Oh, Christmas tree,
oh Christmas tree,
how I love your branches…
When the air starts to turn frisky, the roads in the cities slowly become covered with thin icy layers of ice, and the Christmas decorations flood the stores, so starts the hunt for one of the main components of Christmas. We can all agree, it is the famous Christmas tree.
One can ridicule the ritual a bit by just reimagining it from a distance. Do you, dear reader, understand that every year, at one specific time, the temperatures outside can be very cold or very hot, people from about 160 countries just bring in a huge tree into their living rooms and put it there for a while? And that’s the gist. Oh, yes, and a few sparkly decorations go on it. When isolating this tradition like this we can see how it is both a bit strange, but also sort of beautiful.
To contextualize this idea and ritual of having a Christmas tree in our homes, let’s see how it all came to be. As we bring in flowers from the fields and markets and put them on our tables, and shelves, and decorate our homes with them, so did the Christian and pagan people long ago. Apart from the flowers, when in the Northern hemisphere of the world the temperatures would get lower and the nature would freeze all over, the evergreens, such as spruce, cedar, pine, redwood, yew, hemlock, and a dozen others would serve as the decoration in their homes. From the comforting smell of branches, their clogs that could be used for fire, building houses, their needles that could be of use for numerous health-improving and aromatic teas, to their function as a reminder of the upcoming spring and the blossoming of nature, evergreen trees always offered a sense of comfort and stability, not just beauty.
Though the exact date is unknown, it is presumed that the usage of evergreen trees for Christmas festivities and religious events started around a thousand years ago in Northern Europe. One of the earliest forms of Christmas Trees began as a ‘Paradise Trees’. Long before most of our European population was literate and well-educated, the common people both lived and fought for their lives on the streets, everything of importance would happen there. The trades of goods, public speeches on urgent societal topics, festivities, and everything else in between; basically, the streets and squares were the heart and bloodline of any city-town. As one of the main dates in the Christian calendars would approach, such as the 24 of December, which was considered to be Adam and Eve’s Day all kinds of plays from the Bible would be enacted on the streets. These were known as the Miracle Plays.
One of the main symbols of the Advent and Christmas Eve was a tree. The tree that was supposed to represent the Garden of Eden, the Paradise Tree. The tree served as a kind of ad for the upcoming play, instead of the textual advertisement that most people at the time could not read, the tree would be paraded around the city to let the people know and to gather around for storytime.
The most prominent European countries that helped in establishing the Christmas tree as one of the symbols of Christmas were Germany, Latvia (by some considered the country that had the first official Christmas tree), Estonia, Norway and some Slavic countries. Each of these countries created stories around the ritual of bringing Christmas trees inside. Around the early 1500s in Germany, at the time of the Holy Roman Empire, Germans named these trees ‘Christ Tree’. The tree didn’t only come with its newly acquired name but also received its decorations. The first known ornaments were more or less edible, actually: waffles, nuts, dates, shortbreads, apples covered in golden paint, all found their place in between the evergreen branches. What we know today as Christmas Tree lights, started off with long-standing candles that would be put up carefully on the branches so as to remind people of the shining stars in the night sky. There is even a German tale that suggests how the stars represent Christ’s spirit and angels and, in their effort to bring them closer in their homes for the holy days, people would put candles in trees to remind them of the spirit of Christ.
Arguably, one of the most interesting details around the beginnings of the Christmas Tree ritual was that the first person who thought of bringing a tree was most likely none other than Martin Luther. Yes! The historical figure, Reverend Martin Luther is not only deserving of creating Lutheranism and the Reformation, but also of putting up a tree into his house. Like in our houses today! Thank you, Martin! Around 1536, one night before Christmas he was walking home through the forest and saw the stars shining through the branches of the trees and was amazed by its simplicity and beauty. It reminded him of the Holy Spirit and Christmas time, so he brought a tree home and decorated it with candles to act as stars.
Among many other German, Latvian, and Slavic stories about how the tree came to be, one stands out, centuries after in Great Britain. The royal family helped greatly in popularizing the tree with the masses, so much so that by 1818 having a Christmas tree was a norm among the upper class. Queen Charlotte, the German wife of King George III first started the tradition. Later Queen Victoria with her German husband Prince Albert helped in spreading the image of a tastefully decorated Christmas tree surrounded with food, and gifts, and family. The picture of riches, comfort and togetherness heavily influenced the idea of what Christmas holidays/ holy days should be about, even for latter, more secular societies.
The Tale of Christmas Trees
The morning brought us icy needles to our branches and a new layer of firm snow. I could feel the weight of it covering me like a gentle white giant of the sky. I do not ever protest, even when it’s heavy, just enjoy it’s pressure. I take in the view of my other brothers and sisters covered in snow and how in the morning winter sun they all look beautiful. My home. Our forest. It seems like it’s ready for the day.
A Pine, my dear sister tree, next to me speaks: ‘Ayy, uuuuuh I am so happy! Fir, look at the snow! Ah, bliss.’
She shook for a moment so frivolously that almost all the new snow that covered her whole body and branches fell down to the ground in a beautiful, sparkly fashion. But, it also sent a bird flying out of Hemlock’s lower part, which startled him: ‘Pineeeeeee!!’, he growled to our sister, ‘You woke me up! Again! Why are you so annoying every bloody time there is new snow! Yes, we know, the third newest snow means Tree Day, but why do you always screaaaaam?! That high-pitched sound, I can hardly take it anymore. You scared my tenant even, Mr. Birdy flew away!’
Pine didn’t seem unsettled by our brothers’, Hemlock, antics,: ‘ Ahhh always so grumpy! If I annoy you so much, well be happy. This is our last day together anyhow. Won’t hear from me again.’
