Incarnation Minus Paganism: A Christmas What-If
- Monday, December 05, 2011
LAYER FOUR – Northern Europe
Have you ever wondered how a holiday marking an event that happened in Israel got associated with snow? Well, here is our answer: when snowy northern Europe became Christianized, snowy scenes began to enter Christmas artwork.
And while we are in Europe, we are getting to the roots of that whole Christmas tree thing (yuk, yuk, yuk). According to one legend, Martin Luther was inspired one night when he saw stars shining through a fir tree. Not exactly environmentally sensitive, he cut it down, took it home, and decorated it with candles for his family to enjoy (poor Tannenbaum!).
But the reverence of trees predates Luther by a lot. Romans trimmed trees during Saturnalia (a particularly raucous pagan holiday that we will deal with in a bit), and those wacky Druids honored Odin by tying offerings onto tree branches. Speaking of Druids, mistletoe was used by Druids for winter solstice ceremonies. Remove this layer, and no more smooching under a tree parasite.
Santa Claus also has some (interesting) historical ancestors here. Santa is a mixture of figures. First is the Germanic Father Christmas who also has associations with Odin. Next is Knight Ruprecht, who takes care of kids on the “naughty” list. While Father Christmas rewarded good children, Ruprecht took care of the others with a stick. Third is St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was actually a Christian figure. Nicholas of Myra lived in the 4th century (when Christmas was being established) and died for his faith. Nicholas was famous for putting gifts in stockings.
When we remove this layer, no more snow globes with Christmas scenes.
LAYER FIVE – The Manger Animals and The Wise Men
Here we lose the partridge in a pear tree. The 12 days of Christmas tradition arose from 6th-century French Christians, referring to the 12 days between December 25 and January 6 (probably a good thing we can drop this, as I can never get the words straight to that silly song). What’s the big deal with January 6? Some early Christians thought January 6 was the arrival of the magi, while others argued it was the birth date for Christ.
We also need to remove the ox, donkey, and camel from our manger scene. They aren’t in the original story, although they are in the Bible. Isaiah was a popular source text for early Christians as they looked for messianic predictions, and we have ox and donkey Isaiah 1:3. Isaiah 60:6 mentions camels coming with gold and frankincense.
OK, strictly speaking, the animals are biblical, but they are also additions to the original story. So ox, donkey, and camels all look at us and ask, “Should I stay or should I go?”
Regarding the camel’s companions in our modern manger scenes, Matthew mentions the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). However he does not give a specific number of them. Early Christian interpreters noted the three gifts listed, and decided that one wise man per gift was appropriate. As far as the tradition of them being kings goes, Psalms 72:10 references Kings bearing gifts, so early Christian interpreters made that connection. For kings and camels together, see also Isaiah 60:10-11.
The wise men are tricky as far as “pagan” concerns go. The term magos would refer to Babylonian and Persian priests. So were they God-fearers? Hard to tell. Whatever their specific religious beliefs, the magoi (however many) were part of Matthew 2:1-12, so we will let them stay.
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