For centuries, conservative Christians sought to eradicate the Christmas tree from their December 25 celebrations. Ironically, today, it is the banner under which they do battle in a “war” over culture.
Amidst the rhetoric of “attacks on Christmas,” some perspective is in order.
There is no mention of a Christmas tree anywhere in the Bible. No biblical historian believes Jesus was born anywhere near the date on which we currently celebrate Christmas. A decorated tree played no part in his story.
What is known is that at the time of his birth, pre-existing pagan religions all over the world celebrated the solstice on or around December 25, associating it with the birth (or rebirth) of a god or goddess, and a new season of fertility.
Roman solstice celebrations involved door-to-door singing, the exchange of gifts, feasting and other merriment. Northern Europeans called the solstice “Yule,” and burned a log to celebrate the rebirth of the sun god. Celtic people used mistletoe and holly in fertility celebrations.
And closely tied to many solstice traditions was a special reverence for “evergreens,” trees and plants that could survive the harshest of winters, and thus symbolized the triumph of life over death.
How, then, did these pagan traditions, established long before his time, come to be inextricably linked with the birth of Jesus?
The answer lies in the belief that converting heathens was easier if they were allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditions. In accordance with that approach, in the fourth century A.D./C.E., Pope Julius I declared that Jesus’s birth would henceforth be celebrated on December 25, a day on which – conveniently – pagan Romans already held celebrations in honor of their sun god. There is little doubt the Pope was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans to convert.
From the “rebirth of the sun” to the “birth of the Son.”
This process continued for many years. When Christian missionaries arrived in northern Europe, they simply provided a Christian reinterpretation for popular feasts such as Yule, and allowed the celebrations themselves to go on unchecked.
Eventually, the hybrid observances came to be known as Christmas, “Christ’s Mass.”
But while various pagans, including the Greeks, the Romans, and the Druids, had traditionally decorated evergreens at the solstice, no one knows exactly when the practice of decorating trees inside the home became a “Christmas” tradition. One legend has it that Martin Luther was so overtaken with a view of the stars through a fir tree that he cut one down, took it home and decorated it in order to share the experience with his family. True or not, by the 16th century, Germans were decorating trees inside their homes to celebrate Christian observances in December, and the practice eventually spread.
In other words, the very tactic intended to encourage painless conversion of pagans had a reverse corollary: the incorporation of pagan traditions into Christian celebrations. The result was a backlash by conservative Christians who felt that their faith has been subverted to accommodation of pagan practices.
Accordingly, the 1521 record of the earliest evergreen decorated in a Christian celebration is accompanied by a prominent minister’s pronouncement of its blasphemy. In 1644, Christmas was forbidden in England by an act of Parliament. Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols and decorated trees.
In America, Governor William Bradford recorded his efforts to stamp out such “pagan mockery.” Colonial Massachusetts forbade any observance of Christmas other than a church service. In 1851, a Cleveland minister nearly lost his job for allowing a decorated tree in his church. Through 1870, Boston schools expelled students who stayed home from school on Christmas.
Opposition to use of a decorated tree in celebration of Christ’s birth ended on recently. Its use as a “symbol” of Christian ritual in a “cultural war” is but a blink in the long history of the solstice evergreen.
So while I’m not a huge fan of spending tax dollars on holiday displays, if the state, federal or local governments of this “melting pot” of a nation insist on decorating a tree to commemorate the season, its name ought to reflect the true diversity of its history. Calling it a “Christmas” tree ignores at least two thousand years of history, including the fact that for almost half of this country’s existence, the tree was expressly rejected as a symbol of Christianity. Only the most egregious of revisionism would permit any johnny-come-latelies to claim as exclusively their own a symbol revered by countless cultures for thousands of years and, until recently, condemned by their own.
By any name, the evergreen solstice tree is the ultimate symbol of religious inclusion, reflecting traditions from diverse cultures stretching back untold years and symbolizing the triumph of life over death. That the same group who once sought to eradicate that tradition now fights so fiercely to preserve its greatest symbol is a fitting tribute to the evergreen’s ability to survive even the harshest of winters.