This year I brought a Christmas tree into my home for the first time in my adult life. It's a tradition that I grew up with and always loved along with the songs, ornaments and smell that the tree brought to each winter. Now with a child of my own, I'm becoming conscious of the traditions that I want to include in our family's life. My son is almost two so it's the first Christmas that he is really aware of and curious about. How do I explain this tree that is now in our living room? What do I want it to represent for us and how can we use it to bring mindfulness to the holidays?
I start by imagining a time when our ancestors found each winter to be a challenge, when food was scarce and there were no electric lights to keep the darkness away. They saw the plants around them shed leaves, shrivel and "die" away as the sun only graced the sky for short days. When they observed evergreen trees standing tall and proud with green needles shining through the deepest cold, what a sense of miracle and majesty the trees must have invoked!
These same trees have found their way into modern popular and religious culture as the Christmas tree we know today, with mixed accounts of how this tradition came to be. Stories point to Germany or Latvia as the country with the first Christmas tree and some even go back to origins from the Druids of Northern Europe who decorated their temples with evergreen boughs and the Roman Winter Solstice feast of Saturnalia which also incorporated evergreen decorations.
It's clear that long before the advent of Christianity, trees and plants that remained green through the winter were held in special regard by people who lived in cold climates. And it's easy to see how they could become a symbol of renewal and the hope of spring before being connected to the Christian idea of life everlasting.
The German folk song "O Tannenbaum," which dates back to the 1500's, is filled with awe and love for the plant:
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter.
Du grünst nicht nur
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter.
O fir tree, O fir tree
How loyal are your leaves
You're green not only
in the summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows.
O fir tree, o fir tree
How loyal are your leaves.
In my own quest to understand and reawaken the earth-honoring practices of my Northern European ancestors, I look at modern traditions like the Christmas tree to find clues. I like to imagine my Celtic forebearers gathered in groves each season to pray under the open sky. Perhaps in winter they chose a living evergreen tree in the forest to honor and make offerings to. Maybe they tied cloth and trinkets on the branches and left gifts and food at the base of the trunk. Perhaps they weren't worshipping the tree as an object in itself, but instead honoring it as a living portal that connects heaven and earth.
How can we reclaim this practice and make it meaningful today? How can we be sure that we're not enacting traditions by rote without acknowledging the deeply spiritual significance of including a tree in our celebrations? Here are some suggestions for reclaiming the Christmas tree tradition as a spiritual practice:
Welcome Your Tree As An Honored Guest
Your tree is a living being that has been growing for 4-10 years on Earth before being cut down to spend the last few weeks of its life with you and your family. Before you take it into the door of your home, take a moment to introduce yourself, say thank you and welcome it in with love. If you use smudge or clearing tools, clean off the tree as you set it up or consider singing a song of greeting.
Hold Gratitude For the Medicine of the Plant
When you bring a living tree into your home, you are bringing medicine into your space. Pine, spruce and fir trees are all known to have a wide range of medicinal properties. Pine oil is a remedy for colds and respiratory congestion and fir tips are filled with Vitamin C and antioxidants that can be made into a tea or syrup. The smell and presence of trees have been proven to alter your mood and reduce stress.
Recognize That You Are Building an Altar
When you put up a Christmas tree, you incorporate the four sacred elements of life as we know it: Earth (the tree), Water (in the stand), Air (around the tree and represented by ornaments) and Fire (the lights). In many cultures, trees are thought to be a portal to powerful spiritual energy and a conduit from the earth to the stars. Decorating the tree is a way to adorn your altar and a chance to offer prayers with each object you tie onto it. Try making your own ornaments from objects gathered in nature were you live as well as symbols that have meaning to you (pinecones, acorns, feathers, crystals, photos of loved ones, animal shapes, etc). Gifts shared under the tree are given with intentions for health, happiness and longevity for the receiver.
Honor the Sacred
It may seem wasteful to chop down a beautiful living tree to keep in your home for a fleeting few weeks. For this reason, many may choose to eschew the tradition all together or go with an artificial or symbolic tree, a living tree to replant or an outdoor tree to decorate. But for those who bring a real tree into their homes, perhaps it's a beautiful if bittersweet thing to know that it will die at the end of the celebration. The prayers, blessings, songs and stories shared with the tree may then be taken to the other side of the veil. In this way, the tree in life is a portal and in death is a messenger. It takes with it the grief and sickness of winter and in sacrificing its seemingly immortal life, it sweeps clean our lives in readiness for spring.