Merry Christmas on this, the 12th Day of Christmas!
Today is the last of my daily “Twelve Days of Christmas” posts. While today doesn’t mark the end of the Official Christmas Season®, we are nearing its end. In an earlier post I described the season as a series of ripples emanating from Christmas Day with decreasing intensity over time (a helpful reader pointed out Advent works the same way, with our observances gaining in intensity as Christmas approaches). The Octave of Christmas ended with the Solemnity of Mary this past Saturday; today is the last of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, with tomorrow January 6th the traditional date of the great feast of Epiphany (which we celebrated liturgically here in the U.S. this past Sunday). The Official Christmas Season ends next Sunday with the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord. Unofficially (but traditionally and logically), the Christmas Season continues until the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd.
I once published a post at about this point in the season called “Don’t Touch That Tree!”, a reference to all the Christmas trees unceremoniously cast out untimely and thrown to the curb at a time when the Christmas lights should still be burning bright. In this post I’d like to look at the Christmas Tree itself as an institution, a beloved Christian symbol and tradition which is sometimes attacked (erroneously) by self-styled debunkers as a pagan intrusion.
We Christians need not be swayed by such nonsense. First of all, even if there were historical evidence of evergreen trees being used in pagan worship, Christ can baptize all things for his use (for more on this point, see my post “Christ is King of All . . . Even the Holidays”). Pagans prayed to their Zeus, Thor, and other such gods, for instance: should we avoid prayer for that reason? Pagans offered sacrifice on their altars; do any of us put the offerings on a similar altar in the Temple of Jerusalem in the same category, much less Christ’s Eucharistic Sacrifice on the altars of our churches? Certainly not. The same would apply to Christmas trees, if they had pagan origins.
As it happens, however, evergreen trees were not worshipped or treated as religious objects among the Germanic and Baltic peoples of Europe, although they were sometimes used as symbols of eternity and the promise of Springtime rebirth. This rather obvious symbolism was recognized in other parts of the world as well. The pre-Christians of the German forests directed their religious veneration, at least as it applied to trees (is dendrolatry a word?), toward the deciduous oak tree.
This oak-worship figures prominently in one popular story, in fact, about the origins of the Christmas Tree, which only makes sense if we distinguish between the two different kinds of tree. St. Boniface, who left his native England to evangelize the still pagan Germans of continental Europe in the 8th century, famously chopped down a holy oak to which a young boy was being offered in sacrifice. In one version of the story, after the mighty oak fell a young fir tree could be seen standing behind its stump. The Saint pointed to the evergreen, and told the onlookers (who were impressed that Wotan hadn’t zapped him out of existence) that they should henceforth direct their veneration to this tree, as a symbol of the True God in the Person of Jesus Christ.
The first actual historical references to Christmas trees (Boniface did indeed cut down the oak, but the detail about the evergreen doesn’t appear anywhere else) come in the sixteenth century. It seems very unlikely that almost eight centuries after the heathens of central Europe converted and gave up tree-worship their practices would somehow find their way into Christian homes.
For most of the World Christmas trees are a fairly new tradition. They were not known beyond some (not even all) German speaking areas, along with Latvia and Estonia, until very recently.
They are ubiquitous now, but Christmas trees were rarely, if ever, seen in the English speaking world until a little over a century and a half ago. Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, who was German, introduced the custom to the British Royal family. A print that first appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848 depicting the Queen and family around their tree is generally credited with popularizing Christmas trees both in Britain and in North America.
Today one sees Christmas trees all over the world; in recent decades the popes have put up large and beautiful trees near the crèche in St. Peter’s Square. Saint John Paul II explained some of the Christian symbolism of the tree in his Angelus address on December 19th, 2004:
The feast of Christmas, perhaps the most cherished by popular tradition, is full of symbols connected with the different cultures. Among all, the most important is surely the Nativity scene, as I had the opportunity to point out last Sunday.
Together with the Nativity scene, as is true here in St. Peter’s Square, we find the traditional “Christmas tree.” A very ancient custom, moreover, which exalts the value of life, as in winter the evergreen becomes a sign of undying life. In general, the tree is decorated and Christmas gifts are placed under it. The symbol is also eloquent from a typically Christian point of view: It reminds us of the “tree of life” (see Genesis 2:9), representation of Christ, God’s supreme gift to humanity.The message of the Christmas tree, therefore, is that life is “ever green” if one gives: not so much material things, but of oneself: in friendship and sincere affection, and fraternal help and forgiveness, in shared time and reciprocal listening.
Pope Benedict XVI elaborated on the same theme four years later:
With its loftiness, its green [color] and the lights in its branches, the Christmas tree is a symbol of life that points to the mystery of Christmas Eve . . .
Christ, the Son of God, brings to the dark, cold, unredeemed world in which he was born, a new hope and a new splendor . . .
If man allows himself to be touched and enlightened by the splendor of the living truth that is Christ, he will experience an interior peace in his heart and will himself become an instrument of peace in a society that has so much nostalgia for reconciliation and redemption.
There you have it: don’t let the nay-sayers wear you down! We still have some Christmas left this year, so be of good cheer . . . and don’t touch that tree just yet!
Music for Christmas
How could I not wrap up this post with that most pre-eminent of Christmas tree songs, THE Christmas tree song, “O Tannenbaum”? The clip below features the classic recording by Nat King Cole.
Featured photo top of page by Garson Canci (downloaded from newstalk1280.com (https://newstalk1280.com/newburgh-tree-lighting-free-holiday-movie-night-this-saturday/)