The dogwoods are blooming – not where I live in coastal Houston, but farther north and east, in the woods throughout the South. They are the trees in my childhood memories. I was raised in Vestavia Hills, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. Every April, since 1964, the city has held a Dogwood Festival to commemorate the trees blooming in the forests of this city perched on top of Shades Mountain. (Here’s a link: http://vestaviavoice.com/news/where-the-dogwoods-bloom ) We always rode along the Dogwood Trail - me, my mother, and grandmother. My mother drove us in her red, Chevrolet station wagon – the kind with the genuine imitation wood on the sides - as we wound our way through the neighborhoods of our city following the dogwood blossoms freshly painted each year on the asphalt of the road. Most of the trees bloomed white, but in a few yards, I spied trees sporting pink blossoms.
There is a legend associated with the dogwood. The story goes that during Jesus’ lifetime, very few trees in Israel grew large. But the dogwood was prized for its thick trunk and strong wood. Because of this, the Romans used the wood to make crosses for crucifixion. On the day Jesus died, he felt the dogwood’s sadness about His suffering and about being used for such a purpose. So, Jesus had compassion on the dogwood and said, “Because of your sorrow and pity for my suffering, dogwoods will never grow large enough to be used in this way again.” On the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the chief wood gatherer for the Romans received news that all the dogwoods were withering. Hurrying to the forest, he saw that it was true. From that day forward, the trees have grown slender and twisted. But beautiful white flowers bloom on the branches in the Springtime. Each blossom forms a cross made from its four white bracts (which we usually mistakenly call the petals.) The whiteness symbolizes that Jesus was without sin. Each bract bears a rusty indentation on the tip, as if made by a nail, to represent the bloody wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet. The center of the blossom contains little green buds that blossom into yellow flowers. The buds represent the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head by his mockers. After the flowers wither, the center forms red, drop-shaped berries that symbolize Jesus’ blood. Blood shed for me. And for you.
Last December, my family was asked to contribute an ornament to our church’s Chrismon tree. If you’re not familiar with this tradition, it began in 1957 at Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia. Francis Spencer wanted to decorate a tree for her church’s sanctuary that emphasized the birth, life, and death of Jesus as the reason for celebrating Christmas. The word Chrismon is a combination of the Greek word for Christ – Christos - and the word “monogram.” The first decorations Mrs. Spencer made were simple crosses, but through the years and as the tradition spread to other churches of various denominations, the choices have expanded to include symbols encompassing traditions from the earliest days of Christianity to the present. White, silver, and gold are the preferred colors. The symbols are interdenominational to reflect the shared faith and heritage of all Christians. Mrs. Spencer went on to write five illustrated books about the tradition of the Chrismon tree which also include patterns for ornaments. (Here’s a link to Ascension Lutheran’s Chrismon ministry site with all sorts of additional information: http://www.chrismon.org/site/chrismon.htm ) For our contribution to our church’s tree, we selected a dogwood blossom. I found an image on Google, traced the outline, and cut it from heavy, white felt. I outlined the edges of the white bracts with silver glitter glue. In the center of the blossom, I squeezed gold glitter glue for the tiny, yellow flowers. And in the notch of each bract’s tip, I dabbed red glitter glue to represent the bloody, nail wounds.
My family marched to the front of the church on the designated Sunday evening for decorating the Chrismon tree. My 9-year-old daughter carried the dogwood ornament by its silver ribbon. “We’ve chosen the dogwood blossom for our ornament,” she announced to the congregation. My son and I took turns reading lines from the legend, and my mother concluded by telling about the Dogwood Festival back home. My grandmother wasn’t with us, but I know she watched from Heaven as my little girl hung the ornament on the tree for all to see.
Now, in the Spring, the only dogwoods I see are the ones I find on Google Images. But on second thought, that’s not true. I see, in my mind, the ones from my childhood. And I’m back, once again, in my hometown, riding along the Dogwood Trail in that red station wagon with my mother and grandmother.
May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton