As a young child, I loved the tradition of bringing a tree into the house at Christmas time; the smell of the pine, the shiny glass baubles, chocolate and candy canes, tinsel and twinkly lights. I have very fond memories of helping my grandparents decorate their tree. I still have one of their glass baubles... a strange-looking lunar decoration (which, quite frankly, is a bit scary – here’s a pic).
Let's all agree for now that Christmas was invented to hijack the far more ancient pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice. After reading ‘The Sacred Yew’ by Anand Chetan and Diane Brueton, I learned that the yew tree is the tree of the Winter Solstice. This is where Yule Tide comes from - literally ‘Yewl-Tide’. You may think I’m joking, but that chocolate Yule-Log we feast on every Christmas is a reminder that we once traditionally brought a ‘Yew Log’ into the house, which was burned bit by bit to last throughout the festive season – a tradition that goes far back beyond the mists of time (my money’s on the Druids). The wife of King George III used to bring yew trees in at Christmas in the 1700’s and, later, Queen Victoria, according to this article. I wonder if Queen Elizabeth still does? If anyone finds out, do please let me know!
But why did they do it? What was so important about the yew tree that it is thought to have been the ‘axis mundi’ of Scandinavian myth and most sacred of all trees to the Druids? Quite simply, the yew is a powerful symbol of self-regeneration – it’s (currently, in my opinion) the closest thing to immortality that we have on the planet... more than just a symbol it’s living proof; when a yew tree dies and becomes hollow, it will send an aerial branch or two inside itself and re-grow a new trunk. Because of this, it has been difficult to accurately date yew trees, but it is now recognised that many are now thought to be thousands of years older than first assumed. See here for Allen’s paper on dating yews and "Are they really that old?".
Understandably, my children have not had a Christmas tree for many years. Instead, they’ve had a fairly convincing ‘fake imposter’ which has been in the family since my parents bought it in the 80s. I transformed this into a ‘Solstice Yew’, red berry lights and all, but it’s not the same thing as a real yew tree in a pot. This year, I wanted it to be real. I’d planted a yew tree some years ago at my old house and thought about going back to dig it up. Walking the dogs one morning, I contemplated the best way to go about it. I got home, went online and checked out my local Freecycle – (if you don’t know what that is then you haven’t lived – I urge you to educate yourself here right away!) – and read these words:
"Offered: Yew tree in a pot."
Fast work, I thought. It was sitting in our house by tea-time. The woman was glad to see the back of it... “I’ve never liked that tree ever since it was given to me!,” she whined. “Cemetery Tree, that’s what I call it”. I tentatively started to explain that yews are special trees, very misunderstood. I wanted to tell her that it was the churches that were built next to the yews - not the other way round - but trying to manoeuver a six-foot evergreen in a waterlogged ceramic planter into the back of my small car didn't feel like the appropriate moment to get into a deep discussion or confrontation about it.
I feel as if I've been followed my whole life by ‘things Yew’. I have developed an affinity with the tree that feels as deeply significant to me as any kindred friendship with another human being. Which is kind of weird.
I first became aware of the importance of yew trees through an article in Kindred Spirit magazine by a guy called Allen Meredith. He was campaigning to get protection orders for all ancient yews in the UK – a cause that was championed by David Bellamy who launched the Yew Tree Campaign in 1986. This was the first nationwide effort to protect ancient yew trees by raising awareness of their venerability and vulnerability, and it’s still going strong today – visit www.ancient-yew.org.
After further reading by Anand Chetan and Diana Brueton, The Sacred Yew, which was based on Allen’s work, I was inspired enough to write to the man himself. He was kind enough to reply. Fifteen years later, we are still in touch every once in a while. He recently called to tell me that he has just published a new book with Janis Fry, called The God Tree, which I’m looking forward to reading very much... especially as the foreword is written by my dear friend Michael Dunning – www.yewshamanism.com – whose personal encounters with the yew tree can be read in my first book, Soul Companions. You can watch part of his yew tree presenation from the ARC Convention in 2010 below.
It feels particularly auspicious that I now have a yew tree in my home this Winter Solstice 2012, for the first time - as the end of an era and a new epoch of unfoldment approaches.
Warmest wishes for the Merriest ‘Yewl-tide’ of them all :)