From The Church Treasury of History, Custom, Folk-Lore, etc., edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1898; pp. 227-240.




Flowers and the Rites of the Church.


THE sources of great rivers are often lost in the mists of far off mountains. It is thus with many popular usages. We may reasonably suppose that in the earliest and most distant ages man was wont to propitiate the object of his fear or worship by offering such things as were most pleasing to his own senses. Was he fond of flesh, the gods would share his tastes. Did he love fruit, so would they. Were fresh and fragrant flowers pleasing to his eye and sense, then the deity would find a similar pleasure in their use. Hence we find that in heathen lands the ceremonial use of flowers is practically universal. We also find flowers associated with present-day Buddhism, just as they were with the old time religions of Assyrian and Egypt. The lotus was formerly, as it is even now, constantly associated in the East with religious rites, and anyone who is familiar with the temples of India and China, Burmah and Japan will recall the fact that the 227 lotus-pool is one of their most frequent and indispensable adjuncts. And just as the lily and pomegranate found their way into the temple service and had their expressive symbolism, so in the Western church, represented by the Greek and Russian, Roman and English branches, numerous flowers have at different times been utilized.

It has been thought that after the Reformation and the Dissolution of monasteries, when the spirit of puritanism, and the reaction against excessive ritual prevailed, the ceremonial use of flowers fell into decay. Our records, however, rather tend to show that there was a revival of old-time usage in this respect during and after the time of Elizabeth. This is easily accounted for. The ritual of the church had firmly grasped the national sentiment. It had led to the multiplication of altars and vestments, of lights and ornaments, of symbols and ceremonies. The churches were rich in marketable goods. The plate, relics, and vestments, were of costly material, the gifts of the wealthy and the loyal, or of those who wished to expiate wrong; and an impecunious exchequer could easily be enriched by the wholesale appropriation of such things under the pretence that 229 they fostered superstition and idolatry. When, therefore, candles were forbidden, altars were cast down, chalice and pyx were confiscated, and gorgeous vestments were declared needless, a sense of baldness and coldness pervaded the sanctuary, and the heart yearned for some expression of emotion. Hence it is that we now find entries in the old account books for the purchase of flowers in the place of entries for candles and wax.

Thus, to give at present one example only; whereas the Churchwardens’ Accounts for the Parish of St. Petrock, Exeter, up till the time of Elizabeth contain numberless entries relating to font tapers, candles called “Judas Candells,” chrismatories, pyxes and holy water vessels, after that date we find instead entries “for bayes and flowres in the church,” and “for roasemary and bays to be put aboute the church.” From that time the usage has steadily grown, until it has come to be regarded, by conformist and nonconformist alike, as almost a necessity that at certain seasons of the year flowers should be employed.

I shall briefly sum up the uses of flowers in churches by reference to the occasions and manner 230 of their use, and the kinds of flowers most in request, with the reasons for their selection.

The principal occasions upon which flowers have been employed in the church are three: — (1) the great church Festivals: Christmastide, Easter, and Whitsuntide; (2) the Dedication day, when special services were held in honour of the saint to whom the church owed its name; (3) other notable days, including May-day, Palm Sunday, Corpus Christi Day, St. Barnaby’s Day, Trinity Sunday, the Day of St. John the Baptist, and others. That Christmastide should be a season of special rejoicing and consequent ritual cannot be a matter of surprise. Old books relating to church usages abound with proof that the season was one of unusual festivity, and while the home was enlivened with everything in the way of floral decoration which the season afforded, the church shared in the adornment. The account books of St. Mary-at-Hill, London, shew that, in 1486, fourpence was expended on “Holme and ivy at Christmas Eve.” Holme was the old name for holly, from the Anglo-Saxon holen, but we must not suppose that the holly bush was so named because it was a holy plant. The churchwardens of St. Lawrence, Reading, in 1505, paid twopence “for the holy 231 Bush agayne Christmas,” and similar disbursements are on record for many other churches. The practice of adorning the church with garlands and flowers was not, however, confined to Christmas. St. Martin, Outwick, supplies us with an entry to the effect that there was paid in 1524 “for brome agaynst Ester, 1d.” The amount seems small, but its value was greater than now. St. Mary’s Church, also in London, was more lavish. In one year the churchwardens paid, about this period, the sum of 3s. for three great garlands made of roses and lavender for the crosses, and three dozen other garlands for the choir, for the Easter decorations.

