After John Muir
Too fine a point can’t be put
on its tender needles; no metaphor
can labor its sturdy shape nor dull
its deep green, deep in winter. The transcendental forest
persists through the shock of snow
as if showing us the way. How truly wild it is
here in the longest span of night;
how joyously one’s heart responds
to the silent, steady grove.
— Matthew Kosinski
Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of the bracing Northlands, we examine how evergreen trees have shaped the Yuletide season — and the formation of the U.S. National Park System.
In 2017, the village of Mundelein, Illinois, denied a resident’s request to display a menorah alongside the village’s traditional Christmas tree. On the surface, this sounds like a clear-cut case of religious discrimination — but in that same year, the village also denied a request to display a nativity scene in the same public park.1
Village attorney Charles Marino advised against the menorah and the nativity scene on the grounds that these would be religious icons on public property, whereas the Christmas tree is a secular symbol that does not violate the separation of church and state. Some may quibble with Marino’s reasoning — the word “Christmas” is right there in the tree’s name! — but in the eyes of U.S. law, Marino is right.2
“Religious holiday symbols can only be displayed on public land if the display also includes symbols from other religions and/or secular symbols, like Santa’s reindeer.”
A Beacon of Universal Hope
According to the conclusions of a couple of different cases the Supreme Court heard in the 1980s, Christmas trees are secular. In Lynch v. Donnelly and County of Allegheny v. ACLU, the court considered the constitutionality of religious holiday displays. The verdicts of these cases have left us with a rough guideline that some call the “reindeer rule”: Religious holiday symbols can only be displayed on public land if the display also includes symbols from other religions and/or secular symbols, like Santa’s reindeer.3
In turning down the menorah and the nativity scene, the village of Mundelein was trying to avoid opening a can of worms: If the village allowed either of the religious symbols to stand, it would have to let all other religious symbols stand, too. On the other hand, a lone Christmas tree counts as fully secular, according to the Supreme Court’s decisions. It is, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her opinion on Lynch v. Donnelly, “a celebration of the public holiday through its traditional symbols.”4
Evergreens; Source: Lionel DiPiccolo on Unsplash
One could easily disagree with the court’s ruling on the secularity of Christmas trees, but there is a certain grain of historical truth to the decision. Christmas trees may be named for a Christian holiday, but they have their roots in pre-Christian times.
People have long viewed evergreen trees and shrubs as symbols of life and hope. These plants remain verdant through even the darkest, coldest months of the year. Naturally, religions around the world have incorporated evergreens into their winter solstice celebrations as signs of the coming spring, when the sun would shine and crops would flourish again.
During Saturnalia, a weeklong winter celebration of the agricultural god Saturn, ancient Romans would decorate their homes with evergreen boughs. In Norse mythology, the summer sun god Baldr is heavily associated with evergreens. During their own winter solstice festivities, ancient Egyptians hung palm rushes in their homes to celebrate the triumph of the sun god Ra over death. (Palms may not be evergreens, but the symbolism served the same function.)5
A depiction of Saturnalia festivities by Antoine-François Callet; Source: Wikimedia
As Christianity gained prominence throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, Christian evangelists didn’t simply sweep the pagan traditions aside. Instead, they absorbed these traditions into their own practices. It was partly a matter of sentimentality: As Leicester University researcher Philip Shaw puts it, early Christians were “quite interested in paganism. It's obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it's also something they think is worth remembering. It's what their ancestors did."6
Reappropriating pagan practices was also a savvy conversion move: Pagans were more willing to convert to Christianity if they could keep some of their customs, albeit with some minor adjustments. In fact, some scholars believe the early Christian church deliberately chose December 25 as the date of Christmas to capitalize on the aforementioned Saturnalia, which was celebrated around the same time of year. By offering an alternative holiday rather than cancelling festivities outright, the church hoped to get more pagans on board with its teachings.7
From Thunder Oak to Fir Tree
But what of the Christmas tree itself? How did evergreen boughs become full trees decked out with lights and baubles?
The Christmas tree’s origins are hazy. We know the custom started in Germany, but it’s hard to pin down how or why.
