Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Season of Trees

Ever since I was a small child, the Christmas tree has symbolized the winter holiday season to me. More than Santa, more than caroling, more than the nativity scenes that were scattered all over the town I grew up in, it's the tree that encapsulates the whole season. Why is that? What deep memory does this image speak to?

Our tree this year
I remember my first priestess telling me the 'Christmas tree lore' from her Irish Pagan tradition. She insisted that the Christmas tree was invented by the Irish when the Brehons (the elders who acted as arbitrators within the community) insisted that local residents tie packets of food to trees at crossroads so winter travelers wouldn't go hungry. Funny how everyone wants *their* tradition to be the one that came up with the idea of the Christmas tree.

I've also spent a lot of time listening to people argue about whether the Christmas (Yuletide/holiday/etc.) tree is a Pagan symbol that shouldn't be used by 'proper, God-fearing Christians' (not that I've ever been one of those). I even had one very sincere woman tell me that you can suss out the closet Pagans because they use live trees; apparently, in her world, Christians stick with artificial trees.

Come on, people, you're missing the point. It's a symbol that works. It evokes something very old yet still very relevant, even for folks who don't ascribe any religious meaning to the winter holidays. So what deep part of our collective memory does the Christmas tree tickle?

I find it interesting that the Christmas tree seems to overlap in the collective psyche with the birth of the baby Jesus, even though there's no mention in the Bible of trees of any sort associated with the birth scene. But trees are associated with divine births throughout the ancient world. Certain trees on the island of Crete, for instance, were revered as the birthplaces of deities, and pregnant women brought offerings to the trees in hopes of a safe and swift delivery.

One of my favorite deities, Dionysus, has a double birth story. The Minoan earth-mother goddess Rhea is said to have birthed him in her cave on Mt. Dikte, but he is also recorded as having been born beneath a pine tree, with a star in the sky directly above alerting the world to his arrival. Hmmm.

Modern Pagans tend to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun at Winter Solstice, weaving the scientific knowledge of the cosmos with the age-old mythos of seasonal renewal. Steven Posch recently shared a great blog post about birth trees that speaks to this subject.

But there's more to the Christmas tree than just the birth of a deity or the renewal of the Earth's seasonal cycles. There's a deeper Mystery here, a different kind of birth. You see, the tree is the World Axis. That's right.

Dionysos can show us how it works. In his earliest form he's a shamanic deity, a walker-between-the-worlds who helps us do likewise. To lead us to the Otherworld and its Mysteries, he grasps a low branch, heaves himself up and gestures for us to follow suit. We climb the tree, aiming for the star that is the doorway to the next world - the Pole Star, the nail that holds up the Heavens, the post on which the Cosmic Mill turns. And when we are ready to return from the transformational experience, the journey to the Otherworld, we climb back down the tree, birthing ourselves back into this world.

I should add, the reason for giving birth beneath a tree, particularly a sacred one, is that you're giving birth beneath the World Tree. The new soul comes down the tree from the Otherworld and into the baby as it's born.

So when you look at your holiday tree, no matter what you call it (or whether you call it anything at all) know that you've found the center of the universe. And for this season at least, that door is open if you'd care to follow Dionysos on his journeys.