Question: Christmas trees and Yule Logs

Yes, yes, Christmas Day has passed us, but we are still in the Christmas Season.  Christmas, like Easter, is SO important a feast that it stretches over weeks, giving its name to an entire liturgical season.  With Christmas we celebrate the manifestation of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, to the world.  For nine months, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity dwelt in the womb of Mary, His mother; on Christmas Day, He was born.  With Easter we celebrate the redemption wrought by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross; He died so that our sins might be forgiven.  These are important feasts, so it makes sense that we focus our attention on these mysteries of our salvation.

In light of all of this, Marcy asks: “Why is the date for Easter set according to a phase of the moon, instead of on a fixed date, like Christmas, and who set it up like that?  Why is Christmas placed so close to the winter solstice instead of closer to the assumed actual time of year that Christ was supposed to have been born?  Why are there so many pagan items incorporated into the celebration of Christmas (Yule log, Christmas tree, etc.)?”

Thanks to Marcy’s excellent questions, we will divide this discussion into two major topics: The dating of Christmas (compared to the dating of Easter) and pagan influences on Christmas celebrations.  We will look at the latter topic in this first post, and will take up the question of dating Easter and Christmas in the next post.

Many Christian religious traditions (not just those involving Christmas) developed from ancient pagan rituals.  It is part of being Catholic.  The word “catholic” means universal, and from the beginning of the Church, from its earliest days of evangelization, Christian missionaries have sought to incorporate the rituals of those converted into the rituals of the liturgy and Christian living.  In a sense, the Church “baptized” these pagan rites to aid the spiritual life of the former pagans, who would more likely than not reject the alien practices of the larger Christian cities (Rome, Constantinople, etc).  Such an embracing of pagan practices made it easier for recent converts to adapt to their new Faith.  It always helps to show catechumens not only the truths of the Faith, but also how their previous beliefs had already prepared them to accept Truth.

One sees this incorporation of pagan practices throughout the missionary activity of the Church, especially following the conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century.  Pope Gregory the Great encouraged St. Augustine of Canterbury, when evangelizing the British, to convert pagan temples into churches and pagan rituals into Christian festivals to which they might be connected.  Similar stories abound involving the Christianization of Ireland, Germany, and France, the preaching of the Faith in Asia and Africa, and the conversion of the Native Americans in both North and South America.  In all of these cases, the earlier pagan rituals were adapted to the Christian beliefs so that the culture of the people might remain intact.  The Church, as guardian of culture, always seeks to find the best in true culture, rejecting what is evil and elevating what is good.

So it was with Christmas.  Many of the traditions associated with Christmas stem from earlier, pre-Christian practices which the Church saw as beneficial for the faithful.  The Christmas tree is perhaps the clearest example of this.  Stories connect the Christmas tree with the story of St. Boniface, the 8th century missionary to Germany, who chopped down an oak tree worshipped in a pagan village (well, he started to chop it down, but a powerful wind finishes the job for him).  When Boniface didn’t die (the pagan priests said the gods would strike him dead if he chopped down the tree) the people converted.  The story concludes with Boniface pointing to an evergreen fir sprout growing near the felled tree.  No more human sacrifices, Boniface said (human sacrifices were prevalent in pre-Christian Germany), and pointed to the evergreen as a counter to the fallen tree.  The evergreen thus became a symbol for Christ, for just as the evergreen remained green through the dead of winter, so also Christ conquered death and sin.  Now, whether Boniface actually taught this or not does not matter; what does matter is that subsequent Christian generations have adopted the evergreen as a symbol of eternal life in Christ.  The actual practice of decorating the tree didn’t come about until the 15th and 16th centuries in Germany; the History Channel’s website names Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, as the one who first put lights on the trees.  Until the late 19th century, Christmas trees were seen as a specifically German particularism.  Thanks to the mixing of immigrants in America, the popularity of the Christmas tree has spread.

The Yule log, on the other hand, does not have a missionary saint as its legendary origin; it seems that St. Boniface even banned the early ancestors of Yule logs.  It seems that the ceremony stemmed from people lighting their fireplaces during the winter; it was only in the 16th century that Englishmen started holding elaborate ceremonies where a log was burned publicly.  Even then, the Yule remained, for the most part, a household tradition, less connected with religion and more connected with winter.

So why the pagan traditions in Christmas?  Because there was nothing overtly anti-Christian about them.  Having a tree to symbolize eternal life in your house far outshined the ritualistic human sacrifices of the Germanic pagans.  If it didn’t hurt the Faith of the former pagans, then the Church saw such traditions as helpful, and either allowed them to exist or utilized them, leading to cultural flourishing.

For Further Reading:

Martindale, Cyril Charles.  “Christmas.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia. – Provides some information concerning the background of some Christmas traditions.

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