QUAERITUR: artificial flowers

From a reader:

At the meeting of the Altar & Rosary Society this morning, the
discussion about Christmas poinsettias came up. It was suggested that
even though real flowers would be used for most of the decorations,
that fake poinsettias be used around the Tabernacle. (!) The reasoning
is that real flowers would be a pain to water and might leak. I
mentioned that I thought that there was a prohibition against fake
Altar flowers, but I couldn’t remember where I had seen it. Is there
such a prohibition? (Other than just a general distaste for
tackiness?) I should also mention that there are fake flowers
underneath the statue of Our Lady of Fatima (our patroness), which are also quite ugly. The statues and tabernacle are front and center
behind the Altar, so they are seen throughout Mass.

The Church has always favored that which is natural.   The unamplified human voice is better than the amplified.  Pipe organ is better than electronic with speakers.  Wax candles are better than artificial substances. Real bells are better than recordings.

Draw your own conclusion.

I would only add that if you don’t over do it with the flowers they won’t be so hard to tend.

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  1. Joe in Canada says:

    yes! A large neighboring parish had a parish priest who was a notorious liturgist and he banned artificial flowers. A parishioner pointed out that he spoke more than once about this ban, but never mentioned banning artificial contraception or artificial marriages. The conversation did not end well for the parishioner though….

  2. priests wife says:

    I’m not a theologian- don’t know the ‘rules’ but I believe real stuff is used (beeswax candles, real flowers)

    anyway- fake flowers are tacky and bad for the environment (I believe a fake Christmas tree’s environmental ‘impact’ is equal to 7 real Christmas trees)- yes, we Catholics can can about clean air and water without being all tree-huggy

  3. Kaneohe says:

    The Creator of the universe is not pleased with plastic or fake flowers!

    Read Built of Living Stones (USCCB) especially paragraphs 122-129

    #129 “The use of living flowers and plants, rather than artifical greens, serves as a reminder of the gift of life God has given to the human community. Planning for plants and flowers should include not only the procurement and placement but also the continuing care needed to sustain living things.”

    Ergo, use live plants, buy various appropriate sized water cans, and place clear plastic liners under the plants to avoid leaks. Simple.

    Clear flower pot liners are very inexpensive and reusable. They often cost only a dollar or more and are available at almost all florist, plant, and garden supply stores.

  4. benedictgal says:

    As far as I can tell, this is what the GIRM states:

    “305. Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar.

    During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this season, without expressing prematurely the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts are exceptions.

    Floral decorations should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on its mensa. ”

    The closest I could come to some sort of document is a little shaky since it’s the USCCB’s Art and Environment in Catholic Worship. The document states in part that:

    “102. Flowers, plants and trees–genuine, of course–are particularly apt for the decoration of liturgical space, since they are of nature, always discreet in their message, never cheap or tawdry or ill-made. Decoration should never impede the approach to or the encircling of the altar or any of the ritual movement and action, but there are places in most liturgical spaces where it is appropriate and where it can be enhancing. The whole space is to be considered the arena of decoration, not merely the sanctuary. ”

    I hope this helps.

  5. teomatteo says:

    I can just add one thing as it relates to the topic:

  6. traditionalorganist says:

    Has anyone ever noticed how liberal parishes are always decorated with millions of flowers, but the religious imagery is scarce?

  7. TomB says:

    My mother disliked artificial flowers because, unlike living things, they do not change.

  8. Sliwka says:

    In some cases, I can see using artificial flowers over naturals. For those parishes above the Arctic Circle, it may be not possible to bring in real flowers for particular Liturgical seasons, although I agree that an effort shoudl be made to decorate with God’s own Creation.

  9. SimpleCatholic says:

    Many European churches have very fine examples of brass flowers between the candleseticks of their high altars, for instance the church of the FSSP in Rome. I think the principle is not real versus fake, but worthy adornments versus unworthy. This goes for more than just flowers.

  10. An old French version of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum mentions flowers. It can be found here: http://www.ceremoniaire.net/print/caer_ep/Caeremoniale_Ep-francais.pdf

    It has of references to floral decorations. Search for ‘fleurs’.

