The Pagan Roots of Christmas Trees, Evergreen & Mistletoe

By J.S. Redfield, 1846

Mark Dagley~ “Evergreen”, 40 x 96 inches, enamel, iron, MDF, 2017



Like other natural objects of signal importance to man, whether yielding food, affording shelter, or simply conferring loveliness on the landscape, trees, in the earlier stages of society, have uniformly been the fertile subjects of poetical and mythological allusion. Many of the prettiest legends of heathen antiquity, as well as of our Christian progenitors, relate to trees; while poets, in all countries and ages, have borrowed from them their most brilliant imagery and comparisons. Without inquiring into the causes of these varied allusions, we intend to present the reader with a few of the more remarkable legends.

The White Poplar, according to ancient mythology, was consecrated to Hercules, because he destroyed Cacus in a cavern of Mount Aventine, which was covered with these trees; and in the moment of his triumph, bound his brow with a branch of one as a token of his. victory.

When he descended into the infernal regions, he also returned with a wreath of white poplar round his head. It was this, says the fable, that made the leaves of the color they are now. The perspiration from the hero’s brow made the inner part of the leaf white ; while the smoke of the lower regions turned the upper surface of the leaves almost black. Persons sacrificing to Hercules were always crowned with branches of this tree ; and all who had gloriously conquered their enemies in battle wore garlands of it, in imitation of Hercules. It is said that the ancients consecrated “the white poplar to Time, because the leaves are in continual agitation; and being of a blackish green on one side, with a thick white cotton on the other, these were supposed to indicate the alternation of day and night.

The Black Poplar is no less celebrated in fable than its congener above-mentioned. According to Ovid, when Phaethon borrowed the chariot and horses of the sun, and, by his heedless driving, set half the world on fire, he was hurled from the chariot by Jupiter into the Po, where he was drowned ; and his sisters, the Heliades, wandering on the banks of the river, were changed into trees—supposed by most commentators to be poplars.

The evidence in favor of the poplar consists in there being abundance of black poplars on the banks of the Po; in the poplar, in common with many other aquatic trees, being so surcharged with moisture, as to have it exuding through the pores of the leaves, which may thus literally be said to weep ; and in there being no tree on which the sun shines more brightly than on the black poplar, thus still showing gleams of parental affection to the only memorial left of the unhappy son whom his own fondness had contributed to destroy.

The Apple-Tree, so singularly connected with the first transgression and fall of man, is distinguished alike in the mythologies of the Greeks, Scandinavians, and Druids. The golden fruits of the Hesperides, which it was one of the labors of Hercules to procure, in spite of the sleepless dragon which guarded them, were believed by the pagans to be apples. Hercules was worshiped by the Thebans under the name of Melius; and apples were offered at his altars.

The origin of this custom was the circumstance of the river Asopus having on one occasion overflowed its banks to such an extent, as to render it impossible to bring a sheep across it which was to be sacrificed to Hercules, when some youths, recollecting that an apple bore the same name as a sheep in Greek (melon), offered an apple, with four little sticks stuck in it, to resemble legs, as a substitute for sheep ; and after that period, the pagans always considered the apple as especially devoted to Hercules. In the Scandinavian Edda, we are told that the goddess Iduna had the care of apples which had the power of conferring immortality, and which were consequently reserved for the gods, who ate of them when they began to feel themselves growing old. The evil spirit, Loke, took away Iduna and her apple-tree, and hid them in a forest, where they could not be found by the gods. In consequence of this malicious theft, everything went wrong in the world. The gods became old and infirm; and, enfeebled both in body and in mind, no longer paid the same attention to the affairs of the earth, and men having no one to look after them, fell into evil courses, and became the prey of the evil spirit. At length the gods, finding matters get worse and worse every day, roused their last remains of vigor, and combining together, forced Loke to restore the tree.

The Druids paid particular reverence to the apple-tree, because the mistletoe was supposed to grow only on it and the oak, and also on account of the usefulness of its fruit. In consequence of this feeling, the apple was cultivated in Britain from the earliest ages of which we have any record; and Glastonbury was called the apple orchard, from the quantity of apples grown there previous to the time of the Romans.

