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Viktor Rydberg on trees

Spring trees
25 June 1930: The farm Åleveden 1:12 in Foss parish, Bohuslän. Next to the house stands a stately pine tree. Photo: Oscar Färdig / Bohuslän Museum

"All things have life, though life be of many kinds. So beings live in the trees. The old pine-trees that grow in the yards have souls that feel with the men they have seen born and grow up near their shade." - Viktor Rydberg

In the past, when a family built a farm, it was traditional to plant a so-called care tree in the courtyard. Ideally, the tree would have come from one of the sacred groves that have existed in every village since pagan times. Viktor Rydberg continues his text about pine trees in the book The fathers' god saga from 1887:

If a family lives long on the same farm, and the soul of the pine tree has seen many children of that family play under its crown and grow up to be capable people, then a trusting relationship arises between the pine tree and the family. When the latter flourishes, the pine tree flourishes, even in its old age, and at the winter festival, when it stands leafless, it is adorned by the farm folk with variegated ribbons. Never do the birds sing more beautifully than in the pine-tree, and when a man who has been long away on sea voyages or in war adventures comes home, a murmur in its crown greets him, awakening his fondest childhood memories.

Even the districts have their trees, under which justice is administered, and the tribes have theirs, where they assemble and consult about war and peace.

Viktor Rydberg, The fathers' god saga (1887)

As long as the care tree remained on the farm, and was protected and cared for by the farm people, it brought happiness and confidence to the home and the tree's vitality was transferred to the farm, according to Carl-Herman Tillhagen in his book Forests and trees (1995).

Trees in Uppland
1915-1940: "Hästar i bersån vid vårdträdet, Focksta, Hagby parish, Uppland." Photo: Josef Jansson / Upplandsmuseet (CC BY-NC-ND)

Viktor Rydberg has written a poem on the same subject, The care tree, from which the following stanzas are taken:

On the farmer's farm
stood aged linden,
the revered tree of eating,
with huge crown
and trunk, runicized by twenty genealogies.

The storm came,
stronger than in living memory:
the lovely tree,
weighed down by the years,
fell.

People of the house
stood mourners around the fallen.
Silver-haired grandfather,
that tempted ninety winters,
caressed with withered hand
her windswept bark and said:

We will not part, you will not die.
You shall live in a daughter,
a strong descendant of your tribe.
In yourself lived a mother,
which, when Midgard was a thousand years younger than now,
shot up from its mull
and gave coolness to fathers,
whose names are sensed on the mouth of Saga,
if they had not faded into the distance of time.

A tradition with roots in the grey past

The tradition of care trees has its origins in the ancient Nordic world of thought, where trees played an important role. Not least, there was the belief in the world tree - Yggdrasil. According to our ancestral mythology and creation story, Yggdrasil is a box that contains the entire cosmos and holds together the world of the gods, the world of man and the underworld. From its high branches, which cover the entire sky, rain falls on the world.

Under one of Yggdrasil's three roots, at the Urdar Well, live the norns Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, who spin the threads of life and decide how long each human will live. Every day they pour water over Yggdrasil's root so that the tree will not wither.

Snorre described the tree as follows:

The ash Yggdrasil must endure
more than people know:
the deer gnaws at the top, the surface groans,
Nidhögg it gnaws at the bottom.

The care tree Viktor Rydberg
April 15, 1965: Child day care center in Lillån, Närke, with a Christmas tree in front of the house. Photo: Örebro Kuriren / Örebro County Museum

From Björn Collinder's Swedish translation of Eddan (1964):

In the end, the Yggdrasil tree could not withstand the unpleasant treatment. Although the norns poured healing water and mud over the tree, it and the old world perished. From the remains, according to myth, our world was born. In the cult surrounding the asatron, trees played an important role. Sacrificial feasts and rituals were often held under large trees and offerings to the gods were hung in sacred groves.

According to folklore, the tree of care was inhabited by goblins and guardian spirits who had power over the well-being of the farm, and if they were treated well, they ensured that the happiness and future of the farm was also well looked after. But if the tree was harmed, folklore had it that it was bad.

You were not allowed to break branches off the tree or take a single leaf, and birds nesting in the tree were protected. Even the farmer, who in ancient times had total freedom on his farm, had to bow to the spirits of the tree, according to Lena and Allan Gunnarsson, who wrote the book Trees and people (1988).

Many legends live on today about people who have damaged pine trees and then got into trouble. In the book Wärend and Wirdarne (1863) by the folklorist Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius, you can read about just such an event. The story tells of a smallholder who once cut down the farm's pine tree, or Bos-trees as it was called in the Småland country of Värend. In the evening he heard a song from the stump;

we are a house!
we are a house!
housevill you shall also be.

The next day, the entire farm burned to the ground.

Some have suggested that in the past it was believed that the pine trees were inhabited not only by goblins and guardian spirits, but by the souls of our ancestors. The reverence for the pine trees was so great that people in remote places prayed and made sacrifices by them as late as the 180th century.

According to Tillhagen, the sacrificial rite should preferably take place on Thursday evenings after cleaning the cottage to celebrate the Thursday weekend. This ancient custom is said to have persisted well into the 19th century in Sweden. Gifts were also offered to the Tree of Mercy during the major holidays, such as Christmas Eve. The gifts could consist of beer or milk poured over the tree's roots, or pieces of Christmas food on Christmas Eve. The same applied if an accident had occurred near a Christmas tree, as Hyltén-Cavallius explains:

If anyone has been injured or injured by a forest tree, it is cured by sacrificing or pouring milk on the tree stump on a Thursday evening, in order to appease the tree's wretched nature.

Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius, Wärend and Wirdarne (1863)

A tradition worth carrying on

This is one of the most beautiful traditions I have come across in the Swedish commonwealth, with a depth and meaning that makes me think every farm, village and local community is worthy of its very own Christmas tree.

When I myself look up at my cherry tree on our little farm, a stately birch that has seen many more winters than I have, it always makes me widen my mind and think longer.

It is a tradition that is rooted in our close relationship with nature, but at the same time connects what has been with what is to come. The tree is a link between generations, a constant physical reminder that we are but one link in a long chain that goes back to the first man.

More links will join that chain, and we better nurture the tree, nature and society for future generations.

Planting trees
1984: Chestnut is planted as a care tree at the last summer café at Börjesgården in Hällesåker, Halland. "Arne Lans, Sven Zachrisson and Lars Löwendahl get the tree in place with joint efforts." Photo: Harry Moum / Mölndal City Museum (CC BY-SA)

But if you want to plant a nurse tree on your farm and you don't have a sacred grove in your neighbourhood from which you can take a young tree, what do you do?

Well, it's perfectly possible to plant a perfectly ordinary and unholy tree too. As long as you take care of the tree, you'll probably find that the spirits move in anyway. This tradition can be found all over Sweden, but for natural reasons the choice of tree differs in the north and south. Some tree species are more suitable than others as care trees, as Lena Sandberg explains:

The main tree was usually a lime, elm or ash tree, because they wanted a tree that was tall and strong and reached an old age. The oak was also not uncommon as a nurse tree, but its large crown meant that it was planted further away from the farm. In the north of Sweden, birch and rowan were common as nurse trees.

So what are you waiting for? Get out and plant your Christmas tree! But choose the site wisely, because your descendants will live and die with your decision for generations to come.

He who builds only to stand in his time, and who will not plant a seed or raise a seedling, because he himself will not enjoy the shade and fruit of the tree, is not favored by the Torah, and the punishment is on him, the selfish, or on his descendants.

Viktor Rydberg, The fathers' god saga (1887)

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