From Pre-Historic Sympathetic Magic to Christmas Trees

From Pre-Historic Sympathetic Magic to Christmas Trees

They’re all over the place this time of year.

Reminders of pre-historic, cave-man sympathetic magic.

Pure Paganism (if you go with the Latin translation of “pagan”): Country dweller; of or from the land; close to nature and the earth….)

What evidence of sympathetic magic from our cave dwelling past?

Christmas trees and wreaths!

I believe these symbols go back further and deeper than any form of recorded history.

Deep in dark caves that have never seen the light of day are paintings of animals done by early humans.

Why did they take the trouble to go into dark places bringing fire with them, and then using charcoal and other natural products, create bison, horses, and all manner of marvelous images on cave walls, that few would know to look for or see?

They didn’t have hobbies or leisure time for “the arts” as we know them.

Early humans lived short hard lives trying to survive a hostile environment using practical and pragmatic methods.

What’s practical about painting pictures of prey animals on cave walls!?

It’s called “sympathetic magic”, and it survives to this day throughout the world, often disguised and “invisible” because people don’t understand what they’re experiencing, or the origin and historic distortion of traditions they follow.

Christmas trees and decorations are part of an ancient magical tradition that has nothing to do with electric blinking lights, blown glass ornaments, aggressive commercialism, or the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

The winter solstice is that 24 hour period each year in which there are more hours of darkness than light, usually December 21st.

Imagine going back in time to when our species had only the most rudimentary implements: stones for hammers; flint, knapped into cutting tools; garments made from skinned animal hides, perhaps sewn together with animal sinew, dried intestines, or rawhide thongs; implements made from bone, antler, etc.; before our ancestors began building primitive huts.

Early humans were lucky to find a cave to survive in (with water with a narrow opening to prevent easy access by predators) and food (whether gathered from plants, fished or hunted).

With each cycle of seasons the time came when there was little daylight, plants seemed dead, and unless food could be gathered, preserved and hoarded, to last through these dark times, or successfully acquired during that cold period, early humans would not survive.

That solstice of longest night had to be the most frightening time of all.

Someone with a creative imagination might have had the idea of bringing into their darkest period that which would remind them of spring, summer, food, plenty, help them focus mentally, spiritually, magically, feel better, and hopefully encourage these things to return using the same sympathetic magic principles found on cave walls.

The hunting paintings seemed to work: they meditated about the animal, admired it, blessed it, visualized themselves and others successfully hunting this food, prayed on the need, drew pictures of it so that, sooner or later, the food would make itself available.

Why not extend that magical principle to all needful things absent in winter’s apparent world-death?

Someone brought a bough into the cave, not to burn, but as a symbol for meditative focus that sooner or later trees return to life that may seem dead, and nature would again provide for them.

What if small amounts of food, saved by the most ancient preservation method, dehydration, or smoking, were attached to the bough, symbolizing fruitfulness? Eventually perhaps small images of important food animals were made of whatever natural materials might be available (clay, wood, dried grass, straw, etc.) and attached as well. What if after the “magic” had been accomplished, these (now “sacred” and “magical”) images were saved, or given to children to play with, or used as “charms”, and then brought out again, resurrected, or re-created if they seemed successful, the next winter?

During those dormant months, it’s likely that story – telling began, leading to spiritual practice, music (chanting?), drumming, theater, and dancing.

Eons passed.

Ancient Egyptians filled their homes with cut green palm rushes at winter solstice, symbolizing the triumph of light over dark, life over death, believing that after a while, if they observed this ritual, spring and renewal of life would come.

Ancient Romans decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs for similar reasons, at the same time of year.
Northern European Druids, priests of the ancient Celts, decorated their holy places with evergreen bough symbols of everlasting life.

Vikings in Scandinavia believed evergreens were special to the sun god, Balder.

Decorating evergreen trees became part of northern European solstice tradition by the early 1600’s and spread to other areas. Nineteenth century German-American immigrants in Pennsylvania had decorated Christmas trees. When an American newspaper depicted a Christmas tree in 1848, the idea spread throughout the United States and Canada.

At first families worked together to produce their own decorations, which included whether they realized it or not, many ancient varieties, along with strings of cranberries and popped corn. Time and focus were needed to make things by hand, just as in pre-history.

Fast forward in time to our commercially manufactured: artificial globes, bright metallic strings of beads, electrical glass or plastic lights, and other artificial decorations.

Few families retain the spiritual tradition of cutting their own tree, making their own decorations as a shared family and friends’ project.

Our materialistic, commercialized world does not encourage spiritual introspection upon the original and deeper meanings of things and events that we encounter in our lives.

Our contemporary, stressful, high-speed, busy lives don’t allow time for this.

In the last century, as now, a Sears Roebuck catalog was known as a “wish book”.

It’s been joined by showy colorful catalogs from countless businesses, in hard copy, as well as via the internet.

People then, as now, look at the images, and “wish for”, “dream about” or “creatively visualize” what they want.

Many are seduced by mass media, advertising, propaganda, contemporary mass culture and “tradition” into wanting what they don’t need, and in the process of acquiring what isn’t essential to basic food, shelter, clothing, health and genuine well-being, are financially and spiritually diminished.

Let’s enjoy the bright lights and modern art displays, indoors and outdoors called Christmas decorations.

But let’s also take time to consider the original meaning of evergreens brought indoors in the darkest part of winter.

At this special time of year, let’s look within for love, light, peace, friendship, enlightenment, health, knowledge, joy and wisdom,

And let’s remember that then, as now, a living plant symbolized life and hope.