a musing: evergreens in Christmas songs, midwinter poems and cultural heritage

Traditionally, the spruce is the Christmas tree in the North-West of Europe, but this is not always the evergreen with is the subject of christmas carols. In Flanders, we have a famous christmas song about the pine tree. Why do we sing ‘oh pine tree’ when we have a spruce tree in our house? We adopted this Christmas song from the Germans, as they sing: ‘oh, tannenbaum’. We translated ‘tannenbaum’ to ‘pine tree’ but ‘tannen’ actually means ‘needle’. The correct translation would be: oh needle tree. The Germans might have sung this song since the 19th century when a christmas tree was already a custom.

The pine tree is very present in my region of origin (the Campine/ de Kempen), which is in the east of Belgium and standing between Germany and the rest of Flanders. Due to the mining industry in the 19th-20th century, a lot of pine forests got planted to serve the mining industry with their disposable bodies. However, I never thought that it might make sense that the tree in the song changed from evergreen to pine tree, because pines were then already part of the cultural landscape. Until I heard this Norwegian christmas song.

The juniper in Norway

The juniper (in Norwegian: enebær) is present in the Norwegian landscapes. I noticed this, because I am sensitive to the fact that the juniper trees got uprooted because of the disposable pine trees for the mining industry. It is extinct while it used to be part of the cultural landscape and bringing joy to my ancestors. Thanks to a friend I got to know in my return of 1,5 year to Belgium, I know they try to bring back the juniper trees to the Campine (eg Visbeekvalley), but the restoration projects fail often, perhaps because the pine trees have changed the soil too much or perhaps because of climate change.

However, the juniper (enebær) is quite present in their landscapes, dishes and songs. One a week before I heard this Christmas song, I got this amazing book “North Wild Kitchen” by Nevada Berg, an American who moved to Norway and collects traditional recipes and gives her own twist. In her blog and book she takes care the reader is also informed about the food culture and traditions behind the recipe. I was very intrigued to discover Norwegian dishes like rhubarb and juniper cake or juniper beer. But back to the song. This song means “so we go around the juniper bush” and apparently it comes from an English child song from the 19th century: Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which is not a Christmas song. The mulberry could be linked with the silk and textile industry in the United Kingdom.

Cedar in Iran

In Iran, Yalda is celebrated during midwinter, where they sing songs and share poems at midwinter. Some years I was invited on a Yalda celebration, hosted by Iranian friends in Japan and wrote this blog about the pomegranate. I asked my Iranian friend if there is an evergreen who is central in their Yalda songs and poems. She said there was a link with the western Christmas tree and ancient Iranian history, and more importantly, that the most famous evergreen tree in Iran is “Sarv” or cedar. According to this internet source,

Followers of the Mehr religion believed that the cedar is the special tree of the sun and the birth of Mehr, because it is always green and fresh and can withstand the cold and darkness. That is why cedar is the symbol of light and life, stands for immortality, and symbolizes freedom and resistance to the forces of darkness. For this reason on the eve of Mitra’s birth, they decorated “Mitra’s Cedar,” placed gifts around it and promised themselves that the next year they would put up another evergreen cedar.

The carvings of this tree also can be found in Persepolis. There are lots of references to the tree in the literature and poetry. However, she could not recall anything related to Sarv and Yalda in Persian poetry and did some googling, but she did not find anything. However, she shared a poem by the contemporary poet “Houshang Ebtehaj”:

دلا دیدی که خورشيد از شب سرد (Delaa didi ke Khorshid az shab e sard)چو اتش سر ز خاکستر برآورد (Cho Aatash sar ze khaakestar bar Aavard)
زمین و آسمان گلرنگ و گلگون (Zamin o Aasemaan golrang o golgoon)جهان دشت شقایق گشت ازین خون (Jahaan dasht e shaghaayegh gasht azin khun)
نگر تا این شب خونین سحر کرد (Negar taa in shab e khunin sahar kard)چه خنجرها که از دلها گذر کرد (Che khanjarhaa ke az delhaa gozar kard)
زهر خون دلی سروی قد افراشت (Ze har khun e deli sarvi ghad bar afraasht)ز هر سروی تذزوی نغمه برداشت (Ze har sarvi tazarvi naghmeh bardaasht)
صدای خون در آواز تذرو است (Sedaay e khun dar Aavaaze e Tazarv ast)دلا این یادگار خون سرو است (Delaa in Yaadegaar e khun e sarv ast)

which she translated for me:
Hey, my awaken heart, have you seen the sun rising from the cold night? Like fire rising from ashes
The earth and sky are both colored redAs if lots of poppy flowers have grown on the ground
Look, this bloody night finally came to an end (sun rose)Meanwhile, lots of knives went through our hearts
A cypress rose from each drop of blood. And from each cypress, a colorful bird (Tazarv)
The voice of those dropped blood are in the songs of the bird. Hey, my awaken heart, this song is a memorabilia of the cypress blood 

Sarv-e Abarqu, 4,000-Year-Old Cedar Tree, Abarqu, Iran, Source: wikimedia commons

Cultural heritage and Christmas songs

I muse now if the evergreen in the Christmas / midwinter songs might reflect cultural heritage of recent centuries. Songs are often products of old stories of the land, and especially when they are connected with a special time like the darkest period of the year, when people turn even more inward, these songs might have deeper meaning.

Do you know other examples of other regions/countries where another evergreen is the topic of Christmas/Yalda/midwinter songs? And how might they be linked with the recent cultural heritage of that landscape?

Special thanks to my Iranian friend MK for more insights about the Iranian evergreen, and to my Nordic friend AZ to give me that book where I learned more about juniper beer. I feel grateful to be surrounded by people who keep inspiring me and teaching me so many interesting details.

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