Notes from the Apothecary: The Christmas Tree
Straight away, I know many of you will be wondering why I’m bringing Christmas to the table, when most of us are looking forward to Yule or the Winter Solstice. Well, it’s because I absolutely adore the tradition of the Christmas tree. And, despite what many people think, it’s not an inherently Pagan symbol, although there are definite Pagan roots, pardon the pun.
Christmas trees are so popular today that they are grown in all 50 American states, including even Hawaii, and most other places in the world. From candlelit trees in Germany in the 1800s to fiber optic light shows today, the Christmas tree is an intrinsic and instantly recognizable part of winter festivities.
The Many Ways to Green the Home in Winter
The Ancient Egyptians brought green palm fronds into the home in winter to celebrate the recover of Ra, and to symbolise life winning out over death. This idea is tied to the winter solstice, which is the shortest day and the longest night. Although the winter solstice is the darkest part of the year, it’s also the turning point; after the solstice, the light begins to return, little by little, day by day. This is mirrored in cultures and religions all over the world.
The Romans celebrated Saturnalia in the lead up to the solstice, and brought evergreen into the home. Druids revered mistletoe, an evergreen parasite often found on sacred trees like the oak. In Scandinavian countries like Norway, evergreens like branches of fir trees were brought into the home.The first appearance of the Christmas Tree seems to have been in 16th century Germany. There’s a tale that the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, was in awe of stars glimmering through the trees. He brought a tree into his home and lit it with candles, thus associating the tree with Christianity. However, it’s important to remember that people have been using evergreens to remind themselves of the returning light for many centuries before Christianity arrived.
Despite the modern debate over whether Christmas trees are pagan or Christian, many Christians initially rejected the Christmas tree because it was too pagan! So, as you can see, it’s not a quandary that looks like being solved any time soon. These days you can decorate your home in winter with:
- Balsam Fir
- Douglas Fir
- Scotch Pine
- Norway Spruce
…to name but a few. There’s something rejuvenating about the smell of fir trees in the house. You can close your eyes and imagine walking through a wintery forest- even when you live in the middle of a city. But what are the other benefits of having a Christmas tree or Yule tree in the home?
Pine resin has been used as a medicine for millennia. Costanoan people have been known to chew the resin (sap) after it sets into a gum like consistency. This is a treatment for rheumatism due to potential anti-inflammatory properties.
Pine resin is also used in some ointments for burns. It may boost cell repair rate and immunity, helping prevent infection.
Pine resin was used in the Civil War as a diuretic and laxative. It’s also used in many places as a natural remedy for colds and coughs. Other historical uses include pine resin for the treatment of:
The Witch’s Kitchen
The pine tree has a history of being used for protection. Boughs of the tree around the boundaries of your home could instill a sense of security and wellbeing, and could, when combined with the right intent, ward off unwanted energies. An alternative would be to scatter pine needles around an area you want protecting.
Pine resin is used extensively in incense and is often called colophony or pine resin. It’s associated with:
Pine resin is excellent for mixing with other resins, woods and herbs as a “base” for other magical properties.
At yuletide, the fir or pine tree is a symbol of the peak of winter, the height of darkness. These trees can survive in any season, and they remind us that we can do the same.
Home and Hearth
No space for a tree? No problem. Bring in a single bough and place it in a sacred place or over a door. Hang some mistletoe, trail some ivy along a mantelpiece, or stick a sprig of holly amongst your decorations.
Be aware that some people can become irritated by pine needles or sap, so take care especially if you have sensitive skin. Enjoy the benefits of greenery in the home which include better mood, a stronger connection to the seasons and a reminder of the coming solstice.
I Never Knew…
There’s a Salish ritual in which fir branches are used for warding off ghosts. Perhaps useful against those ghosts of Christmas past, present and future…?
About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.