The Christmas celebrated today has deep roots in other cultures

December 25, 2005|By PATRICIA MONTLEY

For Christians around the world, the Christmas tree, circled in lights and topped with an angel, is a powerful symbol of the birth of Jesus, the "light of the world." But like all powerful symbols, the evergreen has been claimed by a wide variety of peoples and cultures because, despite the cold and darkness of winter, it remains vigorously verdant, thus seeming immortal.

Ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews all had their "sacred trees" that symbolized eternal life.

The Greeks saw the fir as sacred to Artemis, the moon goddess who presided over childbirth. To the Babylonians, the palm was considered the "birth tree." The Celts called their sacred evergreens "Bele-Trees," thought to be associated with Bel, their sun god born anew at each winter solstice. The Romans had pine groves attached to their temples, and cut down and decorated these sacred trees for ceremonial use.

In pagan Europe, tree worship was common. Even after the coming of Christianity, it survived in the Scandinavian practice of using evergreens to decorate the barn and house at the New Year to ward off evil and in the tradition of putting up a tree for birds during Christmas.

Germans placed a yule tree at the entrance to the house during the winter holidays. Decorations eventually were added, and the most obvious choices for these were fruits and nuts and flowers - things people hoped would be plentiful in the New Year with the sun's return.

If the Christmas tree has a long and multicultural history, Christmas itself has an ambiguous one. Biblical scholars agree the birth date of Jesus is unknown and further acknowledge that a winter date is unlikely since spring (after the birth of new animals) or fall (after the harvest) is a more plausible time for taking the census - an event Luke's Gospel associates with the birth.

Many communities in the early Church celebrated Christ's birth on Jan. 6, the same date the Greeks celebrated the virgin birth of Aeon (the life force), the date still honored in the Greek Orthodox Church. But there was no universal agreement. In the fourth century, Pope Julius I, in an attempt to substitute a Christian celebration for a pagan one, designated Dec. 25 as Christmas, a date that coincided with the Festival of the Unconquered Sun, the Roman celebration of the many sun gods.

By 1100, Christmas was the major festival in all Europe. But so merry were the festivities and so reminiscent of the pagan Saturnalia were the symbols and practices in use that by the 16th century, reformers banned some of the more colorful revelries such as plays, processions and dancing.

In England, Parliament forbade the celebration of Christmas in 1644. The day was designated as a fast day. Businesses were required to remain open. Plum puddings were denounced as pagan. With the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, many of the customs were revived, but conservatives persisted in referring to Yuletide as "Fooltide."

Across the Atlantic, Christmas was officially banned in Boston for about 20 years during the 17th century. The Puritan rector of Harvard College, Increase Mather, condemned it as a heathen celebration, an excuse for "excess of wine" and "mad mirth." Even today, a number of evangelical Christian sects refuse to celebrate Christmas because of its pagan origins.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of Christians do commemorate Christ's birth today and have no objection to using the symbols and practices of pre- and non-Christian peoples, confirming their universality and enhancing their value.

Patricia Montley is the author of "In Nature's Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth." Her e-mail is

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