Where did the tradition of cutting a tree and setting it up in the house come from?
Our modern day celebrations come from a mild mix of cultures and seasonal activities. Way, way back in our ancestral heritage the earth-based spiritual people (pagans, druids, natives) would regularly decorate the seasons with natural elements from the outdoors.
A lot of it honestly was hanging herbs and plant materials to dry for use or storage. That’s why in the autumn we bring in gourds and corn husks. And in the dark of winter while you were forced indoors for long hours the pine, evergreen, mistletoe and ivy brought in for medicine and wood brought a special charm of green, of natural life and sensual earthy aromas. Christmas decorating with pine boughs if often called “hanging the greens.”
The hanging of greens, such as Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe and Evergreen boughs is an ancient winter tradition with origins predating Christ and the religious holiday of Christmas. It is a custom in which people would bring indoors green boughs and branches to lift people’s spirits sustaining them during the long dark days of winter and remind them that spring was not far away. Although many simply enjoy the plants for their fragrance and holiday colors, the meaning of these plants goes deeper for others.
Many kinds of evergreens are used in the wreaths, swags and garlands that decorate our churches and homes. Each type of evergreen has its own meaning in the language of nature.
There are more than 150 varieties of holly and it grows in practically all the countries of the world. For centuries it has been used for decorative purposes, especially in winter festivals because it bore fruit in the winter. It came to be a symbol of immortality. It was connected to Christmas, beginning in Denmark, as a symbol of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus, the red berries representing the blood. Therefore some call it Christ-thorn.
Holly has a more specific meaning for pagans. Historically, pagans believed that holly wards off evil spirits. It was also believed that holly increased fertility. In addition to bringing in holly boughs to decorate the home and increase fertility, holly was also often planted outdoors around the house to keep out evil spirits.
In ancient yuletide songs the holly was spoken of as the male and the ivy as the female. Whichever gender was the one who first brought it into the house for the season would indicate which sex would rule the house that year.
In ancient Britain Mistletoe was the sacred plant of the Druids, used in elaborate ceremonies at the winter solstice. Because of its overt pagan associations it is seldom used in church decorations, but is commonly found in homes. As it hangs in the doorway anyone may claim a kiss from the person who stands beneath it. After the kiss they then remove one of the berries to give to the recipient. When all of the berries are taken, no more kisses are available.
Evergreens, which flourish when all else is brown and dead, are symbols of enduring life. Evergreens are loosely defined as plants that retain their foliage and remain green year-round. Usually, the term refers to coniferous trees — trees that have needles or needle-like foliage, but it can refer to any plant that stays green all winter long, including holly.
In some countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep evil out of the home – evil spirits and ghosts, and evil in the form of illnesses. For this reason, evergreen boughs were often cut down and hung over doorways and inside the home. Our primitive fore parents brought in green branches at the festival of the Winter Solstice, which occurs every year on December 21st.
Pine and Spruce are the most famous varieties of Christmas trees and greens.
Pine with its amazing scent, is very useful in home remedies and medicines for the respiratory and circulatory systems. It’s also excellent for healing and soothing skin issues. Pine oils also contain phenols which act as natural stress relievers. In recent years, pine oil has become a popular oil for aromatherapy.
Pine trees play an important part of the beliefs and legends of many Native American and First Nations people. To many Native people, the pine tree is a symbol of wisdom and longevity. To others, its needles and sap are medicine that protects people from illnesses, witchcraft, and more.
In the countries around the world where pine trees grow, many legends, beliefs, and folklore surround this magnificent tree. To some people around the world, the pine tree is a symbol of peace. To others, it is a symbol of fertility, masculinity, and winter.
High in vitamin C, it works wonders on the respiratory system as a stimulating expectorant for congestion in the lungs. The aroma is grounding and tree essence (spirit) brings us strength and flexibility like the trees. In many traditions, Pine represents eternal life (due to its eternal evergreen color). You can make a wonderful, nourishing tea from the pine needles, cook down the sap for balms to soothe the skin, and integrate pine nuts into your cooking. You may be amazed at its scent and how it nourishes your strength.
Characteristics of other evergreens commonly used:
Spruce boughs represent hope in adversity.
Cedar is one of the more fragrant and longer lasting evergreens and indicates incorruptibility and healing.
Juniper symbolizes protection and is its aromatic scent is often used to alleviate stress, worry and despair.
Balsam and it has the symbolic meaning of eager anticipation; a familiar emotion associated with Advent. and even christmas morning when the children can tear into their presents and play with new toys.
Ivy holds one of the dearest images; that of clinging to God. It also symbolizes protection, joy and fidelity.
Any cones, nuts, or seedpods used in decorations symbolize new life, resurrection and birth. They are often used in magical rites to ensure the return of vegetation in the spring.
Many churches present a hanging of the greens ceremony which is done on or directly before the start of the Advent season, in preparation for Christmas. The service involves the placement of evergreen vegetation in the parish and around the altar. Items such as the evergreen wreath, in Christianity, carry the religious symbolism of everlasting life, a theological concept within that faith. Advent season prepares the people for the coming of Christ with each candle in the advent wreath symbolizing a specific attribute (peach, love, joy…) During the liturgy, biblical passages and other readings help explain the significance of each symbol as well at the christian or catholic traditions of Christmas.
The two traditional days when Christmas decorations are removed are Twelfth Night and Candlemas, the latter of which ends the Christmas-Epiphany season. Leaving the decorations up beyond Candlemas is historically considered to be inauspicious.
So now, when you look at your decorated tree, the wreath on your door, or the lovely evergreen arrangement on your table, you know they say more to you and your guests than Merry Christmas.
Many blessings to you and yours!