"Every year at just this time,
In cold and dark December,
Families around the world
All gather to remember,
With presents and with parties,
With feasting and with fun,
Customs and traditions
for people old and young"
Helen H. Moore
December is here, and many of us will decorate our homes with fresh greens for the holidays. In doing so, we are continuing in traditions that span not only the centuries, but various cultures of the world. It is important to acknowledge the history and rituals associated with the adorning of our abodes with fragrant fir and balsam, as well as boxwood, holly and other seasonal greens.
The ancient Egyptians treasured and worshipped plants that symbolized everlasting life. Their quest for immortality, evidenced by their elaborate funerary plans, also led them to decorate at the Winter Solstice with green date palm leaves. The palm tree is generally regarded as symbolizing victory, and was used by these ancient people to signify life's triumph over death. As in most ancient cultures, their lives were ruled by the seasons, with times of plenty, and times of want. Anything that might help in them gain even a small measure of control over the vagaries of Mother Nature would appeal to them. During the Solstice, a time when night is longer than day, they would be sure to appease the gods and goddesses and ensure that the lean season would be followed by a fruitful one.
The ancient Greeks and Romans revered evergreens, too, as they felt they represented supernatural powers. These plants always stayed green and full of life, not withering and losing their vitality as the end of the growing season approached. As a symbol of the coming spring, evergreen trees were decorated with metal ornaments, and with Romans, figures of Bacchus. The Roman celebration of Saturnalia (see December Discourse for more info) included the adorning of temples and homes with greenery.
The Druids of ancient Great Britain continued this use of evergreens, believing them to be useful in the chasing away of evil spirits. To them, holly and mistletoe represented eternal life, and they took great pains to correctly harvest these sacred symbols for use in their ceremonies.
During the Middle Ages in Germany and Scandinavia, people began to bring greens into their homes to demonstrate their hope in the coming year. St. Boniface, over 1000 years ago, was incensed by the pagan worship of an oak tree. He ordered it cut down, and in its place a fir tree sprang up, which he claimed was a sign from God and therefore sacred. This was seen as a recognition of the death of paganism and the beginning of Christianity.
Christmas trees as we now know them are a relatively new phenomenon in the greening of our holidays. Legend has it that Martin Luther decorated the first tree with lights in 1500. Supposedly he was walking through the forest and was enchanted by the shimmering of moonight on firs that had been dusted with a light snow. So taken was he by the sight that he brought a tree home and lit it with candles to simulate the twinkling of the stars over Bethlehem. However, the city of Riga, Latvia, insists that the first New Year's Tree (or Christmas tree) was actually adorned in their town square in 1510, and a plaque to that effect (in six languages) can be found on the very spot the tree was erected.
Still, Christmas trees didn't catch on with most people until they got some good press (just like today!). Queen Victoria's Prince Albert, a German, had been decorating with Christmas trees in the palace since 1841. An illustration of his efforts in 1848 that appeared in Godey's magazine led to much greater acceptance of this tradition, and Christmas trees soon became a status symbol and eventually trickled down to more common folk. The first White House Tree was installed by our 14th president, Franklin Pierce, in 1855. President Calvin Coolidge ramped up the stakes when he decked out the first National Tree Lighting on the White House Lawn in 1923. In New England, though, Christmas and all its trappings were still frowned upon by those old Puritan values, and such holiday traditions were slow to catch on. As late as 1870, schools in Boston were still open on Christmas Day, and it was business as usual.
Fragrant evergreens are now firmly entrenched in our holiday festivities. The sweet, clean, and fresh scent of balsam is one of my favorite seasonal smells. Even if you prefer an artificial tree for ease of cleanup or cost, you can use wreaths, swags and other fresh greenery to scent your home and round out your decor. Use them and continue the age-old customs of hope, triumph and eternal life, connecting with the spirit of festivals from long ago.
The following is a list of evergreens that can be used in holiday decorating. I have included long-held beliefs and traditional symbolism as to their meanings. You may want to consider that pine and yew have meanings that don't necessarily connect with our holidays today, and are more suitable for funerals than the celebrating of the end of winter and hopes for a new year.
Arborvitae Unchanging friendship
Boxwood Long life, Immortality
Mistletoe Surmounting difficulties
Spruce Hope in adversity
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