Seasonal Meditation: Holiday Trees

I bought our holiday tree yesterday. (Yes, damn it, in this house it’s a HOLIDAY tree. We celebrate the Winter Solstice with it; a few days later, Christmas with the Christians in the family; and several days after that, Yule.) As I was putting it up in the living room, I got to thinking about the tree, its symbolism and its usages when it’s done being a decoration.

Although our tree is a Fraser Fir, many types of “Christmas trees” exist. I prefer a Scots Pine for its longer needles but I can’t easily get one of those in this part of the country so I get what I can. (Please do not call it a Scotch Pine in my presence. I’m prickly about my heritage. Scotch is an alcoholic beverage. I am not – most of the time ;).) However, whether you purchase a Fir, Pine or Spruce, they’re all members of the Pinaceae family and share so many qualities.

The first and most obvious things they share: they’re all evergreen and the majority of them are highly aromatic. When I was nine or ten, my family drove up to Lake Itasca (Minnesota, headwaters of the Mississippi) in my great-aunt’s Cadillac with air conditioning. It was my first time in a car during the summer where the windows were rolled up the entire trip. When we arrived at the heavily-forested park and opened the doors, the smell of pine smacked us in the face. It was heavenly.

Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) thought pine forests were good for people who didn’t recover well from long illnesses. He said the air in a wooded region was more beneficial than a sea voyage to Egypt. I can relate. That memory of strong pine smell has remained with me all these – ahem – decades. I find Pine aroma to be a refreshing one and love bringing that into the house this time of year. (No, I don’t use PineSol® when cleaning. It smells artificial. Ick.)

History doesn’t really differentiate between Fir, Pine and Spruce, so I’ll have to more or less talk about the Pinaceae Family as a whole. (Cedar is also in this Family but is more readily identifiable.) I’ll use the word Pine. Substitute as you see fit. Some things you may not have known:

The Pine tree was dedicated to numerous Greek/Roman gods, including Artemis/Diana; Demeter/Ceres; and Dionysus/Bacchus. Pine cones were laid on monuments dedicated to the Egyptian god Osiris.

Pine is a symbol of immortality & victory and was used as a funeral emblem. (Did you know? Firs, in the proper environment, can live up to 800 years!)

Conversely, because of the phallic shape of most cones and the many seeds produced, it’s a symbol of fertility. In between birth & death, because they’re evergreen, they’re used in marriage as a symbol of constant love.

Even as late as 1930, it was used to ward off evil spirits: striking cattle with branches (Germany); or nailing branches to a stable door (England). In Bohemia, bullets were made of the seeds for hunting & these bullets were said to never miss their mark.

The “Christmas Tree” as we know it today didn’t truly come into being until the 19th century. Early Germanic tribes hung Pine branches around the house and burned lights to ward off evil spirits during Yuletide*. At some point they brought the whole tree inside and decorated it with candles – combining the two protective things into one. Mention of a “decorated” tree doesn’t happen until the 16th century, when the trees were hung with apples & wafers. Children would shake the tree to get the treats to fall. The first non-food decorations finally appeared in the early 17th century, when paper rosettes accompanied the apples, wafers and sweets.

On the medicinal side, Pine is an example of where the Ancients, many Native Americans and modern science agree. The leaves (needles), bark and resin are all used in steam inhalations to relieve respiratory infections. A decoction of the root is helpful for constipation or urinary tract infections. (You can also make a decoction of the bark or leaves if you don’t have a pine root around. They’re rather large.) The resin, when melted & applied, helps heal skin wounds; or you can inhale the fumes from burning resin to help a headache. Infuse the leaves or bark into an oil (or simply dilute the essential oil) and use as a rub for arthritis or minor muscle strain.

Magically, all members of the Pinaceae family are protective and purifying. They are also quite useful in healing spells; and because of the number of seeds, spells of increase (fertility, wealth, etc.) Pine resin is easy to obtain from cuts on fresh trees or in the case of Fraser Firs, by bursting “blisters” on the bark. Once dried, it makes a wonderful incense on its own or combined with other woodsy-smelling herbs. (In Pliny’s time, it was sold as “imitation incense”. LOL.)

I collected a little resin while putting the tree up (not many blisters on this one). Once our tree has served its holiday purpose, I will dry some needles and bark for future use. The rest of the tree will eventually grace our fireplace; the largest piece of the trunk will become next year’s Yule log – on December 28th*. I’m old-fashioned.

* Yuletide was once 13 days, beginning on the first full moon after the Winter Solstice. With the introduction of the Julian and subsequent Gregorian calendars (and some finagling by the Church), it now officially begins on December 25th, regardless of what date the Solstice or full moon falls on; although … a lot of people celebrate it on the Winter Solstice.

Further Reading:
Marcel de Cleene & Marie Claire LeJeune, Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe, Ghent, Belgium: Man & Culture Publishers, 2003
J. T. Garrett, The Cherokee Herbal, Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2003