Country Life

Peace be with you

- Charles Quest-ritson Charles Quest-ritson wrote the RHS Encycloped­ia of Roses

AT Christmas time, our thoughts turn to the mystery of the Incarnatio­n. That’s the primary focus of Christians—or should be, although we all have other preoccupat­ions. Shall we bother with a Christmas tree this year? Do we absolutely have to have turkey again? And will the cards we sent belatedly to those people we had originally crossed off our list this year get to them in time? Meanwhile, the thoughts of children everywhere turn to piles of presents, received rather than given.

Christmas is a time of hope for all, although the lawyers tell us that divorce petitions peak as soon as the season of jollificat­ion ends. I love not only the spiritual insights that the Incarnatio­n brings, but also the personal rituals that we all develop within our families. And my own thoughts turn to the year ahead, and the lengthenin­g days. I look forward to the first Cyclamen coum, the yellow aconites and the six weeks of snowdrops when different cultivars open in succession.

But, before then, we shall be off to Andalusia for the New Year and the arrival of the Kings, because Spaniards know that gifts are brought and received at Epiphany. It is, moreover, a wonderful season to be in Europe’s deep south. The days are longer than at home and the sun rises higher in the sky. The meadows are full of sweetscent­ed paper-white narcissi and old abandoned olive groves are blue with the flowers of Iris alata. Walk through them in their millions and you will soon discover that every flower has a different pattern on its falls—the three lower petals that stick out at the side.

The olive harvest will not yet have finished. It’s been a disappoint­ing year (too much heat and not enough rain), but the picking that began at the end of October will continue into February. Olive varieties do not all ripen at the same time, rather like apples. And there are more than 1,000 different olive cultivars in the national gene banks of Spain and Italy. This is no match for the 7,000 varieties of apple, but it does make for enormous variations among the olives and the oils they yield.

Before they were taken into cultivatio­n, olives were prickly little shrubs growing wild in Iran’s Elburz mountains. Only as a result of cultivatio­n and selection for many centuries has the olive developed into a thornless tree. Archaeolog­ists and paleobotan­ists have found traces of olives as a cultivated crop in Crete from about 6000BC onwards. They were certainly growing in the Holy Land in Biblical times.

Wild olives were prickly little shrubs

What has all this to do with the season of Christmas? Part of the answer lies in the importance of the olive in Christian writings. Start with the Old Testament, with the dove that brought a twig from an olive tree to indicate to Noah that the Great Flood was receding. Peace would reign for many years so that olive trees could grow to maturity and bear fruit. King David the Psalmist sang about himself (as do most popular singers), saying ‘as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkind­ness of God for ever and ever’. But it is the New Testament that tells us of Jesus’s life. We know that He prayed at the Garden of Gethsemane, on the edge of the Mount of Olives, before He was arrested and crucified. Later on, it was from the Mount of Olives that Jesus ascended into Heaven. St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, compared his audience (mere Gentiles) to wild olives grafted onto the trunk of a cultivated tree (God’s chosen race, the Jewish people), so that they could ‘share in the nourishing sap that rises from the olive root’.

They still press the oil from trees on the Mount of Olives, although I have never tasted it. The olive trees there, which look such ancient and venerable witnesses to history, were recently date-tested and found to be no more than 1,000 years old. However, at least three of them were geneticall­y identical, which suggests that they might have been grown as grafts or cuttings from a much older tree.

Neverthele­ss, let olive trees be a symbol for your Christmas and for the year to come. Olive farming is only possible for a settled society. It requires stable political and economic circumstan­ces, and advanced cultivatio­n skills. Please ponder recent events in the Holy Land. When Christians come together in worship, it is customary for them to greet each other with the words ‘Peace be with You’. Among all your seasonal festivitie­s, you could do worse than to pray for the dove to descend once more with an olive twig in its beak. Then perhaps the troubled peoples of the Middle East will turn to all their neighbours at last and promise them a lasting peace.

December 27 Taking stock

 ?? ?? Extend an olive branch this Christmas: the olive tree at the heart of the Mediterran­ean Garden at Dyffryn, Wales, is a symbol of peace
Extend an olive branch this Christmas: the olive tree at the heart of the Mediterran­ean Garden at Dyffryn, Wales, is a symbol of peace
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom