13 November 2012

Christmas Trees, and Belgian Waffle

Few things exasperate me quite as much as the perennial ‘War on Christmas’ stories. They’re usually ill-founded, they leave otherwise sensible religious people sounding crazy, and their inevitable correction enables clueless sorts to start spouting anti-Christian nonsense of their own that almost invariably goes unchecked.

I'm not going to link to people about this one, because I'm annoyed with folk on both sides of this argument as I think they've all let themselves down, but today, for instance, we had the spectacle of people muttering darkly about Brussels having decided that instead of having its traditional Nativity Scene and Christmas Tree in the Grand Place, it would replace them with an ‘electronic winter tree’. 

Seemingly, the Brussels councilwoman Bianca Debaets believes that this decision was down to religious sensitivities, saying, ‘For a lot of people who are not Christians, the tree there is offensive to them.’ 

Philippe Close, president of Brussels Tourism is suitably dismissive of this attitude, saying, 
‘Let’s be clear. There’ll be a Christmas tree and a Nativity scene. Christmas traditions will be respected. The theme this year is Winter pleasures, at the huge Christmas market that has a worldwide reputation. We wanted to emphasise culture and modernity, so asked artists to reinvent the Christmas tree, which is actually a pagan symbol.’
So it seems the plan is to have the Nativity scene there as usual, although the tree is indeed to be replaced with a 25m installation with a vague tree shape, made from screens and with a viewing platform at the top. About 12,000 people have signed a petition asking that the traditional tree be restored, but I’m not clear on their reasoning; it may have been aesthetic or environmental as much as anything else, given that this ‘tree’ looks incredibly tacky and surely requires a ludicrous amount of power.

Mmmm. Tasteful, traditional, *and* environmentally-friendly. Go Brussels.
So, the main story here is a storm in a teacup. There’ll still be a crib, there’ll be something vaguely reminiscent of a tree, and this has nothing to do with placating the 25pc or so of Brussels’ population who are Muslims, which isn’t really surprising as Muslims tend to be grand with the whole Christmas thing. 

That said, I find myself wanting to kick furniture whenever I see people wittering about Christmas trees being pagan symbols. This, frankly, is historical ignorance and incompetence at its worst. It always amazes me to see people who shout and scream about evidence and scientific ignorance propagating such shameless rot.

It’s the same kind of claptrap as saying ‘People nowadays insult people by sticking up their fingers at them, and the archers at Agincourt did that, so that must be why people do it now.’ 

Leaving aside the fact that the evidence doesn't even suggest that the archers at Agincourt did any such thing, this is utter gibberish because it fails to demonstrate a connection. All it does is note two similar behaviours and proclaims a link between them. There might be correlation at work, but there’s no evidence of causation. 

People like to bang on about the pagan roots of Christmas, but doing so requires a) ignorance and b) a fair amount of unhistorical thinking. 

Yule live to regret this...
Sometimes they’ll say it’s based on Yule, for instance. The ancient Germanic and Norse festival of Yule, I mean, not the modern made-up form of Yule, which like all Neopaganism is really just a reaction to Christian practices and can’t be dated any further back than the nineteenth century.

The problem with this Yule is that it’s based on very flimsy evidence, which also happens to ridiculously Teutonocentric; it's a version of that Edwardian notion of everything worth talking about being German. Still, the big issue is its flimsiness.

Writing in the eight century, Bede says Yule was the name the Angles and Saxons gave December or sometimes December bleeding into January. Seemingly they had a big celebration on the same night as the Christians celebrated Christmas, calling it the mothers’ night, though Bede doesn’t know why. Even assuming that Bede was right about this festival, which he might not have been, given that Anglo-Saxon paganism was in its death throes when he was writing, this isn’t saying a lot.

Pretty much everything else we ‘know’ about Yule is from thirteenth-century Christian writers, who say that their Viking ancestors had celebrated a Yule feast, involving the mass slaughter of animals and the sprinkling of all present with animals' blood. Our sources say the Norse had shifted the date of Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations, but modern scholars seem to think that it could have fallen almost any time after the middle of November. 

So, given that Yule could have happened at any point between mid-November and January, and may have been shifted to synchronise with Christmas, and was described by our sources in a manner that rather differed from typical Christmas celebrations in certain obvious ways, it’s hard to see how people can credibly argue that Christmas was based on Yule in any meaningful sense.

Of course, if you want to get back to your imagined roots, why not go the whole hog? I’m sure nobody would mind if you massacred your family pets and smeared their blood all over yourselves and the walls of your houses to celebrate the days getting longer. Go for it. Knock yourself out.

I get rather Saturnine about this nonsense...
The other standard modern trope on this is that our dating of Christmas was purely a sanctification of a preexisting pagan feast. This idea seems to have been thought up by the German Paul Ernst Jablonski in the early eighteenth century, when he noticed that in the Julian Calendar the Winter solstice took place on 25 December; assuming that this must have been a pagan Roman festival, he cited this as another instance of the Catholic Church embracing paganism. 

The Benedictine Dom Jean Hardouin, while disagreeing with Jablonski’s interpretation, accepted his basic assumption without analysing whether it was correct, and so a modern myth was born.

Now, it is true that the Romans celebrated a winter festival called the Saturnalia, and it is also true that in 274 AD the emperor Aurelian instituted the feast of the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the celebration of the winter solstice under the guise of the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, the solstice falling on 25 December under the Julian calendar. 

It’s therefore understandable that people who can’t be bothered to look up sources might have assumed that the dating of Christmas to 25 December was simply a case of the Christianization of Roman festivals, especially in connection with the notion of Jesus as the Light of the World and the longstanding Christian tradition of having the Day of the Sun as the principal day of worship.

Thing is, though, this is little more than assumption, and there’s at least as much evidence against it as there is for it. 

For example, it seems that St Hippolytus of Rome, writing several decades before Aurelian’s institution of the pagan feast recorded the date of Christ’s birth as 25 December. In his Commentary on Daniel, Hippolytus said that Jesus’ birth took place ‘eight days before the kalends of January’.

(Granted, there's a possibility that this was a later interpolation, but it's hard to see an argument for this having been the case that doesn't depend on the circular argument that 'the date wasn't settled until after this, therefore any evidence for the date before this should be discounted'.)

That’s not to say that Jesus was born on 25 December, but to point out that the tradition of his being born then seems to have existed by 235 AD, when Hippolytus died, whereas the Romans didn't have Winter sun festivals until 274 AD. 

That date could have been roughly established by early Christians counting forward from the claims in Luke 1 that Jesus was conceived six months after John the Baptist, who was himself conceived when his father Zechariah was serving in the Temple at Jerusalem as a member of the priestly division of Abijah. Certainly, this was an argument used by St John Chrysostom, who died in 407 AD, using calculations based on how Rabbinical tradition had frozen the priestly schedule following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

Alternatively, it seems more likely that the date was largely derived from the Jewish tradition that prophets had an ‘integral age’, whereby they were thought to have died on the same date as that on which they were conceived or born. Since some early Christians dated the Crucifixion to 25 March – in connection with the Passover – it followed then that Jesus must have been born or conceived on 25 March. They ran with conception, as commemorated to this day with the feast of the Annunciation, and counted forward nine months to Christmas.

Again, I'm not saying that the early Christians got the date of Christmas right. I'm just saying that it seems they dated it based on Jewish tradition, not pagan ones. This shouldn't really surprise us, given just how Jewish the early Christians were.

So, for the third of my tree points here...
Are Christmas trees pagan symbols, or even more dramatically as I’ve seen them described elsewhere, pagan symbols of winter rebirth?

Well, they’re obviously not the latter. If we’re using evergreen trees, then they don’t die in the first place so by definition can’t be reborn. If we’re using deciduous ones, which I really hope we’re not, then they don’t get reborn in the winter, and indeed don’t show any signs of life till the Spring.

To be fair, this probably uses up a few auld watts too...
Were trees sacred to pagans? Well, yes, they often were. So were rocks, hills, rivers, fires, storms, doorways, you name it. Good luck trying to thinking of things that pagans could have thought of as sacred that pagans never thought of sacred. Frankly, it’d be hard to start any kind of modern tradition without some kind of pagan precedent. That doesn’t mean there’s a link.

