Pagan Roots of Christmas Tree
Throughout history people in the northern hemisphere celebrated Winter solstice between December 21st and 22nd. They decorated their homes, particularly doors and windows with ever-green tree branches to please their gods. In many cultures it was believed that sun itself was a good who got weak and sick during the long winter and returned in the spring more stronger each day. Winter solstice was believed to be time when sun returned to it´s strength. Evergreen plants served as a reminder that soon sun would return and all life would flourish again.
One of the earliest records about winter solstice celebration comes from ancient Egypt where people worshiped sun god Ra, who had a head of a hawk and sun as his crown. During winter solstice when Ra would recover from his illness ancient Egyptians decorated their homes with palm rushes which for them symbolized life defeating death.
Saturnalia was one of the biggest festival celebrated in ancient Rome between 17th and 25th of December. Saturnalia was celebrated to honor Saturn the god of agriculture. To honor the god and the fact that soon farms and fields would be green and fruitful they decorated their homes with green branches. During Saturnalia no one could be prosecuted for breaking the law, killing, raping or injuring others. Lot of people took advantage of this time of lawlessness but Saturnalia was also time to remember others by giving them small gifts.
In the early days of Christian church, birth of Jesus was set to be the last day of Saturnalia. This was an attempt created by the early Roman Christians to convert pagans into Christianity. There are many suggestions made when Jesus was really born (they vary from Easter to Summer Solstice) majority of the modern day church history scholars and researchers agree that Jesus was not born near Winter Solstice and not even in December.
Among (at least in) Germanic, Celtic and Slavic pagan cultures there was a habit to decorate homes with ever-green branches around winter solstice. Many times green branches were used as the symbol of the world-tree. World-tree is an early shamanic concept. Belief for that world was made of several different layers and those layers were hold together by the world tree. Number of layers varied between 3 to 17 depending on the belief system. In northern hemisphere branches from ever-green trees also symbolized rebirth of nature and everlasting life bringing hope for people about the coming spring.
In Germanic Yule celebration a conifer tree was most popular because the trunk was used for making the Yule log. Spruce trees especially were also connected to several highly respected forest deities and spirits. Pine cones and sprigs were used to decorate homes.
Around the area of Baltic sea people widely worshiped trees. In Finland people had custom to bring sacrificial gifts under the spirit tree during winter solstice.
Christmas Tree and Reformation
Catholic church did not approve pagan custom to bring tree branches inside. Protestant church approved the custom and tree branches were seen as symbol of wealth. When in Catholic traditions native scenes were the official symbols of Christmas, Christmas tree became the official holiday symbol for the protestants. According to Christian mythology an angel appeared to the shepherds and told about the birth of Jesus. This is why in Christian tradition there is either angel or a star in the top of the Christmas tree. Sometimes Christmas tree is told to symbolize the tree of paradise and Christmas balls represent forbidden fruits.
In 16th century Christmas trees received more and more popularity and even the most puritan clergymen had to face that fact that the custom was here to stay. According to the legend German priest Martin Luther who became the founder of Lutheran church was on his way home to Wittenberg one winter night and he saw a beautiful spruce tree and a star shining bright above it. He was so touched by what he saw that he took one of the trees inside his home and put candles to the tree branches. Story was spread across his congregation and later on after reformation soon all protestant countries in Central Europe had their own Christmas tree tradition. Tradition spread into United States in 18th century together with German soldiers.
Christmas tree tradition arrived to Scandinavian countries in 19th century. First mention of a Christmas tree in Finland is from 1829. A baron from Helsinki bought eight Christmas trees to decorate his home with. First people who adopted the Christmas tree tradition were clergy men and noble men. It was not until the 20th century when Christmas tree tradition spread to all Finnish homes.
Decorating The Christmas Tree
Decorating Christmas trees started in Middle Ages. Baltic countries Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (together with Scandinavian countries) were last countries in Europe that were converted into Christianity. In Baltic countries merchants traditionally decorated tree branches for the winter solstice celebration. In 16th century in Germany and in Switzerland the handcraft-er guilds decorated twigs with sweets and they were given as gifts for other guilds. Early Christmas tree decorations were all eatable like apples, nuts and sweets. Now days majority of the Christmas ornaments are made of plastic and the topics vary great deal. Most common ones are different kinds of Christmas balls, stars, angels and elves.
