Thursday, December 12, 2019

O Christmas Tree!

Last night - about an hour after the space station passed overhead, racing across the night sky, resembling an airplane much more than the Star of Bethlehem - we finished our carol festival with "O Christmas Tree" and lit our parish Christmas Tree. (Thankfully, no local equivalents of the anti-"pagan" protesters who threw the indigenous images into the Tiber during October's Synod in Rome showed up to protest!). 

Of course, Christmas itself is a christianized version of pre-Christian pagan holidays. So it is hardly surprising that so many traditions and decorations so widely associated with Christmas have remoter origins in indigenous European pagan practices. The Romans used evergreen branches to decorate during the feast of Saturnalia, a December week of good cheer and gift-giving that recalled the "golden age" of the god Saturn (Kronos), father of Jupiter (Zeus). Northern Europeans likewise decorated their homes to counteract the dark of the winter solstice season. Supposedly it was Martin Luther who christianized the evergreen tree and made it a centerpiece of German domestic Christmas feasting. And, as everyone knows, it was Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, who famously made the German Christmas Tree an English tradition, from which it soon spread across the Atlantic to capture the American imagination.

Christmas has always been my favorite time of the year, and I love all the familiar Christmas customs, whatever their pre-Christian pagan origins. I do detest artificial Christmas Trees (more like a post-Christian pagan custom!), but even so I would prefer an artificial tree to no tree at all. Ten years ago, I introduced the tradition (as I suppose it has now become) of setting up a Christmas Tree outside the church and formally lighting it during the week of our parish's patronal feast. I hope that whoever walks past it - or sees the tree's lights from a distance driving by - experiences, however modestly, some of the gift that Christmas is.

The virtual universalization of Christmas (at least the commercialized variation of Christmas) has given almost everyone some access to the joy of this festival. And that is all to the good! Inside the church building, the nativity scene (perhaps the only Christmas custom not of pagan origin) will display God's great Christmas gift to us. (In his recent Apostolic Letter Admirabile Signum, Pope Francis called the  nativity scene "a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture.") Meanwhile, outside, the light of the Tree expresses our community's desire to share God's great gift of himself with all the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment