Tree Lore | The Five Sacred Evergreens of Christmas

evergreens of christmasIt is customary to decorate our homes with evergreens at Christmas; love it or hate it, it is a tradition we are all familiar with. Yet whilst these evergreens have become symbolic of the Christian faith, it is interesting to note that their use at mid-winter stretches even further back in time to our earlier pagan ancestors .

This is not to belittle Christian Christmas celebrations in any way, but for me personally, it is so intriguing to discover the origins of our myths and traditions, and sometimes, they can be quite surprising.

As I have become more aware of the Celtic calendar, I have grown to enjoy and anticipate mid-winter. Nowadays, it does not come with the harsh struggle for survival our ancestors faced, but the dark and cold and near-death of winter are a stark reminder of just how fortunate we are.  I love that the solstice means longer brighter days are already on the way. I love that a few weeks later, it will be Imbolc, the first day of Celtic spring.

These dates were held as auspicious and celebrated by the ancient peoples. Despite its darkness and hardship, these festivals, brightened with their huge fires and sense of community working together, must have made the winter pass more quickly.

I described winter as a near-death, and indeed so it must have seemed; the sun was distant and weak, unable to warm earth or air, unable to hold back the night; trees wept leaves like tears; plants melted into the earth, inert beneath frozen or sodden ground; birds flew away; animals hibernated or migrated. The only vivacious sign of life flourishing in the land whilst all else wasted, was the evergreens. No wonder they became a beacon of hope, a symbol of endurance and survival. No wonder people brought them into their homes as a reminder.

The following are my five favourite evergreens…

Ilex-aquifolium (Europaeische Stechpalme-1) by Jürgen Howaldt - Own work (selbst erstelltes Foto). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Commons - httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwikiFileIlex-aquifolium_(Europaeische_Stechpalme-1).jpthe holly king – cuillean (kwill-un)

I adore the glossy vibrant green leaves and bold red berries of the holly! I know the leaves are fearsomely spiky, but just looking at holly is enough to brighten even the dullest grey winter’s day. Nowadays, we hang it in wreaths on our front doors to bid a cheery Christmas welcome to visitors, but our ancient ancestors believed it protected their homes from lightning. How? Well if you missed it first time around, you can read all about it here in my post Tree Lore in Irish Mythology | Holly, King of Winter. 

"Mistletoe Berries Uk" by Alexbrn - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mistletoe_Berries_Uk.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mistletoe_Berries_Uk.jpg#/media/File:Mistletoe_Berries_Uk.jpgmistletoe – drualas (droo-ah-lus)

Beloved of the Druids, mistletoe was also known by the name of ‘All-Heal’ as its medicinal properties were thought to be extremely varied. This is what Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian of the C1st AD wrote about mistletoe…

“The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak…. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.”

Mistletoe was used by our ancient ancestors for its powers of protection, healing, fertility, and good luck. It was seen as a symbol of freedom, for it wasn’t earthbound like the trees it grew upon.

When it chose the venerated and mighty oak as its host, the King of the Forest, revered by the Druids,  the message was powerful; the oak, solid, male, sturdy; the mistletoe upon its arm, female, fertile. Together, they signified unity and partnerships,  a symbol of fertility and renewal founded on solidity and strength. In fact, it is said that so profound and respected was this pairing, battles would be stopped if the warriors came upon them during their combat.

Here’s a little known fact; the church banned the use of mistletoe for hundreds of years due to they extent to which it was venerated by the pagans. It regained popularity among the Victorians for kissing beneath, thus reviving the association of the white berries with peace, fertility and so with love.

Here’s another little oddball fact; remember the bog-body named Lindow man found near Liverpool? Apparently he died, or was killed, after ingesting mistletoe pollen. Interesting.

ivy – eidhneán (eye-naun)

Queen to winter’s Holly King. The Ivy represents growth, renewal and connection. It was greatly admired for its determination to survive, and its propensity to return, no matter how seriously damaged, much like the human spirit.

Its Irish name derives from a word meaning cord for the way it spiralled around trees and clung on vigorously. If you have ever tried to pull ivy from the trunk of a tree, you will know just how tenacious and strong it is!

