12 December, 2013
With Christmas coming up, we’ve just put up the office Christmas tree. But why a tree? And what about the Yule log, the holly and the mistletoe? What is the fascination with trees at Christmas?
Like Christmas itself, these symbolic decorations probably grew out of an amalgamation of pagan festivals and traditions. Our ancestors celebrated the midwinter. The shortest day of the year, 21 December, was a crucial event for people who relied on sunshine for crops, light and warmth. Midwinter promised lengthening days to follow, heralding the return of spring and new life.
The winter days are at their shortest in the far north. At Maeshowe chambered tomb in Orkney, midwinter is famously when the sun shines straight down the passage, illuminating the far end of the main chamber.
Keeping warm was of course a key theme. The druids are said to have blessed a log and burned it for the 12 days of the midwinter celebration. The Vikings also used a burning log – traditionally from an ash trees. Ash trees were sacred both to the druids and to the Vikings.
In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil – the World Tree – grew on an island in the middle of an ocean. Said to be an ash (or sometimes a yew) this sacred tree had its roots in the underworld, while its branches reached up to the heavens. Vikings were often called Aescling, ‘men of ash’ – though this may be because they often used ash to make spears and other weapons.
In Scotland, ash wood was believed to have magical healing properties. New-born babies were given a teaspoon of ash sap. Ailing children, especially those suffering from rupture or weak limbs, would be passed naked through a cleft in an ash tree or ash sapling, to cure them. Ash had more practical uses too: it is the best wood for burning. It burns with a bright flame – even when freshly cut and green.
Christmas trees were probably first introduced to the United Kingdom from Germany, where Christmas has long been celebrated with a Tannenbaum, or fir tree. The tradition was probably imported by Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III.
Charlotte is believed to have had a tree brought over and decorated for her family in the 1790s. The tradition quickly became popular in Britain, and it had a fundamental effect on forestry. Within a few years, demand for the traditional Christmas tree, the Norway spruce, far exceeded supply. For the first time plantations of alien conifers appeared in the Scottish countryside.
The earliest origins of this tradition are unknown, but it is probably associated with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which took place in December and was another precursor of Christmas. During this festival, there was a reversal of traditional roles, with slaves wearing fine garments and sitting at the head of the table. (This tradition survived into the 1500s in England, with a ‘Lord of Misrule’ was appointed on the 12th Night, the last night of the winter festival.) At Saturnalia, families gave each other gifts, and homes were decorated with wreaths and greenery.
The druids also held festivals to mark midwinter. For them, holly, ivy and mistletoe held special significance. As an evergreen, holly represented life surviving through the winter. An early-Christian tradition adopted holly, claiming it had been used for Jesus’ crown of thorns, and that it was his holy blood that made holly berries red.
Ivy, also evergreen, has long been associated with enduring life. Its tenacious grip and interweaving growth pattern led to its use as a symbol for lasting friendship and loyalty.
Mistletoe was associated with masculinity and fertility by the druids, and it featured prominently in their rituals. In Norse mythology, it was associated with death. Christianity seems to have adopted it at an early stage, and by the 1700s it was commonly used in Britain as a Christmas decoration. The tradition that couples meeting under mistletoe must kiss seems to date from the 1500s. Its origins are obscure – but if the party’s swinging enough, who’s asking?