2005-12-22 / News


By Robert Morton-Ranney

A“Christmas Tree” is not a symbol of Christmas. Not

properly speaking. Vegetation does not appear in the stories repeated by devotees of Christianity this month.

Odd that people have been getting so up in the air about it. Then again, short memories and short tempers often go together. Like much of our other cultural paraphernalia, things get added on after the fact and hardly anybody seems to remember the adding.

The use of coniferous trees as symbols for public display goes back at least to the Romans, who used it in connection with the notion of fertility (is there anything the ancients worried about more?).

Germanic tribes began hanging selected portions of sacrificed animals on fir trees somewhat later, as a way of marking the winter solstice, and eventually European royalty hit upon the idea of suspending from them apples, nuts and so on. This was ‘round about the same time as their Christmas observances, and slowly the connection between fir trees and Christmas gained in popularity.

This development was not without opposition, however. French priest Johann Konrad Dannerhauer complained that the growing attention to trees was distracting people from the importance of the Christmas story itself.

As for this country, facts surrounding the first appearance of a Christmas tree here are contested, but there seems to be a consensus that the idea did not arrive until after the War of Independence.

But, by George, it sure did catch on.

So, now, people are upset that trees that grow best closer to the arctic are not being referred to by the term that commemorates a birth located on the rim of the desert.

Go figure.

‘Syncretism’ is the term scholars use to refer to the habit of religions, and other organized ways of viewing life as a whole, of pulling in alien customs and making them their own. This can happen in two ways. First, by accident. The rituals of neighboring groups rub off on each other and pretty soon everybody forgets where they came from.

Second, by design. On occasion, when moving into a new area, savvy leaders will deliberately take over a local tradition that is too strong to displace. One of the legacies of this practice is that, this week, many a church will be featuring a Christmas pageant that takes place beside a fir tree and culminates in the arrival of Santa Claus.

No, Virginia, Santa Claus does not appear in the recognized texts of any major religion, either.

Popular culture has a way of fusing everything.

It would appear that those who are distressed at the labeling of the largest of the December greenery a “holiday tree” want the fusing of cultural streams to be flash frozen before it goes any farther. The Christmas story being observed around the time of the solstice is okay. Adding conifers is okay. Hearing little to the contrary, it seems that elves and reindeer are okay, too.

However, for some reason, this moment has been chosen to debate public nomenclature.

It’s easy to see why fir trees are so welcome. They’re just really nice. They look nice. They smell nice. They have a few hundred places to hang ornaments. They hold strings of lights.

(More lights! We need more lights!!)

And they offer a nice cozy place to put all the presents. Who wouldn’t want to have a tree when it does all that?

It’s also easy to wonder why people who claim to be concerned with the integrity of Christmas don’t want to stick with symbols a little closer to its origins.

Why, for instance, doesn’t anyone introduce the practice — instead of the celebrated image of a family traipsing into the woods to relieve the earth of the burden of supporting a tree too large for their living room — of having a family come together to build a manger every year?

The manger could be the place that harbors the gifts. Then, on Christmas Eve, they can all gather round it to open them.

And speaking of gifts. If we pause to consider their meaning, can’t they be seen as a recognition of worth? The worth of the one who receives them. Isn’t that finally why we want to give gifts to people we love?

And for those of us who put up a tree, let’s call it whatever we want.

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