Many old rites and ceremonies are therefore connected with this tree, some of which are practiced in the orchard districts even at the present day. ” On Christmas eve,” says Mrs. Bray, ” the farmers and their men in Devonshire take a large bowl of cider, with a toast in it, and carrying it in state to the orchard, they salute the apple-trees with much ceremony, in order to make them bear well next season. This salutation consists in throwing some of the cider about the roots of the tree, placing bits of the toast on the branches, and then forming themselves into a ring, they, like the bards of old, set up their voices and sing a song, which may be found in Brand’s Popular Antiquities. In Hone’s Every-Day Book, this custom is mentioned, but with some slight variation.

The wassail bowl, drunk on All Hallow E’en, Twelfth Day Eve, Christmas Eve, and on other festivals of the church, was compounded of ale, sugar, nutmeg, and roasted apples, which every person partook of, each taking out an apple with the spoon, and then drinking out of the bowl. Sometimes the roasted apples were bruised and mixed with milk or white wine instead of ale; and in some parts of the country apples were roasted on a string, till they dropped off into a bowl of spiced ale beneath, which was called Lamb’s Wool. The reason of this name, which is common to all the compounds of apples and ale, is attributed by Vallancey to its being drunk on the 31st of October, All Hallow E’en; the first day of November being dedicated to the angel presiding over fruit, seeds, &c., and therefore named La Mas Ubhal, that is, the day of the apple-fruit, and this being pronounced lamosool, soon became corrupted by the English into lamb’s wool. Apples were blessed by the priests on the 25th of July, and an especial form for this purpose is preserved in the manual of the church of Sarum.

The custom of bobbing for apples on All Hallow E’en, and on All Saints Day, which was formerly common over all England, and is still practiced in some parts of Ireland, has lately been rendered familiar by M’Clise’s masterly painting of the Sports of All Hallow E’en. A kind of hanging-beam, which was continually turning, was suspended from the roof of the room, and an apple placed at one end, and a lighted candle at the other. The parties having their hands tied behind them, and being to catch the apple with their mouths, frequently caught the candle instead. In Warwickshire, apples are tied to a string, and caught at in the same manner, but the lighted candle is omitted; and in the same county children roast apples on a string on Christmas Eve; the first who can catch an apple, when it drops from the string’, getting it. In Scotland, apples are put into a tub of water, and then bobbed for with the mouth.

The Ash, according to heathen mythology, furnished the wood of which Cupid made his arrows, before he had learned to adopt the more fatal cypress. In the Scandinavian Edda, it is stated that the court of the gods is held under a mighty ash, the summit of which reaches the heavens, the branches overshadow the whole earth, and the roots penetrate to the infernal regions. An eagle rests on its summit, to observe everything that passes, to whom a squirrel constantly ascends to report those things which the exalted bird may have neglected to notice. Serpents are twined round the trunk, and from the roots there spring two limpid fountains, in one of which wisdom lies concealed, and in the other a knowledge of the things to come. Three virgins constantly attend on this tree, to sprinkle its leaves with water from the magic fountains, and this water, falling on the earth in the shape of dew, produces honey. Man, according to the Edda, was formed from the wood of this tree. Ancient writers of all nations state that the serpent entertains an extraordinary respect for the ash. Pliny says that if a serpent be placed near a fire, and both surrounded by ashen twigs, the serpent will sooner run into the fire than pass over the pieces of ash; and Dioscorides asserts that the juice of ash leaves, mixed with wine, is a cure for the bite of that reptile.

The Oak appears early to have been an object of worship among the Celts and ancient Britons. Under the form of this tree the Celts worshiped their god Tuet, and the Britons Tarnawa, their god of thunder. Baal, the Celtic god of fire, whose festival (that of Yule) was kept at Christmas, was also worshiped under the semblance of an oak.

The Druids professed to maintain perpetual fire; and once every year all the fires belonging to the people were extinguished, and relighted from the sacred fire of their priests. This was the origin of the Yule log, with which, even so lately as the middle of last century, the Christmas fire, in some parts of the country, was always kindled ; a fresh log being thrown on and lighted, but taken off before it was consumed, and reserved to kindle the Christmas fire of the following year.