A black and white photograph, by Rev. Hilderic Friend, of a font decorated with flowers, for Easter, Bolton, Cumberland.

(From a photo. by Rev. hilderic Friend).


Whitsuntide was also one of the seasons of special rejoicing. The stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) has sometimes been spoken of as the special flower of this season, and its local names in different parts of the country seem to indicate as much. I have reason, however, to believe that it is rather to be associated with White Sunday — the day on which the candidates (those who were adorned with white raiment, symbolic of purity) were required to appear in church. We may remind our readers that a brief account of the day may be found, with much other useful information bearing on this theme, in Brand’s Popular Antiquities. Numerous entries are found in old records relating to garlands at Whitsuntide, while in more than one county benefactors left a plot of ground that the grass might be mown for strewing the church at this season of the year. The custom of strewing rushes has been frequently alluded to, but does not come within the scope of my present essay.

The custom of decorating the church on dedication day is well established. As each church has its own patron saint or saints it will readily be seen that there is scarcely a day in the year when some sanctuary or other is not made bright with floral 233 garniture. Such events, however, are of purely local interest. We may therefore pass by this to notice a few of the other events on which the use of flowers was required. On Palm Sunday the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is celebrated, and since the palm is not an English tree other plants have been pressed into service. A dictionary of plant names will show that many other shrubs besides the willow are locally known as palms. The willow, however, from its general prevalence, as well as from the fact that its catkins are usually in their prime about this season, “bears the palm.” In 1536 we find it recommended, among other things, that “vestments for God’s service, holy water, candles on Candlemas Day, palms on Palm Sunday, and other laudable customs” be continued in the church. In 1548 we read that “the ceremony of bearing palmes on Palme Sunday was left off, and not used as before.” The people, however, were loth to give up their old usage, and between 1639 and 1640 enquiry was to be made by authority whether there be any superstitious use of crosses, palms, or other memories of idolaters. In some Roman Catholic countries it is still customary to employ sprigs of boxwood for palms on this occasion. It was so formerly in England, 234 while yew, myrtle, and olive have also here and elsewhere found place. At the beginning of the sixteenth century we find several churches, including All Hallows, Staining, and St. Martin, Outwich, London, entering accounts for “palme and box flowers” or “flowers and yow”; also “Item for box and palme on Palme Sunday; Item for gennepore (juniper) for the church, 2d.”

On St. John the Baptist’s Day, many floral rites were observed. The sun was now at its zenith of splendour, and John was “a burning and shining light.” St. John’s wort is still the popular name for one genus of plants (Hypericum) which blossom at this season, and have a truly solar appearance. Then there was Corpus Christi Day — a festival widely observed. Thereon the churches were nicely decorated; flags were brought forth, torches were garnished with flowers, and garlands were lavishly employed. It must have cost some of our churches a large sum annually in the days when flowers were regularly purchased for these and similar uses. To-day the tendency is for loving hands to render voluntary service, while in some sanctuaries a special box is placed near the main entrance, clearly described as a receptacle for offerings to be used in the purchase of flowers for 235 regular use on the altar, or for periodical decoration. Among the many other occasions to which reference might be made, perhaps St. Barnaby’s Day is the most noteworthy. The reason is that June 11th, the day on which S. Barnabas is held in honour, represents that period of the year when the day is longest and the night is shortest: — 

“    .    .    .    .    Barnaby bright,
The longest day and shortest night.”

Hence we read of “Rose garlands and lavender for St. Barnabas, 1s. 6d.,” and “For rose garlandis and Woodrove garlandis on St. Barnebe’s Day, 11d.” Also “Item. For 2 doss. de bocse garlands for prestes and clerkes on St. Barnebe’s Daye, 1s. 10d.”

