Aaron took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they [the Israelites] said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people arose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterwards they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
- Exodus 32:4-6
Last blog we started looking at some of our Christmas traditions and seeing how many of them have little or nothing to do with the birth of Christ. HOW we celebrate Christmas can be either sinful or sacred, and many times the pagan practices have been given Christian meaning (they’ve been baptized so to speak). Yet it’s still very easy to fall into the pagan ways of the land in which we are living. To help us avoid acting in ignorance, let’s spend a few more moments examining the history of many of our holiday festivities and whether they are worthy of Christian practice.
We’ll start with one which has always been pagan and continues to be, even widely accepted - that of stealing a kiss under the mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasitic vine which is native to northern Europe and grows exclusively on oak and ash trees. This plant was sacred to the Druids of Celtic Europe, and is yet a primary component of modern druidism. As the druids met in ash groves (you probably know the tune “The Ash Grove” from the hymn Sent Forth by God’s Blessing), mistletoe was also commonly there. But mistletoe could only be cut with a silver sickle on the night of a full moon, then it could be used for fertility rites. As the white berries resemble drops of male reproductive fluid and the shape of the leaves resemble the external female genitalia, the law of sympathetic magic states that what appears in nature would then produce what it resembles. Infertile couples would drink a mistletoe tea (now known to be poisonous) and lie on a bed of mistletoe to procreate. I guess we should be thankful that in the intervening centuries it’s been toned down to just a kiss under the mistletoe. A great many in our culture, even Christians, still hang a spring of this poisonous plant and it appears in many Christmas songs as well (…let there be snow, and mistletoe, and presents under the tree).
Speaking of presents under the tree, who came up with the idea of deforesting large areas for holiday decorations? It was none other than Martin Luther, though he was just practicing a Christianized version of a tradition that goes back to Yule celebrations in Scandanavia a couple thousand years before his time. To the Norse, trees have a special place in their theology, especially Ygdrassil, the World Tree which held Odin for three days so he could learn about runes and bring writing to humankind. In it’s branches this tree also holds all the “worlds” of heaven (Asgard), earth and other inhabited planets (Midgaard), the worlds of frost / punishment (Jotenheim) and the other 6 planes of existence. At the festival of Yule, which is on the eve of the first full moon following the Winter Solstice, it was common practice for the warriors to head to the woods (since it wasn’t battle season) and use their axes to chop down the largest tree they could find - usually a Norwegian Spruce or member of the evergreen family. This tree would be carried back by the soldiers / raiders and set up in the town square. Bethrothal notes and gifts, ribbons, fruits, sausages, and the like would be placed on the tree for the Yule celebrations. Yule would last for 12 days, during which time the foods hung on the tree would be eated and it was not uncommon for icicles to form on the branches (tinsel). We can thank the Vikings (ouffda!) for bringing this tradition to Northern Europe in the ninth and tenth Centnturies.
During the Yule ceremony, the tree from last year would be used to start and to fuel a bonfire which was kept burning for the whole 12 day celebration. Hence the tradition of the yule log was started many hundreds of years before those people heard about the Christ.
As mentioned above, Martin Luther is associated with the Christmas tree as we know it now. According to Luther legend, Hans (Martin’s father) was home from the mines feeling ill one winter’s evening. As a young Martin was completing his evening chores, he looked out and saw the starlight twinkling through the boughs of the evergreens around their home. Wanting his father to share in that experience, he cut down a tree and brought it in the house. He added candles to the branches to simulate the starlight, and hung apples from the branches. He would later add Christian meanings to all these things as the tree’s shape makes an arrow pointing to heaven from which our Savior came. The branches are green while all other trees have lost their leaves and appear dead, thus symbolizing the eternal life which is ours in Christ Jesus. The fruits could be the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or, more likely, the fruits of the Tree of Life in heaven where the fruits are borne every month and the leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2) The bright ribbons and lights represent the Light of life coming into the world (John 1:4). This is a prime example of a pagan practice being sanctified by Christians.
Skipping ahead 500 years, the Christmas tree has become the very symbol of our holiday (it’s easier to draw than a manger). But it is a relatively new addition to Christian decorating designs and would NEVER have been found in a sanctuary until the 20th century. In 1824 a Leipzig organist named Ernst Anschutz wrote the song “O Tennenbaum”, which in it’s later verses describes the Christian symbolism now associated with the evergreen. Soon after that, the Christmas tree as we know it came to England when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert, brought an evergreen into Westminster Palace (and later to Buckingham). As Victoria was quite the trend setter, soon everyone wanted an evergreen in their house. The fashion hopped the pond to the Americas and Christmas trees, once only found in homes of German immigrants, became mainstream. New York got its first Christmas tree in 1931. This is now so much a part of our culture and the sight and smell of the tree so comforting that this year Christmas trees were sold out in many places by the first weekend in December. I won’t discuss the “real” and “fake” tree controversy here.
One of the traditions which is uniquely Christian is the practice of putting candles (or oil lamps) in the window . This was Christian code during times of persecution both during the Roman Empire and later in pagan countries like Bohemia during the time of Good King Wenceslaus (when his pagan stepmother Ludmilla reigned in the ninth century). The candle in the window meant that the room with that window was open for any traveller who needed lodging or was fleeing persecution. The light (see John 1:4 again) meant that a Christian could sleep safely under that roof. This was part of the Christian admonition to “practice hospitality”, which has fallen by the wayside a bit in our era. The lights on the outside of our houses also have their origins in stating that this is an abode of refuge and goodwill - though I’m not sure if that holds true for the Griswold house and those like it.
There are many other traditions we celebrate around the holidays - ringing in the new year, feasts and special foods served especially at Christmas (based on Dickens and Victorian tastes), carols, and the like. I encourage you to look at the origins and meanings of these things as you prepare to welcome our newborn King, Jesus.
- Pastor Brian
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.