Incidentally, the spiral is also a popular symbol found in much of Ireland’s ancient rock art. It is thought to perhaps symbolise eternity. In much the same way, ivy found growing on a dead tree, or the tree which in winter appears to be dead, was thought to symbolise the soul living on beyond the death of the body.

In the past, ivy was seen not just as a symbolic plant, but as a healer too; it was used to treat corns, burns and scalds, as well as to stop bleeding and reduce inflammation.

Scots pine forest covered in snow in winterthe scots pine – péine albanach (pain-uh alb-an-ah)

The Scots Pine is a native Irish evergreen tree which was widespread thousands of years ago. Pollen and pine stumps have been found standing in bogs where they originally grew dating to seven thousand years ago. It is thought that human action on the land and climate change were responsible for their decline. Fortunately, the Scots Pine was re-introduced to Ireland 150 years ago, and is flourishing here once again.

The Scots Pine was listed in the Brehon Law as a ‘Chieftain tree’ with the name ochtrach. It was also known as ‘the sweetest of woods’, which would seem to indicate that it may have been aromatic when burned. Certainly its needles were dried and burned with juniper for cleansing and purification purposes, and it was used in the bonfires of the Winter Solstice celebrations.

Medicinally, its resin was used to treat respiratory problems, and for its antiseptic and disinfectant properties.

In Irish mythology, when tragic heroine Deirdre of the Sorrows and her lover Naoise perished, it was said that Scots Pines grew out of their graves and intertwined.

juniper – aiteal (at-al)

The juniper is a native evergreen of Ireland that has an association with Christmas through an old Italian legend. The story goes that as Jesus and his family fled from Herod, the juniper trees stretched out their branches and enlarged their leaves to hide their passage. In honour of this, boughs were cut and used to decorate homes at Christmas.

In Ireland, it was known as ‘the yew of the rock’, because it flourished in barren, open rocky places rather than in the heart of the forest. It was also associated with the west wind, which is the direction in which the Otherworld is located, and would therefore seem to have magical connotations.

In fact, its soft aromatic wood was used by our ancient ancestors in their sacred fires for purification purposes, and the fragrant smoke was thought to aid clairvoyance and stimulate contact with Otherworldly beings.

The familiar blue-black berries take two years to ripen, and are used to flavour gin and meat dishes. They have a very strong flavour… less, is definitely more! Juniper berries were used in iron-age cooking, and you can read more about this in my post, Eating Like the Ancestors, an Experiment in Iron-Age Cuisine.

But the berries also contained healing properties; they were thought to aid digestion, and were used for stomach ailments. Here in Co Cavan, where I live, juice was extracted from the berries and administered specifically to cure dropsy (oedema). It was used in childbirth to stimulate contractions, and also in abortions.

You can read more about the origins of Christmas in my other seasonal posts;

Holly, King of Winter

5 Sacred Symbols of Christmas and their Pagan Origins

So What Did We Do In Winter Before The Christians Invented Christmas?

The Pre-Christian Origins of Christmas Decorating

And if like me you can’t get enough of Irish mythology, why not give yourself  a chrissy pressie this year? Perhaps one of these… because you’re worth it!

You can buy them on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Smashwords.

NOLLAIG SHONA DHÍBH!

(null-ig hun-a yeev)

Happy Christmas to you!

Sources and further reading

http://treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythology-folklore/scots-pine/

http://www.thetreecouncil.ie

http://www.nativewoodlandtrust.ie/en/learn/irish-trees

http://www.forestryfocus.ie/social-environmental-aspects/cultural-heritage/trees-and-folklore/sacred-and-magical-trees/

http://www.livingtreeeducationalfoundation.org/trees_ireland.html

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore By Patricia Monaghan

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58 thoughts on “Tree Lore | The Five Sacred Evergreens of Christmas

