Everyone knows that the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol, right? Indeed, one web site notes “It is well recognized by all educated people today that the practice is purely and simply a retention of pagan doctrines in the Christian home.” Just like Hallowe’en…
Staring at the Christmas tree as a child, the symbolism of the night sky seemed obvious. And that’s what I always understood the tree to mean: the night sky over Bethlehem, with a big Star of Bethlehem decorating the top. The other flashing lights were the twinkling stars of the sky; the hanging balls were the planets; and the silver streamer spiraling down the tree was the Milky Way. The stern straight trunk of the fir tree was the North Pole, around which the heavens revolve, just as the branches of the tree radiate from it, in expanding orbits. One properly placed the nativity scene, the manger, as I understood it, at the foot of the tree. The infant Jesus appeared in the manger on Christmas Eve, after Midnight Mass.
I’ve never liked icicles on a Christmas tree, for the simple reason that they did not seem to fit with this symbolism.
It all seems to make good sense as purely Christian symbolism. So why resort to a pagan explanation?
It is true, of course, that the tree, and the evergreen tree, is a sacred symbol all over the world. Even in Japan, there is a tradition of pulling an evergreen indoors at winter solstice. But so what? This very universality means it is not “pagan”; its significance is universal. It might just as easily have developed independently among Christians, without similarities to pagan customs making it essentially pagan in origin. Or, even if it did not, its significance seems to go deeper than any one religious tradition. Why can’t Christianity adopt such symbols?
Sure, it is also obviously relevant to the time of the solstice—the tree representing the annual cycles of the seasons at the time of greatest dominance of the night. But that symbolism is obvious, and deliberate—Jesus’s appearance as savior of mankind is metaphorically the reappearance of the sun, of life and fertility, at the solstice. The fall of man is represented by the darkness, represented in turn by the tree. Salvation comes with the birth of Jesus at midnight, the solstice of the day.
It all works as a beautiful metaphor, and the symbolism of the solstice is just as appropriate for Christianity as for paganism. For European paganism was never, as it is commonly thought, a “religion of nature.” The pagans were somewhat less interested in nature than we Christians are.
Some, fundamentalist Protestants, insist it cannot be Christian, because it is not Biblical. But isn’t it? After all, there are some important trees in the Bible, aren’t there? The tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of Jesse, the “tree” on which Jesus was crucified. Taken together, they make the image of a tree absolutely central to salvation history, as fundamental a Christian image as there could be. Why seek elsewhere for the meaning of a tree?
Indeed, while no clear link can be found between the modern Christmas tree and any pagan practice, the modern Christmas tree seems to have developed from a German custom of the 16th century, in which it plainly represented the Tree of Paradise. The occasion was not actually Christmas, but the Feast of Adam and Eve, held on December 24th. The tree was called the paradeisbaum—the “tree of paradise.” It was originally decorated, probably in reference to Eden, with apples.
And the trees pf paradise were indeed, like the Christmas fir, “evergreens”--they bore fruit in all seasons. The appropriation of a fir tree to represent this is no more anachronistic than appropriating the apple as the fruit of Eden; but we take the latter for granted.
So it all fits neatly, in the end: the tree represents the night sky, the night, the Fall; and at the same time the promise of redemption, the rebirth of the sun, the crucifixion and the redemption—the little bit of paradise that, thanks to Jesus, is within each of us, and in our Christian homes. It may be that the common conception of the tree as “pagan” is a folk memory that it represents, in the first instance, the Fall, and the state of man before the advent of Christianity.
Our tree is up. Is yours?