The Magic of Evergreens
by Rob Sproule
Have you noticed that almost all the plants traditionally brought into the home at Christmas are evergreen? Whether Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe, or boughs, they all hold their foliage throughout winter.
The tradition of bringing evergreen boughs indoor not only predates all other Christmas traditions, it’s one of the oldest traditions that we have: period. The answer to why reaches back, way back, before there were cities and humans lived in caves over winter huddled for warmth. Fresh Christmas Greens
Before science demystified many of nature’s natural processes, they must have been terrifying. During December, as the shortest day approached and winter had stripped almost all green life from the landscape, humankind feared for its future and wondered if they would ever see another spring day.
Sympathetic magic is the belief that we bring an object with supernatural attribute close to us, the power will rub off on us. It was a potent belief system in early Pagan times.
As the nights grew longer and lifelessness descended, evergreen trees’ stood as beacons of life of the landscape. They held the secret of endurance, and we started bringing their boughs indoors so that they’d give us hope, that sympathetically their ability to sustain the darkest day would give us the will to endure.
Evergreens in Ancient Times
Eons after we emerged from caves, a myriad of cultures continued to bring evergreens indoors over the winter solstice. Ancient Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews all associated evergreens with life magic stubborn and strong enough to resist the long winter. History of Holiday Greens
Ancient Egyptians brought palm leaves into their homes during the winter solstice to celebrate life’s triumph over death. At the same time, Romans would bring boughs and branches into their homes to celebrate Saturnalia, their festival of the deity Saturn in the latter half of December.
Early European druids hung evergreen sprigs of holly and mistletoe indoors in hopes that their sympathetic life magic would ward off spirits lurking during the winter solstice. As the Middle Ages rolled on, German and Scandinavian peoples brought evergreen trees indoors, or placed them outside their doors, to express their hope for bountiful return to spring.
Early Christians were hostile to these pagan rituals, with the theologian Tertullian condemning Christians who participated in the Roman winter festivals. Sometime during the Middle Ages, however, something changed.
The legend grew that, on the night that Christ was born, all surrounding trees shook off their snow and burst into leaf. At the same time, Christian missionaries began to tolerate, slightly, more ancient customs. It’s controversial and, as most Middle Ages history is, murky, but whether through Christian leniency or Pagan perseverance, the tradition of bringing evergreens into the home endured.
The modern Christmas tree comes from Germany, where legend credits none other than Martin Luther for lighting the first candle on the branches to symbolize God’s triumph over darkness. Churches across what is now Germany began bringing “paradise trees” inside for Creation plays and the tradition grew.
Evergreen Boughs Today
Today, we know that the winter solstice means a few short months before our tulips bloom. With central heating, the longest night means being inside for that extra cup of eggnog. The terror is gone, but the need to see, smell, and touch fresh needles endures.
We continue to find ways to bring evergreens into our homes at Christmas. As artificial tree sales climbed, so too have fresh boughs and wreath for those who miss the smell and warmth that live boughs bring.
Caring for your Fresh Christmas Tree
Maybe there is a little magic in those needles. They survive some of the worst weather nature can throw at them. In our homes they infuse humidity and their unmistakable, addictive, earthy scent into the air.