In the great old forests of northern Europe, the huge pines and spruces, oaks and elms, chestnuts and beech trees were venerated by the ancient peoples who lived in their sheltering comfort.
In the depths of winter, families would uproot a young tree and bring it indoors, safe from the icy cold, to nurture it through the dark sub-arctic season, and when spring came, take it outside and re-plant it as a gift to Nature. Historians say that this was apparently the beginning of the tradition of having a tree in the house at the end of the year.
It’s ironic that what we call a Christmas tree today is thought by so many people to be a symbol of Christianity. After all, when early Christian armies invaded northern Europe, they cut down the forests as they advanced, not so much because they wanted the wood, but as a way of humiliating the people of the forests and destroying their culture.
That was because, for those early Northern Europeans, the trees represented every different facet and aspect of the divine life force: Their leaves, blossoms, fruit, nuts, bark, and sap were all treasured for their food and healing properties, as much as the different kinds of wood were valued for making shelter, tools, fire, and so much more.
Under the canopy
Life in the forest was quite different from life on the plains, deserts, or Mediterranean regions. When you looked up, you rarely saw the sky; instead, you lived under this great forest canopy. Communities also tended to be more isolated from each other than further south. That’s because travel through the forests was slower, and less was known of neighboring cultures.
The forest itself was an entire living organism that gave birth to, nourished, and then reabsorbed those who lived within it. More powerful than the great beasts, more enduring than any civilization, few invading armies could ever penetrate it. The people lived secure in its embrace for thousands of years.
The trees themselves maintained their own “society”, too. Modern science knows of the “heartbeat” of a forest (a very low thumping sound), and of how trees send complex messages to each other, for example to warn of approaching danger – perhaps from a new kind of bug or insect, fungus or chemical. As the message is passed along, the trees work out a defense system, often changing the properties of their sap or excreting an oil through their leaves.
These boreal and temperate forests once stretched all the way around the world – Britain, Scandinavia, Russia, America. To the ancient peoples who lived in them, they were not simply home, but a world that was complete in itself, a place of wonder and magic.
As human language became more advanced, the trees were also the source of the alphabets that were being formed. Each letter of the alphabet was the name of a tree. There were consonant trees and vowel trees, and different communities had different alphabets, depending on their trees. Later on, the trees inspired some of the earliest religious systems for cultures like the Druids.
The great ancestral tree
The Northern Europeans believed that the whole world had been born from a great Ash Tree. According to legend, their ancestor, the god Wotan or Odin, had come to the tree, sacrificing an eye in exchange for knowledge, and cutting off a branch to forge a spear and lead humankind away from nature to create its own destiny – similar to how, in the Mediterranean world, Adam and Eve were said to have given up their innocence, after plucking fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and abandoning nature to create their own world.
Forests today are a shadow of their former selves. Many of them only live in protected areas, in sanctuaries we call national forests. Their numbers are diminished. But their magic is as powerful as ever. More majestic than skyscrapers, they radiate more life than any city, are more uplifting than any religion, older than some of the pyramids, and more beautiful than anything we can create.
So, if you have a tree at home, give a thought to the great forests, too. There are several good organizations working to protect them. Save America’s Forests is one of them. Save the Rainforest is another. And many cities have local groups that help care for the trees in their own neighborhoods. They could all use our help.
And by the way, if you’ve never hugged a tree, you should try it. Tree-hugging is seen as a bit “new-agey” these days, but it was not always so. German General Otto von Bismarck used to take a turn in his garden each day and wrap his arms around his favorite tree. He said it helped to energize and focus him. It’ll do the same for you.