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!

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