This week, as we creep closer to the 25th of December, we’re running a daily excerpt from Jason Boyett’s article “Stealing Christmas” (which appeared in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of RELEVANT). In it, Jason takes on some of the traditions we associate with the birth of our Savior and finds that some of them didn’t start out so “Christian.” So, since we live in a culture often defined this time of year by a “War on Christmas” or a “War Defending Christmas,” we thought it would be fun (and informative) to look at where some of our most beloved traditions really come from. Check back each day to find out more ways that we’ve “stolen Christmas.”
Part 1: The Tree
The origins of the evergreen Christmas tree are so shadowy, few places agree where it came from, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t Bethlehem. Ancient Egypt is a contender. Around the time of the winter solstice—the longest night of the year, occurring on either Dec. 21 or 22—Egyptians would bring palm branches into their homes, taking a hopeful stand against the encroaching darkness.
Ancient Rome might also be a culprit. In late December, the Romans observed the feast of Saturnalia—a week-long winter festival honoring the god Saturn—by making evergreen laurel wreathes and placing candles in live trees.
Our Christmas trees might have roots in Scandinavian folk mythology. According to these beliefs, the entire universe was contained in a really big ash tree called Yggdrasil, which balanced the sun, moon and stars in its evergreen branches. With this in mind, the ancient Scandinavians celebrated the winter solstice by hanging apples, nuts and little animal-shaped cakes from evergreen trees. Perhaps the ornamented trees reminded them of their place in the universe. Or rather, the universe’s place in Yggdrasil.
Regardless of the culture, these tree-related customs reminded people winter wasn’t forever. After all, the winter was a scary time for ancient pagans. The days grew shorter. The sun appeared less and less. Vegetation withered up during the winter months. But evergreen trees? The harsh winters didn’t faze them. Maybe evergreens had magical powers. Maybe they were eternal. Which is why eventually connecting them with Jesus wasn’t all that difficult.
One Christmas tree origin story involves St. Boniface, an eighth-century monk and the eventual archbishop of Germany. He had a run-in with some local tribes who worshiped a tree at Geismar known as the Holy Oak of Thor. They considered the tree some kind of leafy deity. Boniface wasn’t too keen on this, so he did what any good saint would do: He chopped down the sacred tree.
According to legend, the tree split to reveal a small, miraculous fir tree growing amid its gnarled roots. Boniface seized the timely metaphor and suggested the little fir tree ought to remind those pagans of Jesus. See how it seems to point toward heaven? And see how its color is constant, like the love of Christ? And see how it sorta seems to symbolize the death of paganism and the rise of Christianity?
So Boniface (and in other tales, Martin Luther) gets credit for the Christmas tree. But most scholars agree this story is probably apocryphal. It pretty conveniently disguised the fact that evergreen trees have always played a big role in winter solstice observances. A big, fat, pagan role.