Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Christmas Tree Dilemma

It is immensely difficult to observe the Advent season properly, as the rest of the world celebrates a premature, commercially driven Christmas.  I have frequently heard people complain that by the time Christmas arrives they are sick of the music, sweets and culture associated with a season they have only just reached.  Somehow none of this can trespass on those sacred moments when the family is circled around the advent wreath, warmed by the tiny flames of expectation, and singing "O Come O Come Emmanuel."  Still, it can be difficult to gauge how best to live in the world but not of the world during this time.

One important decision to be made regards what is for most a prime symbol of Christmas: the Christmas Tree.

Like so many of our traditions, the Christmas Tree most likely finds its roots in pagan culture, where evergreen plants were used during the Winter Solstice to signify the power of life over death.  Tradition tells of St. Boniface, who traveled as an English missionary to the Germanic tribes in the 8th Century, as being the progenitor of the Christmas tree tradition.  The pagans were accustomed to making sacrifices to the Norse god Odin before a great oak tree.  The tale goes that Boniface came upon a pagan rite in which a young boy was about to be sacrificed to the god.  Boniface took his axe and felled the oak in one stroke, saving the boy.  An evergreen tree sprang up from where the oak had been and Boniface declared that this was the tree of life and that it represented Christ.

Certainly from around the Sixteenth Century pine trees were brought indoors and decorated on Christmas Eve for the twelve days of Christmas.  However, tragically, Western Culture has lost its liturgical framework, Advent has culturally perished and "Christmas" has devoured itself out of any religious significance..  Now of course it is customary to have a neighborhood race to see who can have their tree up and decorated first following Thanksgiving.  I noticed several people cheating this year and putting their trees up a week before Thanksgiving.  As in so many arenas the Catholic is always slowed down in this particular competition by a healthy twinge of conscience.  The Catholic knows that in fact most everyone is cheating because the race does not start until Christmas Eve.  However, as is often the case, it is difficult, even dangerous to do things properly.  Two years ago we decided to wait until Christmas Eve to buy a tree.  Much to my dismay, all of the tree vendors had packed up and left.  After combing the town for hours, I finally found a Home Depot that was giving trees away for free which were being prepared to be trashed.  As Providential as this seemed at the time, I prefer not to leave things up to chance every year.

So who cares when people whip out their plastic blinking hypnotic nightmarish flora replicas?  The problem is that the Christmas tree is a sacramental.  We need to fight to preserve, cherish and protect the beauty, the power and the meaning behind this very special monstrance of hope.  That is, after all the origin of the Christmas tree.  Sound ridiculous?  Guess that goes to show how much ground we have lost, but we can win it back, at least for our families.

So what to do about the Christmas tree dilemma?  We have settled into a tradition of buying our tree on Gaudete Sunday and then keeping it outside until Christmas Eve.  Society isn't structured to assist the liturgical pursuit, but you can box back.

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