During this holiday season, many of us decorate our homes with holly, hemlock or cedar boughs and fir, pine or spruce trees. We may bring in these greens because the bright red berries and shiny, pointed leaves of holly are cheering, or because the boughs of fir and ropes of white pine have a delightful aroma.
The practice of placing greens around our homes can be traced to the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia, and to the Druids' tradition of decorating their huts with evergreen boughs during the winter.
The Roman Festival of Saturn, called Saturnalia, was celebrated beginning today, December 17th. It included the Winter Solstice. The Romans sent boughs and other gifts to friends at this time of year to honor Saturn, their God of Agriculture. To help gather converts, the Christians co-opted this holiday by establishing the celebration of Christmas on December 25th, and by adopting the giving of gifts. An early church edict, however, forbade Christians to decorate their homes with boughs during this pagan celebration.
Meanwhile, in Northern Europe, Druids are said to have brought evergreen boughs into their huts to provide an abode for the sylvan spirits. Because of their close relationship with plants, forests and the seasons, these people understood that there are very special aspects of the natural world and that the Solstice is an important turning point in the annual solar cycle.
When we decorate our homes with fresh evergreens, we should be aware of an inescapable fact: Our survival on Earth is profoundly intertwined with the survival of trees. Trees and other green plants are humans' essential partners on this planet. Without them, we would run out of oxygen and food. We should remember with respect,
that trees got along for millions of years without us.
Time and again throughout history, humans have attacked the forests. The Romans (with their villas' large central heating systems) had voracious appetites for wood. They imported this resource from more than one thousand miles to the east. As the Druid respect faded, overuse severely depleted the forests of Northern Europe and the British Isles, too.
Today, we are more aware of the many important roles that trees play for us. They clean and cool the air, manage water, and build and hold soil. They also provide food and homes for birds, mammals and insects. Cities with an abundance of trees are cooler and houses with evergreen trees to the northwest are easier to heat.
Trees all over the Earth are under attack, not only from chain saws and bulldozers, but also from acid rain, excess low-level ozone, depletion of upper level ozone, changing weather patterns and world-traveling insects and diseases.
So this season, when we bring greens into our homes, let's remember their importance. We should honor trees for their role in our lives.
If you need a cut tree, buy it locally, recycle its boughs as winter covering for your garden, use the chips from the trunk and plant at least two trees next year. If you plant holly, pine or spruce trees to the northwest of your house, you will have a warmer home and beautiful pruned greens for years to come.
Trees are truly one of Nature's greatest gifts.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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