Every year, as regular as the shortening of days and the onset of frost, an ingrained tradition rises from deep within our sub-conscious. We are compelled to go to harvest a tree from the outside, be that a nearby woods or a DIY store. It is the centre piece of the seasonal winter festivities around which all other customs and traditions are hung and built. But – as is usually the purpose of my blog – I’d like to ask, why?
As nature withers back and dies, a few plants and trees retain their ‘evergreen’. Fir trees, Holly and Ivy were used in traditional Pagan decoration during midwinter festivities to bring that ‘everlasting life’ into homes. Our ancients saw the world in a very different way to us, the importance of nature and the stars being paramount and it was where they looked for guidance and comfort and it is from these beliefs we get some unquestioned traditions.
The Tree of Life is a central theme in many ancient cultures all the way back to the Egyptian, Sumerian and Babylonian. The Garden of Eden, The Tree of life and the Tree of Knowledge are what remain in the Judeo-Christian thread of this ancient concept of a central family/world tree but can also be found represented in art from Klimt’s painting to the film Avatar whilst Scandinavian cosmology has the immense Yggdrasil.
It was the Brotherhood of Blackheads in Estonia in the 1400’s that seems to be the first written record of the use of an evergreen in midwinter ceremony but they were simply carrying forward what was socially ingrained through Pagan culture. A regional autonomous organisation of mainly unmarried merchants that were not yet eligible for the Great Guild would gather on the 25th December (the pagan feast of Jul / Yule) and swear their binding oaths to support one another in adversity and back one another in feuds or in business ventures before proceeding with much merriment and dancing around a spruce decorated with wax candles, a valuable commodity of their day that as much as added to the ‘magic’ were a display of prosperity. The ceremonies were denounced by the church who had no control over their businesses and beliefs and sought to eradicate Pagan tradition. As the practice was adopted more widely through various political and religious shifts it gained popularity with royal households resulting in becoming a widely fashionable and accessible seasonal decoration. By the 19th century the newly united sides of the Rhine claimed the evergreen tree as an expression of ‘German’ culture and Gemütlichkeit (a situation that induces a cheerful mood, peace of mind, with connotations of belonging and social acceptance, coziness and unhurry.) Hans Christian Anderson popularised the concept in his fairy tale ‘The Fir Tree’ having been told of the practice by a Danish countess. German soldiers fighting in the American revolution spread the tradition to North America and it is there the lyrics of the German tune “O Tannenbaum” (Fir Tree) were mis-translated into “O Christmas tree”.
Accepted quite early by protestant society it was not until 1982 that Pope John Paul II introduced the evergreen tree to the Vatican Christmas and the full cover up of ‘The Tree of Life’ was co-opted and completed in 2004 when the pope declared the ancient tradition a ‘normal part of the catholic house’.
As the British throne developed its personal union with the house of Hanover the custom was adopted but remained a royal household practice. The young Victoria (then still Alexandrina Saxe Gotha) had a tree placed in her room every year, decorated with sweets and had presents around its base. After she married her first cousin Albert (ew!) the custom became far more widespread. In 1847, Prince Albert wrote: “I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be”.
It is the magical simplicity of earlier history that fascinates me. The evergreen leaves were symbolic of everlasting life which in early cultures was so important. Each year as the days would get shorter and the sun would appear to ‘die’ in the south it was these rites that brought hope and celebration in the darkest hours. To the shamans of Siberia the tall pines would reach up to the stars and if you were to lay beneath one you could observe how the Pole Star, Solaris would appear atop the tree and all others would revolve around it. This is where we get the practice of placing a star on top of our trees. It would give a sense of the ‘cosmic axle’ that our world spun upon and through which the heavens would divine its knowledge. The red and white hallucinogenic mushrooms that still feature very heavily on our cards and decorations also played a large part in this shamanic understanding and tradition and probably how shaman managed to lay in the snow under a tree for hours watching the sky spin… slowly…