It’s an expected tradition that Christians celebrating Christmas will have an evergreen tree in the house as part of the celebrations. Some people get the tree inside, in the stand, and decorated at the beginning of Advent, which means, of course, that if it is a real (now dead) tree it will shed needles and need water constantly to keep it in a semblance of life, and this is close to impossible in modern, overheated houses. Or some wait until Christmas eve, which means that if one did not have foresight to buy the cut tree early, stick it in a snowbank or a bucket of water in the garage, the only trees left are monsters fit for a barn or scrawny, almost-grey rejects, the proverbial Charlie Brown trees.
We Anglicans didn’t have Christmas trees much until Queen Victoria married a German, Prince Albert, who brought the decorated fir tree to England as a family tradition. And those early Victorian trees were mere wild slips of firs, culls from the woodlot, set on a table top and decorated with coloured paper and small toys. Candles were always a bad idea.
Greenery at Christmas isn’t new, though. It just wasn’t the semi-pagan tree with little votive offerings hung on it, which, to me, still smells too much of sacrifice to Wotan. (In the lean seasons, the Norse hung live sacrifices on sacred trees in the forest, to slowly strangle – dogs, foxes, ponies, men. This was to propitiate the recalcitrant gods. I’m not making this up.)
Christians in the temperate countries brought in sprigs of rosemary, a holy, healing plant, that scented the house like incense. Rosemary is one of my favourite medicinal and culinary herbs, and is associated with the Virgin Mary, making it especially symbolic at Christmas. Sometimes florists have small topiary rosemary bushes available at this time of the year, and for the Christian household that wants something traditional and Christian, these are a good choice. But the plant needs sunlight, good clean water, and not too much direct heat to survive to spring.
For the English, holly was the Christmas green. It is spiky like the crown of thorns, ornamented with red berries like the blood of Christ, and is green through the year, a symbol of eternal salvation. I love holly, too, although it’s medicinal use is incidental to its beauty. (It was the leaves that were used, as the berries are somewhat poisonous, and quite emetic.)
When the children and I lived in Maryland, we had a beautiful holly bush in the yard. It must have been decades old, as it was taller than me, and quite full. One year when I had no money for Christmas gifts, I sent my parents in Maine a big box of holly clippings. My mother was amazed; holly will not grow in the subarctic, and she had never seen so much holly all at once. She decorated her house, gave some away to friends, and varnished some to save for the future. It takes ten years for holly to mature to the point where the berries are consistent and plentiful; it is definitely an investment in the future. Of course, holly trees grow wild in parts of England, and it was wild-gathered for generations, then put up in churches and homes, along with the wild English ivy, the sort that climbs all over brick houses and makes the brick crumble. English ivy is also medicinal, and is used particularly to ease birth pangs in animals. Quite an interesting factor for an evergreen associated with the birth of Our Lord!
If the Christmas tree is too pagan for your Christian household, there is still rosemary, holly and ivy. We do not need to reject all household decoration at Christmas; it should be meaningful, symbolic, and befitting Christian tradition.