Sunday, December 23, 2018

"O Tannenbaum!"

            It's Christmas, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the season are everywhere.  Did you ever wonder where your favorite Christmas traditions came from?  If the first Christmas, the birth of the Christ child, happened over two thousand years ago in the Middle East—how come so many of our traditions have to do with snow?  In one pivotal movement, when the apostle Paul had decided to take the gospel eastward, he had a vision in which a man from Macedonia pleaded for him to bring Christian teaching westward (Acts 16:6-10).  From that time on, Christianity became a predominantly European religion, and its traditions derived largely from Europe as well.  Hence, the cold weather traditions.  The Roman Catholic church celebrated the Christ Mass as a minor observance, but as the faith reached deeper into pagan territory, Christianity began to develop holiday traditions that competed with non-Christian practices. 

Lights.  The winter solstice, called Yule by many pagans, marked the shortest day of the year.  This meant it was the last day that the days grew shorter, and the first day that light would begin to return.  Pagans would light a Yule log to welcome the light.  This seemed to correspond to the Jewish festival of lights called Hanukah.  Likewise, i made sense for Christians to celebrate the increasing light as the time when Jesus, the Light of the World, was born—even though he was probably born in springtime.  All of our Christmas holidays involving lights trace back to these roots.

Mistletoe.  One website says, “According to Francis X. Weiser, in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: ‘The Mistletoe was a sacred plant in the pagan religion of the Druids in Britain. It was believed to have all sorts of miraculous qualities: the power of healing diseases, making poisons harmless, living fertility to humans and animals, protecting from witchcraft, banning evil spirits, bringing good luck and great blessings. In fact, it was considered so sacred that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a Mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting, and keep a truce until the following day. From this old custom grew the practice of suspending Mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of good will and peace to all comers. [p. 104]’”[i]

Holly.  Pagan yuletide celebrations involved decorating with these holy plants.  The Scottish and Irish Society of the Black Hills reports, “To the Druids, it was holly's evergreen nature that made it special. They believed that it remained green to help keep the earth beautiful when the deciduous trees (such as the oak, which they also held sacred) shed their leaves. It was also their custom to wear it in their hair when they ventured into the forests to watch the priests collecting mistletoe.”[ii]  As Christians adopted these plants for their own use, they changed the significance of the red berries from representing the blood of the goddess, to the blood of Christ.

The Christmas Tree. tells us, “Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.”[iii]  What started as the German Tannenbaum became the English Christmas tree.

Jolly Old St. Nicholas.  The St. Nicholas Center reports: “The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children.”[iv]  Today, “Santa Claus” gives gifts in honor of St. Nicholas of Myra’s generosity, and to honor the Christ child who is present in all children.

We have so many Christmas traditions that it would be a long article indeed if we were to discuss them all.  What can Christians take away from a discussion of the history of the holiday?  Some Christians believe it’s wrong to incorporate practices from other religions in our celebrations, but I have a different opinion.

It’s good to have traditions.  Just as Christians’ spiritual ancestors, the Jewish people, had traditions to celebrate culturally and religiously significant events, out traditions reinforce those things that make our faith so dear.

Traditions teach our children.  In Deuteronomy 6:4-12, God tells the Hebrew people to impart their heritage to their children, and to do it using holy narrative, sacred song, and even divine decorating as tools for teaching.  As Christians, we do the same thing with our Christian traditions.

It’s okay to borrow.  Psalm 24:1[v] says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.   The world and all its people belong to him.”  Remember, unless you’re 100% Jewish, it’s not just the Jewish people who are your spiritual ancestors.  You are the offspring of the world, and it’s important to remember that all cultures have something to offer.  It’s been said that “whatever is good, belongs to me, as a Christian.”  So as Christians it’s okay to borrow, to adopt, to adapt, and to make something our own. 

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 says, “History merely repeats itself.  It has all been done before.  Nothing under the sun is truly new.  People say, ‘Here is something new!’ But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new.”  When Christians encounter ancient traditions that come from outside of our own faith and practice, we have three choices.  We can reject them outright, we can receive them in their totality, or we can redeem them, and make them out own.  This is what we have done with the world’s winter traditions—we have made them Christian.  From donating to charity to decking the halls, from carols to candles, we love our Christmas traditions.  We don’t need to reject them just because we find out where they came from.  All that is good belongs to us as Christians.  If we have “baptized” those traditions and placed them under the blood of Jesus, they become Christian practices for us.    So I hope, if grinches come around to steal the joy of your Christmas traditions, you won’t let their humbuggery get you down.  Deck the halls, light the tree, give your gifts, and do it all to honor Jesus!

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