On the Christmas Tree

So, I’ve been promising this post for a while, but I’ve been trying to think of the perfect way to come at it. I generally knew what I wanted to say, and why I wanted to say it, but was unable to figure out the ‘how’. But, tonight, the lady and I went to a good friend of mine’s house, who so happens to be a biological anthropologist, and had a great relaxing time. Being rejuvenated, and full of wine, it hit me while I was laying in bed. So here it is… partially drunk, but coherent hopefully (or at least it will be after I edit it in the morning).

My ‘anthropological’ interest is in why people aestheticize stuff, on a broad scale. And so, while I can’t make general “they do it because…” assertions, I can most certainly shed light on the process of aesthecization through little vignettes. For the past few years, since taking Mark Auslander’s “making culture: theory and practice”, I have had a particular side interest in holidays- especially Halloween and Christmas (consumerism and symbolism mix in no better ways than through holidays). This post is, given the season, about Christmas.

I am particularly interested in the Christmas tree, and why/how/what/etc. involved in its aestheticization. Particularly, I think the Christmas tree, most certainly in its modern context, but assumedly in its origins, is a site of memory. Let’s think through this…

Many people argue that the tree has a pagan origin, but this is only partially true. The decorating of a tree with tinsel (originally small metal pieces) is, indeed, a pagan origin (intended to transform the tree into some sort of symbol/icon/index of the god Bacchus), however, no pagan would ever cut down a tree and move it into their house for ‘decorative’ purposes. To do such would be to defile nature. However, there would be the ritual of bringing sprigs of trees and leaves into the house (for those pagans with access, this would resemble either our wreath, yule log, or our ivy/holly), but these would have generally already fallen off of the tree, and be considered a ‘gift’ to the pagan from the tree (note- this is an archaic form of paganism and in no way represents all contemporary forms of this belief, for which I have the utmost respect). The misunderstanding of the Christmas tree, itself, comes from a misunderstanding of pagan ritual, or misinterpretation from Hebrew, in the biblical book of Jeremiah 10:2-4- “Thus saith the Lord, learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven… For the customs of the people are vain: 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 faste it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” Somebody with a deeper knowledge of Paganism will have to explain to me the part about ‘move not’.

In the Christian tradition, the tree can be traced to c. 720, when St. Boniface cut down the ‘tree of Thor’ to disprove the legitimacy of Norse gods to local Germans, and a fir tree grew from the roots of the oak. From this 2 explanations come forth: “…let Christ be at the center of your households…” Boniface says, and the fir tree became a symbol of Christ in the house. OR- as a symbol of the power of God, in the face of Saturnalia and other types of religious observances, the church displays the fir to show how Jesus shined through all other beliefs.

In either belief system you think about your tree, the whole point is rememberance- be it of Bacchus or Jesus. The Christmas tree originates as a site of memory. One of the interesting things about aesthetics, as Mukarovsky argues in his theory of Functional Aesthetics, is that while the aesthetic mode might change (the symbols that represent the aesthetic), the message, in some way, remains intact.

Of course, we can’t leave without commenting on the contemporary Christmas tree. For some people, it is a religious symbol. For some, it is a sign of the season without any type of (direct) link to a spiritual ideology- it’s a family centered object. Regardless, trees become sites of memory through decorating it with ornaments from one’s past- how many trees do we have with past school projects and dated items like “baby’s first Christmas”? How many times do we scoff at the store built, pre-decorated trees as being some how stagnant and ‘inauthentic’? The aesthetic function of ‘remembrance’ is carried through from Bacchus to Jesus, to our former selves.

I’d like to leave you with a stretch of the imagination, but let me pre-code it. Bacchus= spiritual being in the ‘beyond’. Jesus= part of the father, son, and holy ghost. “Baby’s first Christmas”= the past, a person whom we no longer are (some people I know, in their 30’s, have the ‘baby’s first Christmas’ ornament their parents bought, and still hang it.). In what way, as Levi-Strauss hints at in his essay The Execution of Father Christmas,  is the Christmas tree an altar to the spirits of the dead? Even in our highly secular society, where the tree fills no explicitly sacred function, does the tree fill some unconscious desire to communicate with the beyond? In this way (strangely enough), the Christmas tree might be related to the zombie walks I studied for my MA Thesis: it is intended to fill a slot in our cognitive vocabulary for which we no longer have a social morphology. The aesthetic function of trees, decorated in the bleakest seasons of the year- to communicate with the spirits that make it so bleak, or who might just have the power to make it better, be they Bacchus, Jesus, or the ghost of our former self.

So, I’ll close with a story my good friend Andreas Teuber (a philosophy professor at Brandeis University) told me about an allusion Slavoj Zizek always uses:

A man has been seeing a psychoanalyst for years about a fear that he will be eaten by a giant chicken. After 3 years, he is finally getting better. Then, one day out of the blue, he runs into the analyst and says “He’s following, and this time, he really is going to eat me!”. The analyst looks at him, and replies “We’ve been over this a million times- the chicken is not real, and he will not eat you.” The patient, nervously replies, “I know that, but does the chicken?!”

We might not be trying to communicate with the past through the Christmas tree- but do the spirits and ghosts know that?

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