Saturday, December 10, 2005

Oh Christmas Tree, Part II

As a young missionary for the LDS Church, I remember hearing objections to Christmas by Jehovah's Witnesses and other Christian sects. For them, Christmas represents a modern form of paganism disguised as a Christian holy day. Jehovah's Witnesses are quick to point out, for example, that the Bible authorizes no celebration of Christ's birth, but rather commands true Christians to observe the death memorial of Jesus every year.

Jeremiah 10:2-4 seems to foreshadow a pagan connection to Christmas celebrations:

"Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not."

I remember reading about the pagan origins of Christmas and feeling a subtle undercurrent of dread, as though God may really disapprove. However, as an adult I realize that our pagan roots are not so bad after all. Christians have condemned paganism for centuries as though it represented devil worship.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The so-called pagans were really just the pre-Christian, indigenous peoples of Europe. They revered nature and honored the spirits of all living things. One could say they had a lot in common with the Native Americans of North America. The institution of Christianity persecuted these indigenous people until they were driven underground and to the brink of extinction. Sadly, they imported the perseuction of indigenous people to America. They once called us (Native Americans) pagans, too.

So these indigenous cousins of pre-Christian Europe honored the spirit of the trees and decorated evergreen boughs during the shortest day of the year, which fell approximately on December 21. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, this tradition transformed itself and took on an added layer of meaning. The evergreen came to represent eternal life offered by Jesus Christ.

As one who has both Native and Christian roots, I'm comfortable with both traditions. I'm thankful to honor the spirits of both heaven and earth in my home. Today I'm glad to hear about the indigenous origins of our cultural traditions.

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