Patricia Nell Warren

Why So Many of Us Love That Holiday Tree

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | December 03, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media
Tags: Christmas, Christmas tree, gay Christmas, pagan, winter solstice

I just got the first Christmas card of the season, from my good friends Wynn and Rick Wagner. Wynn is bishop of the Diocese of Texas in the North American Old Catholic Church. Saint Mychal Judge is their church in Dallas. You won't find this branch of Catholicism listed in the Vatican's yellow pages, but it is evidently thriving, because its message is one whose time has come. Their church is dedicated to stealing Catholicism back from the grinches who made it so hateful, and re-infusing it with love and acceptance for all. On the card, Wynn and Rick are in the center of the photo, in clerical black, flanked by smiling parishioners and -- what else -- two traditional-looking Christmas trees.

Yes, every year, we LGBT people have to figure out what to do with Christmas. We will strain our brains to imagine how we'll decorate the tree this year. For many of us, the Christmas tree is the big icon, but it's tied up with memories of family holidays that aren't always happy. Yet those memories move us towards healing by inspiring us to reinvent the Christmas tree for today. Some of us, hungry for continuity, go for the traditional look. Others go for that cutting-edge! In my 35-plus years of being out, I've seen LGBT trees decorated with everything from cranberries to condoms. That intense pride that we have in our homes -- after all, it wasn't so long ago that our couples didn't dare to do open homemaking -- is expressed in our holiday trees.

Many of us can remember a time when American Christmases were less relentlessly commercial, more circled around friends and family...and less politically charged.

My own memories go back to the postwar 1940s, when the whole Warren family drove into the snowy hills in Dad's pickup, armed with an ax and a thermos bottle of hot cocoa. Up there along the timberline, we'd find a perfect 10-foot spruce, cut it down and haul it home, where it would fill the whole ranchhouse with its wild perfume. The memory is wonderful but full of mixed emotion, because as a young teen I was already sensing my "difference" from other kids, though I didn't know there was a word for it.

With time, I've learned that the spirit of sacred winter trees and my own spirit have traveled a long way together. Both the tree and LGBT people have been around for thousands of years, since pagan times.

The Cycles Roll

All over the world, cultures have revered trees as symbols of the teeming plant life without which there could be no animals or humans on our planet! Plants teach us about cycles; an understanding of how cycles work is the foundation of all knowledge, from engineering to history. Plants also provided writing materials -- Chinese rice paper, Egyptian papyrus. Thus trees also came to symbolize libraries and learning. In German, the words for "book" and "beech tree" have the same root...buch.

Iconic trees stand at the center of many great religions. Buddha found enlightenment while sitting under a banyan tree. Native American peoples have their tree ceremonies, including the Sun Dance, which celebrates a cottonwood tree. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts, Teutons and Slavs had their groves of sacred oaks and olives.

In northern Europe, a few ancient oaks and lindens still survive from those times so lost in mists of myth. When I was in Germany in 1984 researching One Is the Sun, a Bavarian friend took me to visit a sacred oak in the countryside near Munich. Said to be 2000 years old, the massive tree has a hollow trunk with a tiny shrine to Mary inside it. Women still flock there to pray - a good example of how pagan tree customs were adopted by Roman Catholicism.

Indeed, the Christmas-tree custom probably originated in pagan parts of northern Europe. The word Tannenbaum, which is German for "Christmas tree," alludes to the Danans, a great early people that migrated into northern Europe and Britain. Here, vast belts of evergreen forest swept from north England and Germany into Scandinavia. According to German folklorists I interviewed, pagan people went out in the snow on the December 21-22 winter solstice and decorated living evergreen trees with candles. This was how they celebrated the real beginning of the New Year, when days are already getting longer again, and seeds germinating under the snow. Evergreen trees came to symbolize the power to survive winter, hard times, even near-death. North European Christians adopted the custom.

Surprisingly, this pagan ceremony even survived the Reformation -- a time when purist Protestants threw out many Catholic customs and rites on grounds that they were "pagan popery." While the custom of Christmas trees stayed entrenched among many liberal Protestants and Catholics, some right-wing American Protestants today are adamant about not having a Christmas tree in their home.

Ironically, Catholicism's decision to fix the feast of Christ's birth at midwinter, was partly based on the older ceremony of the "new light," since the church wanted to send a political message that it alone held the keys to human enlightenment.

Different Ways With Trees

In the hotter, drier Mediterranean, there were no evergreen forests. Even in ancient times, the region's great civilizations and large populations of people put intense pressure on the land. Wood was scarce and valuable. So trees were seldom cut down for ceremony. Holiday emphasis shifted to the most revered food plants, including tree fruits. Raisins, figs and nuts were favorites. In Spain, where I lived for some years in the 1960s, the big Christmas treat is marzipan, made from almond paste and shaped into dragons. Those almonds come from a zone of orchards that delicately greens the country's Mediterranean coast.

