Since Jesus never saw a Christmas tree, I’m not sure what he’d want to call it. My hunch is that he really wouldn’t care. But, lately it’s become painfully obvious that some people do seem to care…a lot. Conservative groups are upset that the White House sent out cards for the “Holiday Season” rather than for Christmas. House Speaker Dennis Hastert referred to the “Holiday Tree” on the Capital lawn as a Christmas tree. The logger who cut down the “Holiday Tree” in Boston Common hates the name so much, he’d rather the tree be destroyed, and John Gibson, a Fox News anchor, wrote a book titled The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Amidst all of this posturing, it might be instructive for us to recall the symbolic meaning and the origin of the use of the evergreen tree at this time of year, or, for that matter, the meaning of Christmas itself.
Truth be told, it would be more accurate to call the evergreens we keep at this time of year Solstice Trees, after the pagan feast that was celebrated for thousands of years in late December.
Even though they lacked the astronomical tools we have today, ancient tribes from across the northern hemisphere were able to determine the longest and shortest days of the year, the summer and winter solstices. Many ancient stone structures—including Stonehenge—were created to mark these important dates. These cultures noticed that after the 21st and 22nd of December, the days got brighter and the weather got warmer. This was reason to celebrate, to thank the gods for their bounty, and to offer sacrifice for the upcoming year. Tribes and cultures from around the world used powerful symbols—mistletoe, fires, and evergreens—as reminders that life will survive the winter and that new light will come from the darkness. Ancient Romans, Druids, and Germans all decorated their homes or temples with evergreens. In 16th century Germany, Christians began to bring trees into their homes and decorate them, both beginning a new tradition and continuing a much older one.
You Say It’s Your Birthday…
Even celebrating a god’s birthday on December 25 has pagan roots. Ancient Romans honored Saturn, the god of agriculture, in a seven-day long festival that included the winter solstice. Romans celebrated “Saturnalia” by exchanging gifts, temporarily freeing slaves, and taking a break from work and warfare. Around the time of Christ’s birth, the Persian religion, Mithraism, became popular across Ancient Rome. Believers worshipped Mithra, a sun-god, and their practices and beliefs were quite similar to those of Christianity: they used holy water, believed in resurrection, and had a rite of communion. They also celebrated Mitrha’s birthday on December 25.
From Pagan to Christian
We don’t know the exact date of Jesus’ birth. However, most religious scholars believe that Pope Julius I’s (337-352) decision to mark December 25 as Christ’s date-of-birth was an attempt to make conversion from pagan religions to Christianity easier. Acceptance of this date took some time, historically speaking, but by the 800’s, virtually all of Europe was celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25, although the day was still characterized by numerous “Saturnalian” traditions. In fact, due to its pagan roots and lingering pagan imagery, numerous Protestant groups, including the American Puritans, tried to ban the celebration of Christmas altogether. Other Catholic cultures prefer to emphasize the Epiphany or Three Kings Day rather than the Nativity.
So what if much of the imagery in the winter holidays is ancient and pre-Christian and the Christmas tree was a solstice tree long before there was even a Christmas? The entire world has a common history of celebration. We all survive another harsh winter; we all gather round family and friends; we all warm near a fire. We celebrate the birth of new life, be it a sun-god or the Son-God, and we thank whatever God we have for the spring we know will come. Even if we don’t believe in God, we believe in this ritual.
The crucial distinction is that even though the symbols and rituals have remained the same, the meaning that Christians invest in them has clearly changed. The evergreen tree is no longer a symbol of new life; it is a symbol of our new life in Christ. A fire is no longer a symbol of longer days to come; it is a symbol of the newborn Jesus, the light of the world. What we call a tree seems less important than what we feel the tree means, and how we let that meaning transform our lives.
When I look at the tree, I know for me it means a man who was God actually lived and laughed and died. It means a man who was God will judge me for how I have remembered the least of these. It means “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” It means I don’t have to worry about anything. Not even a tree.