Trees appear to have had an important role in the general mytho-religious matrix of the ancient and early medieval Germans, English, and Norse. The World Ash Yggdrasil, for instance, seems to have been utterly central to Norse myth,* and the story of Wessex’s own Saint Boniface shows just how important trees could be for the Germans in the period the less clued-in still call ‘The Dark Ages’

According to Willibard’s Life of Boniface, there was a sacred oak tree in Germany, in what is now northern Hesse. Boniface cut it down – the Life claims that he started to do so and a wind finished the job – and the locals were so amazed that they converted to Christianity. Boniface used the timber from this sacred oak to build a chapel, dedicated to Saint Peter, which became the nucleus of his second monastic foundation, which he established at Fritzlar. This was in the early eighth century.

Here’s the thing, though. The Christmas tree, as a phenomenon, seems to date back no earlier than the sixteenth century, and certainly no earlier than the fifteenth. 

Insofar as we can ascertain the origins of the Christmas tree, it seems to have been a development of the late Medieval Paradeisbaum. The Paradise tree featured in morality plays connected with the Garden of Eden, but whenever morality plays were put on in Winter it was necessary to decorate evergreen trees with apples and other props in order to make them look like a semi-credible fruit tree, suitable for the paradise that Adam and Eve lost. 

Tradition ascribes the creation of the Christmas tree to Martin Luther, but the story looks like a pious fiction. There is some evidence of trees being decorated after the fashion of Paradise trees in the guildhalls of late fifteenth-century Riga and Talinn, and it seems that during the sixteenth century Germans took to bringing evergreen trees into their homes, not merely decorating them with fruit but also adding pieces of gingerbread, wax ornaments, and strings of nuts. 

I've heard that they caught on as specifically Protestant counterpoints to Catholic cribs, but while that strikes me as very plausible, I've not seen any evidence on this one. I'd expect it to be out there, but I've no books on that topic, and the internet has a habit of coming up short on serious historical stuff. 

Granted, this phenomenon was a German custom, but there seems to have been an 800-year gap between Boniface hacking down the sacred oak and Germans starting to bring trees into their houses. If you really want to argue that Christmas trees were pagan customs, you need to produce evidence. 

Or, I suppose, you can just make things up.

* I say 'seems', of course, because pretty much everything we know about Norse myth is drawn from Christian accounts of the myths after they’d ceased to be part of a living religion; they are, in effect, Christian fairy tales based on long-lost legends. Oddly enough, Cracked more or less has it right.


George Peterson said...

In fact, the entirety of Christianity is based on earlier pagan religions. The virgin birth, the miracles, the son of god, the execution and defeat of death... several previous pagan religions already claimed these stories before Christianity co-opted them.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Oh my. Aside from your being wrong, you've rather missed the point here.

The fact that something precedes something else doesn't mean that it necessarily influenced it. You're confusing an apparent correlation with a real causation.

I'd be curious to know if you can tell me which myths the Christian story is based on, and demonstrate causal connections.

Anonymous said...

Great post! My sentiments exactly.

jaykay said...

Wow, Gargoyle: a predictable "pagan" response in the very first comment! Well, ok, maybe not pagan in the religious sense (quis judicabit?)but certainly in the etymological sense of ignorant, backward etc.

Thanks for the succinct slaying of the perennial "Solis Invicti" feast thing. That one should be well past its sell-by date at this stage but is still dragged stinking from its sepulchere by the self-satisfied semi-educated every year, much as your two-year-old needs to show you his latest poo. Sorry 'bout that but it has the same effect on me... although without the cute factor of the kid.

Anonymous said...

Splendid stuff. There is so much nonsense spouted at this time it's good to get a splash of reality.

For our pagan copycat friends, Utar recommends J P Holding's 'Shattering the Christ Myth'. Holding also has some supporting material on his Tektonics website.


Francis said...

I understand your point generally in the post and directly in the comment above that there is lack of evidence of 'real' causation. But could a credible argument be made for *probable* causation (rather than dismissing any speculation as confusing causation with apparent correlation)? In the absence of empirical evidence, can not reason be applied? It seems to me that because we know there were a number of pre-Christian winter festivals and also that trees have been significant symbol in multiple pre-Christian rites, it is probable that the idea of the Christmas tree did not spring up independently as a wholly original Christian idea. Therefore it's probable that the Christmas tree had pagan roots (excuse the pun).

I'm not trying to argue with you, I was fascinated to read your post, and I bow to your superior knowledge. But I'm not a philosopher or a historian, just a regular guy, and this idea of probable cause still bugged me after reading your post and I'd love to know what you think.

Thank you for the great read.