I love walking through the woods on a clear crisp day; there’s something comforting about the bare branches soaring above my head, and the way the colours and textures of the bark are so much more noticeable. Even in winter the woods are full of life and the evergreens, with their vivid green foliage and berries, stand out as sentinels against the backdrop of the deciduous trees.
As we start to put up our Christmas trees, wreaths and lights, we are following a tradition of decorating our homes with evergreens that has its origins in Celtic and Norse pagan beliefs. The early Christian Church wanted to discourage these practices, as they were a reminder of earlier pagan traditions but fortunately for us, they pragmatically decided to build on the evergreens’ characteristics to symbolise aspects of the Christian message, and today Holly, Ivy and Christmas fir trees are a key component of carols, cards and decorations.
In Celtic mythology the woods were ruled by two powerful kings, the Holly and the Oak. The Holly King gained power at the Summer Solstice and ruled over the gradual shortening of the days until the Winter Solstice, when the Oak King regained the upper hand and ruled over the re-emergence of Spring and Summer.
The combination of white flowers, red berries and evergreen leaves meant that Holly was traditionally seen as a symbol of fertility and protection, and it was originally brought into our homes as a defence against evil spirits and witches.
In rural folklore, witches were believed to fly along the tops of hedges, so Holly was frequently left uncut as a prickly deterrent. For the more practical farmer however, their distinctive evergreen shape also offered a clear line of sight that helped them cut straight furrows during winter ploughing.
The power of the Holly King meant that the wood and the leaves contained an element of control and led to three power related traditions. Coppiced Holly was used to make whip rods for carriages as it was believed to provide control over horses. Trees were planted near houses to prevent lightning strikes and depending on whether prickly or smooth leaved holly was brought into the house first, it would decide whether the husband or the wife had control over the house for the coming year.
Closely linked to Holly in our Christmas carols is the Ivy – a ground or climbing vine that has its own root system to absorb nutrients and water and uses the tree as a support to reach better light levels. The pair symbolised the male (Holly) and the female (Ivy) and traditionally it was believed that by putting the two together it would bring peace into the household.
Whilst all parts of the Ivy are toxic to humans, the distinctive yellow flowers and black berries provide an important source of food for insects. Deer and sheep will eat Ivy and it has also been used as an emergency winter food for cattle.
Because the mature plant flowers in winter, it has traditionally been used to decorate our homes to keep evil spirits at bay. On a more positive note however, because of its entwining climbing habit, Ivy was a symbol of fidelity and is still frequently used in bridal bouquets and flower decorations.
For a toxic plant whose berries can cause breathing problems if eaten and whose sap can cause blistering and dermatitis, Ivy has a range of traditional medicinal uses. Ground up it can be used as a tea to relieve nervous energy and increase relaxation. The leaves and berries act as a stimulant and the plant can be used to treat skin disorders. It is currently being studied for its anti-inflammatory uses.
Every year since 1947, a 50 to 60-year-old Norway Spruce has been cut down during November in a ceremony attended by the British Ambassador to Norway, the Mayor of Oslo and the Lord Mayor of Westminster. The tree is a gift from the people of Norway for Britain’s support during the Second World War. It is always decorated in traditional Nordic style and the Christmas Tree lights in Trafalgar Square are turned on at a ceremony led by the two mayors. Trees are also sent to Edinburgh, New York and Washington DC.
The Norway Spruce can live for up to 1000 years and reach a height of 40 metres. Its young shoots are a rich source of Vitamin C and can be used as a syrup and as a tea that are effective remedies for flue, coughs and asthma. Perhaps its longevity and medicinal uses are some of the reasons why in Nordic mythology it represented long life, courage, endurance and positivity.
Whilst we can’t be certain when the first decorated Christmas Tree was brought inside; the custom of decorating a fir tree at Christmas was introduced to Britain by Prince Albert. A drawing by JL Williams, ‘The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle’, was published in 1848 in the Illustrated London News to show this new custom.
In a wonderful historical circle, this Germanic tradition has a legendary English link through St Boniface. Born in Devon (Crediton is listed as a potential birth place, though the source can’t be verified), St Boniface – born Winfrid in approximately 675, was educated at the monastery in Exeter before becoming a priest. He undertook a range of missionary work and in 719, Pope Gregory 2 agreed to send him to Hesse, Thuringia and Bavaria (in modern Germany) to rekindle the Christian faith and tackle the resurgence of Pagan belief.
The Christmas Tree legend builds on St Boniface’s decision to destroy the ‘Thunder Oak’ in the village of Geismar. This mighty Oak was the focus for a winter Pagan festival that involved human sacrifice and St Boniface believed that by destroying the Oak, he would demonstrate the power of the Christian God and convert the local people. After the tree had fallen a small fir tree was found growing next to it and St Boniface used its evergreen leaves as a symbol of Christian everlasting life.
by Jane Halliday
There are many legends about the origins of Christmas Trees, as well as the symbolism of the evergreens we use to decorate our homes during Winter and you can find out more through the following links.