World Religion 101: The Christmas Tree
My seven-year-old daughter associates Christmas with gifts and decorated trees. Religion is largely a matter of academic interest to me, but I will half-seriously argue that any practicing Hindus can coopt the Christmas tree into his household without trepidation.
Why? Because the tree isn’t strictly speaking Christian at all. It was originally part of the pre-Christian animism of northern Germany and the Baltic areas. One finds references in early European writings about sacred trees, dedicated to gods like Thor and Odin, in these areas.
When these areas became Christianised in the 15th and 16th century, the idea of a tree festooned with decorations and fruit to mark the winter solstice was absorbed by the local Christian churches.
Today, when Christmas trees have become favourite decorations in shopping malls and public spaces worldwide, it’s hard to remember that they were virtually unknown even in the Western world until the mid-1800s.
Associated with north German Protestant practice, they were rare even in that country’s Catholic south until the early 19th century. A couple of historical trends helped change this. One was north Germany’s political domination of central Europe with the rise of Prussia – if Prussian officers came to your neighbourhood, the trees followed soon after.
The other was the rise of Great Britain. The British royal family, being of German origin, kept the odd tree but it really spread during the Victorian era and specifically popularized by Prince Albert, Queen Vic’s German husband. It became associated with the empress and thus the empire and thus things British.
What is less clear is why it took so long to catch on in the United States.
After all, German migration to North America began only a tick-tock after the Mayflower and Co. Yet the Christmas tree’s entry into the US mainstream postdated its popularity in Britain. There had been the odd tree erected in obvious ethnic German pockets like Pennsylvania, but the then dominant Anglo-American class kept their distance.
Perhaps, and someone can correct me on this, is that the bulk of early German migration to the US was from middle Germany, the belt running from the Rhineland Palatinate, through Hesse to Saxony. Perhaps their ancestors weren’t as deeply into tree animism or were weaned off it more fervently than Germans further north.
The spread of the tree has been relatively easy – not too many cases of riots against Christmas trees that I have heard of – because many other societies have traditions of decorating trees. It is a pretty obvious kind of thing for any religious culture to do. Also, I suppose any self-respecting fundamentalist would find it hard to whip up religious sentiment against a bunch of branches with shiny balls and candy canes (the latter is a US invention – I found it remarkably difficult to buy them in London last month).
As many theological scholars have argued, world religions can be broadly divided into two camps: animist and revealed.
The former, like Hinduism, trace their origins to the worship of natural forces. They don’t have prophets, their texts are plentiful and mortal, and they have a profusion of gods. Revealed ones are monotheistic, have a handful of originators who say they speak a truth “revealed” directly from God Himself, and have a holy book which has to be followed.
But the two contaminate each other. The Christmas tree is a benign leftover of an older animist religion that has become associated with Christianity – and virtually secularized. So even strict Hindus, representatives of the largest collection of animist-derived sects in the world, can be assured they remain true to the larger theological cause if they put up a tree.
And, no, my daughter doesn’t care about this argument.