We don’t need to be afraid of the Christmas tree’s pagan roots
My family usually bought a Christmas tree, but one year we went into the woods behind our house. We climbed over one of the old stonewalls that spiderweb throughout New England and followed the snowmobile trail, the sky above flashing like a scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Under the mature canopy we found what seemed to be an insignificant tree.
I remember the pang of guilt before the cut. We dragged the tree home through the snow, the stars piercing us like they only can in winter. Back home, we put on the lights and decorations, all of us knit together by the scent that filled our home. This is one of the most primal memories of my childhood, as strong as the sap that stuck to our hands that night.
Until recently, I had never questioned the origin and meaning of the Christmas tree. Its immediate beauty, its direct connection to the land from which I emerged and its integration with the outflowing of my faith left me with no disjunction to probe.
Yet as I age, the Christmas tree’s lack of irony in a world of ironic detachment makes it stand out more and more. Why is it both so natural and so memorable? What did I experience on that walk?
The Christmas tree’s lack of irony in a world of ironic detachment makes it stand out more and more.
Unquestionably, the answer relates to the Christmas tree’s deep roots. The Christmas tree tradition emerged from the “sacred trees” of Northern European mythology such as Yggdrasil, the giant ash tree at the center of the Norse cosmos that holds all the worlds in its roots and branches.
It is said that St. Boniface came upon one such sacred tree during his mission to the Germanic tribes in 723. Upon finding devotees preparing to sacrifice a child to Thor at the “Thunder Oak,” Boniface intervened and miraculously chopped down the tree with one swift swing. He used its wood to build a Christian chapel, and in the spot where the oak had stood, he placed a small fir tree.
Perhaps unaware, St. Boniface gathered up all the traditions that use evergreens at the Winter Solstice to mark fertility and new life in a time of darkness. A tree that is forever green and points to heaven can stand for Christ.
A tree that is forever green and points to heaven can stand for Christ.
Though the Reformation sought to rid Christianity of “pagan” vestiges, it actually expanded the Christmas tree tradition and returned it closer to its indigenous roots. After wandering home through the winter forest at night, Martin Luther put candles on a tree to evoke the stars above, making the Christmas tree a more perfect image of the cosmos. To Luther, the tree remained a symbol of Christ, but in giving it a cosmic scope, he was also unconsciously portraying Christ as the new Yggdrasil.
This history goes a long way in explaining the Christmas tree’s cultural power but not the fullness of my memory. For the tree had felt something like the Eucharist to me. To me as a boy, the Eucharist was something that seizes you, and you hold on because it is Christ, a living being who does something. Could Christmas trees also “do something”?
It turns out that they can. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben summarizes the complexity of arboreal life: Trees communicate, feel pain, form complex communities, create microclimates, seem to have individual agency and are even known to keep relatives alive that can no longer feed themselves.
Indigenous tradition adds a spiritual dimension to the hidden agency of trees: They pray. In Plants Have So Much To Give Us, All We Have To Do Is Ask, Mary Siisip Geniusz explains that in the Anishinaabe tribe of North America, the balsam tree is named Ingiigido’aag, meaning, “She Stands at Prayer for Us.” To the Anishinaabe, the tree’s beautiful fragrance is her prayer. The tree, from this perspective, is not merely a symbol but a being that enacts the effect we all notice: Families and communities unite in the presence of a Christmas tree in a new way.
“Trees are living, spiritual beings?” I could hear myself saying. “Sounds like neo-paganism.”
This is very different from our default ways of knowing. I believe I felt this as a child—how the Christmas tree brought us together in a new way. Maybe even more so when she was gone, leaving the same emptiness that my cousins left after a weekend visit. But at the time, I submerged these feelings because of theological self-consciousness. “Trees are living, spiritual beings?” I could hear myself saying. “Sounds like neo-paganism.”
It turns out that this skepticism may come from not being traditional enough. There is a long, underutilized strand of Christian theology that St. John Henry Newman applied to the spiritual character of nature: Angels permeate and run the created order. According to Newman, nature’s “wonderful harmony is the work of Angels,” or “Spiritual Intelligences which move those wonderful and vast portions of the natural world that seem inanimate.”
Another way of describing Newman’s point is that God is immanent in nature not only through the Holy Spirit but, as in indigenous traditions across the globe, through individuated spirits. When we say the names of plants and describe their characteristics, “we should do so religiously, as in the hearing of the great Servants of God”—words Newman preached but that just as easily could have been voiced by an Anishinaabe elder.
What would the scholastics say to all of this? I don’t know, but if I had heard Newman’s words on our walk that night decades ago, I would have exalted in their plain-sense meaning. They would have provided lyrics to the music that was all around us, and I could have recalled the verses I had heard in our parish, describing how the spirits of trees sing just as the angels of the stars sang at Christ’s birth: “Let all the trees of the forest rejoice before the LORD who comes” (Ps 96:12-13).
I would have made an offering and thanked our Christmas tree, a living spiritual being of about my age handing herself over in imitation of Christ, “a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma” (Eph 5:2). Carrying her through the woods with her blood on my hands is a type of a Via Crucis, the carrying of a cross that is at the same time the offering.
I would have seen that in bringing us together in our Christmas gatherings, she becomes the Tree of Life in the Book of Revelation, the center of a renewed and harmonious world. How her leaves serve as “medicine for the nations” (Rv 22:2), the scent of which has the power to conjure the past and future consummation into the present.
Now that I am older, I listen to the Christmas tree’s praise of the coming savior. I talk to her and make her prayer my own. Do you think that is strange or “pagan”? Well, we already do it every time we sing “O Tannenbaum.” It is not a song about a tree but a song to the tree, expressing gratitude for what it does. That does not make it a “god” that you “worship” any more than when you talk to your mother and feel the power of her prayer.
And I thank her. No matter how artificial and poisonous we make our immediate surroundings, “She Stands at Prayer for Us” comes into our midst, incarnating the Earth anew and proclaiming the birth of our savior.
For more on this topic, read “Indigenous peoples are filling in the gaps in our Catholic faith,” also by Damian Costello, from Nov. 15, 2019.
More from America: