In the lately released Oxford Handbook of Christmas, a certain theme quickly emerges insofar as Christmas traditions are concerned: the origins of most Christmas traditions are a little obscure. Many Christmas traditions can be traced to a certain century and a certain country, but not to a particular person or event. In the chapter “Trees and Decorations,” University of Illinois Springfield history professor David Bertaina dismisses claims that the Christmas tree derives from Germanic pagan customs and argues instead that the Christmas tree likely developed out of Medieval dramas performed on December 24th, the traditional feast day of Adam and Eve. Bertaina writes:
In that time, a Paradise Tree was set up for plays to represent the Tree of Knowledge… The actor playing Adam would later parade through the streets of the town with the tree. The tree symbolized humanity’s downfall but also represented the tree of cross. The trees were decorated with apples, representing the Fall of humankind, while round pastry wagers on the tree symbolized the Eucharistic host…
Through the 15th and 16th centuries, Paradise Trees were set up in public places like hospitals, churches, and town squares, where they were likewise decorated with fruits and sweets. Bertaina notes the red glass balls we hang today on trees stand in for the apples placed on Paradise Trees. The Paradise Trees migrated to the foyers and receiving rooms of wealthy homes in the late 18th and 19th centuries; however, by this time, the trees had acquired a more layered meaning. By the early 19th century, the Christmas tree not only referred back to the Paradise Tree of medieval plays, it also displayed the sort of rustic sensibility which was fashionable among those with Romantic tastes and prejudices.
While a healthy mind cannot help seeking out the origins of things, there is some sense in which knowing the origin of the Christmas tree does not matter all that much. I say this not because the origins of the Christmas tree are embarrassing. Neither am I a relativist or nominalist who believes that every symbol can be reimagined and revised to suit my tastes. I say it doesn’t really matter if we know where exactly the Christmas tree comes from because—despite the persuasiveness of David Bertaina’s argument—there are a dozen theories about where Christmas trees come from (which I have not read) and many more theories will be written during the next hundred years, and the importance of my setting up a Christmas tree this year doesn’t depend on knowing which theory is right.
Because modern men are hedonists, they don’t want to reduce everything to mere knowing. Knowing is, after all, not all that much fun. However, modern men do want to reduce their responsibilities to mere knowing. The modern Christian gussies up his Gnosticism by claiming that any responsibility apart from knowledge is just works righteousness. Because maintaining traditions is very much a responsibility, modern men (especially modern Christians) believe they can transcend traditions simply by remembering the source of the traditions. In this, we say traditions “lose their meaning” if people do not know where they come from. What is more, we tend to believe the man who carries on a tradition without knowing its meaning is guilty of superstition or works righteousness or both. Symbols and traditions are crutches for the intellectually weak, but a man with a superior intellect transcends the needs for all symbols, traditions, and ceremonies.
However, the idea that traditions are mere mnemonics is about as modern as it gets, which is to say it is snobby and profoundly elitist: anyone who isn’t in the know—anyone who hasn’t received an expensive education—is hopeless.
Prior to the Enlightenment, traditions were not thought to be mnemonics, but incarnate ways of knowing. The point of a tradition was not remembering the past but entering the past—or, rather, entering transcendent realities that were manifested in the past but were also sacramentally manifested in the present through the tradition. Simply put, a tradition is the past. The past made mystically, bloodlessly present.
In this way, setting up a Christmas tree is a form of knowing in itself, not a conduit to some other knowledge. We participate in the meaning of the Christmas tree just by setting it up, just by enjoying it, not by reading an essay about it. Think of it this way, though: even if you are persuaded by Bertaina’s claims about the origin of the tree, it is not as though you will remember those claims every time you see a Christmas tree. Nor should you. The Christmas tree exists so that you don’t have to remember those claims, regardless of how compelling they are.
At this point, it is tempting to attempt an explanation of the Christmas tree’s meaning—the timeless poetry of the thing—and to wax theological about the relationship between trees and crosses, the blind man in Mark 8 who claimed to “see men as trees,” to connect the iconography of Christ’s birth with the iconography of his death, to regard the Christmas tree as a sober reminder of the infant Christ’s end, but I would prefer not to. And not because I think little of such claims, for I have written my fair share and will continue to do so.
From time to time it is good to remember that Christmas is not primarily or ultimately a theological event (any more than a solar eclipse is ultimately a “scientific event”). Christmas is a scientific event, as well, and an aesthetic event, a philosophical event, a culinary event, a religious event, and so on. As I argue in The 25th, Christmas is not a silly child’s game which we must dignify with fancy speeches. While I find the theology of Christmas absolutely entrancing and I think the theological implications of everything in the Nativity narrative beautiful, sublime, and terrifying, all that beauty and sublimity can be approached just by participating in the many traditions of Christmas.
I say this not because I am against theology but because I am for tradition—without tradition, even the best theology would be lost. Sermons about Christmas are good, as are lucid explanations of candy canes, wreaths, the holly and the ivy, and so forth. However, if ideas were good enough on their own, Christ would not have had to come in the flesh.