The peoples mid winter celebrations of life with evergreen plants is an ancient tradition in which folk decorate their homes with winter greenery and berries.
As an evergreen of protection, Holly's spiky bristles repel unwanted spirits. Holly, sacred to Holle, the Germanic underworld goddess, symbolizes everlasting life, goodwill and potent life energy. Its red berries represent feminine blood. Together, mistletoe and holly represent the Sacred Marriage at this time of year with the mid winter Solstice, the re-birth of the Sun.
The Winter Solstice, also known as Yule, is in terms of sunlight the shortest day in the year and the longest night (December 22/23). Religious ceremonies are held att this time in honour of the return of the Sun which at the Winter Solstice begins to regain its power and to ascend on the horizon. Bonfires are lit in the fields and crops and trees are 'wassailed' with carols sung to wish them good healthas they are toasted with cups of spiced cider. Apples and oranges which represent the sun, are laid in baskets of evergreen boughs, to be shared with friends and neighbours.
The ancient Celts believed that the first humans were descended from trees and as such trees were highly revered by them, particularly the mighty Oak tree.
Evergreens were also sacred to the Celts, because they did not 'die' they thereby represented the eternal aspect of the goddess. Their greenery was also symbolic of the hope for the suns return and with it the life abundant of all growing things. At Winter Solstice they therfore decorated their trees with images of the things they wished for the waxing year to bring them - fruits for a successful harvest, charms for love, nuts for fertility and coins for wealth...
In Scandinavia, Yule trees were first brought into homes, decorated with bells, candles and ribbons to attract these spirits, to provide shelter through the winter. Bread, fruit and nuts were hung from the branches to provide food for them in the trees.
The evergreen tree has also been long associated with gift giving as citizens of ancient Rome celebrated the 'Saturnalia', a week long December festival honoring the God Saturnus, by exchanging gifts attached to evergreen branches.
In an old Norse tradition, the evergreens were burned to encourage the return of the Sun. A direct descendant of this practice still carried out today is the burning of the Yule log. The ceremonial Yule log, ideally of Ash - from the Norse world tree Yggdrassil, is the highlight of the Solstice festival. In accordance with tradition the Yule log must either be harvested from the householder's land or given as a gift, but never be bought. Once dragged into the fireplace it is decorated with seasonal greenery, blessed with cider or ale and set ablaze by a piece of last years log which has been kept for just this purpose. The log will then burn through the night, smolder for 12 days and will be ceremonially extinguished. The Yule log's role is one of bringing prosperity and protection from evil, as a magical protective amulet - by keeping the remnant of the log all the year long the protection of warmth and light will remain throughout the year.
The hanging of robin and wren ornaments on the Yule tree commemorates these deeper meanings as the robin is the animal equivalent of the Oak King, the wren of the Holly King. Each Yule and Midsummer they play out the same battle as the two kings battle for the season.The robin - ie Oak King, symbolically kills the wren to signify the return of light - the end of the reign of the Holly King presiding over the darker part of the year. A contemporary reminder of this is the tradition of the wren boys, celebrated on 26 December (also St. Stephen's Day). The tradition consists of 'hunting' a fake wren and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Then the crowds of mummers or strawboys celebrate by dressing up in masks, straw suits and colourful motley clothing and, accompanied by traditional ceilidh bands, parade through the towns and villages.
Strong opposition to Christmas trees by Puritan settlers kept the Christmas tree tradition out of America until the nineteenth century, when German settlers bringing their own seasonal celebrations popularized the tradition.
Gradually the sacred tree and its traditions have been absorbed, its meanings minimalized by the pervasive christian and ensuing materialistic culture. But our collective unconscious naturally returns to the deeper significance of the evergreen tree and its promise of life renewed as we decorate our Yule Trees.
In practicing this ritual of dressing the Yule Tree/Christmas Tree, we are celebrating the turning of the great wheel of the year, the return of the sun at midwinters solstice time, our thanks for the forces of nature that bless us and our joy at the life it brings to us all.