Hail the yew, the first Christmas tree

Bright red berry on stem of yew

The first British Christmas tree was not the perfectly proportioned Scandi fir that adorns the ideal living room.

It was a single yew bough, introduced to the English court by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, decorated with ribbons and candles. She went on to display an entire yew tree and from that the Christmas tree tradition, whether yew, fir or plastic, evolved.

A native British tree, the particular qualities of the yew made it the object of reverence long before the advent of Christianity. Its old wood can put forth new shoots and drooping boughs take root, with the result that a single tree can live hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.

According to Yew expert Fred Hageneder, it was these qualities that contributed to its sacred status among the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Nordic people of northern Europe. ‘The Tree of Life is an image of the whole universe, or at least of planet earth, which embodies the notion that all life is related to each other and that all that lives is holy,’ he writes. ‘To serve as an ‘earthly representation’ of the Tree of Life, different cultures chose different tree species, according to which species grew in the region and – since all tree species have different characteristics and qualities – which tree character resonated best with the spiritual ideals emphasized by any given culture.’

It’s not hard to see how, in the northern hemisphere where life was historically dominated by seasonal cycles and the darkness of winter, the yew became an emblem of death and renewal. As the darkest point of the year shifted into the beginning of the new year, for the Druids it was the quintessential solstice tree. And, poisonous in all but its berries, it could provide an arboreal portal to the underworld …

Although it’s not known exactly why, under Christianity, yew trees continued to be planted in churchyards – there’s a summary of many possible explanations here – it seems likely that as churches were built on or close to pagan burial sites, they inherited the long-lived yews that grew there. To make their presence theologically sound, all that was required was a small lexical tweak from ‘rebirth’ to ‘resurrection’. In tooday’s churchyards yews still provide shelter for the modern pilgrims, as does this one at Wilmington in the summer of 2016.

So it’s good to conclude my final blog of the year with this thought of the happy coexistence of the pagan and the Christian, nature-based faith and institutional religion, outdoors and indoors. Happy Christmas tree!

The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent. But in the spirit of unreformed Scrooge, the offer ends at Christmas. Humbug!