Friday, November 25, 2016

Falsely Accused? Christmas Trees and Germanic Paganism

December is a time of year when many churches embrace rich, well-loved traditions. Some take up special offerings for the poor. Others decorate their sanctuaries.

The Churches of God have their own tradition – quoting time-honored, cherished writings that explain why Christmas trees are pagan. These sources have been thoroughly debunked, but that doesn't make them any less loved and accepted among the COGs.

In past years, As Bereans Did has addressed these arguments, which the COGs have largely appropriated from the 19th-century Scottish pastor Alexander Hislop. The excellent series On Nimrod and Christmas Trees is available, in parts one, two and three and addresses most of the COG arguments linking Christmas trees to paganism. They occasionally quote other sources – like the New Catholic Encyclopedia, for example – but most of these sources also circle back to Hislop and related writings.

If Christmas trees are so obviously descended from paganism, there must be other sources besides Hislop, right? This year, we decided to look at some. Primarily German sources, since most believe Christmas trees originated there. If anybody would know about own their history, it would be the Germans, right? So today, we'll look at the claims of authors Christine Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Eberling, authors of Pagan Christmas – The Plants, Spirits and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide (translated into English by Katja Lueders and Rafael Lorenzo). We will specifically be addressing Christmas trees, not other plants like mistletoe and holly.

(This series will not address the origins of Christmas itself. For discussion on that topic, please read The Plain Truth About December 25th.

World Trees

Pagan Christmas first explains that the Christmas tree came from the “World Tree,” an idea that's present in many ancient non-Christian religions. (p. 19). Though the “World Tree” is a different species in various mythological traditions, it is depicted as an enormous tree that supports the heavens; linking the heavens, earth and underworld.

In Germanic mythology, the world tree was called Yggdrasil, and was a place where the gods assembled daily. The tree's branches supposedly reached far into the heavens and its roots extended to other mythological locations.

But Yggdrasil was an ash tree, not a fir tree, according to both the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, which are 13th-century compilations of earlier traditional sources. In fact, none of the many “World Trees” we researched were evergreens.


Besides the problem that world trees were not evergreens, the authors give no evidence connect the world tree and the Christmas tree. Why should we accept there is any relationship at all? Simply because they are both trees??? This is the only argument one can make, and it's a childish, grossly simplistic one at that. It's about as logical as, "Jesus couldn't have died on a cross because Tammuz starts with a T." (Maybe you think we are joking, but that claim was common in the Worldwide Church of God and survives in some pockets of the COGs even today). So it is with this claim about Yggdrasil.

Claiming that the Christmas tree came from the World Tree because people worshiped trees is shallow and circular. The conclusion - tree worship - is assumed before any proof is ever given. That the Christmas tree emerges from tree worship is just assumed from the start, so any example of tree worship is pulled out and declared an ancestor of the Christmas tree tradition. Combining Yggdrasil and the Christmas tree makes no sense if the conclusion is not assumed before the start. Proof is required, but the premise is unsupported. That's not how people looking for real evidence conduct research. We at ABD prefer to have actual, verifiable chains of evidence rather than just being satisfied with confirmation bias. And you should, too. Therefore, we reject the World Tree origin for Christmas trees.

Tas... Tam... Who?

A few pages later, Ratsch and Muller-Eberling claim the Christmas tree came from an ancient feast Tasana, which involved holy fir trees.
“Tacitus (I, 51) describes the Holy Feast Tasana,where people carried fir branches in their hands; and our Christmas trees also originate in this feast.” (p. 26). 
In Tacitus' Annals, the senator briefly mentions the destruction of a temple dedicated to Tamfana and the massacre of many followers. Aside from this, there are no other undisputed sources relating information about Tamfana. One disputed source notes than an autumn festival to Tamfana might correspond with a sacrificial holiday Disablot, which appeased certain female spirits in hopes of a good harvest. And that's the most conclusive information we have about Tasana/Tamfana. Which, I might point out, are not necessarily the same name. And, if even the least dubious source is to be trusted, had a festival in the fall, not the winter.

But wait! The old High German word “tan” means "forest", note Ratsch and Muller-Eberling (p. 26). And “tanna” can mean both fir and oak! Haven't you heard the old hymn, O Tannenbaum?

We're sure some of you were thinking about O Tannenbaum before we brought it up. We bet someone out there is thinking something like, "Tan is a grove and a fir tree, and Tannenbaum is a Christmas tree, therefore we have a clear relationship between Christmas trees and paganism!" Now, before you go rushing off to quote Deuteronomy 12: 2 and Isaiah 66: 17, just stop. There is something we need to make perfectly clear - Tannenbaum is not the word for Christmas tree. As my very good friend from Germany relates:
"Tannenbaum means fir tree. The song doesn't really say anything about Christmas. It's more about the tree being the only tree to stay green even in the winter....symbolic for having faith even in difficult times. Weihnachtsbaum would be a Christmas tree."
That's right, Tannenbaum does not mean Christmas tree, Weihnachtsbaum does. Even if O Tannenbaum has become a Christmas staple, the word tannenbaum nothing to prove pagan roots just like a song written in the 1800s does nothing to demonstrate that Christmas trees originated from German pagans in the years before Christ. So if we actually stick to the facts and put aside our false conclusions, we have no connection between the Christmas tree and paganism here, either.

