Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bringing Green In

Sitting in my living room, I am delighted with my view: curls of rope light across the big window, blue LED lights all along the roof line, and white sparks on the tree in the corner. This year I decorated our Christmas tree with peacock feathers, about 80 of them. Sprays of gilded artificial leaves and pheasant feathers dance with the peacock's rainbowed eyes, as do deep turquoise ornaments. It's a gorgeous tree, snugged up against the teal wall.

Such a fun custom, bringing greenery into the house this time of year. I love it and I love the long, long history of this act. Because the winter solstice occurs this time of year, many people have thought that bringing greenery into their homes would help bring the sun back. Some societies thought that the sun god was weakened by illness this time of year and hoped that celebrating the solstice would help the sun god "eat" and return to full health. Bringing the greens inside renewed confidence that the sun would grow healthy and that all plants (not just evergreens) would thrive again.

Numerous cultures celebrated this way, including the Egyptians who brought green palm rushes, symbols of life triumphing over death, into their homes, hoping that these would help the god Ra recover. Ra, with his hawk-shaped head, wore a crown that included the sun. The ancient Romans also decked their halls with greenery, to honor the god of agriculture, Saturn, in hopes that he would help their lands turn green and productive again. Druids and Vikings revered evergreen boughs, with the Druids decorating their temples with them as symbols of everlasting life and the Vikings honoring them as the sun god Balder's favored plants. European, primarily German, customs incorporated evergreen interior decoration as part of Christmas festivities in the seventeenth century and Westerners have loved the custom ever since.

Evergreens are such fascinating plants, decked out as they are for year-round photosynthesis and prepared to take on the harshest weather. Their diversity is amazing. My late husband used to train me to distinguish various conifers and I enjoyed the drills. He tutored me in needle shape and distribution (whorls were fun to ID!), bark, overall shape, top configuration, cone design and size, as well as location (north slopes most likely had some fir). Tamaracks (larch) were easy for me to ID in fall (bright yellow) and winter (needle-free), as were ponderosas (Grandfather trees) with their ruddy bark and long needles. Our house on the river had huge ponderosa pines, three stories high and as wide as the house. When they went through their August needle drop, we had mats of dried needles over the whole yard, the roof, the deck, and the driveway. It was wonderful. Though the pines dropped wheelbarrows full of needles each summer, they remained faithfully green all year long.

Evergreens: symbols of unending life. I like the idea of bringing evergreens into the house for the dark of winter's longest night. The greenery reassures us that the sun will come back, the plants will grow again. And, in this house, with 80 peacock eyes perched among the pine boughs, the reassurance is spectacular!

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