Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Traditions, Symbolism, Religious Tolerance…and Trees and Wood

At this time of year, it seems that anyone who can type words on a keyboard gets involved with controversial issues. Some Christians say that Christmas is really a pagan holiday. I’m amazed by how much is written on the internet regarding this subject. These anti-Christmas Christians say that the holiday is based on the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the Celtic Yule and the Winter Solstice. They say that the Christmas Tree itself comes from the Babylonian pagan Nimrod, whose followers believed that, on his birthday, December 25th, an evergreen tree would spring forth from a stump and bear presents. “Not so”, say other Christians. The Christmas Tree tradition comes from the Paradise Tree used in the old mystery plays of 16th century Germany. A play was performed on December 24th, the feast day of Adam and Eve, and the tree represented the tree from the Garden of Eden. It was adorned with red apples and later small white wafers to symbolize the Eucharist, the body of Christ. These apples and wafers gradually evolved into fruits and cookies and then into the ornaments we see today. And what about St. Boniface. Supposedly he cut down the Tree of Thor in the German town of Geismar in the early 700’s. Later a fir tree grew among the roots of the old oak. He is reported to have said: “Let Christ be the center of your households and use the fir tree as a symbol of Christianity.” Now I’m really confused.

Ah, but just calling it a “Christmas Tree” can be offensive to some other religions, so in 2005 the city of Boston renamed the spruce tree used to decorate the Boston Common a "Holiday Tree" rather than a "Christmas Tree". The name change drew a poor response from the public and was changed back to "Christmas Tree" after the city was threatened with several lawsuits.

If the Christmas Tree is considered to be pagan by some Christians, you can just imagine what they think about the Yule log. Burned at the time of the Winter Solstice to welcome the return of the Sun God, it has roots in Nordic, Celtic and Roman religions. In Slavic traditions, the log is called Badnjak, and it has become part of a totally Christian ritual. In both the Roman Catholic Croatian tradition and the Orthodox Serbian tradition, an oak log is cut with great ceremony on Christmas Eve morning and then brought into the house. There are elaborate prayers and blessings tying the symbolism of the burning log with the coming of Christ. The Serbian tradition includes priests burning oak saplings on a large fire in the public square. It’s interesting to consider that both sides in the Bosnian Conflict during the 1990’s must have celebrated the same Christmas Eve religious tradition while they were trying to kill each other. Sort of like the Germans and the Allies singing Silent Night together across the trenches during World War 1.

Orthodox priest places the badnjak on the fire during Christmas Eve celebration.
Wood and trees indeed play an important part in many Christmas traditions. But what does it all mean? Should we really use fuzzy historical details and twisted logic to segregate our beliefs from those of others? This special time of year is too wonderful to separate ourselves into “us and them”. Can’t we all just join hands, dance around the tree, or sit around the fire and focus on all that we have in common rather than the few things that separate us? Can’t we just celebrate in peace? Jesus, the Prince of Peace, would like that, I’m sure.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Colorful Carved Coffins of Ghana

In one of my previous posts, I talked about wood carving in Ghana.  There is another important expression of wood craftsmanship in Ghana that should also be mentioned.  I’m talking about hand-crafted wooden burial coffins, in the shape of everything from a Coke bottle to a Mercedes.  This colorful art form is unique to Ghana.

For most tribal cultures in Ghana, especially the Ga people from around Accra, funerals are not only a time of mourning, but also a time of celebration.  They can last a week with food and music and every relative and friend in attendance.  The people believe that their departed loved one is moving to another life, and they make sure they do it in style.

In the 1960’s a creative carpenter named Seth Kane Kwei started making custom designed fantasy coffins which were called Abebuu adekai (" boxes with proverbs ") by Ga people.  The concept became very popular and the construction of these coffins is still carried on today by relatives and former apprentices of Kwei in a number of wood shops scattered around southern Ghana.  The coffins are designed to represent an important aspect of the deceased person’s life.  It may be a taxi cab, if the person was a driver; or a fish if the person was a fisherman.  It may be symbolize the person’s hobby, pet or even a vice like a bottle of beer or a cigarette. 

The coffins are custom-made and can take up to three weeks to complete.  During that time the deceased person is kept in a refrigerated morgue.  Most coffins are usually made from a light, inexpensive wood such as wawa or alstonia boonei (cheese wood).

These special coffins are works of art, built by skilled carpenters; designed and finished by talented wood artists. Unlike many works of wood art that remain visible for centuries; these wood creations are buried with the deceased, never to be seen again. It is truly art for the moment, transitory art, like Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings. Each coffin is returned to the same earth that nourished the original tree which gave the wood to build the coffin. The cycle is complete.

The concept of hand-worked wood returning to the earth is the same for any wooden coffin, whether it is Ghana or an old cemetery here in the United States. The wood decays in the ground and a new tree grows, but the skill of the wood craftsman remains constant through all generations.

Not Ghana, but the Moravian Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA