Friday, December 23, 2016

Falsely Accused? You Decide

All I wanted to do was leave this place and not come back. Not until January. Heck, maybe not until March, the way this day was going.

But I couldn't get to the door in time to escape the red-headed woman who was following me down the hallway.

"Excuse me," she said. "I heard what your daughter said in there. That she didn't have a Christmas tree. I assume it has to be a financial issue. Would you let us buy you one?"

I burst into tears for the second time that day. The first time had been only five minutes earlier, when I walked into a classroom to find my tearful, stammering child rejecting a gift from her beloved teacher - a glittery teal ornament - because she didn't have a Christmas tree to put it on. And she wasn't having a pity party. No, she wasn't sure that she wanted a tree. Or whether she should want one. Or whether she could trust this bubbly blonde teacher who unknowingly stumbled over the elephant in our living room.

Or maybe it was the lack of the elephant in our living room, so to speak. We had already decided that being thankful for Jesus' birth was acceptable for Christians. We had purchased a few modest presents to help smooth the transition. We had understood for some time that Jeremiah 10 did not refer to Christmas trees. But we were just not ready to welcome this long-demonized symbol into our home.

We eventually made peace with Christmas trees, after a lot of reading, praying and soul-searching. Ironically, now I spend many Decembers days reassuring troubled Christians who've just discovered that some believe their beloved tradition to be filthy paganism. But I feel it's a worthwhile discussion to have, since Christmas is one of the main issues that leads sincere mainstream Christians into cults like Armstrongism (the Churches of God) or the Hebrew Roots movement.

Every year, I get the chance to dig a little deeper, learn a little more and share what I've found on As Bereans Did and in my face-to-face relationships. This year, I've learned:

  • Claims that Christmas trees came from Germanic paganism usually force any loose association with tree worship into the Christmas tree, regardless of the species or specific mythical significance. Some arguments are circular. Others ignored the historical record or even disregarded the historical timeline. Overall, they lack credibility. 
  • Christmas trees most likely came from Christian mystery plays in medieval Europe. Many experts believe the Christmas tree came from the Paradise Tree – a prop used in plays that recounted the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Paradise Play, which featured the Paradise Tree, was traditionally linked to December 24. Paradise Trees were decorated with apples, as were many early Christmas trees – which first appeared outside the meeting halls of trade guilds responsible for performing the plays each year.
  • Christmas trees became more common around the time of the Reformation. Many believe that Protestants who were no longer welcome at Catholic Christmas mass capitalized on the tradition to transfer the focus of the holiday celebration to the home. This theory is bolstered by the fact that most German Catholics rejected the Christmas tree as a heretical Protestant invention until the late 1800s. It also deals a crippling blow to those who claim that Catholics appropriated the tradition from ancient pagan practices. There is no record of Catholics accepting Christmas trees throughout the Middle Ages, then purging them from their celebrations in the 1500s.
  • National Socialist leaders capitalized on the tree as a historic German tradition when they rebranded Christmas in their efforts to rid Germany of Christianity. Nazi propagandists gradually divorced Christmas celebration from the story of Jesus' birth. They resurrected legends about Yule, Woden and sun worship. Eventually, the Third Reich even distributed Advent calendars that boldly proclaimed “Christmas is the Solstice.” These allegations didn't originate with the Nazis, but they certainly worked tirelessly to cement them as truth in the minds of Germans. Many of whom have been quoted as reliable sources on the origin of German Christmas traditions for decades after the war. 

    Regardless of all this, I know that many of you will never be able to shake your negative feelings about Christmas trees. Well, guess what? 

    I couldn't care less if you ever have a Christmas tree. No, seriously. I'm offended by outspoken leaders who make arrogant, demeaning pronouncements and simplistic claims. But I'm not offended by sincere individuals who aren't - and never will be - comfortable with Christmas trees. I know it's a hard step to take. It's not commanded. It's certainly not a matter of salvation. Please, stick to your houseplants. I don't mind. 

    I don't even care if you ever celebrate Christmas. I know many of ABD's readers have adopted the Hebrew holy days. I understand your reasoning and know that you have sincere, noble intentions. I disagree with your reasoning, and believe it has hidden spiritual dangers. No, we don't have any carbon dated evidence or time-stamped video surveillance of the nativity. There are good reasons that ancient scholars pinpointed December 25th, largely based in Semitic cultural ideas to which we can't relate. But again, Christmas isn't a command. And it certainly isn't a matter of salvation.

