Discover Eiresione: the ancestor of the Christmas tree
LanguageCert, 16 December 2022
The Christmas season has begun and one of the most common sights around is that of the Christmas tree – which has part of its roots deep within the Greek mythology.
Christmas tree decorating has existed since ancient Greek times, except that Ancient Greeks did not decorate a fir tree, but the Eiresione, an olive branch! They used red and white pieces of wool and autumn fruits, such as figs, walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, pomegranates, quinces, and grapes along with bottles of honey, olive oil, and wine. The name Eiresione comes from the ancient Greek word érion (ἔριον), literally meaning sheep's wool.
The Eiresione decoration took place during the Pyanepsia. The Pyanepsia (“Πυανέψια”) was a celebration of gratitude to Apollo for the fruit and fertility that the previous year brought and an expression of hope that the following year would also be fruitful and fertile. Pyanepsia was celebrated in autumn on the 7th of the month of Pyanepsion (“Πυανεψιών”), that is, October named after the beans (pyana, “πύανα”) that were boiled as an offering along with other legumes and barley.
But how did the Eiresione custom start?
The custom started when Theseus made a vow to the god Apollo in Delos on his journey to Crete. He promised the god that if he was saved and returned home safe – by defeating the Minotaur – he would honour him with decorated sprigs of wild olive trees.
Returning unharmed back to Athens on the seventh day of October, the fellowship – comprised of Theseus and his companions – fulfilled the promise. The cooking of the legumes was since then established as a remembrance, as the rescued men, who had run out of food on the journey home, gathered what was left of their supplies of grain and legumes, cooked them all together and ate them. According to Plutarch1: "at that feast of Pyanepsia, they also carry the so-called Eiresione, which is a bough of olive wreathed with wool, such as Theseus used at the time of his supplication, and laden with all sorts of fruit-offerings, to signify that scarcity".
A tale of carols
The Eiresione branch, decorated with goodies, which resembled today's Christmas tree, was carried by children from door to door singing wishes to the landlord. The Eiresione was hung on the front door of the houses until the next year. Even Homer, is said to have celebrated this custom visiting the houses of the most distinguished people in the island of Samos and singing the following lines:
"We enter the mansion of a great householder,
manly and loud and always happy.
Open doors may wealth enter,
and with wealth companionship, great joy and happiness, and all-sweet peace.
If you are to give us anything, give it now
if not, we will not stand here forever.
because we did not come here to live together with you”
(SUDA ENCYCLOPEDIA, Homer, Tr: MALCOLM HEATH)
The custom of “Eiresione” traveled through the centuries from the Greeks to the world and returned as a "Christmas Tree". Since olive trees were not common everywhere, other civilisations decorated branches from the trees that flourished in each place; in the northern countries the fir tree. Its roots, however, are very deep, almost lost in time. This custom, is just as deeply rooted in today’s tradition and many people around the world celebrate it with joy and love every year.
If you wish to discover more about how the past blends with the present and join the global community of Classical Greek learners, we invite you to check out the LanguageCert Test of Classical Greek.
(1 Plutarch. Lives Vol. I. Translated by Perrin, Bernadotte. Loeb Classical Library Volume 46. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.)