The Naturalist: Why do we bring trees inside in winter?

Throughout history, around the winter solstice, people would bring evergreens into their homes to celebrate the return of the sun.

Throughout history, around the winter solstice, people would bring evergreens into their homes to celebrate the return of the sun.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

It is common for those who celebrate Christmas to go out, chop down a tree, and bring it into their homes for about a month. Whether or not this should happen after Halloween or Thanksgiving is a topic for another discussion. Why do we do this? It seems like a strange tradition. But when we learn about the roots of this yearly practice, we can see early interpretations of the evergreen tree’s medicinal effects on our bodies and minds.

Evergreen trees have been sacred in many cultures throughout history because of their ability to stay green in the winter. Ancient cultures including the Egyptians and Romans attributed this to the power of the sun or good spirits held in these plants. So around the winter solstice, people would bring evergreens into their homes to celebrate the return of the sun.

Our modern idea of the Christmas tree comes from a Germanic Christian tradition of bringing a tree inside for Christmas. This practice became more popular globally after Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert were sketched sitting around a Christmas tree. Although it’s widespread in the U.S. now, the tradition did not become popular in this country until the early 20th century.

Evergreens can stay green throughout the winter because of their morphology or shape, as well as some other cool adaptations. Evergreen trees have small, skinny needles instead of large leaves like maples and oaks. Each little needle is covered in a waxy coating that helps to prevent water from evaporating and freezing; this coating allows photosynthesis to continue all winter. These trees are also very flexible, allowing them to carry the weight of the snow.

In early Scandinavian culture, people believed that evergreen trees were filled with good spirits. They brought them into their homes for protection. We know today that evergreen trees are good for our physical and mental health. Trees produce chemicals called phytoncides, which help protect them from insects, fungi, and bacteria. The same chemicals help to improve the human immune system. Phytoncides help our bodies produce anti-cancer proteins, increase natural killer cell activity to fight viruses, reduce heart rate and stress hormones, and improve mood. All trees produce phytoncides, but evergreen trees produce the most.

Cultures throughout history have recognized the magic and splendor of evergreen trees. Our interpretations and traditions have changed over the years, but they still play an important role in our holiday season. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, you can still bring these plants into your home in whatever form you’d like. Better yet — take a winter walk in the forest, where the trees will continue to live on and grow. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Sam Nunes is an environmental educator at Woodcock Nature Center.