    So what do I want? 

    I want you to think for yourself. I want you to consider something other the canned, reheated history offered by those who still embrace the rantings of a Depression-era ad-man. Who plagiarized from the rantings of a 19th-century Scotsman. And possibly bought into Nazi propaganda. A lot of discoveries have been made in the 175 years since Alexander Hislop compiled his volume, and even in the 75 years since Herbert Armstrong first, um, borrowed them.  

    More importantly, I want you to fully appreciate why the birth of the Savior was so significant - why even the angels felt it was a reason to rejoice. Some groups downplay discussion of Jesus' birth because they say it's His death that was significant. That's partially true - even conservative Christian groups that put on elaborate Christmas productions continually point to the Cross.

    The difference is, in most groups that downplay Christ's birth, His grace really isn't sufficient. Focusing entirely on His death allows these groups to preach that His sinless, righteous state was what qualified Him to rule as King of Kings. Likewise, they teach that it is the righteousness of our walk after accepting Christ's sacrifice that maintains our qualification for His Kingdom

    This sounds good on paper. After all, is grace license to sin? Certainly not, wrote Paul. The New Testament is full of commands for the Christian walk, and faith without these works is dead. Who would argue that a Christian's conduct doesn't matter? 

    Here's the problem. The Bible also tells us that these positive works and attributes are fruit of God's involvement in our lives. The evidence that we have been justified in God's sight. They are not a checklist  of items that coax His involvement, or our eventual victory. Unfortunately, most cults twist this misguided teaching to their own ends. They abuse it to control behavior and threaten those who object with shunning and loneliness in this lifetime and damnation in the next, making many followers vulnerable to depression and even suicide

    There is a subtle, but important, difference between obeying because you have favor with God and obeying in order to obtain favor from God. In the theology of the former, we are led by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to God's glory. In the latter, we try to scrub ourselves clean of sin in hopes that we might obtain His glory.

    Be honest. No one else is looking. Raise your hand if, deep down, you think you will ever be able to eliminate enough sin from your life to qualify for God's Kingdom.

    (I'll pause and give you a minute to think).

    That's what I thought. Behavior modification isn't easy. I know, I'm a mom. But even if you got all your bad behaviors under control, it wouldn't change your heart.

    (Matthew 15:17-20, NIV) "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person's mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts - murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them."

    The children of Israel had been trying to modify their behavior for centuries. It didn't work. Not with any lasting effect, anyway, because it didn't change their hearts. And it won't change yours, either. Only He can. Your only hope is placing your full faith in Jesus, in the gift of regeneration and eternal life, confirmed by the New Covenant in His blood.

    This is why the birth of Jesus was such good news. It's good news this Sunday, next Tuesday, February 18th, June 23rd or any other day of the year. Understand who you are and Who He is. Appreciate the full measure of what He did for you. And give thanks, whenever it is that you're comfortable, just give thanks that Jesus came.

    That's all I want. And you don't need a tree to do that.

    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

    Friday, December 16, 2016

    Falsely Accused? Nazi Christmas Propaganda Lives On...

    “Martha, I don't care what As Bereans Did or anyone else says. Christmas is pagan. Christmas trees are pagan. Everyone knows it. The History Channel runs specials on it. It's written in encyclopedias. Even mainstream “Christian” theologians admit it.”

    Oh, good. The Nazi propaganda machine worked.

    No, seriously.  No tinfoil hats or black helicopters here. Look, I know it's become popular, even cliche, to link unpopular people or ideas with the Nazis. The thing is, this time, it's been documented.

    The Nazi War on Christmas 

    While Adolph Hitler's antipathy for Christianity is well-known, more recent research has revealed that Nazi leaders ran a calculated campaign to divorce Christmas from its Christian associations. Instead, they promoted its alleged association with the winter solstice and Germanic paganism to help advance their nationalistic, racist agenda, says Bernd Brunner, author of Inventing the Christmas Tree.

