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Eternally evergreen

A sense of herbs

A sense of herbs

December 09, 2002|by Dorry Baird Norris

The Christmas tree, agleam with lights and baubles, has become a beloved symbol of Christmas. Some say that the first Christmas tree was introduced in Germany by Martin Luther. We do know for certain that the first Christmas tree in England was installed in Windsor Castle at the prompting of Queen Victoria's German consort, Prince Albert.

William Muir Auld wrote: "Christmas is pagan and Christian, gay and grave, mystic and matter-of-fact, historical and legendary."

Like many before him, he recognized that many of our Christmas traditions pre-date the Christian era.

As the days grew short, ancient people, uneasy about the cold and diminishing light, gathered together to coax the sun to return. This indecisive sun could, it was believed, be urged along by fires, feasts and sacrifice. And, by golly, it worked! By the 23rd of December, two days after the winter solstice - the day with the shortest duration of light - the sun was observed to be rising earlier and setting later.

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At a time when the deciduous trees had lost their leaves and perennial plants had been leveled by frost, it is no wonder that, for the ancients, evergreens held center stage during these winter celebrations. The ancients revered evergreens for their ability to remain green under these harsh conditions. After all, the reasoning went, who but a god could keep the tree from losing its leaves and why bother? Was it possible that the evergreens were the homes of the gods?

The shadowy forests were mysterious places and the superstitious could be forgiven when they heard the rustling of the wind among the branches if they believed it to be the voices of their gods.

Evergreens became a symbol of birth and everlasting life. As with many of the plants revered by our ancestors, legends grew up around the evergreen trees

Called the Tree of Life in ancient times, the fir is a symbol of boldness and integrity. It was sacred to Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and nature, as well as to Wodin, the supreme Norse god. Of all the greens we welcome into our house for winter festivals, the fir is the most aromatic. Pines and junipers are scented too, but nothing beats the fir for fragrance.

The late Adelma Simmons often related the Norse story that tells how Faith, Hope and Charity were sent from heaven to find a tree that was as high as Hope, as great as Love and with the sign of the Cross on every branch. Their search ended with the majestic fir and that - lit with stars plucked from the heavens - became the first Christmas tree.

It is said a pine tree concealed the Holy Family when they were pursued by Herod's soldiers and was thus blessed by the Christ Child. Try cutting a pine cone in half lengthwise - can you see the imprint of His hand?

Junipers have long been held to be the tree of sanctuary for the way they shelter small animals and birds from pursuers and protect them from the cold. In the Middle Ages it was believed that if junipers were planted by the door, witches - fated to count every needle - could never enter the house.

Whether you opt for a tree or a single branch, if you fill your home with the scent of the woods, you might even hear the echoes of ancient voices reminding us that even when the days are darkest, life persists.




Herbarist, lecturer and Hagerstown resident Dorry Baird Norris is a member of the International Herb Association, a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America and author of "The Sage Cottage Herb Garden Cookbook." She welcomes questions about the non-medical use of herbs. E-mail her at dorrysage@myactv.net or write in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md. 21741.

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