The Yule log was always of oak, and as the ancient Britons believed that it was essential for their hearth-fires to be renewed every year from the sacred fire of the Druids, so their descendants thought that some misfortune would befall them if any accident happened to the Yule log.

The worship of the Druids was generally performed under an oak, and a heap of stones or cairn was erected on which the sacred fire was kindled. Before the ceremony of gathering the mistletoe, the Druids fasted for several days, and offered sacrifices in wicker baskets or frames, which, however, were not of willow, but of oak twigs curiously interwoven, and were similar to that still carried by Jackin-the-green on May-day, which, according to some, is a relic of Druidism.

The well-known chorus of ” Hey, derry down,” according to Professor Burnet, was a Druidic chant, signifying literally, ” In a circle the oak move around.” Criminals were tried under an oak-tree ; the judge, with the jury, being seated under its shade, and the culprit placed in a circle made by the chief Druid’s wand. The Saxons also held their national meetings under an oak, and the celebrated conference between the Saxons and the Britons, after the invasion of the former, was held under the oaks of Dartmoor.

The Mistletoe, particularly that which grows on the oak, was held in great veneration by the Britons. At the beginning of their year, the Druids went in solemn procession into the forests, and raised a grass altar at the foot of the finest oak, on which they inscribed the names of those gods which were considered as the most powerful.

After this the chief Druid, clad in a white garment, ascended the tree, and cropped the mistletoe with a consecrated golden pruning-hook, the other Druids receiving it in a pure white cloth, which they held beneath the tree. The mistletoe was then dipped in water by the principal Druid, and distributed among the people, as a preservative against witchcraft and diseases. If any part of the plant touched the ground, it was considered to be the omen of some dreadful misfortune which was about to fall upon the land. The ceremony was always performed when the moon was six days old, and two white bulls were sacrificed at the conclusion.

In Scandinavian mythology, Loke, the evil spirit, is said to have made the arrow with which he wounded Balder (Apollo), the son of Friga (Venus), of mistletoe branches. Balder was charmed against injury from everything which sprang from fire, earth, air, and water; but the mistletoe, springing from neither, was found to be fatal, and Balder was not restored to the world till by a general effort of the other gods. The magical properties of the mistletoe are mentioned both by Virgil and Ovid. In the dark ages a similar belief prevailed; and even to the present day the /peasants of Holstein, and some other countries, call the mistletoe the “spectre’s wand,” from the supposition, that holding a branch of mistletoe will not only enable a man to see ghosts, but to force them to speak to him.

The custom of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas has been handed down to us by our Saxon ancestors, who, on the restoration of Balder, dedicated the plant to their Venus (Friga), to place it entirely under her control, and to prevent it from being again used against her as an instrument of mischief. In the feudal ages, it was gathered with great solemnity on Christmas Eve, and hung up in the great hall with loud shouts and rejoicing :—

Then opened wide the baron’s hall
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all.”

The Holly, like some other evergreens, has long been used at Christmas for ornamenting churches and dwelling-houses. It appears to have been first made use of for this purpose by the early Christians at Rome, and was probably adopted for decorating the churches at Christmas, because holly was used in the great festival of the Saturnalia, which occurred about that period. It was customary among the Romans to send boughs of holly, during the Saturnalia, as emblematic of good wishes, with the gilts they presented to their friends at that season ; and the holly came thus to be considered as an emblem of peace and good-will.

Whatever may have been the origin of the practice of decorating churches and houses with holly, it is of great antiquity. In England, perhaps, the earliest record of the custom is in a carol in praise of holly, written in the time of Henry VI., beginning with the stanza—

” Nay, ivy, nay. it shall not be. I wys; Let holly hafe the maystry [mastery,] as the manner is.

Holy stonde in the hallr, fayre to behold;

Ivy stonde without the dore : she is ful sore a-cold.”

In illustration of which it must be observed that the ivy, being dedicated to Bacchus, was used as a vintner’s sign in winter, and hung outside the door.

The disciples of Zoroaster, the author of fire-worship, believed that the sun never shadows the holly-tree; and the followers of that philosopher, who still remain in Persia and India, are said to throw water impregnated with holly bark in the face of a new-born child. In the language of flowers, the holly is the symbol of foresight and caution.

Source: New Pictorial Library R.Sears, J.S. Redfield, 1846


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