The Christmas Tree Happily Floats Above Today´s Partisan Divide

Por Alejandro A. Chafuén. Publicado el 24/12/13 en:

In today’s culture, conflicting visions about policy and civil society tend to politicize everything. Christmas has not been immune. The placement of nativity scenes in public property caused legal battles in the past. This year it was the color of Santa Claus’s skin.

The Christmas tree seems to survive and live beyond disputes. The Soviets tried to ban the decorated fir tree as a symbol not worthy of their atheistic culture. They then approved them for New Year’s Day. The New York Times reported in 1985 that “The Soviet New Year’s, in fact, has become pretty much what Christmas has become in the secular Western world – a day for families to gather and share gifts and goodies under a tree, brightly lit and trimmed with homemade decorations.” A few weeks ago, as usual, the White House had its Christmas, not the “Holiday,” tree lighting ceremony. The Vatican, under the Pontificate of Paul VI, started its own similar ceremony.

The tree, decorated with lights and colorful charms seems to unite cultures during this special season. Despite their natural greenness, with artificial trees being equally popular around the globe, they can come in white, silver, and other colors. One of the most credible stories of how the fir tree became a fixture during the celebration of the nativity of Jesus Christ involves several cultures. I stumbled into it while studying the Christian views on private property and ecology. Before industrialization few writers focused on the environment. They discussed the physical and spiritual impact of human interaction with animals, forests, and rivers: hunting, bull-fighting, navigation concerns and cutting trees.

One of the stories leads us to the Christmas tree. Christians embarked on the effort to change what British historian Christopher Dawson described as “the barbarous lands and peoples beyond the Rhine.” Winfrid of Wessex, who later became St. Boniface, was described by Dawson as “a man who had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived.” He commented further, “it was the Roman tradition and the Benedictine spirit which gave the new Anglo-Saxon culture its distinctive character and made it a creative force in Europe.” Boniface was a leading actor in the “great social movement which transplanted the new spiritual culture that had grown up in the Benedictine monasteries . . .which were centres of culture as well as schools of the Christian life,” in what is today the center of Europe and Germany.

It is in Germany where St. Boniface conducted most of his apostolic work. That is why despite being born in England he became a patron saint of Germany. After some successes in Lower Hessia, he left for Rome, but when he returned, around 723 a.c. he saw a revival of the pagan culture that venerated false gods. In his case they it was Thor, the Norse thunder god, who they saw as protector of an old majestic oak. Boniface felled this tree with a big axe. An action which many nature lovers today would condemn. The Christians narrations of this event tell of many fruits. The local culture realized that their god was a false one, and many were converted.

Trees were not sacred, but as an impeccable steward Boniface did not waste the wood. He used it to build a chapel which he dedicated to St. Peter. It is reported that the oak tree, upon falling, split in four parts with the shape of the cross. A small fir tree survived intact among the oak debris. This prompted St. Boniface to adopt it as a Christmas tree, as a symbol to remind us of a new eternal life.

The defeated Thor is remembered without fanfare one of the days of the week: Thursday. St. Boniface’s efforts to Christianize Europe are seldom celebrated, but each Christmas season brings his story back to life. Christians see the lighted tree as symbol of peace between God and human beings; of immortality; of the light that Jesus brought to the world; with its triangular shape it reminds them of a trinity pointing up to heaven. From a pure human perspective, the Christmas tree is a reminder that nature is for humans, and can be used for good or bad. As its use is to celebrate the good, most of us will continue to rejoice to its sight.

Alejandro A. Chafuén es Dr. En Economía por el International College de California. Licenciado en Economía, (UCA), es miembro del comité de consejeros para The Center for Vision & Values, fideicomisario del Grove City College, y presidente de la Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Se ha desempeñado como fideicomisario del Fraser Institute desde 1991. Fue profesor de ESEADE.