Friday, December 9, 2016

Falsely Accused? Catholics Rejected Trees as too ... Protestant?

“Record ledgers of Schlettstadt indicated that since 1521, the unauthorized cutting of “maien” or “meyen” was foribidden in Freiburg, in the Breisgau, and was punishable by fine."

“(It) was explicitly forbidden by the church, and specifically because of its shamanic-pagan past: Because of the pagan origin, and the depletion of the forest, there were numerous regulations that forbid, or put restrictions on, the cutting down of the fir trees throughout the Christmas season. (Pagan Christmas – The Plants, Spirits and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide, p. 20)

Remember our old friends, Christine Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Eberling, from our first post in this series? They're back, trying to explain why government officials banned the cutting of trees throughout the Christmas season in 1521. They conclude paganism is the answer throughout their book, while proving very little, conclusively speaking. Here, as before, their pat answer to why trees were being forbidden is paganism. Here, like before, they appear to be forgetting the historical record.

Is there anything else that happened around that time that might have affected Christmas and its celebration? Anything that might have provoked governmental officials in the Holy Roman Empire to crack down on folks? Hmmm....

How about a little thing called the Protestant Reformation?

It was October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther hung his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church. Luther mostly criticized the Church's sale of “indulgences” for sin, but criticized the church for other dogmas and practices, too. He was officially excommunicated in 1521. There had been earlier attempts at reformation, from people like John Wycliffe and Peter Waldo, but most historians credit Luther with starting the Reformation.

The Reformation transformed the way many German Christians celebrated Christmas. Catholic Christmas traditions were – and remain – very corporate. The entire church gathers to worship through traditional mass and liturgy. But Protestant “heretics” were no longer welcome in “the Church”. For them, Christmas tradition turned homeward.

These newly-minted Protestants forged Christmas traditions that were very different from those of Catholics - shepherd's plays, scripture reading in the home and singing hymns, according to German Author Bernd Brunner (Inventing the Christmas Tree). This setting was a natural fit for the Christmas tree.

In the previous article we learned about guilds who performed religious plays across Europe. After the Reformation these guilds tended to lean Protestant. How do we know that these guilds – the ones that were first credited with with erecting Christmas trees – tended toward Protestantism? Well, it was the guilds that put on the mystery plays, including the prominent paradise play which many say featured the first “Christmas tree.” In his volume “Everyman” with Other Interludes, Including Eight Miracle Plays (p. 10), author Ernest Rhys states that one way “the Church” halted the mystery plays was by calling in scripts for revision and holding onto them until it was too late to perform.
“That the suppression was in the hands of the Church itself is an indication that it was a political change working through the new Protestant hierarchy.” (Rhys, 33).'''
If guilds answered to “The Church,” and the Church was a “new Protestant hierarchy,” then “The Church” to which the guilds answered simply couldn't have been the Catholic church. To a student of history, “The Church” before 1521 and after 1521 can mean two very different things. Therefore, the guilds were answering to the Protestants. Rhys' sources indicate later mystery play scripts were scrubbed of Catholic themes before they were discontinued entirely.

Why point this out? To demonstrate that the issue that was at the heart of the conflicts at this time wasn't "shamanic paganism" but the Reformation. Let's use a little logic here. We know the mainstream Protestants didn't ban the Christmas tree. A legend developed that credits the tree to none other than Martin Luther. There were Puritanical groups among the Protestants who banned it, but their stated reasons were all anti-Catholic. Any association with paganism in their accusations were all, in fact, manufactured barbs against Catholicism. Paganism isn't really a factor here. The answer with the most explanatory power is the Reformation.

The Catholics of that time didn't really care for the Christmas tree tradition anyway.

Some German towns restricted German tree-cutting in the winters before the Reformation, as the historical records show. Was this an effort to stamp out pagan worship, or simply the Holy Roman Empire trying to protect its property? The Catholic Church was a significant landowner in forested areas of Reformation-era Germany, Brunner notes (p. 16). At one point, the Church owned almost a third of the land in Europe.

But wait, didn't Catholics also have Christmas trees in their homes? One would think so, if Christians supposedly co-opted the tradition from Germanic pagans hundreds of years earlier. The answer is a vehement NO.
“The tree decorated with candles asserted itself in the culture in a way that was impossible in the context of the Catholic manger celebration. Although the reservations of Catholics gradually lessened, as late as 1909 the Benedictine monks Augustin Scherer and Joann Baptist Lambert lambasted in their Lexicon for Preachers and Catechists the “fraud” of the Tannenbaum tradition, citing Christmas trees erected for cats and dogs, even trees erected atop graves.” (Brunner, p. 33)

The Benedictine monks Moser mentioned were definitely late holdouts, but the Christmas tree did not gain wide acceptance in Catholic areas of Germany until the late 1800s. In some areas, the tradition only caught on after the government placed lit trees inside barracks and military hospitals during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, according to Brunner.

For a long time the Christmas tree in Germany was considered Protestant – a Lutherbaum (Luther tree) – and the aversion of many Catholics went so far at the end
of the 1800s that many simply called Protestantism the “Tannenbaum Religion,” writers German author Bernd Brunner. Even today, Christmas trees are uncommon in many Catholic countries. Nativity scenes, also known as "Christmas cribs" are preferred. Yet again, paganism isn't really a factor here. The answer with the most explanatory power is the Reformation.

Well, there goes the very heart and cornerstone of the argument against Christmas trees - that they are ancient pagan traditions adopted by the Catholics. Turns out that's not accurate at all.

What we've seen is that the Christmas tree likely descends from Paradise Tree props used in plays held in Catholic Churches. In time, the plays were held in town centers by professional acting guilds. It was these guilds who appear to have invented the tree tradition, perhaps even as some sort of advertisement. The nature of Catholic corporate worship kept them insulated from the tree tradition but the Reformation decentralized religious worship and brought the tree tradition into the Protestant home. It was at this point that the modern Christmas Tree really came about. Whereas Catholic themes and Christmas celebrations lent themselves to nativity scenes (also known as the Christmas crib), the new Protestant setting allowed the Christmas tree to flourish, according to German folklorist, Deitz-Rudiger Moser, one of Brunner's sources. German royalty brought the tradition to England, and there it became fashionable. By the late 1800s even the Catholics came to accept the tree tradition.

The Nazis would be very thankful for this eventual acceptance when they used the Christmas tree's alleged muddied origins to hide its Christian roots. In their quest to stamp out Christianity, they would resurrect shadowy legends about the tree's ancient German pagan roots to promote their fervor for German nationalism. We'll dive more into this in our next post.

Other articles in this series:


It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

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