Inevitably the solstice tree came indoors -- rich Teutons didn't want to stand around in the snow and freeze their butts off to celebrate. For centuries Germans have decorated their holiday trees with the world's most beautiful and delicate glass ornaments. They also invented fancy silver-plate candle-holders that clip onto branches... ancestors of today's electronic tree-lights. The practice was dangerous -- we all know what happens when a dried-out tree catches fire. A German gay friend of mine, Reg Riedel, treasured his heirloom silver candle-holders, which came down from his father's side of the family. He made sure he used a very fresh tree -- and kept a fire extinguisher handy. My greatgrandmother, a native of Altona on the Elbe, had her own trove of antique glass ornaments and a personal magic with trees that was part of our Warren Christmas.

International politics helped spread the custom from Germany. Queen Victoria, who was almost entirely of German descent, popularized Christmas trees in Britain by putting them up at Buckingham Palace every year. Curiously, Christmas trees are missing in Charles Dickens' classic tale A Christmas Carol, which was written during Victoria's reign. But Dickens favored other indigenous pagan customs. Remember that plum pudding carried triumphantly to the Craitchet family's dinner table, bursting with raisins, blazing with rum and garnished with holly? That's pure paganry.

Coming to America

In colonial times, German immigrants brought the tree custom to the U.S. Here, the continent abounded in uncut evergreen forest -- enough to feed our pioneer building boom and our appetite for that pagan custom as well. Today, when our nation lights the high-profile trees at the White House and Rockefeller Center, the moment must gladden the hearts of all those billions of tree-worshipping ancestors who linger near in spirit.

In our time, forests are threatened everywhere on Earth, and every tree is precious. Fewer Americans feel good about axing a tree just for a few days' decor. We have the environmental twist of the "living tree," sold with a rootball and a chance to give that tree back to our planet after the holiday. One elderly lesbian I know has filled her back lot with growing ex-Xmas trees - each one a year older than the last, a personal celebration of that ancient love of Life.

Christmas 2008 has a strange yet special feel. For many families and individuals, this holiday won't be as opulent as before -- indeed, for some, there will be a Craitchet-family struggle to make the best of not very much. Yet we are celebrating the election of a President and his administration who will hopefully turn things around for our hurting country, and for us gay people. An energetic awakening out of a half-frozen almost-dead political winter sleep is what America needs at every level, from her economy to her relationship with other countries, to the hearts of her hurting people...and those hearts certainly include our own, whether the religious right like it or not.

So once again, this year, across the country, the fancifully decorated trees will get lit in LGBT homes, however mortgaged to the hilt those homes might be.

Why do so many of us love Christmas so much? After all, Christianity has persecuted us horribly in the name of that cute Baby Jesus in his manger. Maybe our love flows from that collective consciousness that we share with all humanity living and dead -- It gives us a powerful knowing of how Christianity stole this holiday, and the tree, from the pagan cultures where we were often more welcome than we are in America today. Then, as now, we were seers and statesmen, fighters and poets, and other kinds of folks as well, all of them striving to live out their lives in love, honesty and care.

Yes, every year, we fight to somehow steal Christmas back. Pagan and irreligious though I am, I have great respect for those of our people, the Wynns and Ricks and all the others, who are still trying to make religion work for themselves in some form, by igniting it with unconditional love. Even some of the atheists among us take on this fight for Christmas. One atheist blogger confesses, "I put up lights and a tree and give gifts and say 'Merry Christmas' and mean it. Devout Christians rail against how secular the holiday has become. I'm delighted with it....There are a couple of angel ornaments in the tree, but there are also unicorns and a swinging Spiderman."

In short, the persecutors haven't been able to rid the world of us. Like the grinch in the story, they stole the tree from us...and every year we steal it back. I haven't decided yet how I'm going to decorate my own tree. But it will join that vast forest of millions of candle-lit trees stretching across the country. My prayer is that the lengthening days brighten our way into a new year that will hopefully be better than the last.


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Patricia, I'm so glad you did this post. I was wondering if you would do another piece this year about the pagan roots of Christmas. Last year's post was terrific!

We put up our tree the day after Thanksgiving. Even though it's a plastic number, I love the idea of having a tree in the house. It's so delightfully pagan! Ours is a very gay-themed tree, from the rainbow lights and disco ball ornaments to the Wonder Woman tree topper. I'm all about making "the Yuletide gay."

For Solstice, my friends and I celebrate with our annual bonfire and potluck. We'll be celebrating this year by doing a Spiral Dance and I've got the honor of leading us in welcoming back the light this year. It's such a fun tradition!

I do the Solstice too, in my vegetable/herb garden, which is walled off from our street in central L.A. My garden just got her new winter coat of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, dill, cilantro and other things that love the cool California winters. I love candles...lots of them.