St. Boniface chopping down the Thunder Oak; ABC.net.au
According to one legend, we have the eighth century missionary St. Boniface to thank. While proselytizing in what is now Germany, Boniface came across the village of Geismar, where the people worshipped a large oak tree dedicated to Thor, known as the “Thunder Oak.” The villagers taunted Boniface, claiming his god was not strong enough to destroy their Thunder Oak.8
Keen to prove the villagers wrong, Boniface interrupted their celebration one Christmas Eve, picked up an axe, and cut down the supposedly invincible Thunder Oak. The villagers were amazed by Boniface’s strength, and Boniface used the opportunity to make some converts. He pointed to a fir tree that stood behind the fallen Thunder Oak and said, “This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace… It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.”9
It’s a satisfying story from a narrative perspective, but in all likelihood, the Christmas tree had a much more mundane origin as a hodgepodge of pagan evergreen symbolism, the “paradise tree,” and the “Christmas pyramid.”10
A modern Christmas pyramid; the propellor-like object at the top is a “candle carousel,” which spins due to the hot air rising from the candles beneath it; Source: Pinterest
Medieval Germans celebrated the feast day of Adam and Eve — the first people created by God, according to Judeo-Christian scriptures — on December 24th with a play about the couple. Traditionally, such Adam and Eve plays only had one prop on stage: a paradise tree, which usually took the form of a fir tree decorated with apples. Eventually, Germans began erecting their own paradise trees inside their homes to mark the occasion. Many Germans also had Christmas pyramids, wooden constructions decorated with figurines, evergreen boughs, and candles said to symbolize the “light of Christ.” Over time, the paradise tree and the Christmas pyramid merged into one, and the modern Christmas tree was born.11 Legend has it the Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to add candles to a Christmas tree. While walking home one winter night, the story goes, Luther was struck by how beautiful the starlit sky looked through the evergreens. To duplicate the scene at home, Luther hung lit candles in the family’s paradise tree.12
“Luther was struck by how beautiful the starlit sky looked through the evergreens. To duplicate the scene at home, Luther hung lit candles in the family’s paradise tree.”
The Secular Spirituality of Evergreens
While evergreens may be closely associated with Christmas in the popular imagination, they never really lost their broader, more universal spiritual valence of old. Indeed, they played a pivotal spiritual role in the life of Sierra Club founder John Muir, a self-described "poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist” widely hailed today as the “Father of the U.S. National Park System.”13
Born in Scotland, Muir moved with his family to a farm in Wisconsin when he was 11. Whenever he could steal away from the farm, Muir would wander the wilds of Wisconsin, and it was here that his love of nature first bloomed.14 In adulthood, Muir worked at a carriage parts shop for a brief period before being temporarily blinded by an injury in 1867. When Muir regained his eyesight, he also gained the resolve to put it to good use in the careful contemplation of the natural world.15
Photograph of John Muir; Source: PBS
Muir left his job and trekked from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico largely on foot, making sketches of plants and wildlife along the way. He sailed to Cuba, then Panama, and then to California, where his life would be changed forever by his travels through the Sierra Nevada mountains.16 As he wrote of one trip through the San Joaquin Valley, "Then it seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light … the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen."17
Among the many astonishing sights of the Sierra Nevada, one that made a major impression on Muir was the region’s evergreen forests. As he wrote in his 1894 book The Mountains of California:
“The coniferous forests of the Sierra are the grandest and most beautiful in the world, and grow in a delightful climate on the most interesting and accessible of mountain-ranges, yet strange to say they are not well known. … Few indeed, strong and free with eyes undimmed with care, have gone far enough and lived long enough with the trees to gain anything like a loving conception of their grandeur and significance as manifested in the harmonies of their distribution and varying aspects throughout the seasons, as they stand arrayed in their winter garb rejoicing in storms, putting forth their fresh leaves in the spring while steaming with resiny fragrance, receiving the thunder-showers of summer, or reposing heavy-laden with ripe cones in the rich sungold of autumn. For knowledge of this kind one must dwell with the trees and grow with them, without any reference to time in the almanac sense.”18
It was due in part to his desire that others have the chance to “dwell with the trees and grow with them” that Muir became a fierce advocate for conservation. Muir was a prolific writer, producing hundreds of articles and some 16 books over the course of his life. His writings encouraging people to “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings" stirred government officials and common people alike to action. Muir’s work was fundamental to the creation of the Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks.19 For example, Muir’s 1889 series of exposés on how excessive sheep grazing was damaging the Sierra Nevada ecosystem helped motivate the U.S. Congress to create what is today Yosemite National Park.20
John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt at Yosemite; Source: DOI.gov
National parks existed before Muir, but he did change the way we approach conservation. Prior to Muir, many national preservations were open to resource extraction, but Muir stood up to the big business interests that wanted to keep things this way. He argued that preservations should be off limits to industry, dedicated only to the natural ecosystems in place. Muir’s writings were crucial in gathering popular support for this approach to conservation — as was a camping trip he took with Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 that motivated Roosevelt to embark on a large-scale national conservation program.21 It has been hailed as the “the most significant camping trip in conservation history.”22
Evergreens played a vital role in sustaining pagan and Judeo-Christian communities through their coldest, darkest days. These emblems of hope kept them anchored to the natural world. They reminded them that the seasons were temporary, that the bleak winter was a necessary prelude to the beauty and bounty of spring.
In some ways, we seem to have lost touch with this deep spiritual power. For many people, evergreen trees still offer a place to gather in the winter, but how often do we reflect on the message these trees were originally meant to convey?
Muir offers an example we may want to follow here. His love of nature was a scientific one, but it was also deeply spiritual. "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe," he once wrote.23 It is a lesson we’d do well to keep in mind today. Even the smallest choices we make in our daily lives — where to shop, what to eat, how to get to work — reverberate throughout the whole of the natural world. Like Muir, we should aim to move through life in a way that supports rather than undermines this fundamental connection.