    In our last post, we learned that Christmas trees were a German Protestant tradition. Many in Catholic regions of Germany rejected Christmas trees as part of the “Lutheran heresy” until the late 1800s – a fact that makes it difficult to argue Catholics co-opted them from ancient pagan worship. But by the 1900s, the decorated tree was accepted in Catholic parts of Germany and recognized around the world as a symbol of the German Christmas celebration. The Nazis used this symbolism – as well as some of the published tree legends we've already debunked - as to their advantage as a tools for ideological manipulation that echoes to this day.

    “Thus the socialist propaganda machine strove to emphasize the tree's Germanic roots and to paint it as a direct descendant of the mythical tree of life – all in order to distract from the Christian meaning of the celebration,” Brunner said. 

    Many communist, socialist and fascist movements of the 1900s discouraged Christmas, according to
    Gary Bowler, author of Christmas in the Crosshairs. For example, Soviet officials tried to transition the holiday to a December 21 celebration of Stalin's birthday. Romanians were barred from singing carols in public. Some countries simply kept traditional treats off store shelves until after December 25 had passed.

    Even leftist communists and democratic socialists in Germany opposed Christmas – which set up the national socialists to nobly defend the celebration. When communist protesters destroyed Christmas paraphernalia in the streets, Sturmabteilung (SA for short, by translation "storm division" or "storm troopers") soldiers encountered and confronted them, making the national socialist (aka Nazis) look reasonable and respectful in contrast. Nazi leaders promised to return to traditional values if elected, and these confrontations made them look like heroes defending their German heritage.

    Even before they came to power, Nazi leaders used the holiday to advance their discrimination against Jews. Consider the wording from a 1928 pamphlet by well-known Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels:
    “Six hundred small businesses have gone bankrupt due to Jewish department stores this Christmas season in Berlin alone! Set out the Christmas tree. Daughters of Zion, rejoice! The good Germans are forging their own chains from their hard-earned coins. The Jew will grow fat from the coins you give him, the German will starve.” (Bowler, 94)

    A Nazi Noel? 

    By the time Hitler came to power in 1933, his cohorts had successfully linked national socialism with a “non-Christian Christmas” season. The Nazis took great efforts not to oppose Christmas itself, but to paint the celebration of the Jewish Savior's birth as anti-Semitic and historically German.
    “The solution was to avoid any direct attack on the traditional Christmas but to use the state's power, wherever possible, to promote a non-Christian view of the holiday that emphasized national unity, family togetherness, the role of the mother and the eternal cycle of the seasons.” (Bowler, 99)
    Now in control of the government, the Nazis used their patriotic, nationalistic Christmas celebration
    Nazi Christmas food collection for poor Germans
    to promote public welfare programs. Scores of Hitler youth went door to door soliciting contributions for this “winter relief effort” and rewarding donors with small tokens of the Fuhrer's thanks. This effort truly did help many destitute Germans through Depression-Era winters, Bowler says. And it linked Nazism with charity and social solidarity in many German minds - as the leaders had calculated, no doubt.

    Still, there were other nationalistic changes that first year, as the regime created a “new vision for Christmas", thanks to Goebbels – now Ministry of National Enlightenment and Propaganda. Brown-shirted SA soldiers accompanied the holy family in a traditional nativity play, while the audience sang the Nazi fight song along with traditional carols. One film dated to 1933 showed a nativity scene surrounded by SA soldiers and Teutonic knights, all arranged under a picture of Hitler.  The next year, Nazi leaders added holidays like Hitler's birthday and the anniversary of the Nazi political victory to the calendar.

    Later on, the government started giving instructions on celebrating Christmas in a “national socialist manner.” They first targeted schools and the Hitler youth, Bowler said. Nativity plays and carols were finally banned from schools in 1938 and replaced with songs like this, which Hitler youth sung at Nuremburg rallies:
    “No evil priest can prevent us from feeling that we are the children of Hitler!
    We follow not Christ, but Horst Wessel.
    Away with incense and holy water.
    The Church can hang for all we care!
    The swastika brings salvation on earth!”
    (Bowler, 96) 
    Youth also waved banners like this at these same rallies: “Down with a Christ who allows himself to be crucified. The German god cannot be a suffering god. He is god of power and strength.”

