An anthropological and archaeological study of the origins of the Christmas Tree customs that grew out of the older European pagan Winter Solstice rituals by the Old European Culture Blog.
Christmas Trees from the Garden of Eden
By Serbian Irish, Published in Old European Culture
What is the origin of Christmas trees? We can read that the Christmas tree customs are the Christianized versions of the older pagan Winter Solstice customs involving evergreen trees. But why are the two main European Christmas trees Oak and Pine (Spruce, Fir)? Are these two trees somehow connected to the ancient idea of the Garden of Eden? And if so, how are they connected? These are the questions that I would like to try to shed some light on.
A few days ago I came across this early Christian relief from Naxos depicting the nativity (birth) of Jesus scene. Unlike the later representations of the Nativity which take place in a stable, the scene on this early marble slab is framed by two trees, which means that it takes place in a forest, a grove. I found a good high resolution picture of the above image in Wikipedia.
When I looked at trees depicted on the relief more closely, I discovered, to my astonishment, that these two trees were a Pine and an Oak, the two Christmas trees of Europe. You can clearly see the pine cone on the left tree and the acorn on the right tree. But these were not just any pine tree and any oak. Based on the shape of the trees, their leaves and fruit, I think that I managed to identify these two trees as the Stone Pine and the Downy Oak, ancient species used and cultivated by people as food since prehistory.
The Downy Oak (Quercus pubescens) is a white oak. It is native to southern Europe and southwest Asia, from northern Spain (Pyrenees) east to the Crimea and the Caucasus. It is also found in France and parts of central Europe. Downy Oaks typically grow in dry, lime-rich soils. It is a sub-Mediterranean species, growing from the coastline to deep in the continent. Its optimum is in the sub-Mediterranean region, characterized by hot dry summers and cold winters with little rainfall. In western and central Europe, downy oak is confined to areas with a sub-Mediterranean micro-climate (gorges, sandplains, steppe slopes) or to coastlines of former lakes. In Serbian, this oak is known as “medun,” “medunac,” or honey oak referring to its sweet taste.
The Stone pine (Pinus pinea), also called Italian stone pine, umbrella pine, and parasol pine, is a tree from the pine family (Pinaceae). It has been used and cultivated for its edible pine nuts since prehistoric times. The tree is native to the Mediterranean region. At present it is found in Europe (Iberia, Italy, Southern France, Balkans, Aegean, and Western Turkey), Western Asia (Southern Anatolia, Lebanon, Syria, Northern Israel) and North Africa (Morocco and Algeria). It grows in dry arid areas mixed with oaks and shrubs.
Is this a coincidence considering that most of the European Christmas (Winter Solstice) traditions and customs are in some way related to the agricultural and particularly the corn, bread fertility?
In Genesis we can read this description of Eden:
A river rises in Eden[a] to water the garden; beyond there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is the Pishon; it is the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. The gold of that land is good; bdellium and lapis lazuli are also there. The name of the second river is the Gihon; it is the one that winds all through the land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it is the one that flows east of Asshur. The fourth river is the Euphrates.
In Genesis we also find this:
Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good….Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
In the brilliant book: Oak: The Frame of Civilization, William Bryant Logan has this to say about the Garden of Eden:
The above excerpt from the Genesis is a description of the area comprising of the Zagros Mountains, Oak Pistachio uplands, Assyrian steppe and alluvial Mesopotamian bottom land. This is where we find some of the earliest settled villages in the world. While excavating these settlements, archaeologists found many grinding stones and underground storage pits. But very few sickles. And those sickles that were found were not the right kind for harvesting wheat. So what were the people in these first settled communities grinding, storing and eating?
Oak uplands can easily support large villages of up to 1,000 people and these people could harvest in three weeks enough acorns to last them two to three years. Acorns could be stored in above ground aerated bins, in underground pits or they can be buried at the edge of streams where they can get leached while they keep fresh. The people of these oak cultures could, with very little effort, provide their daily bread doing what God told them to do: eat the fruit of the trees and plants that bear seeds. With plenty of free time people could enjoy life and develop their culture and technology. With plentiful supply of food there was no need to kill and eat all the animals that were caught. So people could catch and keep the animals, breed them and eventually domesticate them. It was these animals that were probably first fed the wild grasses which later became our grains.