    “during special feasts and solemnities of the local church, therefore, we begin by decorating the outside of its doors by hanging or by attaching flowers, branches, and green foliage”

    The Catholic Encyclopedia on New Advent also references the Ceremonial, in the article “Altar Vase”:

    “Vase to hold flowers for the decoration of the altar. The Cæremoniale Episcoporum (I, xii, n. 12) says that between the candlesticks on the altar may be placed natural or artificial flowers, which are certainly appropriate ornaments of the altar. The flowers referred to are cut flowers, leaves, and ferns, rather than plants imbedded in soil in large flowerpots, although the latter may fitly be used for the decoration of the sanctuary around the altar. If artificial flowers are used they ought to be made of superior material, as the word serico (ibid.) evidently implies, and represent with some accuracy the natural variations. Flowers of paper, cheap muslin, or calico, and other inferior materials, and such as are old and soiled, should never be allowed on the altar.”

  11. Father S. says:

    The previous pastor where I am was fond of saying, “We don’t put fake plants before the living God.”

    This is a question that seems to go back to architecture. When we build churches that are beautiful, they can be designed in such a way that a few flowers have a great effect. When we design less beautiful churches, flowers have far less effectiveness.

  12. samgr says:

    My former German-American parish (now merged, the building sold) always used real firs to surround the Nativity Krippe (creche, presipio, whatever), until the year they caught fire, apparently from a nearby vigil light stand. The trees were replaced by plastic, safer, but less real. The vigil lights remained non-electric.

  13. Tim Ferguson says:

    I agree that real flowers are so much more to be preferred than artificial, but I would be hesitant to institute some sort of a ban on artificial flowers. I think some of the artificial flowers made today, utilized tastefully, can be quite lovely and suited to divine service.

    A woman at a parish where I used to work made the most wonderful bouquets of roses out of silk fabric, and would place them in front of the Lady Altar. When the liturgist approached the pastor and told him he needed to stop this abuse because only real flowers should be used in the church, the pastor’s response was, “Then you tell the Pope to stop giving bouquets of artificial golden roses to all the Marian basilicas on Palm Sunday.”

  14. Daniel Latinus says:

    There was a book called The Liturgical Altar that was published in the 1930s, and sought to compile all existing norms on the altar and its embellishment. Unfortunately, my copy was destroyed in a flood, and I don’t have it handy for reference. But if I remember correctly, the author (I think his name was Webb), said that it was preferred not to have flowers on the altar or gradine, but if flowers were used, natural was to be preferred to artificial, and that well-made metal, and possibly silk, flowers were permissible. On the other hand, Webb noted that placing extra lights on the altar was to be preferred to placing flowers on the altar.

    If anyone has a copy of The Liturgical Altar, please check. And keep in mind, this book was originally published in England, and some of what Webb says may reflect local custom. (A number of the book’s illustrations show the “sanctus candle”, a candle on a tall stand that was lit at the Sanctus, and extinguished after Communion. I do not know of this custom being used in the US, or anywhere outside of England.)

    It should also be remembered that churches might not have a choice in the matter. In the Chicago area, local fire codes often prohibit the use of artificial Christmas trees. I’ve never heard of this ban being used against flowers, but one should check with the local fire marshall if there is any doubt.

  15. holzi says:

    I heard Fr. Dr. Johannes Kreier (http://gloria.tv/?search=Kreier+&type=text&type=audio&type=photo&type=video&type=user) on GloriaTV, that living flowers were once forbidden on the altar. That because they rot and die. And therefore nothing should disturb the altar’s purity.

  16. Melody Faith says:

    Another consideration is where the poinsettias come from… Ecke Ranch in San Diego county has supplied around 70 % of these flowers nationwide. They also happen to be major donors to Planned Parenthood. See the following : http://www.calcatholic.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?id=ac008746-d8b8-4d36-b14c-16f167fa88c5 .

  17. Supertradmum says:


    Thanks for the Ecke ranch reference, which I discovered and tried to promulgate years ago. It is sad that many industries and businesses which give megabucks to PP are supported by our parishes.

    As to real flowers, I was under the impression that only real and not fake anythings could be used in the sanctuary. I also thought there was a prohibition concerning plants, as distinct from cut flowers. Can anyone help me find this? I learned this from one of my” ex-bosses”, a nun, when I became a sacristan. She was up on these rules, but she is now gone.

