Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Winter solstice and Christmas trees
Winter solstice occurs tonight. Today is the shortest day of the year. All over the country, people are decorating their Christmas trees and getting ready to celebrate the (nominal) birthday of Christ the Savior. I wonder if, in these United States, most people with Christmas trees in their houses are aware of the symbol's pre-Christian origins, of its apparent contradiction with Christian faith.
In the early days of Christianity, when the priests set forth from Rome to convert the heathens away from their nature-worshiping ways, they often found that the most effective method for winning converts was to insinuate Christian teachings into the established pagan traditions. Thus, we have Easter occurring near the spring equinox, and All Saint's Day (Hallowe'en) falling somewhere around the fall equinox. Why conquer when you can co-opt, eh?
One such tradition was that of the Yule log. The origin of the tradition is lost in time, but the working theory is that the pagans would adorn their homes with boughs and branches from evergreen trees as a sign of renewal at the winter solstice. As the solstice approached, the days grew short, causing people to fear that the sun would eventually disappear forever. But, while deciduous trees, bushes, and crops died or hibernated in the winter, the evergreen trees remained green, suggesting that they had magical powers that enabled them to withstand the rigors of winter.
It is not clear when or how the Christians adapted this pagan tradition into their faith. One story has it that St. Boniface, a German Christian who lived in the 8th century, cut down an oak tree in the presence of some recently-converted Christians. (Oak trees, of course, were holy to pagans.) The oak miraculously split into pieces, revealing an evergreen tree growing in the center of the oak stump. Christians put forth this story as proof that Paganism was overcome by Christianity. (Those Christians and their symbols!)
Well, anyway, that's the way these things work, isn't it? Ideas get co-opted and hijacked and transformed to the point that they scarcely relate at all to their original purposes. It's not the Christian way, or the Pagan way. It's the human way.
So, with that in mind, here's wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy Solstice!