Monday, December 08, 2008
O Christmas Tree
I got to wondering how the evergreen tree came to symbolize Christmas. Why not the Christmas ... egg? Or a Christmas plow? Or a holiday sword or a longbow or an ox? Why a Christmas tree? So, I went looking for the answer.
One bit of Yule tree history has it that in the 7th century a British monk went to Germany to teach the word of God. Legend has it that he used the triangular shape of the fir tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whereupon the converted people began to revere the fir tree as God's tree, as they had previously revered the oak. By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe as a symbol of Christianity.
Way back in time, the Prophet Jeremiah condemned as pagan the ancient Middle Eastern practice of cutting down trees, bringing them into the home, and decorating them. Of course, these were not really Christmas trees, because Jesus was not born until centuries later, and the use of Christmas trees was not introduced for many centuries after his birth. Apparently, in Jeremiah's time the "heathen" would cut down trees, carve or decorate them in the form of a god or goddess, and overlay it with precious metals.
Not having evergreen trees, the ancient Egyptians considered the palm tree to symbolize resurrection. They decorated their homes with its branches during the winter solstice.
The first decorating of an evergreen tree began with the ancient Greeks and their worship of their god Adonia, who allegedly was brought back to life by the serpent Aessulapius after having been slain.
The ancient pagan Romans decorated their trees with bits of metal and replicas of their fertility god, Bacchus. They also placed 12 candles on the tree in honor of their sun god. Their mid-winter festival of Saturnalia started on December 17th and often lasted until a few days after the Solstice.
In Northern Europe, the ancient Germanic people tied fruit and attached candles to evergreen tree branches in honor of their god, Woden. Trees were viewed as symbolizing eternal life. The trees joined holly, mistletoe, the wassail bowl, and the Yule log as symbols of the season.
All predated Christianity
Centuries later in England, Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols and decorated trees.
As pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio, decorated in 1851 what was likely the first Christmas tree in an American church, his parishioners condemned the idea as a pagan practice.
There are various legends regarding the origin of the Christmas tree, often relating to Saint Boniface. In one version, Boniface disrupted a pagan child sacrifice at an oak tree, flattening the oak with a blow of his fist. A small fir sprang up in place of the oak, which Boniface told the pagans represented Christ.
In some accounts, Martin Luther is credited with coming up with the idea after seeing the night stars through the branches of a pine tree on a walk home, and decorated a tree with his family with candles and silver and gold tinsel.
So there you have it. At its core, the Christmas tree is actually a holdover from pagan times. I rather like that idea.
Speaking of trees, a more than 1000-year-old bald cypress tree has died in a remote Virginia swamp. Dubbed Big Mama, the massive tree towered over Cypress Bridge, a swamp on the Nottoway River about 80 miles south of Richmond. Big Mama, estimated at 1500 to 2000 years old, stands 123 feet tall and has a base measuring 12-1/2 feet wide. Her demise after surviving centuries of hurricanes, floods, droughts, storms, fires, insects, etc., was marked by the oozing of reddish sap from her trunk and may have been caused by insect damage. Just think -- when William was busy conquering England, Big Mama was alive and well in Virginia. And she was already old when Columbus set sail for the Americas, when the Spanish Armada invaded England, when the French revolted, and when the American colonies waged their war for independence from England. Nothing lives forever, but I find it sad that this grand old dame is gone. Not forgotten, though. Cypress wood is extremely durable, so Big Mama's carcass will continue to stand for many years to come.