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December 19, 2005Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 24

 If you're looking for a sign of Christianity, look again
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

As if we don't have enough religious topics to go to war about these days, we're now fighting over the Christmas tree.

To be frank, for some rather established historical reasons, I don't really care where people come down over whether or not a decorated evergreen tree is a "Christmas tree" or a "Holiday tree." At the same time, the thinking behind the question may be more important than the answer itself.

Boston, Montreal, and Lansing, Mich., -- and apparently President and Mrs. Bush's choice of greeting cards -- sparked debates. By calling the city's seasonal tree lighting event the illumination of the "Holiday Tree" rather than the "Christmas Tree," each area launched major religious brouhahas. (You've got to admit it's interesting: Say you're a Christian and you believe in the death penalty and nobody blinks. Say an evergeen tree is not a sacred Christian object and the world descends into spiritual spasm.)

President and Mrs. Bush, by wishing people "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," managed to provoke a national debate on the issue all the way to Congress. (And that's no small feat when you realize that we barely managed to get that much Congressional consternation over going to war in Iraq.)

The arguments were fierce and impassioned.

Some people complained that the whole thing was part of a plot to secularize Christmas, as if we haven't managed to do that in every mall in the country.

Others said it was the denial of the fact that we are a Christian nation, as if the Constitution itself doesn't do the same.

And, according to Reuters, even the Nova Scotian logger who cut down the tree the province sends to Boston every year was enraged. In gratitude for the city's help after a ship explosion wiped out part of Nova Scotia's capital in 1917, the tree has been a continuing bond between the two. This year, the logger said, "If they decide it should be a holiday tree, I'll tell them to send it back. If it's a holiday tree, you might as well put it up at Easter." (This was a kind of contradiction in itself. After all, whether he realized it or not, Christian references in Holy Week to Jesus' "death upon the tree" are, indeed, a play on the relationship between the eternal life symbolized by the evergreen tree and the liturgical injunction to "behold the wood of the cross.")

Christian Fundamentalists threatened to sue people who foster misinformation about Christmas celebrations in public spaces. (Whatever that means.)

Don't doubt it for a moment: This is serious stuff.

Clearly, it might serve a purpose to get some information about the subject before we blow Christmas dinner out of the water over trees.

The fact is that people have been decorating evergreen boughs for a lot longer than there have been Christmas trees.

Ancient peoples in the Middle East decorated trees long before Jesus was born. So prevalent was the practice that the prophet Jeremiah condemned them. "Thus saith the Lord," Scripture says, "Learn not the way of the heathen. ... For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest. ... with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." (KJV: Jeremiah 10:2 4.) Translation: "This is not a spiritual thing. Don't do it."

Other early civilizations, too, used trees that stayed green all year to ward off evil spirits and death.

Some peoples, like the Egyptians, celebrated the Winter Solstice -- the shortest day of winter when the Sun God Ra seemed farthest away -- with evergreen boughs to pray for the return of Ra's strength in the spring.

The Romans decorated trees to pay homage to Saturn, the god of farming, a feast that degenerated eventually into drunken orgies.

And, irony of ironies, Tertullian inveighed regularly against Christians who practiced such a pagan custom. In fact, the church forbade the use of Christmas trees well into the third century when, some historians claim, the church managed to obliterate non-Christian practices by absorbing Saturnalia into the feast of Christmas.

Over the centuries, Celtic druid priests and the Vikings both used evergreen trees as a sign of eternal life, a gift of the gods that brought both healing and hope.

Not until the Middle Ages, however, in the 11th century, did Christians appropriate the tree --an apple tree, actually-- as a reminder of God's ways with us. The Advent "mysteries" or liturgical plays put on by roving troupes of actors to catechize the peasants used the tree as a symbol of Paradise and eternal life.

Only in the 16th century did the Christmas tree as we know it begin to emerge in Germany, and even then not without resistance.

English Puritans and Oliver Cromwell, in both England and colonial United States, rigorously suppressed such "pagan mockery."

It wasn't until the 19th century, in 1850, in Cleveland, Ohio, historians tell us, that the first Christmas tree was put in the first Christian church in the United States. Oh me.

It gets clearer every day that there are two histories about everything.

The first history is history, the accumulation of facts over time that help us understand how ideas develop and why and for what purpose.

The second history is immediate past history, the period that spans our own life experiences back to the time of our great-grandparents. The history which for us, at least, "has always been this way."

From where I stand, it seems clear that the second kind of history always predominates. As a result, in my house, in our chapel, as long as I live, the Christmas tree will always be a Christmas tree. But in the city park? In a pluralistic society where only 76.7 percent of the country identify themselves as Christian? In another century? Who knows? That may well become another question entirely.

In the meantime, if I were you and I really wanted to be a sign of Christianity, I wouldn't set out to prove it by fighting over the Christmas tree.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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