Donar's Oak

We'll skip over the dubious links the authors make between Christmas trees and May poles and instead spend a moment on oak trees. I'm so glad they brought them up. Let's talk about them. Specifically, about Donar's Oak – also known as Thor's Oak - which is discussed in the account of Saint Boniface. Legend has it that Boniface, who was a missionary to the Germanic people, cut down the sacred oak to prevent a ritual human sacrifice.

After felling the oak, Boniface is said to have directed the attention of the gathered pagans to a new “holy” tree – a nearby evergreen.

Ratsch and Muller-Eberling describe Donar's Oak as central to the life and spiritual culture of the pagan Chatten, who were ancestors of the Hessians.
“For them, the sacred tree represented the world tree that maintains cosmic order and insures the survival of humanity. When this tree was torn from their consciousness, their culture broke down, no longer having roots or a trunk. Understanding exactly how significant this was, the converted Aurelius Augustinus (354-430 CE) also known as the Neoplatonic church father Augustine, came to a new conclusion about the cutting of the holy trees of the heathens. He declared: “Do not kill the heathens – just convert them; do not cut their holy trees – consecrate them to Jesus Christ”  (p. 24-25). 
Relatively good records of Boniface's life actually do exist. Accounts of his sermons, correspondences, legal documents and other items were compiled shortly after his martyrdom. It would appear that the felling of Donar's Oak was historical, but the legend about the fir tree was not. The gathered pagans were astounded that Thor did not strike Boniface down, and many converted to Christianity on the spot. Wood from the tree was then to use build a church on the site where Donar's Oak once grew.

The historical record deals yet another blow to Ratsch and Muller-Eberling's credibility. Augustine, whom they quoted as weighing in on the matter, died in 430 A.D. Boniface, however, was not born until 672 A.D. Augustine's death predates Boniface's birth by more than 200 years. So if any man in question learned from another, it was Boniface, not Augustine. And Boniface still cut down the tree. Thus, we also reject the argument that the Christmas Tree came from the Donar's Oak legend. And we subtract a few points for logic and style given the faux pas about Augustine.

Weak Roots

Most of the pagan traditions to which critics try to connect the Christmas tree can be traced to the Dark Ages, during relatively early missions to the pagan Germanic tribes. Specifically before Charlemagne's campaign in the 700s to convert western Europe. Why does Charlemagne matter? Because no single person did as much to end traditional German paganism as Charlemagne did.

Now, no one's claiming that Charlemagne completely wiped out paganism. But he earned the title of “the scourge of Germanic paganism” for a reason. Anyone who would massacre 4,500 Saxons in a single day as Charlemagne did at Verden meant business. Historians describe Charlemagne's policy towards Saxons as ensuring they were defeated, converted or exterminated. Later Christian kings in Germany continued to complete the conversion process that Charlemagne started. It's hard to imagine pagan traditions being both widely-known enough and tolerated enough to resurface as admitted paganism several hundred years later. Especially in era when the religious climate was tenuous, and the Church exercised even more authority and influence.

This is an area where the COGs can't help but fall short. In Armstrongism, we were conditioned to write off anything after the first century, lumping it all together as pagan nonsense. And that thinking was based on false history, as we've proven here in the past. For just a few examples, please read our articles A True History of the True Church, Another True History, and A Pattern of Dishonest Documentation. So we in the COGs miss the significant differences between the Christian world of 500 A.D., 1000 A.D.  and 1500 A.D. - a point which will become relevant again later in this series.

Did ancient Germanic pagan worship involve trees? Absolutely. Is any religious act involving trees pagan? No. After all, the Feast of Tabernacles, properly celebrated, involves tree branches.

(Leviticus 23:39-40) Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep the feast of the Lord for seven days; on the first day there shall be a sabbath-rest. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and the willows of the brook; you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.

"But the trees mentioned in Leviticus aren't fir trees," you say! Right, and neither was the Germanic World Tree. Neither was Donar's Oak. Neither were the white oaks worshiped by the Druids. Why do willows and palms get a free pass?

At some point, we must accept simple logic. If Christmas trees came from Nimrod and Semiramis, as Hislop claims, then they did not come from the World Tree. If they came from the World Tree, they did not come from St. Boniface. Or Tasana/Tamfana. We can't even get the details of the goddess's name right, let alone anything else about her.

Once again, as we've seen time after time before, it all boils down to standards of evidence. Behind the claims of the COGs, there are none. Hislop, the COGs and those in their camp jump to conclusions before evidence is provided. Nothing needs genuine research. Everything is confirmation bias. Anything goes. We should probably write off the world "Christian" as pagan because, like Tamfana, it contains letters like like “t,” “a,” and “n."

Perhaps if we have to try this hard to force a connection, there's a chance that the connection isn't there. Maybe it's time to entertain the possibility that the Christmas tree can be traced to an innocent origin, and that it has been slandered over and over again thanks to sloppy, circular research.

We'll consider this possibility next time, when we look in-depth at what many believe is the true origin of the Christmas tree – the medieval Christian mystery play.

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