  18. Bryan Boyle says:

    Symbols mean something. And symbols are not just visual, but auditory, or engage other senses.
    Silk flowers give off nothing except the ‘visual’ trompe l’oeil: the appearance of something they are not. They are, in essence, a lie. Silk or plastic or paper is NOT a beautiful flower. It’s a copy of something God made, infinitely more beautiful than something created on a printing press or loom.

    Besides…imho (and according to taste, there should be no dispute…), they’re just ticky tacky.

  19. Fr. Basil says:

    \\The Church has always favored that which is natural. … Pipe organ is better than electronic with speakers. \\

    Speaking as an organist who didn’t major in biology, I’d like to know where organs occur in nature. (Not that I prefer electronic substitutes.)

    On the issue of artificial flowers, in instructions on this very matter, Patriarch Alexis I of Moscow (anticipating the sentiment of Brian Boyle above) said that they were forbidden in churches because they contain in themselves an element of deception, being presented as something they are not, and hence are unsuitable for adornment of churches.

  20. Father S. says:

    @ Fr. Basil:
    I am an organist myself, and have often had the same question! Especially given modern technology, electronic organs often outpace their tracker companions in many respects. We’d all like to have a beautiful tracker, but once we go electropneumatic, we seem to be splitting hairs, so long as sound can be fittingly reproduced.

  21. Microtouch says:

    “Pipe organ is better than electronic with speakers. ”

    As a pipe Organ builder I am so glad to see this written!!

  22. Fr. Basil says:

    On a practical level, tracker organs when well cared for last for centuries; think of the Arp Schnitger organ Buxtehude and Bach played that is still used. Electronics, like any other electrical appliance, have to be replaced in 10 to 15 years, especially as technology surpasses them.

    My own jaundiced opinion, however, is that in a parish church, especially where the organist is also the choirmaster, trackers are not as practical as a separate console.

  23. Faith says:

    What about a mix? Artificial flowers mixed in with real, for no other reason than cost. Using last year’s flowers with new live ones to fill out the look. To tell you the truth, outside of noticing how pretty the sanctuary looked, I never can tell whether flowers are real or not.

  24. Tina in Ashburn says:

    re “artificial” flowers – the term ‘artificial’ can be a point of confusion. The objective is to return to God HIS creation, to give Him glory. So if we have to use artificial, try our best at using high-quality natural substances. Therefore, plastic might not be as effective this way, as it is a few steps away from its created origins being a manipulated substance. However gold roses, a natural and more pure substance makes more sense. I’d see real silk as a possibility too – today’s ‘silk’ flowers are not truly silk FYI. Thus, in some of the references by commenters citing traditions, the definition becomes a little clearer.

    Interesting point about the colder climes where fresh flowers are much harder to supply – again, natural substances could still be used. Dried branches and flowers come to mind, though ‘dead stuff’ isn’t considered appropriate either in areas where fresh is easily obtained. Gild the lily? LOL

    Above all, noting should be ugly, tasteless, badly-made. Strive for understatement, restraint and beauty of elegance.

    In regard to the organ – the pipe organ mimics the natural voice with its ‘wind’ and ‘throat’. Electronic organs are just as much of a no-no as a piano. Keep in mind that the organ is an exception – we are really only supposed to employ the human voice.

  25. Henry Edwards says:

    Another consideration is where the poinsettias come from… Ecke Ranch in San Diego county has supplied around 70 % of these flowers nationwide. They also happen to be major donors to Planned Parenthood.

    You can google poinsettia ecke “planned parenthood” for more information on the role of poinsettias in abortion funding.

  26. Random Friar says:

    It seems that at least this is one issue that brings progressives and traditionalists together: living plants! But I agree on not having a total ban, but avoiding plastic when possible. The one place I’ve seen that used plastic was because for some reason, there were all sorts of vents along the floor of the sanctuary, so that tended to dry out plants very rapidly. But in front of the altar, always, always living plants that told of the glory of God, and not of the “wonders” of petrochemicals.

    I can see the pipe organ as being more “organic” than the electronic, simply because of the air blowing through the pipes to create a sound, not digitally. Yes, they are both artifices, and if some poor parish can’t afford a pipe organ, a nice little electronic will have to do.

