Flower festivals, which have become a regular feature in the calendar of many churches, seem to me to be a relatively new institution, or possibly an ancient feature recently revived. I may be quite wrong about this, for I rely only upon a memory which grows more and more fallible by the hour.
In my church-going childhood there were many special services as the year progressed. Easter, Whitsuntide, Harvest, Christmas, anniversaries of both Church and Sunday School, are readily recalled, as are the occasional memorial and dedication services. There were parade services for scouts and guides, induction services for new ministers, and watch-night services at the close of the year, but I cannot recall attending a flower service until later adulthood.
Not that flowers were ever absent from the churches of my youth, any more than they are today. Apart from the always present altar display, flowers were found in profusion at most special services, decorating window ledges, adorning the platform for the Sunday School anniversary, splendid autumnal colours in abundance at harvest, and the whites, creams and yellows of narcissi and daffodils predominating at Easter.
But whether or not the flower festival is recent, old or revived, is immaterial, for the idea is a splendid one. A room, sacred or secular, decorated with flowers, is a delight to the eye, and a joy to behold. It reminds one of the rich variety of natural beauty within the world, and so is a focus of praise and thanksgiving to the creator. It brings within our homes, work-place or temple a vision of a garden or countryside without, and a fragrance that pleases other senses than merely the eye.
Almost as numerous as the variety of flowers themselves are the uses and symbolism of them. They are used decoratively as I have indicated, to bring colour into drab surroundings, to give a sense of freshness to what may seem mundane, to give life to inert man-made structures.. Entering a room, very often it is the vase or bowl of flowers which first catches the eye. The chamber in which flowers have a place is one where the people who live in it have warm personalities, or so we feel. Some-one cares about more than mundane affairs; there is a soul which regards beauty as at least as important as toil.
But flowers are also used as messengers. “Go lovely rose, tell her who wastes her self and me….” wrote the lover as he despatched the token to his sweetheart. No doubt, at a later date, he waited at the chancel as she walked up the aisle, attended by young bridesmaids whose tresses were adorned with flowers. Carrying a bouquet herself, she came to him as his bride.
Perhaps during later years he would present her with a bunch of flowers in apology for some misdemeanour, maybe to confirm a tiff had ended and harmony was restored. Friends visiting to look upon the new born child would bring a bouquet for the mother to show they shared her joy. Finally, at the end of her life, he or others would place blossoms on the coffin and flowers round the grave, the blooms replacing words which were too painful to articulate, feelings too deep to be expressed verbally.
So flowers are message senders. We use them to express our love, our regrets, our condolences, our thanks. We give them to others to show our friendship, or because we find them an acceptable present on birthdays or anniversaries. Our sympathy when someone is ill, or has been disappointed, or our congratulations on a success, are all equally marked by the offering of flowers. What retirement ceremony for an employee is complete until she has her arms filled with flowers.
Flowers are deposited by the wayside where tragedy has occurred by friend and stranger alike, who need to express their understanding and support, and realise words alone are inadequate.
To wear a flower in one’s button-hole, on the dress or in the hair, is to present a dashing figure. Ladies wear hats these days less frequently than was once the case, but when they do, flowers, even if artificial ones for practical reasons, frequently adorn them, particularly if the lady is young, or wishes to emphasise that the passage of years has not aged a still youthful spirit.
Some flowers have become associated with particular messages, emotions or occasions. Poppies with remembrance of those who perished in war, lilies with death, roses with love, for example. Countries and counties will adopt a herbaceous emblem, as for example the daffodil, thistle, or shamrock, the maple leaf, the red or white rose.
Then again our love of flowers is shown in the cultivation of gardens. A huge industry has grown up to satisfy the addiction of gardeners. Garden centres are nearly as common as super-markets; a house with a bit of garden is a romantic dream for many; tubs, baskets and boxes are sold in profusion; hardly a window sill without its collection of pot plants. Seeds of meadow flowers are strewn within the uncultivated plot.