This latter entry suggests an enquiry into the modes of use. Flowers were lavishly and frequently employed, but in what manner were they disposed, or to what uses were they put? It would be utterly impossible in a single chapter to answer this question in detail. Naturally the altar has always claimed first attention. The accounts of the steward of the Corpus Christi Guild, Leicester, contain the following entry for the year 1525-6: — “Item for garnyshing off the awter, iiis. iiid.” This 236 custom of adorning the altar is now in some churches perpetual rather than occasional. The rood-loft was also decorated. We are told that “At Charlton-on-Otmoor, in Oxfordshire, there is a rood-loft of finely-carved oak, probably of the time of Henry the Seventh, upon which the original colour and gilding is yet to be seen. On this rood-loft it is the custom to place a garland, formed upon a large wooden cross, on May-day; which garland remains there until the following year, when it is renewed with fresh flowers and leaves, occupying the position of the ancient Holy Rood of former ages. It was formerly the custom to carry this cross in procession round the village before finally depositing it in its resting-place in the church.” I have already adduced evidence that the cross was garlanded at Easter with wreaths made of roses, lavender, and other sweet herbs. In the old-time church there were frequently numerous crosses of various sizes belonging to one edifice. Some of these stood on the altars which were also numerous; one or more occupied the rood-loft, while yet others were carried in procession. This will be clearly gathered from a brief inspection of the inventories of church goods, compiled in the time of Edward 237 VI., as well as from other official records. Then we have “garlands for the choir,” or quire, decorations for pews and pillars, wreaths for suspending from the walls, deckings for the torches, and, by no means least noteworthy, garlands for the priests. From Polydore Vergil and others we learn that formerly, not only was it customary to decorate the church with flowers, but the priest also performed the service, on certain high days, crowned with flowers. This was notably the case at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and more particularly on the feast-day of the patron saint. At St. Mary’s, in 1486, the sum of 1s. 10d. was paid for two dozen garlands of box for the priests and clerks on St. Barnabas’ Day, and frequent items are found in other accounts of a similar character. We shall recall the action of the priests of Lycaonia, who brought garlands and oxen with which to celebrate their worship.

It remains to say a word respecting the flowers employed or tabooed on these festive occasions. Individual preferences might go for something, the seasons of the year regulated many things, while religious and old-time associations did the rest. Some flowers have, by universal consent, 238 been regarded as peculiarly appropriate for ceremonial uses. The daffodil appearing just at the season of Lent, naturally lends itself to the church decorator. Holly and ivy must of necessity be in special request at Christmastide, the rose has always been regarded as seasonable, whenever it could be obtained, while the lily is universally typical of the Virgin. Lavender and bay are sweet and fragrant. St. John’s wort comes just at the season for celebrating the saint whose name it bears, the hellebore, or winter rose, is significant of, and dedicated to St. Agnes, and comes at a season when flowers are rare. Purity is well represented by the snowdrop, the passion-flower (though a modern introduction) has readily taken hold of English feeling and sentiment, the willow serves for Palm Sunday, while the innocent and beautiful blossoms of the primrose and woodruffe, the fragrant flowers of the violet, and the showy compound heads of the marigold, each present their own features of attractiveness. There are not many flowers which come amiss. A few are excluded on account of their disagreeable odour, and it is believed that the mistletoe has been generally tabooed on account of its heathen associations, though its name is frequently 239 introduced into the doggerel of the past two centuries as one of the plants employed in church decorations at Christmas.

A black and white photograph, by Rev. Hilderic Friend, of a Roman font decorated with flowers, for Easter, Cross Canonby, Cumberland.

(From a photo. by Rev. Hilderic Friend).

The ceremonial use of flowers has of recent years greatly revived. In village, town, and city the ancient or modern sanctuary may be seen at frequent intervals from New Year to Christmas brightened with blossoms or decorated with evergreens, 240 while in many cases the altar is daily adorned with fresh flowers whenever they can be obtained. At Easter especially, when the anemone and blue-bell, the primrose and violet are in profusion, font and altar, pillar and pew are frequently covered with a lavish profusion of flower and foliage, and last year as I went the round of a number of village churches in Lakeland I was able to take numerous photographs of fonts and chancels thus adorned. The two illustrations supplied herewith are samples of what may be seen.

It has well been said that of all customs, that of adorning the “Holy Place of the tabernacle of the most High” with flowers and wreaths at Christmas and other festivals of the Christian year, “speaks of the simple faith and fervent love of our ancestors, more strongly than any other,” at those times of the year when the beauties of nature prompted men to look up “From Nature unto Nature’s God,” and we trust the usage will long continue as a tribute of love and devotion.