Christmas and Yule Trees: Do Good Pagans Decorate?

In 1851, Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland OH appears to have been the person responsible for decorating the first Christmas tree in an American church. His parishioners condemned the idea as a Pagan practice; some even threatened the pastor with harm. But objections soon dissipated.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Christmas tree. As a child, many memories of joy and excitement occurred under those trees; when I was a young man I railed against the idea of killing an innocent tree to commemorate the birth of Jesus. The practice is and is not linked to both of the major religious paths that I have followed, and in modern times is more a symbol of Giftmas than it is a sacred object.

Reasons I love Christmas trees:

  • The bring a touch of nature into the home at a time of year when the outside is forbidding.
  • They are the most sophisticated cat toys man has ever known.
  • Much prettier decoration than a Festivus pole.
  • The smell that permeates a home so decorated.
  • The feeling of old tradition, old magic, old joy.

Reasons I hate Christmas trees:

  • The artificial ones. I mean, if you want a tree, get a tree.
  • Cleaning up the needles
  • The possibility of uncontrolled fire
  • Watching a tree die each day
  • Christmas tree farms.

It’s a modern development that Pagans are environmentalists, a natural progression of a religion that strives to be in tune with its own environment. Our intellectual ancestors really didn’t need to worry about the impact of cutting down a few trees and dripping them with precious metals. It wasn’t like today, where hundreds of thousands of trees are cut down to feed the need . . . one national forest sold 230,000 trees, all of which were probably five to seven years old. That’s a lot of impact for a couple of weeks of decoration. Neopagans are much more often concerned about environmental impacts, and Christmas trees are a particularly conspicuous impact.

Of course, humans in earlier times had a much darker world to deal with, as well. They weren’t distracted by the glitz and glam, the banner ads and neon signs and all-night Thai restaurants that clamor for our attention, so I imagine they had a little bit more time to respect nature. It may be a romantic notion, but I do hope that it was once common to thank the tree for giving its life.

On being a killjoy
So at this time of year when it’s easier to curse the darkness and complain about the commercialization of the world, I would rant about the evils of Christmas trees. I was happy to add a little more strife to a stressful time of year, and dust off my sustainably-harvested soapbox, which was festooned with carbon-neutral lights for the occasion.

A couple of years ago, however, I made the decision to enjoy Christmas and Yule alike. The purpose of these festivals of light is to remind us, in the darkest times, that light returns. This is not a time to grind an ax, as it were. I needed to allow a tree into my home.

I will not ask a living tree for permission to take it; there will always be trees dying on lots whether or not I buy one. Instead, I find a tree that was destined for that purpose, and already has been killed but likely doesn’t know that it is yet dead. I talk to that tree, and tell it that its death was not entirely pointless. I speak of light and hope and joy, and promise to return the substance of that very tree to the Earth so that it may renew the land.

At the very least, I know that one tree did not die in futility and fear.

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4 thoughts on “Christmas and Yule Trees: Do Good Pagans Decorate?

  1. Hey.FWIW, in my region of the Northeast, at least, tree farms tend not to be from land that has been cleared from forest, but is farmland that, given the low profit in farming in New England these days, would probably become a strip mall or a subdivision if it were not used for growing Christmas trees. And since New England has gone from 85% cleared land to 85% wooded over the past century, it actually is a boon to ecological diversity to maintain some open farm land amid our woods.Some farms are profligate in their use of pesticides, etc. I try to avoid those, of course. But this is also true of agriculture generally–and there is something to be said for maintaining local agriculture, for lots of reasons, even if it is not organic in its approach.I do cut down a live tree. In part, this is in keeping with my Pagan ethic around sacrifice and harvest: I do not eat red meat, because I am quite certain I would not be willing personally to take the life of a mammal. I do have a complex exception to that rule, tied solely to honoring the ancestors at Samhain and celebrating the god Herne when offered venison that I can eat in a sacred fashion–but that’s really the exception that proves the rule, isn’t it?Like most Americans, I do not farm or hunt, and my subconscious probably thinks food comes from grocery stores, not the earth and not living beings. By personally taking the life of a tree each Yule, I remind myself of the debt I owe to the natural world, and feel at least some of the weight of living on the deaths of other beings.Peter and I (and in recent years, two of our closest Pagan friends) go to the treefarm with good, home-brewed beer in hand. We ask the permission of the tree before we take it–and, yes, we’ve been known to take “no” for an answer and move on, and ask again.When we find a tree that seems ready to go with us, we cut it… and then pour the beer over the stump and the cut base of the tree in thanks and remembrance.When we are home, we cut a round from the base of the tree, which Peter painstakingly decorates with a pentacle. This serves either as a gift to a close friend, or as our altar pentacle for the year. And as a reminder: we live because others die; someday, we will die, that others may live.Not saying you’re doing it wrong, or your concerns are invalid, needless to say… just offering another point of view.Gud Yule, T!

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  2. That’s a wonderful sentiment overall, and I particularly like the idea of making a gift or offering from the tree itself. I want to make the Yule log this year, since we don’t generally have our own Maypole.I appreciate your point of view, because it is a delicate balance for me, and your viewpoint helps me see that there are ways I can improve my tree relationships.Hope you both have a merry and bright (or dark, if you wish) Yule!

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  3. I use a fake tree so I can get many uses out of it, avoid the needles the pain, and the smell gets obnoxious after a while.
    Of course I make mini tree things, like a wreath with real pines and sometimes a pinecone, and other things I can use real soil and trees to decorate with and avoid killing any tree. Its really a great blend of modern eco friendly acts and old tradition. Some of the smell without it being too strong, some authenticity without needles being everywhere.

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