Fa la la la la... la la la la.
December 24, 2004 7:33 AM   Subscribe

The history of the Christmas tree began in Germany. They are a fairly recent tradition in America, a country which first shunned any "frivolity" over the sacred holidays until Queen Victoria made Christmas trees cool. The American addition of electric Christmas lights, on the other hand, is a fairly recent tradition in Germany, a country where Christmas tree candles are still in use. Even in 2004, electric Christmas lights are used far less extensively in Europe than America... but maybe someday they'll want to be cool like us, too.
posted by miss lynnster (29 comments total)
The Brits seem to be catching up pretty rapidly, I'm sad to say. Some of the displays near me, in New Jersey, are worthy of nightclub openings.
posted by Zonker at 7:44 AM on December 24, 2004

The first advent calendar also originated in Germany (my Viewropa post on this).

Also, in my neck of Europe, the Xmas lights ar not only used less, but begin later - to my eternal gratitude. (However, sometimes, even though they don't light them, the city sometimes forgets to take them down for about six months, which voids my earlier gratitude.)
posted by taz at 7:54 AM on December 24, 2004

Same here in the DC area, Zonker. One neighbor put stuff up before, no, not Thanksgiving, before *Halloween*.

Frightful. And the inflatable Santas, polar bears, etc. are just horrendous.

Just a wreath on our door, is all.
posted by 1016 at 7:55 AM on December 24, 2004

Well, the Japanese sure have Christmas figured out. Or do they?
posted by Doohickie at 8:26 AM on December 24, 2004

Can I ask why wreaths on doors at Christmas (traditionally a symbol of death, not birth of a godchild)?
posted by dash_slot- at 8:45 AM on December 24, 2004

(bear w me folks. new member here who's been lurking for years. i need a primer on posting. any generous soul wanna email me some tips? or should i just ask meta?)

does the tree reach back to the axis mundi?

and just what was the first "present" beneath the tree?

and that red and white, conical hat? why is it so evocative? and those ornaments....

gnosis? now THAT'S a "reason for the season!"
posted by oigocosas at 9:07 AM on December 24, 2004 [1 favorite]

(DANG. how do i make those links? sorry.)
posted by oigocosas at 9:09 AM on December 24, 2004

To post a link, use the little link button on the lower right cornter. If that doesn't work, simply type:

<a href="http://www.thewebsitehere.com">text label</a>

Where [http://www.thewebsitehere.com] should be changed to the address of the website you are referring us to, and [text label] should be changed to the text you want us to see. Also, remember that Preview shows the post EXACTLY as it will appear, so you can take as many tries as you want to get it right.

If you need more tips or longer explanation, email me through the address in my profile.
posted by Doohickie at 9:19 AM on December 24, 2004

excellent! thanks, doohickie!
posted by oigocosas at 9:23 AM on December 24, 2004

As untraditional and unnatural electric lights on Christmas trees may be, I'd rather have them than even one burning candle.
posted by tommasz at 10:19 AM on December 24, 2004

I was looking at your posts oigocosas, and those red mushrooms are shown in decorations EVERYWHERE over the holidays in Austria! It's particularly good luck to give & receive trinkets for New Year's that feature those mushrooms along with four leaf clovers, pigs, fish, and chimney sweeps of all things. (My favorite tradition was the part where you stay drunk on Gluhwein for weeks, though.)
posted by miss lynnster at 10:24 AM on December 24, 2004

What the pope said recently about the Christmas Tree, from CatholicExchange.com. Interestingly with very little hint of it's pagan or even Lutheran beginnings...

"This (the tree) is an ancient custom that exalts the value of life because during winter, the evergreen fir becomes a sign of life that does not die. ... The symbol thus becomes eloquent even in a typically Christian sense: it reminds us of the 'tree of life', a figure of Christ, God's supreme gift to all of mankind."
posted by Arch Stanton at 11:04 AM on December 24, 2004

I think part of the point of being the "Catholic" (literally, universal) church is that if there is a symbol that has a very apt meaning (tree that lives through the winter; egg that brings new life in the spring), the church sees it as such a universal symbol that can be adopted as a religious symbol even when it had its origins elsewhere. Or something like that.
posted by Doohickie at 12:10 PM on December 24, 2004

Now why oh why would the christian church allow its holidays to be symbolized by pagan icons? Trees? Eggs?

Besides, why is the egg not the symbol of xmas, since the saviour was born then? The egg seems especially symbolic of christmas since the christ child was supposed to have been born in a manger (kinda like a henhouse).

And why is not the tree the symbol of easter, since "everlasting life" was supposed to be given by god then? The tree seems especially symbolic of easter since crosses are made from trees.
posted by telstar at 1:48 PM on December 24, 2004

I dunno. You have to remember you're looking at it with mondern sensibilities. I don't think this was planned; it just kinda happened.
posted by Doohickie at 2:02 PM on December 24, 2004

Kinda happened? As I understand it, theological questions and symbols were the source of endless study and discussion as the church made inroads into new areas. Many millions of "pagans" and "heretics" were put to the sword for believing slight variations of the official church orthodoxy, to say nothing of those outside the church (like native americans). And here we have vague murmurings of "well, it's a symbol of something. I think."
posted by telstar at 2:19 PM on December 24, 2004

As I understand it, the adoption of the christmas tree (as well as the adoption of the Winter Solstice as the timing for the Christmas celebration, which has nothing to do with Christ's actual birthday, which is sometime in the spring), was done by Constantine when he converted Rome to Christianity. It was a merger of the Romans' traditional pagan rituals and the new state Christianity... extremely calculated, not in the least having to do with the universality of whatever symbols were involved, and not at all random or something that "just kinda happened".
posted by Embryo at 3:43 PM on December 24, 2004

OK, now we're back to "why were pagan symbols co-opted?",
instead of simply crushed or ignored, like, say, the religious symbols of muslims, native americans, druids, kelts, etc. etc.