    Neutralizing the Church

    Hitler knew that his plans for territorial expansion and racial purity were mutually exclusive to the Christian message of peace and grace. Nazi Germany had no use for Jesus, and they would have to
    Priests salute Hitler at Youth Rally
    find a way to neutralize Christian churches in order to achieve their goals. The Reich made agreements with the Catholic Church that largely muzzled the religious institution, even though Hitler quickly broke his promises.
    On the Protestant side, the German Christian movement took control and worked to align its teachings with national socialist principles. Soon, the National Protestant Church was portraying Jesus as an Aryan victim of the Jews and draped its altars with swastikas. Redacted version of the gospels eliminated Old Testament Hebrew prophecies from the nativity story. The pagan “blood and earth” ceremony was introduced.

    From this point forward, the Christmas season was an annual struggle between Nazi pagans and paganized Christians versus leaders in Protestant and Catholic Christianity. Church leaders hoped to use the citizens' popular attachment to Christmas to defend Christianity itself in Nazi Germany.  No one won this power struggle, but ordinary German Christians were the big loser.
    “Christmas was celebrated without any mention of Christianity, instead directives mandated it was 'a people's Christmas, in a consciousness of German tradition',” Bowler says.
    Traditional Christian hymns were edited to remove Jewish ideas and words, like “Hosanna” and “Hallelujah.” In some songs, the Norse God “Baldur” replaced the name of Jesus. Schoolchildren praised Hitler in the re-written version of the classic Christmas hymn, Silent Night:
    “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.
    Only chancellor stays on guard,
    Germany's future to watch and to ward,
    guiding our nation aright.”
    Silent night, holy night all is calm, all is bright.
    Adolf Hitler is Germany's Star,
    Showing us greatness and glory afar,
    Bringing us Germans the might.”
    (Bowler, 97)

    Nazi Yule and Solstice Propaganda

    Notice how at first the Nazis adopted Christmas, then they slowly and purposefully hollowed it out and changed it. When World War II began in earnest, Hitler's efforts to paganize the Christmas season were unrestrained, Bowler says. SS families were given official, written instructions on how to begin their Julfest (Yuletide) celebration on Woten's Day, December 6. (Many Catholic, Orthodox and Methodist Christians traditionally recognize December 6 as the official day to remember the historical activities of St. Nicholas, and it is sometimes treated as the the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season. It was the original gift giving day, prior to Martin Luther.) These Nazi Julfest instructions reminded Germans of myths about the ancient god Woten (or Woden), who drove through the air, visiting his followers and leaving them presents to announce the start of the solstice.
    “In order to expropriate the German people's deep investment in the Christmas season without referring to its Christian content, Nazi propagandists and ethnologists took advantage of the holiday's proximity to the winter solstice and attempted to build a new set of behaviors around December 21,” Bowler says. “A 1939 article in an educational monthly stated baldly: the real Christmas community celebration … is the winter solstice.” (Bowler, p. 98)
    In fact, a variety of WWII-era children's books, magazines and even advent calendars took sharp aim at the SS soldier's home and family, shifting their attention from December 25 to the solstice. None mentioned Jesus or the nativity, but instead featured vague, seasonal sentiments. One “helpful” advent calendar arrived in German homes to help them plan their activities for the month.
    Nazi Advent Calendar Cover, 1942
    “The solstice symbol on the front cover – a spinning sun – gives a clue that the booklet will include none of the usual Christmas elements of the season. In fact the authors repeat the mantra, Weihnachten ist Sonnewende. 'Christmas is the solstice.' (Bowler, p. 100)
    To celebrate Julfest, every SS soldier should have his own Jul plate filled with nuts, apples and Swastika-shaped biscuits, according to the publication. On the actual date of the winter solstice, SS men gathered on mountaintops performing “manly dances” while the townfolk gathered around huge bonfires below. Local children lit candles from these fires and brought them home to light their own Jul trees.

    Nazi Advent Calendar Cover, 1943

    Nazi Christmas Trees

    Brunner, author of Inventing the Christmas Tree, explains more about how the Nazis appropriated the Christmas tree. Ornaments were renamed “Julschmuk,” or yule decorations. Angels, stars and other Christian symbols disappeared. Instead, balls with symbols of plants and animals were used to adorn
    Collection of Nazi ornaments
    the Jul tree, hearkening back to ancient Germanic tribal wisdom. It became common for swastikas, pikes or other Nazi symbols to appear atop the tree.

