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The Accidental Origins of the Christmas Tree
The tree was pagan, never the Christmas part
Our house is adorned with two lovely Christmas trees. We have ornaments from as far back as 2002. They trace the history of the St. Louis Blues, the St. Louis Cardinals, and, most importantly, the progression of interests of our children—music, sports, fire fighting, and Christianity.
The trees are, of course, dead. Stiff, room temperature, done for, gone, expired, cadaverous, dead as a doornail. And it is their dormancy that makes them Christian originals rather than cultural appropriations of pagan idols.
Because the Christmas tree’s origins involve paganism, the confusion some people show—including many of the Catholic school teachers who taught me—is forgivable. Accidental ignorance is not a sin, but willful ignorance is. So here is my short history of the Christmas tree and its pagan connections.
Two Saints Nicholas
You know that Santa Claus derives from the life of Saint Nicholas of Myra. His miraculous gifts included buying women out of prostitution with anonymous gifts delivered in the dark of night. But St. Nicholas of Myra was not always jolly. He punched the heretic Arius.
The Council of Nicea in 325 AD addressed a heresy known as Arianism. The details of the heresy are irrelevant, but, at the time, almost all the bishops in the world had adopted the heresy. Nicholas was one of the few who stood by the Church’s constant teaching. In a fit of anger at the heretic’s refusal to submit to the authority of those teachings, Nicholas punched Arius in the nose during the council. In spite of his loss of temper, the council’s bishops realized they were wrong and Nicholas right. The council anathematized Arianism.
But another story from the life of St. Nicholas of Myra actually comes from the life of another St. Nick—St. Nicholas of Sion who lived 200 years later.
St. Nicholas of Sion was also a bishop in a land of pagans. The pagans worshiped gods (demons, for all the gods of pagans are demons) who lived in cypress trees in the area. Local Christians appealed to Bishop Nicholas to exorcise a pernicious demon associated with a particular tree. The locals claimed that the demon spoiled crops and even killed a man who tried to chop the tree down.
Historians believe it was actually the pagans who killed the would-be lumberjack, but theirs little difference. Demons work through human confederates all the time, even without demonic possession. People voluntarily do the bidding of demons to advance personal interests, for monetary gain, for romance (sex), and out of spite. Much of the evil in the world is a result of humans responding to demonic urges.
Whether the demons killed the farmer directly or with the help of local pagans, the man was dead and the people wanted the tree removed.
The bishop, moved by their faith and fear, followed the farmers to the field where stood the demonic cypress tree. Nearly 300 men, women, and children followed the crowd to witness what my happen.
St. Nicholas instructed the men to retrieve their hatchets and axes. After two hours of prayer, the bishop ordered the men to chop down the tree, but the men refused. They remembered their fellow who died in such an attempt, and pointed out the wounds the dead farmer had inflicted in the tree’s trunk.
“Give me that axe,” St. Nicholas commanded, and, taking the axe, proceeded to the tree, made the sign of the cross over it, and swung a fatal blow. Witnesses reported the demon, realizing the power of God, not the axe of St. Nicholas, was driving it from its nest said:
Woe be unto me: I made for myself an ever-expanding dwelling in this cypress tree and have never been overcome by anyone; and now the servant of Nicholas is putting me to flight, and no longer will I be seen in this place. For not only has he expelled me from my dwelling in the tree, but he is driving me from the confines of Lycia, with the help of Holy Sion.1
After the men of the village finished felling the formerly infested tree, St. Nicholas instructed the Christians to decorate the tree and place in the cathedral to demonstrate God’s power over the damned.
The Christmas Tree
“What does a decorated tree from Lycia have to do with the birth of Christ?” you might ask, as someone on Twitter did:
Jack Posobiec answered with an accurate but, in my view, incomplete history of the Christmas tree:
That’s all true, but how did the decorated tree become popular in Medieval Germany?
Well, it was about the same that hagiographers conflated the lives of Saint Nicholas of Myra and St. Nicholas of Sion. Several Medieval books of saints credited St. Nicholas of Myra with chopping down the pagan tree and adorning with Christian symbols.
Later, St. Nicholas became the popular figure Santa Claus. It seems reasonable to assume that people chopped down and decorated trees for Christmas in imitation of one of our great saints. It’s why decorate dead trees and not living ones as the pagans did.
Thus, we have our Christmas trees—symbols of Christ’s victory over sin, symbols of the instrument of Christ’s death on the tree of the cross, and symbols of our family’s progression through the years.
The Christmas tree is not of pagan origins, but of paganism’s demise. It reminds us that our actions, when in conformity with the will of God, can free the world of the most pernicious demons.
Saint Nicholas Fells a Sacred Tree, clipped from http://www.iconoclasm.dk/saint-nicholas-fells-a-sacred-tree/