Growing up Jewish in a typically Christian New England town made the Christmas season a confusing and lonely time of year for me. I remember making paper chains and other tree ornaments during art period in the first or second grade. After excitedly running home with my treasures I was stunned to face my parents' outrage that "Christianity" was being preached in the public schools. Later when my glee club practiced for our annual Christmas-time recital I struggled with guilt for singing gentile songs. Yet, in calmer moments, I secretly wondered about the mysterious night of silver bells, herald angels, the star and, of course, Santa Claus and the flying reindeer.

Swept up by school activities, television programming and my friends' excitement each year as December 25th approached I could feel my own anticipation building. Maybe THIS YEAR would be different. But once again, when the day arrived, there was nothing special about it. It was just a day like any other except I knew that everyone else (or so it seemed) was doing something wonderful.

My mother did her best to offset the yearly cultural onslaught. Chanukah became a more important holiday than it was before with family activities, outings to the movies, and imaginative Chanukah decorations serving to make the season more bearable. Eventually I stopped looking forward to Christmas but I never stopped feeling somewhat sad when the day arrived. In later years we started to exchange presents at Chanukah, but that did not help and the real problem was hard to define. I did not want to believe in the story of the Nativity. Neither did I feel the absence of a feast with special foods and lots of family since we had occasions like that throughout the year. I am convinced that what I yearned for was the magic, the specialness of the day. And the most magical thing of all for me was the Christmas tree.

As an adult my fascination with the tree stayed with me. When I was twenty-two my housemates and I bought a small pine to decorate our apartment and I enjoyed having a Christmas tree in my own home for the first time. We dressed it with garlands of strung popcorn and cranberries, various homemade and sentimental ornaments, lots of tinsel and tiny colored lights. It was a bittersweet occasion. Voices from the past tried to convince me to feel guilty about participating in a Christian ritual, but the warmth I shared with my friends setting up the tree and exchanging gifts and stories around it is a cherished memory.

Later that evening, while cleaning my glasses, I happened to glance up at the tree. Looking at it through nearsighted eyes caused rays of light from the ornaments and glittering tinsel to fill the entire corner of the room. The tree was transformed into a shimmering vision of pure color and light. I was delighted ! An hour passed before I had gotten my fill of looking at it. Ever since that evening the Christmas tree has been an integral part of my winter celebration. However, because of my background, I needed to clarify the meaning of the tree in my life before I could feel completely comfortable with this new ritual. In this process I began to wonder about the significance of the custom in our culture as a whole.

Many people are aware that the Christmas tree is a vestige of the pagan practice of using evergreens to symbolize life in the dead of winter. They may have heard it was a "quaint" custom incorporated into the observance of Christmas by the Roman Catholic Church to appease the superstitions of the newly converted. Yet these simple explanations of the origin of the tree do not answer the question of why the sanctity of the evergreen was so important to the newly Christianized pagan that this tradition needed to be kept when many other aspects of paganism were neglected or destroyed. Neither does it explain the continuing popularity of the tree today even among people who reject most traditions and religious practices.

When I went to the local library and bookstores I found surprisingly little on the subject. Surely, I was not the only person who wondered about the pagan origin of the Christmas Tree? Eventually I found a variety of Christmas folk stories which led me to investigate the folklore of the evergreen tree. The evergreen played an influential role in the spiritual life of pagan societies throughout the world. Archeological and anthropological evidence indicates that veneration of the tree dates from at least 4000 years before Christ. Its pervasive symbolism was central to primitive cosmologies, or beliefs about the universe, which laid the foundation for every major religion, including Christianity. These pagan beliefs survive to this day imbedded in religious rituals and myths as well as in secular customs, legends and fairy tales.

After a brief introduction to early religion and mythology, the first part of this book will trace the roots of the Christmas tree through the ancient symbolism and mythology of the evergreen. I will present a discussion on the theories about how these beliefs became so widespread and deeply entrenched, and will conclude with a brief history of the Christmas tree from the time of Christ to the present day. Each chapter ends with a collection of related myths, legends and fairy tales about evergreen trees, particularly the Christmas Tree. If you are primarily a lover of stories, that's the place to go first.

Many people like to de-emphasize our pagan heritage. We have been taught to associate paganism with violent practices and, therefore, find it threatening to see pagan aspects in our modern "civilized" religions. Yet paganism is much more than human sacrifice. In the case of the Christmas tree, knowledge of our spiritual past can enrich the celebration of the ritual for all but the most fundamentalist Christians and revitalize the winter holidays for those who are not.


© Copyright 2007 Sheryl Karas


. . . by Sheryl Karas

The Solstice Evergreen:

The History, Folklore and Origins of the Christmas Tree

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