    The Nazis even reappropriated Advent wreaths, which were designed in the 1800s by a Protestant pastor for residents in his orphanage. Suddenly, the candle-decked wreath were deemed an ancient German symbol, Bowler says, representative of pagans longing for light during the dark winter season.

    The propaganda continued in East Germany even after World War II, Bowler says. While the German communist party initially opposed Christmas, they soon saw how it normalized life for its war-stricken citizens.

    “Consequently, the leaders of the German Democratic Republic chose to preserve the holiday, strip it of many (but not all) of its connections to religion, and cast it as a time of peace, freedom and a new socialist beginning,” Bowler said. (p. 90)
    Father Frost, whom originally bore an intentional and striking resemblance to Stalin - and snow maidens made public appearances, although Der Weihnachtsmann – the secular gift-bringer – was the most popular hero (Bowler, p. 90). Angels were catchily renamed “end-of-year winged figures.” Christmas may have outlasted the Berlin wall, but the holiday would never be seen the same way in Germany. Or anywhere else German mythology has touched.
    “In the long run neither European Communism nor its war on Christmas survived, but until the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain came down in 1989, the struggle to control the holiday had some disparate effects. At a public level, the state had considerable success in controlling the agenda, secularizing and commercializing the public aspect, and shifting the merriment to January 1.” (Bowler, p. 90)
    Claims associating Christmas traditions with paganism certainly didn't start with the Nazis. But Goebbels and other propagandists got their ideas from somewhere. Did the Nazis take unsubstantiated claims from people like Alexander Hislop or the Jehovah's Witnesses and run with them? Could they have used vague references from authors like Tacitus for their own nationalistic ends? No, we all know the Nazis never lied about anything! They never twisted anything to meet their needs! (She said, sarcastically.) And they certainly never controlled the information their citizens read.

    Which leads us to wonder – if the Nazis hadn't resurrected these legends, how many would be accepted as fact by popular culture today? Did the churning of the Nazi propaganda machine bring these tired stories back to the surface? Many in the anti-Christmas crowd point to German experts, German materials and German legends as their sources on Christmas as reinventions of Yule or solstice celebrations. Of course they're correct! If anyone would know about German history, it's the German people, right? (She said, sarcastically.)

    Did anti-Christmas voices like Herbert W Armstrong, founder of the modern Church of God movement - buy into this Nazi propaganda? We know that HWA had his eyes on the Third Reich. Some of his earliest failed prophecies predicted a Nazi victory in World War II, and his admiration for Hitler's control tactics has been documented by many, including the Boston Sunday Globe (Church beset with troubles, August 3, 1980). The Ambassador Reports' John Trechak stated that he found a well-worn copy of Mein Kampf in HWA's desk, dog-eared and highlighted. In his autobiography, HWA details his visit to the site of Hitler's infamous beer hall putsch and makes mention of the Fuhrer's subsequent imprisonment, during which he wrote Mein Kampf. Nazi Germany was clearly a topic of HWA's interest.

    How much credence would Armstrong have gotten were it not for the Nazi effort to paganize Christmas? We'll never know. Many of the nationalist, socialist and communist movements of the 1900s have died out, but one must wonder whether useful idiots are still promoting their propaganda today.

    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

    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

    Friday, December 2, 2016

    Falsely Accused? Christmas Trees Were Christian Theater Props

    In our last post, we delved into some pagan traditions that some authors - independent of COG-favorite Alexander Hislop - claim gave rise to the Christmas tree. We also explained the problems with these claims and showed why they probably are not the source for the Christmas tree tradition.

    But if Christmas trees didn't come from pagan tree worship, where did they come from?

    Mystery Plays

    Many historians believe that Christmas trees came from the traditional medieval “mystery plays” that European Christians used to teach bible stories to the largely-illiterate population. These plays are also called “miracle plays” and “paradise plays” (although the paradise play technically refers to the performance that told the story of Adam and Eve's sin). German author Bernd Brunner explores this claim in his book, Inventing the Christmas Tree (translated by Benjamin A. Smith).
    “A link can be made between the ritual of our Christmas tree and the paradise play, which had existed since the Middle Ages, even before the nativity play,” Brunner writes (p. 15-16). “At a time in which many people couldn't read and books were a valuable possession, biblical stories were dramatized as mystery plays, illustrating doctrinal episodes from creation to damnation to redemption.”
    These performances can be traced back to liturgical plays performed at Christmas, Easter and other church festivals, according to “Everyman” with Other Interludes, Including Eight Miracle Plays (p. 10). This early 1900s volume, by Ernest Rhys, includes research about the history of miracle plays, as well as several popular plays themselves. Rhys' research shows that the plays developed concurrently in French/Norman and English/Saxon culture. Not surprisingly, the French and Norman plays developed similarly, while the English and Saxon plays closely resembled each other.

