Friday,21 July, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1324, (15 - 21 December 2016)
Friday,21 July, 2017
Issue 1324, (15 - 21 December 2016)

Ahram Weekly

No ‘poem lovely as a tree’

Impossible. Life without trees?  Inconceivable.

Around this time of year, in the dark of winter, trees are more plentiful than ever.  Cut evergreens fill every nursery and flower shop, waiting to be taken to a warm, cosy home, where it will be decked out with a million lights and ornaments. It shall stand proud and tall in the prominent spot in the house, covered with a million lights and ornaments and glittering with tinsel all over. Beneath its feet is laid the carefully wrapped special Christmas gifts, sure to bring joy to children of all ages.

Long ago, before the tree became an indispensable Christmas symbol, trees played a profound role in our lives throughout the ages.

Early man observed the birth, growth and annual death of the tree, only to be reborn and bear rich foliage and fruit. The powerful symbol of death and rebirth has been a part of man’s psyche since time immemorial.

Trees were everywhere, before man felled them down for habitation, construction and survival. We pull down trees from forests for the wood that builds our homes, keeps us warm and to make room for homes that soon became skyscrapers.  Still our longing for the sight of trees reaching to high heaven is sorely missed in the large cities, so we take vacations to fill our hearts and eyes with the comforting green of the trees.

Evergreens, for the most part, largely stay green all year long, a symbol of eternity, immortality and fertility.

The image of the ‘Tree of Life’ occurs in ancient mythologies, a product of our imagination mingled with reality to the degree that some cultures do not differentiate between one and the other. And how are we to prove they are not. They remain with us through life and death, despite the efforts of modern progress.

The tree is a mysterious token of life revered by the various cultures. In Hinduism the Banyon tree remains sacred. As is the Bhodi tree in Buddhism. In ancient Egypt, the ‘Book of the Dead’ mentions the sycamore as part of the scenery when the soul of the deceased finds blissful repose.

Throughout Europe tress were known as a site of pilgrimage. Travellers observed the custom of hanging objects upon trees in order to establish an intimate connection with the tree. They believed trees were capable of healing and worthy of worship.

The spread of Christianity did not stop Scandinavians from worshipping trees, long after their conversion. The Vikings and Saxons continued to worship trees keeping them a part of Christian festivities through the importance of the Christmas tree.

The legend of the fir or Yule tree emanates from Germanic mythology.  Celtic polytheism and Germanic paganism practised a culture of the ‘secret grove’, especially the grove of the Oak tree. It is believed the ‘Druids’ name is derived from the Celtic for ‘Oak’.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, garlands that symbolise eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews.” 

It was a small world then; it is a small world now.

The concept of the modern Christmas tree originated in Germany during the 16th century Renaissance.

The story goes that Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther was the first to add candles to an evergreen tree. Walking towards his home one winter evening he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. Intent to recapture that glow he brought in a tree, set it up in the main room and wired it with lit candles and thus was born the tradition on the lights of the Christmas tree.

The earliest story concerning the adoption of the fir at Christmas goes farther back at least 700 years, during the first half of the 8th century.

A British monk and missionary, St Boniface (born Winfrid in AD 680) was preaching a sermon on the Nativity to a tribe of Germanic Druids outside the town of Geismar. To convince the pagans that the oak tree was not sacred, he felled one on the spot.  It crushed every shrub in its path except for a small fir sapling. Boniface interpreted the fir survival as a miracle crying out: “Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child.” 

Subsequent Christmases in Germany were celebrated by planting fir saplings.

While the story is romantically appealing, what is known for a fact is that by the 16th century fir trees, whether indoors or out, were decorated to commemorate Christmas in Germany with edibles like apples, wafers and flowers cut of coloured paper.      

The custom was popularised in England in the 19th century when Queen Victoria married German Prince Albert, who recreated his native customs in the English court. Soon their popularity spread from England to the new colony, now called the USA.

Everything is bigger and better in America. New customs were added and Christmas became a commercial bonanza for business. The consumer could not get enough lights, now electric of course or multi-coloured ornaments and glistening tinsel with a star or an angel atop the tree.

Every home, shop, square, park or mall shines with festive decorations with a Christmas tree as the main attraction.

While ‘Weihnachtsbaum’ is unfamiliar, it stands for ‘Christ baum’, our beloved Christmas tree which brings new life and light this holiday season.


“Poems are made by fools like me/  But only God can make a tree.”

Joyce Kilmer (1886-1916)

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