Christ's actual birthday is in the spring? References please.
posted by telstar at 3:50 PM on December 24, 2004

Actually, my understanding is that Christmas actually originated as a membership drive of sorts. In December, the pagans were having Winter Solstice festivals for the sun god, and frankly having a lot more fun. By creating a festival of their own & assimilating a few familiar traditions, Christians wanted to make it easier to get pagans to convert. Kissing under mistletoe, for example, was a fertility rite (mistletoe was also used in orgies). Yule logs were also a pagan tradition.
posted by miss lynnster at 5:37 PM on December 24, 2004

telstar, I'm sorry, I meant to answer that question in my original response. Constantine was himself converting from the traditional Roman paganism to Christianity. It was a compromise, a PR move, almost a merger, to bring everyone on board the same boat.
posted by Embryo at 7:11 PM on December 24, 2004

or, what miss lynnster said.
posted by Embryo at 7:11 PM on December 24, 2004

You won't get an argument out of me about that.
posted by Doohickie at 9:20 PM on December 24, 2004

Welp, still, I spy with my little eye a very interesting distinction between how christians appear to view pagans and how they view almost every other religion. From what I'm reading here, paganism was "grandfathered in" perhaps mostly because constantine was pagan, and had a lot of pagan friends he wanted to get on board. And so, rituals and symbols of the branch of paganism he bolonged to were absorbed and propagated as festival trappings and such.

But wait! Paganism and christianity are terrifically at odds today....there is practically no epithet lower among US christians than "pagan". It seems rather odd that no fundie US branch of xtianity is protesting the "paganism" that runs rampant at christmas and easter in the form of trees, santa claus, reindeer, rabbits, eggs, oh, the list could go on...here's one last thing, continuing to celebrate the "mass of christ" right at the pagan winter solstice date.

What's more, christianity has no such room for any other religious icons, and play-beliefs. Hundreds of years of war have been fought over issues far less compelling than absorbtion of pagan symbols and rituals for important christian religious holidays. Yet, no major rumblings from within the church about what is surely the greatest blasphemy of all...taking on pagan dates and symbols as reminders or icons of christianity's holiest days. Very strange.
posted by telstar at 2:01 AM on December 25, 2004

imp points from MISS LYNNSTER and EMBRYO but for me, TELSTAR gets at the meat o the matter:

hegemony and revisionism aided by an ungodly dose of hypocrisy.

the institution of religion wants most of all to coopt and universalise all spiritual myths and weave them into a pretty blanket to place over our heads so we forget that

"the universe isnt stranger than we think, but stranger than we CAN think."

and that the technologies for updating our firmware-- meditation, diet, drugs, chanting, etc-- have been used forever. but the orthodox churches-- all of them--water these down knowing that preserving an "orderly" society is easier when the masses are kept ignorant.

television (read: commodity fetishism) and "a unifying myth" keep people working and certain of their fates.

im rushing here and maybe sounding a bit sophomoric, but, the gist is timeless and true.

the politic and hypocrisy of this era's dominant, monotheistic religions is painful.

those kept in a constant state of fear and uncertainty , hypocritically, look past the hypocrisy of their spiritual and political (and is nothing extricable from politics?) leaders so as to keep their cherished defense mechanisms intact.

honest religious/spiritual discussion based on best historical evidence would enlighten us all.
posted by oigocosas at 8:30 AM on December 25, 2004 [1 favorite]


While I will not deny that there are churches out there that do that, this is by no means a hard and fast rule that religion seeks to maintain spiritual ignorance.
posted by Doohickie at 10:29 AM on December 25, 2004

Ah, Doohickie,... oigocosas more specifically mentioned “orthodox churches” in regards to ignorance,...

... which isn’t unexpected from someone who considers gnosis a “reason for the season.”

One modern adaptation of that reason is “not about the celebration of an historical birth.”
posted by emanation at 1:25 PM on December 25, 2004

That was "orthodox", with a small "o", as opposed to "Orthdox" with a big "O". orthodox (small "o") churches usually means churches that adhere to traditional thinking. I believe orthodox literally means "correct thinking".... i.e., traditional beliefs.
posted by Doohickie at 7:34 PM on December 25, 2004

Well, yes, precisely. That was my point. Those orthodox (small “o”) Christian churches (whether liberal or conservative, and whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox [big “o”]), are what most people are referring to when discussing modern, highly institutionalized Christianity. From what I read in his/her posts, Oigocosas appeared not to be favorably disposed to this type of modern monotheism.

Those orthodox Christians who consider themselves “right thinkers” naturally might consider alternate Christologies to be heterodox. For instance, a traditional Christian might consider Jesus to be “the reason for the season” rather than “gnosis.” And, I gave an example of a modern application of such a “heterodox” view that has no problem consciously incorporating “pagan” symbology with a mythological Christ figure. Telstar pointed out how “paganism and christianity are terrifically at odds today.” One might consider whether there is too much literal interpretation and emphasis on the historicity of the messenger, distorting the intent of the message.
posted by emanation at 10:40 PM on December 25, 2004

As an orthodox Christian (small "o"), I think you are correct. I have always gotten the sense that Jesus was more intent on focusing attention on God the Father than on Himself (with a few exceptions). The Bible is not a history book and was never intended to be so.
posted by Doohickie at 10:08 PM on December 29, 2004

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