Before Christmas trees became official symbol of Christmas it was a custom that was only available for the richest families. Some people might even had more than one tree. Many times Christmas tree was an exotic decoration. Sometimes people even had competitions with their neighbors on who´s tree was the most handsome. Wealthy families might even had Christmas tree in every room. Tiny trees were placed on shelf's or hanged into the ceiling. Big tree was placed into the living room and it was also a status symbol. More handsome tree the wealthier owner. When custom spread into the homes of the Middle class their trees were usually small and placed into the middle of the table. When demand for the Christmas trees grew the size of the trees grew as well.
Christmas trees did not please all people. There was political and religious groups who banned Christmas trees and were convinced that they were an attempt to destroy people´s moralities. Trees were not always considered safe. Some of the arguments were accurate such as decorating trees with actual candles which might lead into fires. Electric lights became more popular in Christmas trees in 19th century. World´s first Christmas tree with electric lights was on display in New York in 1882.
Real Tree Or Plastic Tree?
There are special Christmas tree farms where quality Christmas trees are being grown. If you happen to own some forest you can easily get tree from your own land. We are living times of environmental awareness and more families have Christmas tree made of plastic that can be used year after year. Unfortunately plastic Christmas tree does not have the scent of an actual spruce tree. One great tip to get that real scent is to ask Christmas tree seller if you could take some of the branches with you and they usually give branches away for free. Last year I placed bunch of branches into a bucket filled with water and decorated them with Christmas lights and red and golden balls. After holidays you can burn branches or you can throw them into bio-recycling.
Christmas tree decorations vary in different cultures. In many English speaking countries people like flashing colorful lights. I try to spent all my Christmas holidays in Finland with my family. There December-January is the darkest time of the year maybe that explains why in Scandinavian countries people prefer bright lights over colored ones.
For people living in the cities Christmas tree can be a symbol of the forest and remind from the nature connection. Christmas tree has both pagan and Christian origins. Then again Christmas as a holiday is a mixture of different customs and beliefs. I come from very non-religious family and for us Christmas mostly means good food and hanging out with friends and family. Our Christmas tree is filled with Disney and Moomin ornaments and decorations bought around Europe. Christmas tree can tell a lot about the personalities of those who decorate it.
Merry meet my fairy-souls! As some of you might know I am a fan of all animals great and small and I love to paint and draw animals (which usually is easier than painting f.e people..especially babies lol!). These holiday cards and many more are available in my zazzle-store. You can get to the invidual product pages by clicking the images.
Oh Christmas and cats...don´t even get me started. Many years ago when my cat Noki boy was just a kitten he used to chase his reflections in the mirror. But unlike December kitty Noki hated going outside.
Birds of Winter
You know how in every country certain animals are connected to winter time. Well in Finland little birds and especially bullfinches are connected to winter and Christmas. Back in the days people used to leave bundles of grain for them to eat. They are adorable creatures.
This is actually one of my oldest animal paintings... maybe from 2008.
Reindeers in the Night
More than any other of these card designs, this one was mostly inspired by fairytales. Especially Hans Christian Andersen´s Snow Queen and Sampo Lappalainen by Zachris Topelius. Both fairytales describe the northern nature with magic and beauty.
Field of Frost
Back to the little birds! Original was painted with acrylics and I sold it for a Finnish collector couple years ago (love when that happens). Design itself is one of the most popular ones. I tend to be often quite self-critical what it comes to my artworks but with this one I was especially pleased with the magical "misty" feeling it has.
That´s all for today :) For those of you in the northern hemisphere I hope you are having great time enjoying the winter nature.
Merry meet my fairy souls! For those of you who enjoy my paintings and illustrations here are some of my winter fairy greeting card- designs. You can find these and other Christmas/Seasonal Greeting cards from my zazzle store.