  27. Henry Edwards says:

    From a sermon by a traditional priest:

    “When we are not in penitential times, you may see flowers on the altar. Likewise, although for valid reasons exceptions can be made, these flowers should be real, live flowers, and they should be cut, (in a vase of course) but still, destined to die. They have been sacrificed to give an image of God’s beauty and perfection. “

    Just as incense is sacrificed by being burned:

    “At a High Mass you will see that incense is used. Incense is sweetened resin, but the important thing to consider here is that it is burned. It is consumed, or better said: sacrificed. It is sacrificed to show the prayers of the Church ascending to God on high. Incense can be of a bitter odor, or a sweet odor, to stress either prayers of joy and thanksgiving, or prayers of sorrow and repentance. “

    And the beeswax in the candles is sacrificed by being burned, and so forth.

  28. michelelyl says:

    My parish has a lovely tradition…altar flowers or living plants are donated by parishioners ‘in memory of…’ something each week on a sign up sheet in the vestibule of the Church. It’s usually filled early in the year! During Advent and Lent, we do not have any flowers at all on the altar (except for the day of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe- huge Hispanic population at my parish). For Christmas Season, all the people of the parish are invited to donate flowers- poinsettias or others, while we use fake fir trees with tiny white lights year after year. For Easter, again, the entire parish is invited to bring lilies and they are left out the entire Easter Season. The Altar Society cares for the flowers. I like that the entire community is involved in this beautiful display to honor God.

  29. Obviously, brass flowers aren’t imitation flowers; they’re artworks decorating the church, just like frescos and carvings. And if I had a church in a place with no flowers, it would be a lot more appropriate to decorate the church with art — even rotating cycles of different art — rather than to play pretend with fake flowers that don’t even represent the nature of the place. I like flowers, but goodness knows we overuse them and underdecorate the walls and altar and so forth.

    Re: watering the flowers, why are you doing that on the tabernacle altar anyway? You take the flowers off the altar, you carry them back to the un-sacristy plant preparation area, you water them or replace them with a plant that’s not dying, and then you put them back into place. (Kneeling at appropriate moments when you pass.) If people have trouble carrying the plants or don’t want to make a zillion trips, buy a little office cart to ferry the plants back and forth to the preparation area.

    If the plants and flowers are too much of a pain in the neck, embroider a cloth with flowers instead. Sheesh.

  30. That said, the silk flower wizard of your congregation would be a very good person to make silk-flower-decorated seasonal frontals for the altar. (Frontals are like big boards covered with decorated cloth; you stick them in front of the side of the altar facing the people (or both sides, I guess, in a round church). You can change them around as often as you like, and they make the altar’s appearance much more solemn.) It’s traditional to have flower patterns of embroidery or painting on altar furnishings like frontals, or to have jewels and things sewed onto it for a more 3D effect, so I suppose that one could do something beautiful that included 3D silk flowers.

  31. Microtouch says:

    As an aside, our company will be restoring a 1770 Tannenberg tracker this year. The oldest American tracker in this country I’m told.

  32. Paul Jackson says:

    I’m glad to see this topic. When I was in Khartoum for nine months in 2008 there were always artificial flowers in the Chapel, it really bugged me. Most of the priests were from India and I have seen other Indian priests using artificial flowers in their Churches too, perhaps it is a cultural thing. I just love the idea that a plant has sacrificed it’s beauty to adorn the abode of Christ. Real flowers are so meaningful in so many ways.

  33. Nora says:

    We have a wonderful group that decorates for Christmas and Easter, with living material, except for the Christmas trees. They do a beautiful job, but I get very tired of watering, leaf pruning and rearranging all those potted flowers. For the first couple of weeks, it takes about 2 hours a day. I can’t say that the number of flowers is “excessive”, given that the sanctuary area is very large and open, but I do feel the effect of Catholic aerobics after about the 100th genuflection.

  34. Daniel Latinus says:

    It should also be remembered that churches might not have a choice in the matter. In the Chicago area, local fire codes often prohibit the use of artificial Christmas trees. I’ve never heard of this ban being used against flowers, but one should check with the local fire marshall if there is any doubt.

    What an embarrassing mistake!

    The above quote should read:

    It should also be remembered that churches might not have a choice in the matter. In the Chicago area, local fire codes often prohibit the use of natural Christmas trees in public buildings. I’ve never heard of this ban being used against flowers, but one should check with the local fire marshall if there is any doubt.

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