In this time of the year, as the days wane more and more and darkness swallows up the light of the sun, we Christians in the northern hemisphere dream of the time of turning. The turning, or “yule” as it was called by our Saxon/Germanic ancestors, marked the time when the sun would end its long descent into the South and begin to climb north again. The Pagan Romans celebrated this as the Feast of the Invincible Sun, Sol Invictus, on or close to December 25th. The Church baptized this great celestial event by celebrating in its place an event of cosmic proportion: viz. The Advent of the Son of Righteousness whose coming in the flesh heralds the salvation of the whole universe. And this yuletide turning brings with it two great and ancient symbols of life and hope: trees that are evergreen and lights upon them that overcome the night.
The Christmas tree as we know it in modern America is a custom imported by German immigrants. But the English before them had their own evergreen symbol of the Holly and the Ivy. Evergreens of various kinds have always been important to the people of the far North since their winters are long and leave everything so lifeless. At the center of the ancient Norse mythology is an evergreen tree Yggdrasil whose very existence is the locus of the cosmos. Since their gods were all mortal, Yggdrasil’s ever renewing branches were the closest the Norse came to understanding immortality. So it was no mistake that the branches of this tree found their way into Christian Celtic crosses, symbolizing the destruction of death by death: first, the death of the tree that formed Christ’s cross, then the death of the One who could never die which brought life to all the inhabited world. Yggdrasil, the Norse Tree of Life, found its fulfillment in the life-giving cross of the Lord.
And what of the gaudy, flashy lights that we see now adorning our trees and illumining our city squares? They are symbols of the Light that no man can approach, the light that shone in Bethlehem 2000 years ago and was foretold by prophets from multiple nations. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Does it matter that the light showing forth today is powered by electricity? We need to regain the symbolism of our ancient fathers and not be distracted by convenience and efficiency.
Where I live here in the northeast, the emphasis is especially strong on having live conifers, recently cut dwelling in one’s house. Everywhere the sight of Yggdrasil’s progeny strapped to the top of BMW’s, Subaru’s and Lexus’ reminds me there is hope in this land which has been called the graveyard of the churches. For while some decry the pagan origin of these conifers, I conclude that they remain a perennially Christian symbol of life everlasting and darkness turned to light. And like the Apostles of old who recognized this and turned a Roman/Norse pagan holiday into a Christian one, we Christians need to stop fighting culture wars and start creating culture. Amen.
For this post, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the most recent issue of the journal Road to Emmaus. I highly recommend a life-time subscription. In the issue Summer/Fall 2018, the editor interviews the Rev. Fr. G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. who is responsible for translating the Norse/Christian epic called The Helliand.