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Of Cauliflowers And Kings

Esmerelda’s excellent and highly amusing post for the Sixth Day of Christmas is here. It has more of her photographs of wonderful English Inn signs and is well worth a look, as well as being very relevant indeed to this sixth day of Christmas.

Although Esme’s tavern keeper probably didn’t know this when he had his cauliflower Inn sign painted afresh, the cauliflower is a deeply ancient symbol in Christianity. Its pure white curd is a symbol of Mary the Mother of Christ and also of the huge white star which hovered over Bethlehem and guided the first worshippers (the Shepherds, and the animals, and the Kings) to Christ’s crib. Quite apart from the white curd symbolising the purity of Christ’s conception and birth, the cauliflower is also enmeshed in the traditions of Christmas Eve.
Cauliflower is one of the traditional ‘seven lean dishes’ served at the ‘great supper’ traditionally eaten by Christians on Christmas Eve and the tradition of this great supper persists in many rural parts of Europe to this very day, most notably in Provence in France, and one can also find its echo in some rural parts of Italy and Romania and amongst some traditionalists in the Anglican Communion as well as amongst some of the faithful strands amongst the Old Catholics. The great supper traditionally consists of seven small main dishes, eaten before the midnight service made up from white vegetables, one of which is always, but always, cauliflower, white fishes, and eggs and they symbolise the seven sufferings of the Virgin, followed by thirteen desserts which are eaten after the midnight service and which must contain the nuts and fruits which symbolise the mendicant orders (figs for the Franciscans, almonds for the Carmelites, raisins for the Dominicans and hazelnuts for the Augustinians), as well as dates, which symbolise Christ, wine for the Holy Blood of Life, cream for the purity of the thoughts and the actions of the true Christians, olive oil for the light (and continuity) of Christ, and bread for the Staff of Life which Christ is, and fresh winter fruits for the bounty of God. The last dessert course is always to be sour for the thirteen desserts symbolise the Last Supper eaten by Christ with his twelve Apostles and an echo of that tradition is with us today in the British practise of serving a final cheese (soured milk) and biscuit (bread) course at dinner frequently removed with nuts and fruits. Under no circumstances is meat ever served at the great supper on Christmas Eve.
Many orders of Monks and Nuns wear white habits and it is very interesting to note that many of them feature the cauliflower as an important Christmas vegetable in their histories and practises, and occasionally in their heraldic devices. Until very recently Christmas cauliflower receipts (recipes) were well known and widely used. It’s only over the last fifty or so years that the traditions surrounding the humble cauliflower have almost died out. Traditional Christmas cauliflower is boiled, to taste, cauliflower served with a cheese enriched white sauce spiced with nutmeg, black pepper and salt, but there are many modern variants which are very tasty that have become traditional outside Europe and one of my favorite receipts for Christmas cauliflower can be found here.
Anciently, before Christ that is, the white cauliflower curd, surrounded by its green leafs, represented the moon and was a pagan symbol, and sometimes rudely associated with the generative force at that – so it’s easy to see why it became associated with Christ’s birth and the purity of the Immaculate Conception. However, it is still a moon symbol in some Christian art for the date of at least one of our major festivals is calculated using the moon’s phases (Easter).
It’s Christmastide (4th. of December to Candlemas on the 2nd. of February), which must not be confused with the Christmastime (which runs from Christmas Eve to the first Sunday after the Epiphany on January, 6th.), and much of our ancient symbolism and imagery is so complicated and confused that it’s almost impossible to decipher and render into coherent form. This festival of Christmas is not just some simple Christian take on some Roman pagan festival – it’s far more complicated and ancient than that and for many of us it contains its own truths. As it should!
The simple cauliflower is just one example of how complicated our Christian symbolism, and imagery, actually is and how Esme’s innocent Inn-keeper’s newly painted sign will confuse, and no doubt fool, future historians.
Still, it’s interesting that he chose to continue to use a cauliflower for his sign, isn’t it?