  1. Great reading, Ali. So we’ve not even had the Winter Solace yet and the first day of Winter is still just under a week away, yet Daffodil bulbs are already in full bloom here in Wales. I can’t imagine what Winter’s were like thousands of years ago, but I’m so glad that we still follow many of the traditions of our ancestors. For me, Christmas is not Christmas without some Holy inside the house. I always stick a sprig of it on the Christmas Pudding.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your daffodils are blooming already??? Oh no! They’ll all be killed in the first frost, there might not be many for spring. The seasons are so topsy turvy, aren’t they? I have to get my wellies on and visit the bottom of my garden, I think one of my little holly bushes is covered in berries, and I wasn’t expecting it to be. If it is, I will cut a few sprigs for the house… how lovely it will be to be able to bring Christmas greenery into the house from my own garden! I’ve always had to buy it in before.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes…well at least some of them are. There is even cherry blossom coming out on some of the trees. We’ll probably have a White Easter seeing as it is at the end of March next year. Our holly bushes and trees are covered in red berries this year. I was told that it meant we were in for a hard winter (it’s an old wives tale), but so far that has been far from true, especially as the UK is on course to have its warmest December in over 100 years.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this story your descriptions always take me on a journey to place I long for in my heart. The birthplace of my ancestors and this reminded me of stories I heard from my Gram and her sisters. Lovely story I’m eager to dig into your books over the holidays. 😊🎄

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know that yearning, longing feeling. Maybe one day you will be able to visit. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. If you do get to read any of my books, I hope they bring Ireland a little closer for you, and that you enjoy them. Happy Christmas!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Terri! We are so used to all our traditions we don’t tend to think very deeply about them, and yet they all have hidden meaning and fascinating origins. Knowing that makes you feel more connected, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Always fascinating, Ali. I have always been interested in the connection between early/pagan rituals and modern religion. This is great info about the evergreens…no doubt they were welcome in those harsh winters. The juniper story…a favorite and new to me. So, thanks. Again. Your blog is special. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Holly, Ivy, Pine, Juniper and Mistletoe, constitute an interesting five-some in the diversity of botanical features and in their associations with pagan beliefs including Christmas. Your narration brings it out in all detail and relevance, Ali, specially in the current context of wintry clime and Yuletide. My fond wishes to you and yours (including the little one) for merry Xmas and happy days ahead, stretching all through 2016…xxcheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Rajagopal! They are an interesting combination, aren’t they? I love how the traditions we take for granted go back further than we think. Knowing more about them means we can honour and respect them better. Knowing their origins gives greater meaning for me anyway. I hope 2016 will be happy and peaceful for you and your family. All the best to you!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the fact that the shortest day means Spring is coming as well! It is far more hopeful and joyous to me than Midsummer, which feels like the last gasp of the turning year. You can see why the Christians chose this time of year to celebrate their Messiah of hope. A lovely post – the holly is my favourite too, closely followed by ivy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks David! You like these Christmas posts, dont you? I like that thought about honouring the evergreen… I dont think anyone realises it any more, but that’s what we’re doing. Humongous Happy Christmas Hugs to you! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love all f your posts Ali but the Christmas ones do tend to show that Christianity is really a set of beliefs borrowed from everyone including the Pagan, rather than as most Christians think a mode of worship created by the church for their festivals.
        I was talking to my son in law not too long ago and he’s a very committed christian. He was telling me how important Jesus was, how he’d had 12 disciples, been a virgin birth, made the sick to walk etc. I asked if he knew of the god of the Roman legions Mithras who had been worshipped for about 400 years before Jesus
        ( and it was an older religion in the East before that). All of the same things had been attributed to him first. I said they imbued Jesus with those things to get the legions to accept christianity which meant Jesus may have existed and been a great man, but the facts about him in the bible aren’t true. He didn’t bat an eyelid.
        xxx Mammoth Hugs xxx

        Liked by 1 person

  6. NOLLAIG SHONA DUIT, a Ali!

    Wonderful post. 🙂 And, I already bot all those books of yours, but will now have time to read your Legends of Ireland, really excited for that! I’m sure I can find a few friends (physical ones of course!) who would love their own copies. :-).

    Ah the west wind… you are still helping me put more pieces of a puzzle in place, thanks for that. Your last post did the same, I was too frazzled to mention that, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Éilis! For your comments and for buying my books, I really appreciate that! Xxx You may have been frazzled last week, and understandably so, but I’m sure you’re feeling a whole lot more relaxed this week! The world is your oyster! Do you have any plans yet, or just a nice long break and some R&R?

      Like

    1. No indeed they grow all over the place! It’s amazing that they can flourish in such widely variable climates. Shows how hardy they are. The desert is also a very much ‘near-death’ type of place where not much appears to survive. These plants must enjoy the challenge! Hahaa

      Liked by 1 person

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