Let’s talk about trees! (Said more people than you might expect. We are in North Idaho, after all). Honestly, though, I do enjoy a good tree talk. Comparing the merits of various squirrel and bird shelters is much more fun than raking up the carpet of helicopters my backyard maple creates or sending up fervent non-denominational prayers whenever a loud thump rattles the roof, hoping it was just a small branch and not an entire limb of the huge split-crown pine looming treacherously over the house. Potential destruction notwithstanding, I think trees are magnificent, and that anyone who disagrees with this statement should live elsewhere. No, really, pack up your bags and head to the Sahara. I’ll wait.
Now that we’ve established our mutual non-sexual dendrophilia, do you have a favorite tree? I like trees so much I can’t pick a favorite species (also, I’m notoriously bad at identifying them), but I do have a favorite *type* and that, my friends, is the mighty evergreen. I appreciate a golden autumn glow as much as anybody, but there is something magical about the tree that never drops its needles, standing endlessly tall and proud and green through the coldest, darkest days of winter. And even though trees usually belong outside, this just so happens to be the perfect time of year to bring our aromatic companions inside our homes, in the guise of the venerable Christmas Tree.
Most people these days realize that the tradition of the Christmas tree has its roots (couldn’t resist) in the pagan Yule log, wished on and lit from the remains of the previous years’ log on the eve of the winter solstice. In “The Solstice Evergreen,” Sheryl Ann Karas describes how the story of Christ was connected to the Tree of Life in the Middle Ages, with early representations of Jesus showing him crucified in a flowering tree. The mostly illiterate people of the age learned biblical stories through plays, knows as Paradise Plays in Germany, with the only prop being a symbol representing both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Centuries later, this “paradise tree” entered Christian homes as a symbol of the savior and often shared space with the Yule Tree, symbolizing eternal life; eventually, the two trees probably merged into one. The original Yule Tree was brought inside in a tub, still living and undecorated, but eventually the trees became cut and a variety of decorations used; apples from the Paradise Tree, white wafers representing the eucharist, pastries in the shapes of stars, angels, and other symbols, and garlands of roses. According to Susan Pezsnecker in “Yule,” Martin Luther and St. Boniface are also credited with the invention of the custom, but it can be traced back at least to ancient Egypt. For more details about this fascinating progression, I also recommend this article by Earl Layser, cited below.
Personally, I find rituals more satisfying when I understand their origins, and even though the ultimate origins of the Christmas tree may be buried under layers of history and a variety of religious traditions, still, whether Christian or pagan or something in between, I hope we can all find something to enjoy about bringing a bit of nature inside our homes to brighten the longest night of the year and celebrate the turning of the seasons.
Happy solstice, and happy holidays!
Vanessa Velez, Collection Development Librarian