As many have surmised Masonic symbolism is an elusive thing. Just when you think you understand a symbol, it disappears in a mist, only faint glimpses possible. Such is the case with the sprig of acacia or evergreen. The Masonic explanation is adequate enough but for the more inquiring minds, there may be something more.
The Plant or Tree
In the Symbolism of Freemasonry, Albert Mackey tells us:
The acacia, in the mythic system of Freemasonry, is preeminently the symbol of the IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL–that important doctrine which it is the great design of the institution to teach. As the evanescent nature of the flower which “cometh forth and is cut down” reminds us of the transitory nature of human life, so the perpetual renovation of the evergreen plant, which uninterruptedly presents the appearance of youth and vigor, is aptly compared to that spiritual life in which the soul, freed from the corruptible companionship of the body, shall enjoy an eternal spring and an immortal youth. Hence, in the impressive funeral service of our order, it is said, “This evergreen is an emblem of our faith in the immortality of the soul. By this we are reminded that we have an immortal part within us, which shall survive the grave, and which shall never, never, never die.”
Intimately connected with the legend of the third degree is the mythical history of the Sprig of Acacia, which we are now to consider. Mackey continues…
There is no symbol more interesting to the masonic student than the Sprig of Acacia, not only on account of its own peculiar import, but also because it introduces us to an extensive and delightful field of research; that, namely, which embraces the symbolism of sacred plants. In all the ancient systems of religion, and Mysteries of initiation, there was always some one plant consecrated, in the minds of the worshippers and participants, by a peculiar symbolism, and therefore held in extraordinary veneration as a sacred emblem. Thus the ivy was used in the Mysteries of Dionysus, the myrtle in those of Ceres, the erica in the Osirian, and the lettuce in the Adonisian.
It is a very great error to designate the symbolic plant of Masonry by the name of “Cassia”–an error which undoubtedly arose, originally, from the very common habit among illiterate people of sinking the sound of the letter a in the pronunciation of any word of which it constitutes the initial syllable. Just, for instance, as we constantly hear, in the conversation of the uneducated, the words pothecary and prentice for apothecary and apprentice, shall we also find cassia used for acacia. Unfortunately, however, this corruption of acacia into cassia has not always been confined to the illiterate: but the long employment of the corrupted form has at length introduced it, in some instances, among a few of our writers. Even the venerable Oliver, although well acquainted with the symbolism of the acacia, and having written most learnedly upon it, has, at times, allowed himself to use the objectionable corruption, unwittingly influenced, in all probability, by the too frequent adoption of the latter word in the English lodges. In America, but few Masons fall into the error of speaking of the Cassia. The proper teaching of the Acacia is here well understood.
So having delved into the origins and textual meaning of the acacia let us examine some other meanings and some myths and legends concerning the evergreen.
I sometimes think up here in the Northern climes ,when in the grips of a cold and snowy winter, the evergreens symbolic meaning rings truer than in warmer climes because of its stark contrast with the rest of the environment, but like in the picture above of the famous Tree of Ténéré, an evergreens tenacity for life is evident even in the hottest environment.
That is why the Acacia is an important symbol in Freemasonry and the evergreen tree has become one of the symbols of the Christian celebration of Christmas. But how did the evergreen tree end up in a Christian festival of Christs birth?
There are many myths and stories from all over the globe claiming paternity to the Christmas tree. But we must first discuss the day which Christmas is celebrated around, the Winter Solstice.
It is of significance also that as Masons we also dedicate our Lodges to the Holy Sts. John. St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist. The Winter Solstice is also tied to this observance on December 27th as St. John the Evangelist Day.
Freemasons historically celebrate two feasts of Saint John. The feast of John the Baptist falls on 24 June, and that of John the Evangelist on 27 December, roughly marking mid-summer and mid-winter. During the Eighteenth Century, the Premier Grand Lodge of England and the Grand Lodge of Ireland favoured the day of John the Baptist, while the Grand Lodge of Scotland, the Antient Grand Lodge of England and the Grand Lodge of All England at York installed their Grand Masters on the feast day of John the Evangelist. Its interesting to note that The United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) was formed on December 27th 1813.
St. John the Evangelist
But why John the Evangelist, and what about him represents the counterbalance of John the Baptist, the opposite pillar of the point within the circle? For those who forget, the point within the circle is the Masonic symbol that all men are said to endeavor to emulate in their physical and spiritual being. It essentially is the balancing one’s desires and passions in the pursuit of knowledge.
The celebration of the Winter Solstice is one of mankind’s oldest traditions. It marks the shortest day of the year. After days and months of growing darkness, light begins its gradual return to our planet with a promise of new life and longer days. Mankind has revered this day in one form or another and throughout all of history gathered together to rejoice. The early Christian Church was very good at integrating festivals from all sources, and although the actual date of Christs birth varies according to scholars, December 25 was chosen by Pope Julius in the 4th century bringing the day of Christs birth in harmony with the most cherished celebration in the ancient world.
Now to the Tree
There are many stories from all over the world about the first Christmas tree.There is an old Scandinavian myth of a fir tree, which sprang from blood drenched soil where two lovers met a violent death, that lit with mysterious lights (like candles) on a certain night during the Christmas season.
Another myth is about a chivalrous knight traveling deep in the woods coming upon a gigantic pine tree whose branches were covered with candles. Some were standing straight and some bent in weird crooked shapes and at the top of this tree was a vision of a child with a halo around its head. This represented the tree of life decorated with the deeds of mankind watched over by the Savior.
One of my favorites is of Martin Luther, who, while traveling one Christmas Eve in snow covered country, looked up through the trees and was struck with the beauty of the stars peeking throug
h the dark green boughs above him. He returned home to his family and wanted to share his feelings of the beauty and peace of the scene he just experienced. So he went out side and cut a small fir tree from his garden and placed candles on its branches and lit them for his family to experience.
During Christmas we adopt one or all of these myths and bring an evergreen and decorate it with lights to be shared by all.
Christmas is a time to surround yourself with the people you love and share in the light of promise of the new year ahead.
No matter what celebration of Winter Solstice you practice, may yours be filled with light and love.