    The earliest discovered fragments of these liturgical plays date to around 967 A.D. and were written in Latin, according to Rhys (p. 10). They were part of Church liturgy and were performed within the church building, during the specific times of year the ecclesiastical calendar proscribed. (p. 19). The paradise play was traditionally performed the day before Christmas to explain why the world needed a Savior and to set the stage for His entrance.

    The paradise play included a green “tree of paradise” decorated with apples and communion wafers, according to Brunner (p. 15-16).
    “Human sin was connected to the enjoyment of a fruit – a bright red apple or a pomegranate – and its atonement is set into motion by the birth of Christ. Jesus reaches for the apple that Mary offers him and takes upon himself the sins of the world – a common motif in medieval art,” Brunner says.
    Scripts from these plays themselves confirm Brunner's statements. One script from York, England, compiled in 1415, gives us these opening notes for actors in the “paradise play” segment:
    “Adam and Eve with a tree betwixt them; the serpent deceiving them with apples; God speaking to them and cursing the serpent, and an angel with a sword driving them out of paradise.”

    In fact, apples were the original ornament used to decorate Christmas trees, Brunner says. Glass ornaments first appeared in the 17th century, when a drought destroyed the apple harvest in the Alsace region. In 1858, glassblowers in the French village of Meisenthal made red glass spheres to replace the apples on local Christmas trees. And the rest, as they say, is history.

    Over time, “the first Adam” became traditionally associated with December 24th  in Orthodox Christian traditions as a way of foreshadowing the coming of the "last" Adam, who is traditionally associated with December 25th.

    (1 Corinthians 15:45-47) So it is written, "The First man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven.

     The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates a festival remembering Adam and Eve on Christmas Eve. This never happened officially in the Roman Catholic Church, but many Catholic resources tell us that the historical association with Adam remained. Further, the liturgical plays began before the Great Schism of 1054 A.D., so the traditional association is almost certain in the west as well.

    The Guilds

    Then, in the late thirteenth century, the plays began migrating out of the church. They first moved into the church yard, then onto a nearby street, and finally out in the town, where open space made more props and equipment possible (Rhys, 12). The clergy kept a hand in the scripts, but the rising town guilds supplied the actors, giving the plays new character and relatability. (Guilds were the associations of artisans or merchants who controlled the practice of their craft in a particular town. Guild apprenticeship and memberships were a matter of pride and prestige).

    When the Council of Vienna established the Festival of Corpus Christi in 1311 A.D., it helped to make the jump from liturgical dramas to guild plays official. The festival was held on a Thursday in June and featured mystery play performances rather than quotations from scripture (Rhys, 20). Corpus Christi was scheduled during one of the few times in northern Europe when moderate temperatures and long periods of daylight made lengthy performances possible. These conditions were key because, over time, friendly competition between the guilds led to elaborate plays lasting from sunrise until nightfall. Corpus Christi cemented the connection between the guilds and the plays  – they first asserted their importance by having members march with their guild banners during the festival procession.

    Some believe the church was eager to transfer responsibilities to the guilds, Rhys said (p. 22). There had been internal objections to religious dramas within the church for some time. The church was probably happy to jettison the financial burden and responsibilities for crowd control. Of course, the church required the guilds to maintain their scripts, and exerted influence over their doctrinal accuracy. We will later see this authority used to subtly bring the plays to a halt during the Reformation period.

    In England, the earliest record of a town pageant dates to 1268 A.D. in Chester. By the 1400s, there were regular performances in most English towns and larger villages. By 1422 A.D., the plays were entirely performed by the guilds, and as of 1467 A.D., eight guilds were producing the plays. Scripts from the 1500s list specific parts for local goldsmiths, plumbing guild members and glaziers.

