. It was in 1381 when Goffery Chaucer, known as the father of English Poetry, wrote a poem acknowledging the first anniversary of the engagement of England’s King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. He poetically related the event to the mating of birds and also to the Christian feast of St. Valentine’s Day. From that time forward Valentine’s Day has been about romantic love.
The romantic holiday has not remained a Western even, however. It has spread into Asian cultures as well. Chinese Valentine’s Day is when young women show off their domestic skills and make wishes for (good) husbands. In Japan, Valentine’s Day resembles our own only it is the female who gives gifts to the males. And yes, Valentine flowers are often included.
Here in the U.S., the holiday has evolved into the year’s most important romantic holiday with candy and flowers as favorite gifts for wives, girlfriends and other lady friends. Recent promotion has suggested that women should gift their boyfriends and husbands with flowers too but this, I believe, is more commercial hype than anything else as few males appreciate flowers in the same way as women do.
The next flower-giving holiday is Mother’s Day.
Actually, the roots of Mother’s Day take us back to 17th century England. The event back then was called “Mothering Sunday” and was the 4th Sunday of Lent. This Special Sunday was when children who were away from home either learning a trade or working were permitted to visit their family. This gathering eventuated into making the mother the center of attention and she would be given cakes or bouquets of wildflowers.
In the United States the English version of the Holiday never caught on but in 1872 Julia Ward Howe, (the lyricist who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic) actually wanting to celebrate the post-war peace with the idea for an International Mother’s Day—pictured here she made the appeal to women to unite for world peace. She was convinced that women had the responsibility to shape their societies at the political level. The Mother’s Day tradition as we know it today did not actually begin until 1905 when Anna Jarvis……….called for a national holiday in celebrating her own mother who had founded Mother Day’s Work Clubs in five U.S. cities to improve sanitary and health conditions—these “mothers” also treated the wounds, fed and even clothed Union and Confederate soldiers without prejudice. The idea of Mother’s Day caught on and soon enough evolved into to being the Holiday for Moms as we celebrate it today.
Flowers are the most popular gift to give Mom on Mother’s Day.
There are all kinds of traditions when it comes to flowers as special gifts. For only two additional examples, the most common gift for teachers in China is flowers. Most popular flowers there are peonies! In Russia, hyacinths are popular for celebrating Woman’s Day but tulips are much favored.
There are numbers of regional and cultural variations in flower giving patterns worldwide. For example, when my wife and I lived in Mexico a woman did us a favor and I decided to give her a bouquet of flowers as a showing of my appreciation. I told a friend of mine—a local there—what my intentions were and asked where I might find a florist. He said, “Oh no, Senor, you cannot give her flowers. To give her flowers you must be her boyfriend or husband and she is a married woman, you know.” And so, traditions change with places even in the giving of flowers. Yet, flowers remain the most popular gift on the face of the planet.