Using evergreens is an ancient and multi-cultural tradition associated with the celebration of Winter Solstice. The early Romans decorated their homes with evergreen boughs, holly and mistletoe during the Winter Solstice. The Celts of Northern Europe shared this tradition but added hanging wreaths and garlands, as well as bringing Yule trees into their homes during the cold dark winter. It was believed that the spirits of these trees would inhabit their homes and bless all
who lived there. For the Celts, the evergreen symbolized the eternal nature of the human soul and the World Tree connecting Earth and Heaven - the seen and the unseen. This tradition was absorbed into Christianity for the celebration of Christmas as a symbol for Christ, who was the Tree of Life.
In Chinese philosophy too, pines radiate life force or qi (chee), nurturing our souls and spirits. There are usually pine branches on Daoist and Buddhist altars during the dark days of winter. In Japan, homes and temples are decorated with pine branches for the New Year Celebration.
The medieval mystic and healer Hildegard von Bingen also was fascinated by the evergreens. She begins her song O Nobilissima Viriditas with the words, “O most noble evergreen rooted in the sun, and who shines in bright serenity upon the wheel. Nothing on earth can comprehend you. You are encircled in the arms of divine mysteries. You are radiant as the dawn and burn as the flame of the sun.” Perhaps she was influenced by the voice of the Jewish prophet Hosea who is recorded as speaking for the Holy One saying, “I’m like a flourishing evergreen tree; I provide life year-round.”
Hildegard uses the term viriditas as the greening power of God. She regarded it as the animating life-force within all of the cosmos, giving it life, vitality, and fecundity. It has to do with the holy potential within creation. Greening - viriditas -is a state of grace. Even science supports this metaphor. Pine and spruce trees continue to photosynthesize and give off oxygen even in the coldest months. For Hidegard this evergreen energy was associated with the Holy Spirit. In her O Ignis Spiritus Paracliti, she sings:
O fire of the Holy Spirit,
life of the life of every creature,
holy are you in giving life to forms…
penetrating into all places,
in the heights, on earth,
and in every abyss,
you bring and bind all together…
The Eastern Orthodox Church embraces this connection. Green is the liturgical color used during liturgies of the Holy Spirit as opposed to the red vestments used in the Western Christian Church.
It is said that Martin Luther was the first to have decorated a Christmas tree with candles. The story is told that one night before Christmas, while walking through a forest he looked up and saw the stars shining through the tree branches. He was so moved that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas.
After coming home on a cold and dark winter night, one of my favorite Christmas activities is sitting in the living room with Wendy, turning out all of the lights, except those on our Christmas tree, sipping a hot cup of tea or spiced wine, and silently contemplating the Christmas tree with its nostalgic decorations and glistening lights.
Perhaps this year while sitting, we will be granted the grace of viriditas - of seeing the Christmas tree as the Tree of Life, as a symbol of the Christ who is the life of all humankind. Perhaps this year, with all of the darkness around us, not just from the long cold nights, but from the suffering of people and Mother Earth herself, the Evergreen viriditas of the Christmas tree will provide the comfort and hope of knowing that life, and hope, and divine energy, are still with us even in the bleak midwinter. Maybe we will be able to join with the hopefulness of Lakota mystic Black Elk who said: “It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds.”
May you all be blessed with a happy and holy Winter Solstice and Christmas.