Updated: Dec 20, 2022
It is common for those who celebrate Christmas to go out, chop down a tree, and bring it into their homes for about a month. When you stop to think about it, it might seem like a strange tradition. But when we learn about the roots of this yearly practice, we can see early interpretations of evergreen tree’s adaptations and medicinal effects on our bodies and minds. Knowing this can help us have healthier bodies and relationships with the environment.
Evergreen trees have been sacred in many cultures throughout history because of their ability to stay green in the winter. Ancient cultures including the Romans attributed this to the power of good spirits held in these plants. So around the winter solstice, people would bring evergreens into their homes to celebrate the return of the sun and the growing season. The Egyptians would bring Green Palm Rushes into their homes to celebrate the recovery of the Sun God Ra.
Evergreens can stay green throughout the winter because of special adaptations that protect them from the harsh conditions. Evergreen trees have small and thin needles instead of large leaves like maples and oaks. The water within the cells of the needles are filled with particles called cryoprotectants that lower the freezing point of the water. The benefit of keeping their needles year round is that they don’t need to put so much energy into creating new leaves in the spring, and therefore don’t need to store as much energy in their roots in the winter. Evergreen trees are also very flexible branches, allowing them to bend with the weight of the snow until it falls off.
In early Scandinavian culture, people also believed that evergreen trees stay green because they were filled with good spirits. Because of this, they brought them into their homes for protection in different forms including the smudging of fir resin or the burning of the yule log over a multi day ceremony. We know today that evergreen trees are good for our physical and mental health. Trees produce chemicals called phytoncides, which help protect them from insects, fungi, and bacteria. The same chemicals help to improve the human immune system. Phytoncides help our bodies produce anticancer proteins, increase natural killer cell activity to fight cancer, reduce heart rate and stress hormones, and improve mood. All trees produce phytoncides, but evergreen trees produce the most.
Our modern idea of the Christmas tree comes from a Germanic Christian tradition of bringing a tree inside for Christmas. This practice became more popular globally after Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert were sketched sitting around a Christmas tree. Although it’s widespread in the US now, the tradition did not become popular in this country until the early 20th century.
Cultures throughout history have recognized the benefits of being in the presence of evergreen trees. Our interpretations and traditions have changed over the years, but they still play an important role in our holiday season. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, you can still bring these plants into your home in whatever form you’d like. Better yet — take a winter walk in the forest, where the trees will continue to live on and grow. Happy Holidays everyone!