Christmas trees date back to ancient nature lovers
It's a bit of ancient history commonly known by theologians and professors. But it's not much mentioned in what's become an international...
Seattle Times staff reporter
It's a bit of ancient history commonly known by theologians and professors.
But it's not much mentioned in what's become an international controversy over the Christmas trees at Sea-Tac Airport.
Those rallying for the sanctity of Christmas trees are, according to the experts, fighting for a pagan tradition that goes back centuries.
"In German-speaking lands, this was the Christianization of the devotion that Druids had to evergreens," said professor Lawrence Cunningham, who teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame.
"Druids were an ancient people that lived in Germany, and in present-day France, and also the British Isles. They were basically a nature religion. To them, trees that kept their greenery in wintertime showed power, endurance, immortality."
He said that in the 4th century, as Christianity spread from the cities to the countryside, it incorporated folk customs from the pagans.
Pagan "means people who lived out in the countryside. They were the rednecks, hillbillies, whatever words you want to use," Cunningham said. "They were the last to be Christianized. ...
"And tell me what religion in the world doesn't make symbolic use of water or fire or trees or certain animals?"
At Huntington University in Indiana, professor Edwin Woodruff Tait has written about the history of Christmas trees. In the 16th century, he said, churches tried to crack down on merrymaking.
"People had something like 100 days off a year from work, although sometimes only half a day off. It was tied to some religious celebration. They had all these saints' days. The peasants would celebrate — dance, play sports, play games," said Tait, who teaches Bible and religion.
"And people drank alcohol in gallons. ... The church saw this as rowdy and conducive to immorality. They wanted to get people to go to church and sit nicely in their pews."
One theory, Tait said, is that Christmas trees moved inside, into family-oriented celebrations in homes, in response to the squashing of merrymaking.
According to Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University who has studied Christmas folklore, pagans "didn't much mind about converting to Christianity."
But, he said, "What they didn't want to give up was the vacation."
The pagans celebrated winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, near Dec. 22, and the beginning of warmer weather as the days got longer.
"These pagan rites have become two separate celebrations: Christmas, and then the tradition is carried over to New Year's Day," Bryant said.
For a time in 17th-century England, there was a real war on Christmas. Bryant said the Puritans believed Christmas was the "work of the devil" and "idolatry." There was a law that included jail time for anyone caught celebrating.
And for 22 years beginning in 1659 — during the Puritan era in New England — Christmas was outlawed in Boston.
"As late as the early 1900s there were still churches in the New England region that were warning their congregations against the celebration of Christmas," said Bryant.
Bryant said he has been following the news about the Christmas trees at Sea-Tac.
"Every religion has controversy," he said. "After all, the documents are written by people, and people are prone to exaggerate, elaborate, and sometimes, just get the facts wrong."
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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