A short time ago I published a blog-post about Santa Claus; origins, myths, legends - that sort of thing. Admittedly, a puff piece. But I must say that I am really intrigued about some of the greenery that we enjoy around the Christmas/Yule season. Some of these greens just may have a history greater than Claus himself. Note: there are many green flora and fauna that have a rich historical past, but for the sake of brevity, this post will concentrate on just three.
The use of evergreen boughs, fir trees, holly, and ivy as Christmas decorations is older than the Christian era itself. Long before the baby Jesus, the Egyptians, Romans, and northern Europeans used all of the above and more for their winter solstice/Yule revelries. For those ancient peoples, trees, holly, and ivy had very special meanings.
Try and put yourself into the shoes of an ancient pagan or heathen. The tallest things around you are the trees. Those trees were not just symbolic "things" that connected earth and sky; some were the World Trees of various cultures - Yggdrasil, Irminsul, the Donar Oak of the Chatti, the Bodi tree of the Buddhist, etc. And those world trees were thought to hold that particular culture's world together; the tree comes down, the culture falls (more on that later). For the ancients, our ancestors, evergreens, fir, spruce, and pine trees along with the holly and ivy were important.
One reason, I think, was the color. When other flora and fauna lost their leaves and blooms during autumn and winter (dormant), evergreens stayed green, and offered the hope of spring and re-birth. Fir trees and evergreens in general, became symbols of fertility, sacredness, health, and immortality. The Romans, when they looked at an unopened fir cone, saw sacred virginity and offered them to their goddesses. The northern Europeans believed that fir trees were one of the places on earth where the gods lived. They were so certain of this belief that indiscriminate harvesting of fir trees was a punishable offense; you could suffer the loss of an arm or your head! What should stick out here and really ring your bells is that our ancestors (yes our ancestors) considered those trees, evergreens, and nature sacred. They believed that the life force that was in them was present in all of nature. And, do take the time to discover how many herbal remedies our ancestors made from evergreens; you will be surprised. These two points alone should be sufficient to convince you how much honor and respect our ancestors had for the evergreen and all of nature. The Donar Oak was briefly mentioned. What happened to that mighty tree and the Chatti culture is another low point in history.
For the Chatti (later known as Hessians), a Germanic tribe, their Donar Oak was the center of their life; it was their world tree. They believed that not only was the tree sacred, but it also was a dwelling place for their god Donar, a.k.a. Thor. The Chatti literally believed that the Donar Oak held their world together; it was the center of their spiritual and social life. When the Church cut down their Donar Oak, the Chatti culture fell apart; their focal point was gone and their world ended, literally (this happened in723/724 C.E. at the hands of Winifrid, later known as St. Boniface). A few centuries before, St. Augustine told the Church to let the trees alone but give them to Jesus and just convert the people. I guess in Boniface's era, the conversion business was slow. As I mentioned in What Klaus, adding the religious customs of another that is considered inferior makes it easier for the "lowly" to convert to the new, best thing. Hopefully dear reader, you have not become bored; moving on to the holly and the ivy.
Holly was considered holy and sacred to the majority of the Indo-European peoples. The northern folks gathered holly and brought it into their homes for Yule - for good luck, fertility, and health in the coming year. The Celtic Druids literally worshiped holly (divine, a home of the gods) and thought that the red berries contained the female portion of creative energy. And the Romans were not to be outdone by their Indo-European cousins. During the Feast of Saturnalia (their winter solstice celebration), they decked out their doorways and other parts of their homes with holly.
Ivy is a vine and thought of by our ancestors to be a symbolic, shamanic ladder to the other-worlds (both ivy and mistletoe wrap themselves around a tree; the difference - ivy, a vine, has its' origin in the soil while mistletoe is a parasite. The Druids found this fascinating). Ivy's shining green leaves were thought of as signs of re-birth and immortality. Remember, this is the cold winter solstice; we are hoping for spring! And ivy was the perfect compliment to holly for Yuletide decorations; the meaning and symbolism should smack you in the face - if you are paying attention. In our time, how many Christmas cards and other decorations feature holly, ivy, and a fir/spruce tree? However, the early Church was not happy with what it considered pagan cultic practices (remember the Donar Oak).
After years (centuries?) of condemning edicts and acts of sacrilege, the Church could not get rid of the people's love of evergreens. So, they adopted them as their own, and discounted any pagan origins. They took what was sacred to pagans, and made it "profane" for them, while "sanctifying" it for Christians. Holly, because of its pointy leaves, became the symbol of Christ's crown of thorns; the red berries, his blood. Ivy became the symbol of Jesus's resurrection (because it climbs up a tree, and other things). And what of the so-called Christmas tree? Oh, yeah!!!
The Church failed in its efforts to end our ancestor's love of fir and spruce trees. With Augustine's instructions in mind, those trees at Christmas/Yule time were dedicated to the baby Jesus; the son of god that came into the world for the sake of salvation (here, think winter solstice and regeneration, life renewed). Here's a nice one: for many of the ancient cultures, especially those in the north of Europe, fir and spruce trees were also symbols of male regeneration (yes, a phallus). None of this was missed by the Church. When you add the male regeneration principal to the concept of the world tree, plus a dwelling place for a god, you should readily see why the early Church waged war on trees and then saw the opportunity before it.
The Church did not lose when it adopted those pagan practices and neither did the people today who claim the label of pagan or heathen. By that adoption, they preserved the history of the sacred trees and more for the world to enjoy. But understand, that was not their intention. The Church of that era had no idea how the world would progress, despite their obtrusive interference. Here is a tasty treat for you:
no where in the Bible will you find any link between Jesus, needle-bearing trees, holly, or ivy. Chew on that while you're roasting your chestnuts on an open fire this holiday season.
Author's Notes: This post is not a condemnation of any religion, just a brief note or two of recorded history, laced with opinion diluted by age. My thanks to all who have gone before me. Much of the info can be had on the Internet via Wikipedia. You want more, find it. You may want to look at......
Pagan Christmas...........Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller Ebeling, copyright 2003, 2006, Inner Traditions.....very good stuff.
Copyright @2012 Terry Unger
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