The Legend of Easter
Historians believe the biblical mention of "lilies of the field" actually refers to the many wildflowers that grow in Israel and in particular, to the crown anemone. However, the flower we know as the Easter lily can easily fit this biblical description of a splendidly dressed flower. The genus lilium contains about eighty varieties of these glorious plants used primarily for decoration and cultivated for over 3000 years. Surprisingly, the lily's "family tree" includes such relatives as asparagus, yams, aloe, garlic, leeks, and onions. The Easter season brings forth several legends and folklore about the lily and its religious significance. The popular Easter lily we use today to celebrate the holiday is not the Madonna lily of old. The lilium harrisii was brought to the United States in 1875 from Japan by an American tourist and named for the florist who made it popular. The flower retells the resurrection story with its life cycle. The seemingly lifeless and ugly bulb is buried in the ground, later to be reborn as a glorious white trumpet-like flower. Its white color symbolizes the purity of the Savior and the joy of the resurrection while its trumpet shape suggests the angel Gabriel's trumpet call to rebirth and resurrection.
Folklore stories allege that many plants received their special identities and characteristics because of their association with Christ or the Virgin Mary. The Roman Catholic Church adopted the Madonna lily to represent and honor the Virgin Mary because its pure white exterior symbolized her purity while its gold-sprinkled interior represented her supreme value and worth. The stamens and pistils, the reproductive organs of the plant, were often removed to make the plant truly pure for the church altars.
One legend claims that lilies were originally yellow. One day, as the Virgin Mary was walking to the temple to worship, she bent down to pick one of the beautiful blossoms. At her touch, the flower instantly changed to the pure white we recognize today in her honor. Joseph, who was walking with her, was also touched by this miracle, for his staff began to grow a bouquet of the white lilies.
Another legend tells of the disciple Thomas who was away at the time of Mary's death. Consistent with his reputation as a doubter, one who had to see in order to believe, he demanded that her tomb be opened so that he could view her body as proof that she had really died. Reluctantly, the other disciples obeyed his request, and to everyone's amazement, they found her tomb filled with lilies and roses, the flowers traditionally dedicated to her. As they stood in wonder, a beautiful Madonna lily appeared at Thomas' feet. When he looked up, he saw the Virgin floating above him.
A less common lily, the red lily from Caucasus, which has the tendency to droop its head, was also believed to originally be pure white like the Madonna lily. As Christ walked through the Garden of Gethsemane on his way to pray, all the flowers bowed in reverence in his presence. The lily knew she was exquisitely beautiful with a powerful fragrance, and she wanted to be noticed by Christ as he walked through the garden. So she did not bow as he passed her. To her surprise and embarrassment, he stopped and gazed directly at her. She suddenly became ashamed of her pride and conceit, blushed a deep red and lowered her head. To this day, this is how the red lily presents itself.
With such amazing transformations and miracles associated with the lily, it naturally became a charm to ward off evil and to counter the devil's acts of mischief, believed to be especially prevalent and potent during the superstitious Middle Ages. It was a common belief that just by inhaling the potent perfume of the flower, one could overcome and undo the deeds of the evil forces.