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O, Christmas Tree
Hope and gladness. For millions of years, back to the very first Homo Sapiens, to prehistoric humans up through ancient Egypt and Rome, Britain and Scandinavia, up to this very day, evergreen trees, indeed all trees, have been revered as symbols of hope and gladness. They are symbols of life everlasting, of the new growth to come and of earth's fecundity. During Winter Solstice we are glad that winter's decent into the dark has ended and we rejoice. We decorate evergreen trees and drape boughs and wreaths over doorways to remind us of the life to come.Trees were probably one of the first things we worshipped. They were the largest plants around, providing food for us and other animals. And they were always there. From childhood through adulthood and onto to old age for generations and generations the trees kept time for us. Our mother's mother told stories about a tree her mother's mother knew and that same tree still stands so that we may know her. Is it any wonder then that trees became the very symbol of life everlasting, of strength and fecundity?But not everyone remembers our species long interconnection with trees.
This past week we learned that while many of us were giving thanks for the many gifts we have some one (or ones) tried to kill Luna with a chainsaw. They failed. When I heard the news I cried. It saddens and disappoints me to think that some people have chosen to forget and consequently act so small. So this column is for Luna, symbol of hope and gladness to thousands of people around the world.
The winter solstice is that time of year when the sun is at its lowest point on the horizon and daylight is shortest. Ancient people everywhere created rituals to encourage the sun's rebirth and welcome the lengthening days.
Ancient Egyptians celebrated for 12 days, one day for each of the 12 divisions of their sun calendar. They decorated their homes and temples with greenery, a symbol of everlasting life. They choose palm fronds with 12 shoots to represent the completion of the year.
The Romans called their celebration Saturnalia in honor of their god of agriculture and seed sowing, Saturn. (Saturday is named for him.) The Romans celebrated for days; they used boughs of evergreen to decorate their homes as well as the temple of Saturn. They suspended business, visited with friends, exchanged gifts and feasted.
Scandinavians celebrated the solstice as Yule. In Norse mythology the first man sprang from an evergreen ash tree. And so ash tree is revered as the world tree, Yggdrasill, it overshadows the whole universe. It's roots, trunk and branches holding together Heaven, Earth and the Netherworld. At solstice the sun rises at 9am and sets at 3pm, making for a very short day. Evergreens were cherished as nature's way to remind them of springs rebirth and life after the cold and darkness of winter and were used to decorate their barns and houses.The tradition of burning the Yule log comes to us from Scandinavia. Each year at the solstice a fresh log would be cut, it could not be purchased that would be unlucky. The log was dragged into he house and placed on the cold hearth. The log was lit by a piece of last year's log which had been kept under a bed keeping the home safe form fire and lightning. It was considered good luck if the log caught fire on the first try, if not ill fortune may come upon the family in the next year. Once lit the log must be kept burning for 12 hours. In this way the tree imparts it's protection on the house and its inhabitants.
Tree worship can be traced back through Judaism and Christianity. Aaron and his younger brother Moses had a magic staff; it turned into an asp and started the three Plagues of Egypt. After the exodus it was the staff of Aaron that decided who the future high priests would be and when it was done helping to create a homeland for the Israelites it turned into an almond tree and gave forth fruit. Acacia trees were carried by the Israelites form Egypt into the new land where it was used to build their tabernacle and the Arc of the Covenant. The wood from the Acacia was considered sacred. As you can see the Christian tradition of honoring and decorating a Christmas tree is nothing new. Some say it began in the 8th century when St. Boniface stumbled on a group of pagans worshiping an oak tree and about to sacrifice a small child. Immediately the good saint rushed to the child's defense, he grabbed the sacrificial axe and in one mighty swing felled the oak. Bending down to pick up the child who he had just saved he noticed a tiny spruce tree growing between the roots of the oak. The spruce tree became the symbol of new life. He told the stunned onlookers that this was a sacred tree of God, a tree of the Christ child, God's gift to man. Such a tree should be taken into the home; decorated and surrounded by gifts to remind us of God's many gifts to us. (Spruce trees also came to represent Christianity's "defeat" of paganism)
During the Middle Ages the Feast of Adam and Eve was celebrated on December 24. Evergreens were decorated with red apples.Later, around the beginning of the 16th century Martin Luther was walking through the woods one dark wintry night when he saw the stars twinkling through tree branches like so many tiny celestial lights. Then he had an idea; he would chop down an evergreen and take it home where he decorated it with candles to teach his son about Jesus being the light of the world.From Germany the Christmas tree spread to France when the Princess Helene de Mecklembourg married the Duke of Orleans in 1521. It wasn't until the mid-1800 that the Christmas tree made it the England. Again a marriage was the vehicle. Prince Albert of Germany married Queen Victoria. That Christmas in 1841 the Princes set up and decorated a tree in Windsor Castle.The first Christmas tree in the United States was introduced by the Hessians in 1776. It seems General George Washington was being defeated by the hired Hessians when Christmas time came around. The Hessians celebrated according to their custom, decorating trees and generally taking some time off. On December 26, while the Hessians were celebrating General Washington was able to rally his troops and defeat the unwary mercenaries. After the decisive battle many of them decided to stay in the fledgling country and no doubt shared their traditions with their neighbors.
Christmas trees didn't become really popular here until the late 1800's and when electricity was discovered their popularity mushroomed. Today in the United States it is expected that over 40 million Christmas trees will be set up and decorated. We participate in this ritual much like our ancestors did in times long past and for the same reasons. They give us hope and gladness