    The guilds were a natural fit to support and advance the plays, according to Rhys. They rose to civic importance during the 14th century. In many cities, city organization depended upon their inter-relationships. They promoted commerce, and so they had the financial ability for the undertaking.
    Guild membership was a matter of pride – they often tussled with one another to maintain their importance and preserve their interests. This pride quickly transferred to the mystery plays. Though they were amateur productions, the prestige of the city often hinged upon them. Roles were a matter of pride. In places like York, regulations restricted actors from participating in more than two plays.

    Sketch of Mystery Play performance  in York, England

    But what about Germany? Granted, I can't read the medieval German sources like I can the English. But historians tell us that the plays developed along similar lines among the Saxons as they did the English. The earliest religious drama found in Germany was written in Latin and is from the Christmas liturgical cycle. Early on, they were performed in Latin by traveling scholars, began appearing in German in the 13th century and transitioned to the guilds.

    Trees Appear on the Scene

    So, we see that the guilds presented the mystery plays in the 1400s. We see that one of plays – one with a traditional connection to December 24 – featured a tree decorated with apples. During the same time period, we also see the first Christmas trees appearing on the scene in the 1400s – often connected with guilds, Brunner writes.
     “The tree of paradise and knowledge begins to transcend the religious context of the play and move toward a role in the Christmas celebrations of the guilds,” he explains. “Precisely how is not clear, but hints here and there provide clues of the transition.”

    The first record we have dates to 1419, when the Fraternity of Baker's Apprentices set up a tree
    decorated with apples, wafers, gingerbread and tinsel in the local hospital at Freiburg (Brunner, p. 4). Another document claims the first Christmas tree came two decades later – in 1441, when the Black Heads (foreign traders guild) set up a tree in front of the town hall for a dance in Talinn, Estonia. The Black Heads also erected a tree in front of the Riga, Latvia town hall in 1510, where children decorated it with woolen thread, straw and apples. A Christmas tree was raised in the Cathedral at Strasbourg in 1539.

    Christmas trees in Riga, Latvia

    “Where the first tree stood is lost to the ages. But we can assume that these more or less random extant documents refer to something that was already in existence decades before,” Brunner says (p. 5). “What is certainly is the appearance of the trees in the trade guilds of the sixteenth century.”
    More complete records exist from guild chronicles in Bremen dated to 1570. A tree was placed in the guild's hall and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers. During the Christmas celebration, the children were allowed to shake the tree to get the treats. Sometimes, the poor were allowed to plunder the tree before a town dance.

    So, now which theory makes more sense?

    a). Christmas trees are a reinvention of worship symbols from pagan religions that were discouraged - often under penalty of death - and went underground for several generations. They were then reintroduced as a Christianized symbol by a few diehard, clandestine pagans a few centuries later. Europe's Germanic population suffered from mass memory loss and forgot the origins of the decorated tree.


    b) The guilds charged with holding pageants, which included paradise trees, set up decorations that look like paradise trees during a festive season traditionally associated with Adam, Eve and the paradise play.

    “According to our current state of knowledge, the Christian paradise play, with its decorated tree of life and death at the center, played a decisive role in the emergence of the Christmas tree,” Brunner said. “In addition, the use of the tree in the play might have lent particular emphasis and dynamism to the custom as we know it today.”

    Oh, right, we were originally talking about plays, not trees. Just what happened with these plays?

    Most plays died out in the 1500s, despite the fact that they were still very popular. In London, they blamed it on the rise of Shakespeare and similar theater. Elsewhere in Europe, it's more obvious that the Reformation was their death knell. Early on, scripts were revised to eliminate Catholic themes. As time went on, the Church called in scripts for editing and held until it was too late in the year to perform them (perhaps until hours of sunlight and air temperatures were prohibitive), Rhys writes (p. 24). Protestants weren't the only ones to discourage the plays – in France, the  Catholic-leaning Parlement de Paris outlawed the plays in 1548.

    The Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation rocked the landscape in Europe for decades to come. It changed religious life, political life and, in some cases, cost individuals their lives. It should be no surprise, then, that traditions and laws generated in this era changed the landscape of Christian worship forever. We will learn about what this meant for the Christmas tree in our next post.

    Other articles in this series:

    Falsely Accused? You Decide

    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