News Section: Opinion
My Christmas Wish: Spare the "Holiday Tree" Chain Emails
You know the email: This is not a holiday tree. It is not a Hanukah bush... It's a Christmas tree – celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ..., protesting some unknown opposing protest, in which people are reportedly upset about labeling it a Christmas tree, although I've honestly never actually received that email.
Now, I'm not trying to kick the hornet's nest on this one, I swear. In fact, I'm asking people to just relax and enjoy the season of goodwill, whatever it means to them, while not chastising others for their beliefs or lack thereof. And if you're going to jump into a debate on Christmas history, at least have a basic understanding of it, which most communications on the subject I've seen contain a total lack of.
I have never personally met anyone who was offended by Christians (or anyone else) saying Christmas Tree, though I have seen some arguably ham-fisted, if well-meaning efforts on behalf of corporate and governmental institutions to be politically correct by straying from doing so. There is a persistent chain email that has gone out for three years claiming that President Obama each season has declared the White House will now have a "holiday tree," even though it's been thoroughly debunked. Some groups have protested the use of public funds to purchase overtly religious symbols like Nativity scenes, as a violation of the 1st Amendment's establishment clause, which the Supreme Court has held it to be, but most Americans seem fine with "Christmas tree," regardless of their beliefs.
Nonetheless, if some people insist on debating the issue, then they should at least do it with a certain modicum of common sense. While the best numbers available tell us that about three quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian, that still means that around 100 million do not. It seems to offend Christians when those people use the term “holiday tree,” though I would think it would be more offensive if they called it a “Christmas tree” instead, considering they don't believe in Jesus Christ as the savior of mankind.
But judging by the response, that's not the case. So if we agree that it's not only acceptable, but preferable for everyone to use the culturally standard Christmas tree, it would seem we would logically refrain from chastising those 100 million people into remembering that the holiday is about the birth of a person they don't believe in. But again, judging by the response, that's not the case either.
That unfortunately gets us in to the even more controversial fact that the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth, whether you believe him to be the Christ or not, was not in fact born on the 25th of December, which would actually be January 6 because of the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one. In fact, there is no historical record of when or even where he was born. At the time, birthdays were not celebrated. It was centuries before serious efforts were even made to determine when Jesus was born, but there was not enough evidence available to make even an educated guess. Today, most religious and historical scholars believe that he was most likely born between June and September and not even in Bethlehem.
The holiday we celebrate actually has roots much older than Christianity. The winter solstice has always been a time of celebration, including the Feast of Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival held in honor of their god Saturn. It was introduced more than two centuries before Jesus was born, as a morale booster following a devastating military loss to the Carthaginians. It started as one day, but eventually grew to a week-long festival, ending on the 24th. Attempts to get rid of or even shorten the popular Mardis Gras-like event were always met with ardent popular opposition. Walking your neighborhood in order to dance and sing songs at your neighbors' doors was part of the rituals and is thought to be the basis for caroling today.
All the way back in ancient Babylon, the Feast of the Son of Isis (the Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on the 25th of December. Another festive celebration, the tradition of exchanging gifts can be traced back to this event. Gift-giving was considered blasphemous among Christians for quite some time, though it was later rationalized by associations with St. Nicholas and the gifts of the Maji in the Nativity story, as the church sought wider acceptance of the holiday.
Many of the modern Christmas traditions we celebrate are rooted in Germanic pagan traditions for the Yule holiday, celebrating the Sun God Mithras. Yule celebrated the birth of the sun and they would time the date by their solar calendar to take place on the shortest day of the year (the winter solstice). As the sun supposedly grew stronger, the days would lengthen, leading to another festival on the summer solstice. Traditions from the Yule log, to lighting a candle, to gifts and wreaths have roots in this tradition.
Santa Claus' myth is a combination of attributes from St. Nicholas, who was said to leave coins in the empty shoes of children, to the Germanic Odin, to whom the reindeer and sled and even cookies for Santa traditions relate to. The controversial tree is common among all of the much older non-Christian, solstice-based traditions as a symbol that not all vegetation was dead in the winter months and that the food crops would soon be returning. Families would often bring one inside the home during winter as a symbol of such.
Trees were first used in Christianity much later, first as “Paradise trees” that were decorated with apples, symbolic of the Tree of Knowledge for a holiday related to the biblical account of Adam and Eve called “Name Day.” There are some references to evergreens being used in public Christian holiday celebrations as early as the 15th century in Estonia, but widespread adoption and individuals putting them in their own homes decorated with fruits and candles, came into fashion among Christians much later, mostly in Germany and surrounding areas that had long been doing so in their pagan celebrations, with competing records of the first American Christmas trees being introduced sometime between 1777 and and 1817. The somewhat antiquated tradition of waiting until Christmas Eve to decorate a tree also has roots in Name Day, which was celebrated on the 24th.
Christ's mass or Christmas wasn't celebrated until around 350 A.D., when Pope Julius I declared it so, with December 25 as the date which was said to coincide with Christ's birth – though there is no evidence that the church (or anyone else) believed that to be the case at any point prior. It is generally agreed upon by historians that the growing Catholic church, by that point having benefited from Constantine's earlier conversion, was seeking greater acceptance by tying popular non-religious celebrations to Christian events, in order to avoid having to declare them blasphemous, which they feared would prevent most pagans from accepting conversion.
The switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar, as well as somewhat primitive means of determining solar and lunar events has lead to imperfect modern reflection, accounting for some traditions and religions in different parts of the world continuing to celebrate related events on different days during the period. However, it is undeniable that as a society, we have borrowed a myriad of various and sometimes competing traditions to assemble a rich cultural holiday that transcends our personal beliefs and has the potential to unite us in a way that few other things have demonstrated such capacity to do – the true beauty of the holiday.
If Christians are going to claim that Christmas is solely to be about celebrating the birth of Jesus, it would seem hypocritical (not to mention blasphemous) to enfold so many other non-Christian traditions into their own celebrations and more honest were they to take a Puritan approach. My advice is to keep lighting the Yule log, stuffing the stockings, decorating the tree after Thanksgiving, exchanging the gifts, singing the carols and carving the turkey or ham, while accepting the day we've all come to call Christmas as a spectacular event in our culture that is more about the ways that we as human beings are alike, than that in which we are different.
So, how about we save the tree emails this year and just send the people in our lives a personal message telling them sincerely, that we hope they enjoy this wonderful time. Use whatever words you feel comfortable with – I assure you that if you're wishing them well, rather than preaching to them about what they should be remembering this year, they won't have anything but kind words in response. And if they do... forward them this column instead. At least they'll learn something.
Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. His column appears every Thursday and Sunday on our site and in our free Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition (click here to subscribe). An archive of Dennis' columns is available here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook and Twitter by clicking the badges below.