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Noel's angel sits atop pagan tree


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POSTED: Friday, November 28, 2008

In case you're under the impression that Christmas trees are an ancient Christian practice, they've really only been part of popular culture for the past couple of centuries. As recently as 1851, the first Christmas tree in an American church was erected by Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland. Did his flock sing hosannas? Nope. He was attacked and the tree removed, as such activity was clearly a pagan practice.

As the Good Book stateth in Jeremiah: "Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not."

Pagan, pagan, pagan! You might as well dance naked in the forest with your butt painted blue and howl at the moon. Whether the tradition of the Christmas tree is an offshoot of Roman saturnalias or Druid tree-worship or 15th-century Germanic customs is beside the point: Where else are you going to pile the presents?

  Traditionally, the tree was erected on Christmas Eve and taken down on Jan. 6, which is where we get the Twelfth Night tradition. The "12 days of Christmas" START on Christmas; it's not a countdown! The tree is traditionally an evergreen because, frankly, in snowy season they're the only trees that still look somewhat lively, and the natural conic shape makes for a leafy canvas upon which to decorate and also to project seasonal hopes.

How many times have you heard people say it's not Christmas without a tree?

And so we have soldiers decorating twigs in the midst of battle, millionaires erecting massive firs in their lonely mansions, suburban houses in desert and jungle climates outfitted with trees better suited for arctic climes, stores and malls and even Web sites plastered with Christmas-tree images—like a seasonal, cultural icon imprinted upon us at birth—and government employees holding departmental contests for gaudiest tree.

The Christmas tree is the cultural touchstone of hope and rebirth, an annual craft project enjoyed by whole nations, a symbol that life goes on, and when it's all over, each and every one of us, from the mighty and powerful to the lowest and humblest, we still have needles to sweep up.