‘Nay, nay, let’s not fight on this day, brothers and sisters. Let’s enjoy the most of it and then prepare ourselves for what’s to come this evening. I reckon it is both exciting and scary!’ – I tried to rein them in a bit, with my cheeriness. From a few yards away I could hear Redwood laughing.
‘Hehehehehe, Fir! What’s that, a new word in your foresty slang I hear? ‘Uh, uh I reckon.’ Ahahhahahah, ahhh brother, you sure know how to make me laugh.’
‘Nah, Redwood, I have always been talking like this, you are always just too busy mocking me, but I do not aggravate. Tell me, how was your night?’
Redwood: ‘I do not mock you Fir. I simply-
Both Hemlock and Pine, who have shamelessly been eavesdropping, say: ‘Yes, you do.’ Their branches slightly shake as they nod their trunks in agreement. I know it’s petty, but I felt a slight feeling of victory wash over me, reminded me of the feel of summer rain, such a rarity here. Happens once in a blue moon.
Redwood: ‘Ahhhh alright. I see I am outnumbered. You know it’s just sibling love, brother. Never a real sting. But, to answer your question, I had a beautiful night. I was listening to the faraway sounds of the people in their homes early in the night. They seemed happy. To be honest, I am quite looking forward to seeing them today. Such funny little two-legged creatures. They never cease to surprise me. And then later this night, could you believe it, I saw a red-tailed fox run under my lowest branches. She snickered to me: ‘In an hour, sunflower, ehehehe…’, and swish, she was gone. I don’t even know what that little minx meant.’
Pine: ‘Yes, I heard that too. Gave me a laugh. My night was also eventful, I had a chat with our friend, Raul the Owl. He said that he was sad that I was going since he became such good friends with me. I said he could still come to visit me through the window in the house, but he wasn’t so sure. Said he is too scared of people.’
Hemlock mused: ‘Why? It’s not like they are cutting him.’
Redwood: ‘Nah, stop that Hemlock. It’s not like it’s a sacrifice, or anything that you didn’t know. It happens. It is the circle of life for us. If anything, it is just. The forest, our first home served us, helped us grow and enjoy the riches of this ground and place, and now we repay that by serving in people’s houses. We bring them peace, we bring them our home, our song of the forest to their home. Do not undermine this service, this act of mutual caring, with some pesky comments.’
Hemlock, still pressed on the issue: ‘I don’t see how it’s mutual. We are cut down, we give, we care. They, the people, do nothing. They just take.’
Everyone now, including me, said: ‘That’s not true.’ I continued: Without them who would help with the little animals, who in turn help us, when they are freezing or in need of more food. Or what do you think, that Ol’ Yew, who was being attacked by parasite fungi for years and was suffering terribly, and we were all helpless and in great sadness over him. Remember who helped end his misery? They cut him down to help him. Nothing else, no other use of him. Remember?’
Pine: ‘Fir’s right, Hemlock. Be grateful, or if you can’t do that, be at peace with the circle of life, of the law of our forest. It is always for the best. We are born here, maturing with our great grandparents, they give us their long memory, their wisdom and history through the roots, by the wind, with the rain. Every drop, every ounce, every being counts, everything to make us this strong and marvellous. And then, what’s more, people come to visit us and admire us and the little ones, the cutest, always have the most fun with us. They care the most, the little ones, Children, I think that’s the word they call them, give me so much joy, you can feel their energy through the roots. Brimming with life. I can’t wait to see them again, in their warm homes, to be in their proximity and serve as a reminder of why they are all there. You can not replace the energy of love and belonging. We all belong to this forest. We are made of it, they have grown up with it. We are all apart. Do not forget that.’
Ah, yes. Pine always knew how to give speeches. How to gently lecture any tree sibling. Even one of the most stubborn, like Hemlock. But I could see in his posture that he was a bit ashamed, though still not completely at peace. But, he would come around, I know it.
Every tree in the forest spends the rest of the day enjoying the sunny day, the light snow that was slowly descending, we talked sometimes, laughed. We are at peace. Even Raul the Owl said he would try to stop by occasionally, he also thought, perhaps he can steal a few treats from the tables in the houses where we will reside. We all laughed a bit but tried not to approve. It was hard, scowling an owl, they are pretty good in that game themselves.
The evening neared. We were all mostly brimming with a mix of emotions. Excitement, wonder, some nervous a bit, some at alert. The energy was definitely running high. My capillaries were tremoring with life. I was thinking of a new life I would experience in their homes, serving as their tree. Their chosen Christmas Tree. What a second life, ha? The longitude of it did not matter when it was that full. Time passed differently there than here in the forest. Different laws apply. As the sky became darker, I could feel the first steps on the ground. The first excited voices of people, some even brought their children for the ceremonious cutting. A few yards away, I could feel Hemlock squirming a bit. ‘Hey, brother, you alright?’
Hemlock: ‘Yes. A bit nervous, but alright. I don’t want to be touchy-feely, but I think I am going to miss you a bit.’
Everyone in the forest heard this. No one mocked him or laughed. We all knew what he meant and felt exactly. We all loved each other deeply, and yes, we would miss each other. Each one in the separate houses, at service. But this is where our strength from the Earth comes in.
I said: ‘You are me, and I am you. The love never ends. We keep on living in each other’s memories, and you know how potent our memories are. And in service of anything and anyone, you never die; you keep living in their memories also. People write and tell stories about you. We are also loved by them.’
Some families were very close now, children laughing loudly.
The whole Forest was now humming the Farewell song of Love and Unity now. We were all one now.
I could feel the first cut like a sting now. But it was a good sting, comforting. I welcomed it.
‘Go in peace and love, my brother.’ – everyone seemed to hum.