Winter Bringer - Fairy
This was loosely inspired by the Germanic legend of Frau Holle. She was a winter goddess who was told to create snowflakes by shaking sheets/apron. I turned the idea a bit so that the winter bringer fairy would create snow by flipping her wings (you´ll get straight to the product pages by clicking the images).
The Ice Fairy
Idea of the ice fairy was more straight forward. I was thinking all the colors in an icicle. How it reflects all the color spectrum. The ice fairy must have all those colours as well.
Aurora, Fairy of the Northern Lights
The only acrylic painting of the bunch. Aurora is the joyous fairy of the northern lights. To me this painting reminds me of my childhood. We used to spent Christmas at my grandparents who lived in the border of Lapland and northern lights were in the night sky every night.
In pre-Christian Finland pagan celebrations were connected to the land and the wheel of the year was filled with celebrational days to honor spirits of the earth and the land. In the Middle Ages these spirits were re-named after Catholic saints but in many cases the ritual worship remained similar. Winter was the time of inner reflection. The term "pagan holiday" in this case refers to nature based spirituality which was something very common in a culture that had such tight relationship to the surrounding nature.
Marraskuu - November
Derived from old Finnish ”marras” meaning death (dying earth).
Jako-aika – Dividing-time 30.10 – 10.11
Sacred time between the old year and the new year. Time of the spirits. Time of the first snow.
Martin päivä – day of Martti (day of St.Martin) 10.11
Last of the autumn festivals. Dinner included seasonal foods.
Liisan päivä – day of Liisa 19.11
Roads start to get covered with ice.
Litvetin päivä – day of Litvetti 23.11
Beginning of Christmas preparations.
Kaisan päivä -day of Kaisa 25.11
Festival of Kaisa, the protector spirits of sheeps and cows. Wool of the sheeps is sheared.
Antin päivä -day of Antti 30.11
People start to prepare Christmas dishes. Weather gets colder.
(Joulu = Christmas)
Old name of the month was talvikuu the winter month.
Annan päivä – Day of Anna 15.12
Baking for Christmas begins. Giving bakings for neigbours was believed to bring good luck for the farm and the house. Holiday has pagan origins in the worship of Annikki, spirit of the forest, faith and the protector of animals. During Catholic times holiday was turned into St.Anne´s day.
Tuomaan päivä ja pesäpäivät – Day of Tuomas and the nesting 21.12
Longest night and shortest day of the year. Time of rest.
Joulu – Christmas 25.12 – 13.1
Time to remember loved ones and family members. Many pagan customs that were part of Kekri celebrations later on became part of Joulu.
Tapanin päivä – day of Tapani (St.Stefan) 26.12
Day of the horses. Time to visit neighbours and friends.
Tammikuu - January
Name of the month comes from the word tammi meaning oak. Refers to the heart (middle) of winter, which symbol was a big oak tree.
Nuutinpäivä – day of Nuutti 13.1
End of Christmas. Nuutti was a joyful festival. Group of mummers called nuuttipukit visited from house to house singing and performing.
Selkäviikot (back weeks) from Nuutti to the end of February
Time period of hard forest work
Heikinpäivä – day of Heikki 19.1
”Back of winter” snaps. The darkest time of theyear is over and spring is on it´s way.
Paavon päivä – day of Paavo 25.1
Days become more light. Traditional food of the day was peasoup.
Helmikuu - February
Sometimes known as ”pikkutammi” the little oak. Name of the month is derived from the word helmi meaning pearl, refering to the glittering snow. Coldest time of the year.
Kynttilänpäivä/kyntteli – Candlemass 2.2
First day of spring. Time to divinate weather for the coming year.
Sipin päivä – day of Sipri 15.2
Pigs and hens were let outside to eat. Several spells were made using eggs.
Kevät-Matti – Spring Matti 24.2
Nature comes alive. Spirits throw hot stones into water areas melting the ice away.
images: unsplash & pixabay
Artist and Illustrator. Mythology and Folklore enthusiastic. Keen traveler. Comes from Finland. Likes cats, tea, and such.
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