The Yule Tree

Trees were objects of veneration in ancient times. While the life span of humankind is short, trees can live for many centuries. When all else fades in winter evergreens remain changeless in a changing world, strong enough to resist the death time.  As symbols of the god, or a god in actuality, trees were associated with fertility. At the festival of Dionysus anyone with a tree in the garden would dress it up to represent the god. Romans hung evergreens around their houses during the Saturnalia. Ancient Egyptians brought in palm branches on the shortest day of the year to symbolize Ra’s victory over death.

In the fourth century CE, the Empower Theodosius forbade Pagan rituals, particularly decorating trees:

If someone burns incense in front of man-made idols, they are damned; or if such a person worships idolatrous images by decorating a tree with ribbons, or if he sets up an altar outside – he is guilty of blasphemy and sacrilege.” [1]

Christian convention credits Saint Boniface with the invention of the Christmas tree when he chopped down the sacred oak of Thor at Geismar.  Thor’s Oak was an ancient tree sacred to the Germanic tribe of the Chatti. It stood near the village of Geismar and was the main focus of the veneration of the god. In 723 CE, the Anglo-Saxon missionary Winfrid (St. Boniface) had the oak felled to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian god over the native Pagan religion.  Another story is that Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was so impressed by a forest scene that he allegedly cut down a small fir tree, took it home, and decorated it with lighted candles.

The first known references to a fir tree decorated specifically for Christmas was in Latvia around 1510. Evergreen trees decorated with artificial roses were burned in the squares of Riga and Reval by local guilds as an entertainment on Christmas Eve. By 1531 there was a thriving market for Christmas trees in Strasbourg.  In some areas, the trees were hung upside down from the ceiling. No one seems to know why. A description of Christmas trees in Strasbourg in 1604 tells us:

On Christmas they put fir trees in the rooms at Strasbourg, they hang red roses cut from many-coloured paper, apples, offerings, gold tinsel, sugar. It is the custom to make a four corned frame around it”. [2]

In Britain, the Christmas tree was popularised by Prince Albert who brought the tradition over from Germany. Newspaper illustrations in 1848 showed the royal family with a Christmas tree decorated with glass-blown ornaments, candles and ribbons in Windsor Castle.

Modern American fundamentalist Christians condemn the use of Christmas trees citing Jeremiah 10: 2-4 :

Thus says the Lord, Do not learn the way of the nations, And do not be terrified by the signs of the heavens Although the nations are terrified by them; For the customs of the peoples are delusion; Because it is wood cut from the forest, The work of the hands of a craftsman with a cutting tool. They decorate it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers so that it will not totter.” 

© Anna Franklin, Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010

[1] Quoted in Christian Ratsch et al, Pagan Christmas, Inner Traditions, Vermont, 2006

[2] E.M.Kronfield, Der Weihnachtsbaum, quoted in Pagan Christmas by Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebeling, Inner Traditions, Vermont, 2006


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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