In ages gone by, posies of flowers were carried for much less romantic reasons. Before proper sanitation was introduced, the stench in streets and public places was strong, and the risk of disease very real. So the rich and powerful would carry a bunch of scented flowers to lessen the evil smells, and to ward off, as it was thought, the risk of infection. Hence the “pocket full of posies” in the old nursery rhyme about the Great Plague, which even reached the nearby village of Eyam.
Of course the purpose of the flower, the reason for its existence, is to fruit, to seed, in order to ensure the survival of the species. The colours and the scents attract the pollinating insects, so that the flower may wither as its task is done. The seed is formed, and new, replacement life ensured. The flowers around us remind us that our lives, like those of the flowers, are transient, but that our seed is the mechanism by which we shall continue into future generations.
If harvest is associated with autumn, then flowers to me are associated with high summer, even though neither harvest nor flowering are restricted to those two seasons. But the landmarks serve as analogies for life itself. When some-one is flowering, they are maturing. The flower buds of our youth give promise of summer flowering before the autumn of life.
But today we recall with joy the pleasure which flowers give to us, as well as the way in which they are interwoven in the fabric of our ordinary lives.
Looking at flowers engenders a certain sadness, for one is aware that they will shortly fade – that their glory is but for the day. “Gather ye rose-buds while you may”, warned the poet, for both the rose-buds and the gatherers would fade. It would be easy to become melancholy at the thought, were it not for the knowledge that the purpose of the flower is to ensure survival. Though these blossoms must and will fade, others will follow them.
In the realm of horticulture, the variety of colour and size have grown over the years. We can enjoy flowers all the year round; we can see exotic species whose original habitat was in far distant lands, and grow them in our own gardens.
If we were confined to native flowers alone, uncultivated and wild, beautiful and attractive as many of them are, our displays would be more limited and our lives so much duller. The hardiness, the variety and the beauty of many of our admired flowers is due to the introduction of flowers from other habitats. From Europe, from South America, from the far East, from the New World, from mountain side, down in deep valleys, plants have been garnered. Their introduction has enriched our lives enormously. Their qualities, adaptability and beauty have not weakened our native stock, but invigorated it. If it had not happened, the display here would be poorer, and many flowers would not be seen at all.
Earlier I hinted that the life of the flower paralleled our lives. We mature and bloom, we produce the seed which ensures survival of the species, we fade but live on in the new lives that follow. But surely we should take another message from the flowers in pursuing our analogy. That richness, strength, variety which enhance the glory comes from the inter-mixing and assimilation of others. I will not push the point today, but surely we must reflect as we see around us the benefits of horticultural cross-fertilisation, benefits which also accrue from the inter-mingling of human races.
The language of the flowers, the message of nature, is one of harmony, but it is also that strength comes from absorption of complementary features from other varieties. Failure to follow the rule of nature actually harms and weakens the species.
So I suggest that the flower service today should not only give us an opportunity to glory in the beauty and variety in creation of flowers, but to reflect that the blossoms around us give unspoken messages. The message includes, as I pointed out earlier, deep feelings, good feelings, feelings of love, compassion, sympathy, sorrow, forgiveness, happiness and joy.
But they give out another important message of their own. If the species would be healthy and beautiful, then the stranger in the midst is a potential source of strength to be welcomed. The pure bred, if such a thing exists, tends to the sickly, ailing and weak. A message which we have yet to accept here at home as well as world-wide.
A flower service is not only an expression of our joy in the beauty occurring naturally around us. It is not even solely concerned with thanks to a creator who, as it says in Ecclesiastes, “.. has made everything beautiful in its time”, which is not to deny that both those things are important and true. It is also a reminder that variety is a strength and not a weakness. That differences are to be welcomed, not deplored. That the beauty of the whole is in the diversity of its parts.
A flower service is thus another expression of Christian ideals, and a statement of faith. It brings not only joy to the beholder, it carries a message to the wise.
C.J. Rosling 5 September 1993
Chesterfield 5 September 1993
Hucklow 13 August 2000