Unwrapping some ancient Christmas traditions


By Fr. Bud Grant

Fr. Grant

Trekking into the black woods on this silent night of the solstice, they follow one another like cattle to hay behind their stalwart torch-bearer whose well-swaddled legs furrow a path through the moon-glazed snow. Encircling a massive fir tree, an ever-green reminder of the promised return of a green world, they hang pendent lamps on its still boughs, singing hymns and reciting prayers before returning through the drifts to warm homes.
This image, echoing an ancient tradition repeated at this time of year for unknown centuries, expresses the origins of our Christmas tree in the forests of pre-Christian Germany.
Of course, none of us think of ancient pagan rituals when we set up our fragrant tree (though one-third of our trees this year — 11 million — will be artificial), wrap it in blinking electric lights and stuff elaborately wrapped material treasures under its branches. Nor do we remember that this tradition came to America’s shores from Germany, via England, in imitation of the lonesome German prince-consort of Queen Victoria, who had a pine tree dragged into Windsor Palace to console his Teutonic heart with nostalgia for his homeland.
We Catholics have loads of traditions, the origins of which are lost in time: bells at Mass used to signal to the congregation that the priest, speaking in Latin with his back to them, was consecrating the host; “hocus pocus” was a mockery of “hoc est corpus,” the Latin words of consecration spoken by the fiddle-backed priest; blessing oneself with holy water is an echo of baptismal purification (so it shouldn’t be done when leaving the church, by which time we have received the Eucharist); Latin was introduced to the western Church hundreds of years after Christ in a radical innovation that stripped away Greek — the language in which the New Testament was written, mind you — because most people no longer understood it (sound familiar?).  “Holiday” is a corruption of holy day.
It is a good time of year to consider traditions and the passing of time. Christmas is loaded with the former and the New Year provokes cold shivers of recognition of the fleeting transiency of life.
A few weeks ago I asked my students if they knew how long we’ve been celebrating Christmas with trees. One wide-eyed 18-year-old scholar exclaimed: “Oh, a LONG time, at least as long as I can remember!” It is worth reflecting on the wisdom of this insight: tradition only lasts as long as it is passed down: one generation without it, and it is gone. Conversely, given just one generation that can’t remember doing it any other way makes it a tradition. Once they learned of its origins in the mists of paganism past, I asked my students if they would continue the heathen practice. Of course, they all will. “Why?” I asked. “Because it is tradition. Because we always have. Because I want to pass that along to my kids.” But really, why?
There are good, or at least benign, reasons for retaining traditions. I would argue that traditions are good: a.) if they have retained their original purpose; b.) if they have developed a new, if different, good purpose; or c.) simply because we are sentimental.  There are also good reasons for dispensing with them. If, for example: a.) they have assumed too much importance, competing with big “T” Traditions; b.) they are meaningless, or worst of all; c.) if they have become dangerous.
What is a dangerous tradition? Stick with me for a moment. Seminal environmentalist David Brower famously speaks of environmental “CPR,” by which he means conservation, preservation and restoration. But this is a green-patina chimera: environmentalists working in the field cannot conserve a healthy condition, it is too late; they can’t preserve what is, it is unhealthy; they can’t restore what once was … when?  1970 (the First Earth Day)? 1962 (Silent Spring was published)? 1492?
I like to use a medical analogy: it is like a doctor treating an amputee patient. Can we conserve her lost health, should we preserve her present condition, or do we decide to restore her to the prime of her vitality? The physician’s task, like the environmentalist’s, is to do none of these, but to assist the patient in achieving the greatest possible quality of life.
In managing nature, this is the best we can do and, frankly, it is as far as we can go ethically, lest we exceed the limits of prudent power and create something in our own limited image and likeness. To “restore” nature would be to amber it in some arbitrarily chosen moment of time (assuming we knew enough to even do that, which we don’t) in violation of its very nature of perduring in a healthy dynamic equilibrium (always changing, but in stable ways).
Like well-meaning environmentalists, I think that many traditionalists want to conserve, preserve or restore traditions without which, they worry, we will lose our distinctive identity and forget who we are.  But this is based on the same sort of delusion that beguiles environmentalists: traditions aren’t ever conserved or preserved, and they can’t be restored.  Rather, they are to be used, if useful, and tossed out like beautiful but torn wrapping paper if not.
Merry Christmas.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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