Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Merry Biophilic Christmas

Last month I sat on a panel discussing the business case for workplace wellbeing, of which one is slowly emerging. That along with Christmas and my Viking* heritage got me pondering on the true origins of biophilic design.  

Biophilia, a term coined by Edward O Wilson, is basically our innate affinity to nature. Biophilic design tends to focus on introducing plants into the workplace but, as explained in a previous blog, it is so much more and taps into our base (evolutionary psychology) needs. Biophilia includes daylight, views, fluctuating temperature, sound-scaping, natural ventilation, natural materials, social spaces, refuge etc – see Bill Browning’s excellent work for a full explanation of biophilic design principles. But bringing nature indoors has been going on for some time, especially around this time of year …

The modern Christmas tree, decorated with baubles and candles, is said to have originated in Germany in the 16th-century with links to protestant reformer Martin Luther. However, the first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day were those in Livonian guildhalls, where the tress were adorned with sweets for the apprentices and local children. The trend for Christmas trees is relatively recent in Britain, made popular by Queen Victoria who was made aware of the custom by her German husband and relatives.

Bringing nature indoors dates back much further than the Early Renaissance. The Vikings and Saxons worshiped trees, but as I have said enough already about Germans I'll focus here on my Scandinavian ancestors. The Vikings celebrated Jól, Yule, for 12 days from the winter solstice (21st December) and clearly, since the 800s and the later years of Danelaw, some of their traditions have been passed down across the generations. I am particularly interested in the traditions related to indoor greenery:

Christmas Tree – The evergreen trees of the Scandinavian forests, which looked healthy and green in winter compared to other plants, were a potent symbol of life for the Vikings. They represented the promise of life even in the midst of winter and long dark Northern nights. As the trees were so revered, they would be decorated with small carvings and gifts for the spirits of the trees to encourage them to return and start the new spring. 

Holly Wreath – Furthermore, Vikings would shape holly leaves into circular wreaths to decorate their homesteads during Yuletide. Like the coniferous trees, holly is also evergreen and also represented continuing life. The circular wreath illustrated the yearly cycle with winter flowing in to summer and back to winter. 

Yule Log – Before it was chocolate cake, the Yule Log was a special log, cut from fir or yew trees, which was carved with runes then burned during the cold winter months to protect the household from evil spirits and misfortune. 

Mistletoe – Vikings also believed mistletoe to have mythical importance. Apparently, Balder the god of light was slain by an arrow of mistletoe. However, Norse legend tells that he was resurrected when his mother’s tears turned the berries red. 

So, maybe, just maybe, Vikings and Christmas sowed the seed for biophilic design. It certainly appears that biophilia is as central to Scandinavian design as those other sensible Nordic concepts we occasionally borrow when creating trendy modern workplaces, such as hygge, arbejdsglæde, and fika.

There are many demonstrable benefits to biophilic design, to bringing nature into the office. If you are not convinced, now is a great time of year to bring a little bit of nature into your office, and home, and give it a go. 

Thanks for your support this year and have a Merry Biophilic Christmas.

(* and yes I know Vikings didn't actually wear horned helmets)

With special thanks to Wikipedia, Viking Slots and The Licolnite for inspiration.

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