If we look at the word Eden we see that the origin and the meaning of the word “Eden” is uncertain. The official etymology says that it comes from Hebrew term for Eden, perhaps from Sumerian e-den “Steppe, garden.”
But I believe that the root of this word is much simpler. In Serbian we have word “jede” which is in the old south Serbian dialect found in a form “ede.” This word means eat. It comes from the Proto Indo European root “*hied” meaning to eat from which the English word eat also comes from. In Serbian we have the following words derived from the root “ede, jede”:
jelo, jedja, jedivo, jestivo – food
edenje, jedenje – food (south Serbian dialect). Literally means eating and is the direct cognate of the English word eating.
eden, jeden – eaten
The Garden of Eden was the garden of edible trees. It was the garden of god given food, of edenje, jedenje, eating. Is this the actual original, simple meaning of the word Eden = Eating, Food? Was the Garden of Eden the post glacial Northern Hemisphere, which was going through an incredible transformation from a cold wasteland into a lush garden full of easily obtainable abundant food? And was then, as William Bryant Logan says, this Garden of Eden responsible for human transformation from humans into modern humans? I believe so. If we look at the Mesolithic Northern Hemisphere, we see first civilizations hatching in Western and Eastern Asia, In the Balkans and Iberia, in North Africa and in Mexico, all situated in “gardens of edenje”, gardens of eating, food, full of easy to collect and store acorns, nuts, roots, wild grains, and easy to catch small game, fish, shellfish and snails. The Garden of Eden was the old Golden Age of the Greeks and Romans, the post glacial Northern Hemisphere.
That this is the actual meaning of the Garden of Eden we can see from the choice of the trees present on the above Nativity scene. Thees trees turn out to be the two main Winter Solstice (Christmas) trees in Europe.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, falls on the 21st of December. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a living god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become old, sick and weak. The sign of this was the fact that the days were getting shorter and colder, and that the vegetation was dying. Winter Solstice was the turning point when the days start getting longer again heralding the arrival of spring, warmth and new vegetative cycle. People who depended on this vegetative cycle celebrated the solstice as the rebirth of the sun god.
The accepted theory is that around the time of the Winter Solstice, people decorated their homes and temples with evergreen branches and worshiped evergreen trees and plants in general, because the evergreen plants reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god gets reborn after the Winter Solstice. This is a good enough explanation. But it is the choice of these Winter Solstice (Christmas) trees which is very interesting: Oak and Pine (Spruce, Fir). Maybe they were chosen because they were the oldest starch (bread) bearing trees, as well that they were evergreen. To illustrate this I will here give the list of the European Winter Solstice (Christmas) traditions involving trees to show that all of these trees are Either Oak or Pine (Spruce, Fir), the oldest starch (bread) bearing trees, the trees that appear on the Naxos stelle.
Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. In Roman mythology, Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the Earth without labor in a state of social egalitarianism. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age, not all of them desirable. The Greek equivalent was the Kronia. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. We are told that it was holly tree branches that were used because they don’t lose their leaves during the winter. But is it possible that it wasn’t holly tree branches that were used, but the branches of the evergreen Mediterranean oaks, such as Quercus coccifera (Kermes Oak), Quercus suber (Cork Oak) and Quercus ilex (Holm Oak)? Holm oak is called Holm oak because its leaves resemble holly tree leaves, holm being the old name for holly. The thing is the other two evergreen oak trees have leaves which resemble holly leaves even more.
Which of these trees do you think is a more appropriate symbol of the god of agriculture, the god of food, the god of the old Golden Age “when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the Earth without labor”? Is it the one that bears edible acorns like oak, or the one that bears poisonous berries like holly? Who got it wrong, the Romans who misunderstood or forgot the old customs of their forefathers, or us who misinterpreted Roman customs? Or did Roman customs change and adopt as they migrated further and further up north where these evergreen oaks are not found and so they had to replace them with what every looked the most like these evergreen oaks, and that is holly tree?
Apparently Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The evergreen plant that the Druids used is said to have been Mistletoe. Mistletoe, which is said to have been used by Druids, actually grows on oaks. The Druids preached in oak forests, and considered oaks sacred. Young deciduous oaks keep their leaves through the winter. Also a lot of Southern European oaks are evergreen, like the sweet Holm Oak or Holy Oak.
Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, describes a religious ceremony in Gaul in which white-clad druids climbed a sacred oak, cut down the mistletoe growing on it, sacrificed two white bulls and used the mistletoe to cure infertility.
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 Valonia oak…” Quercus macrolepis, (Valonia oak), is another Mediterranean oak with leaves which look like holly tree leaves. The trees of this oak species shed leaves in October through January with a peak in December–January, but even during these months at least 10% of the trees remained evergreen.
Quercus macrolepis has a subspecies known as Quercus ithaburensis (Mount Tabor oak). Quercus ithaburensis is found in Southeastern Europe, from Southeastern Italy across Southern Albania to Greece, and in Southwestern Asia from Turkey South through Lebanon, Israel, and neighbouring Jordan.
Mount Tabor is located in Lower Galilee, Israel, at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley, 11 miles (18 km) west of the Sea of Galilee. It was the site of the Mount Tabor battle between Barak under the leadership of the Israelite judge Deborah, and the army of Jabin commanded by Sisera, in the mid 12th century BC.
It is believed by many Christians to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus. This was an episode in the New Testament narrative in which Jesus transfigured (or metamorphosed) and became radiant upon a mountain. In these accounts, Jesus and three of his Apostles go to a mountain (the Mount of Transfiguration). On the mountain, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light.
The fact that Christ started shining on the Mount Tabor became very significant when you see the acorns of the Mount Tabor oak. They look like a shining sun. Is the reason why the druids would prefer this oak to all the other oaks is because of the shape of its acorns which are shaped like a blazing sun? Is the transfiguration of Jesus in some way linked to the transfiguration of Mount Tabor oak acorns as they ripen?
Any sun worshiper would prefer this oak to any other. But these oaks don’t grow in the Northwest of Europe. Where did Celts and Druids come from and who were they if their sacred acorn, the sun acorn, only grew in Southern Mediterranean, in the Balkans including the Greek Islands, in Morocco, and in Levant? Are the Irish legends about the migration from the Balkans true?
I believe that the main solstice tree of the Celts was the Oak tree. In the areas where the “sun acorn” oaks grow, the acorns generally begin to ripen in November and the shedding of acorns extends from December until January. Right through the solstice time. So on the day of the Winter Solstice, the “sun oaks” are full of evergreen leaves and full of acorns, food. I believe that if there was mistletoe worship among Celts, it was a substitution for the evergreen sun oak worship. When Celts migrated from the Mediterranean to the Northwest of Europe they adopted their belief system to the new type of oaks which weren’t evergreen but which had evergreen mistletoe growing on them. Evergreen mistletoe leaves became the substitute for the evergreen oak leaves. And mistletoe, became a substitute fertility symbol for acorns…
Chop it down and replace: St. Boniface became a missionary to the Germans in the 700’s A.D where he encountered Druids who worshiped trees. To stop their sacrifices at their sacred Donar Oak near Geismar, St. Boniface chopped the tree down in 725 A.D. With one mighty blow, Saint Boniface felled the massive oak, and as the tree split, a beautiful young fir tree sprang from its center. Saint Boniface told the people that this lovely evergreen, with its branches pointing to heaven, was indeed a holy tree, the tree of the Christ Child, a symbol of His promise of eternal life. He instructed them to carry the evergreen from the wilderness into their homes and to surround it with gifts, symbols of love and kindness.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”
A yule log is a large wooden (oak) log which is burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Yule or modern Christmas celebrations in several European cultures.
In Scandinavian mythology, the oak was sacred to the thunder god, Thor. Here I would need help in clarifying something. Is there any reference in Norse mythological sources to any tree being used during Winter solstice celebrations? I found some vague references to Yule log.
It was apparently a large oak log decorated with sprigs of fir, holly or yew. Runes were carved on it, asking the Gods to protect the people from misfortune. The log was struck by a smith with a hammer, playing the role of Thor the thunder god. The new fire was kindled on log. A piece of the log was saved to protect the home during the coming year and light next year’s fire….
But I could not find any concrete reference to any of these customs. Are there any sagas, historical texts, ethnographic records that record any such customs among the Scandinavians? Was Yule log actually part of the Yule celebration in the Scandinavian countries during old pagan times?
Read the whole post at Old European Culture