Em oi! #441: O Christmas Tree

In Wisconsin, controversy erupts: is it a Christmas tree or a holiday tree?
Em: You know, decorated trees around solstice...smells like an old pagan ritual. B: But is it?
Em: We know the modern Christmas tree originated in the Renaissance in northern Germany, Estonia, and Latvia, and came to the UK with Prince Albert when he married his cousin Victoria in 1840. B: But what about earlier? Em: Let's ask a medievalist!

Dr. Jesse the medievalist: Interesting question! But hard to answer. Sometimes a thing can become so deeply embedded in a culture that its origins are hard to unpick.
Jesse: Pagans definitely worshipped trees (for example, the world tree), but their preferred species was an evergreen Mediterranean oak. Romans used evergreen boughs to decorate for Saturnalia, too!
Jesse: The pagan tradition probably got syncretized with the story of the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden when they met Christian missionaries.

B: This gives me an idea.
B is standing in front of a sign planted in front of the tree in the rotunda. It says "Yggdrasil."

So: true story about the political situation here in Wisconsin. My actual sequence of thoughts about this:

  1. This is the stupidest thing I have ever heard of. 
  2. Calling it a “holiday tree” doesn’t make me as a non-Christian feel more included. It’s a tree used to celebrate a Christian holiday. Why do we even have one at the capital? 
  3. (After some research) Huh! Actually, the history of Christmas trees is not as straightforwardly Christian as I assumed. The pagan aspect is actually pretty neat. 
  4. This is still the stupidest thing I have ever heard of.

Hey Robin Vos, I have an offer, on behalf of the liberals of Wisconsin: If we let you call it a Christmas tree, could you pass some bills to decarbonize the economy, make electric cars easier to buy, maybe add in some incentives for all the farmers to feed their cows seaweed to reduce methane emissions? 

That idiocy aside, I hope you’re all having a good winter holiday season, whichever you choose to celebrate–Yalda, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, Saturnalia, Kwanzaa… I’m sure I’m missing a few. 

We opted not to do a Christmas card this year; after an autumn beset by illness (mine and that of others, culminating in spending ten hours throwing up last week from a norovirus), I opted to put my limited energy toward other projects (good news is I finished draft #2 of my new novella and it has gone to my beta reader). However I have greatly enjoyed all the cards I’ve received from you all! Hopefully next year we’ll get our acts together in time and I’ll have something to send out.

Side note on the comic: The tree in the sixth panel is growing out of a skull because in some traditions, the wood that the cross was made from came from a tree grown from seeds of the tree of knowledge that were planted on Adam’s grave (reference the Golden Legend if you’re curious about this). There was originally text discussing this, but it was cut for space. This is already a really long and wordy comic. Also, sorry for all the typos etc. I swear I remember how to read and write.

We’ll file this one under GT4989 L86 2019, for Manners and customs (General)–Customs relative to public and social life–Festivals. Holidays–Special days and periods of time–Christmas–Special customs–Christmas trees.

Relevant previous comic, if you’re interested: #392: Such Truth.

Final note, a new weird little poem/microfic got published at SlippageLit.

Em oi! #392: Such Truth

em 392b

I should clarify straight away that “Lupton Fact” is the term B uses for claims that I (and my brothers) claim that occasionally turn out to not be true, or not be entirely true.

Usually when I do comics about history or philosophy I fact check them pretty closely. This one, I did not–mostly it was a good story that I wanted to transcribe. To be honest, the word “mystery” in the term “Mithraic Mysteries” (or “Mysteries of Mithras”) means that you didn’t get to find out much about the rituals and so on until you had been initiated into the religion–it’s the modern-day equivalent of Free Masonry. Or Scientology. No writings from the Mithras cult survive, as far as I know, and all of what we know about them is based on supposition drawn from artworks, artifacts found in caves (where they held their rites), and a few contemporaneous writings, including one early church father. In short, we don’t really know what they believed or who they stole from. They were contemporaneous in time with Christianity, certainly, but whether they were contemporaneous in geography is a question. It seems that at least some of the similarities between Christianity and the Mysteries of Mithras may have been drummed up by the New Atheist Movement to score points on Christianity.

That said, it’s a good story.

I wanted to make this chat longer, but I’m really tired, so I’m just going to file this under BR128.M5 L86 2013, for Christianity–Relation of Christianity to other religious and philosophical systems–Special, A-Z–Mithraism. And now to bed.

OH, by the way. If you read my book, and you happen to be on Goodreads, it’s on there–you can leave a review! Exciting, eh?


Sean messaged me this morning to provide an alternate account of the connection between Mithraism and Christianity. It goes something like this:

  1. The religions of Rome were very ritual-centric, rather than focusing on belief in a specific deity, so much so that late empire writers complained that no one understood the meaning behind or origin of the rituals yet had to fulfill them.
  2. When Rome adopted Christianity as its religion, these people might have brought some of their rituals with them to Christianity.
  3. A lot of religions make a connection between their deity and the sun [For perhaps obvious reasons, since you’d want to connect a life-bringing deity with the life-bringing sun.–Ed.]. In Islam, for example, the angel Gabriel appears to Mohammed (BPuH) as a giant in the sky. In the Hebrew Bible, G-d is frequently described with solar/light-related metaphors.
  4. A lot of Roman cults had resurrection myths. But Jews (and especially the Nazarites) did sin offerings. [Ok, there are appearances of offerings all over the Hebrew Bible–for example, the “scapegoat” thing in Lev. 16:8 or Hannah dedicating her son in 1 Sam. 1:24. So I don’t know if this was just especially a Nazarite thing or what–Sean didn’t specify. Jews in general made offerings.–Ed.] It’s not a big step from an offering one person makes to clear one person of sin to an offering made to cleanse all of humanity of sin. So Christianity could certainly have picked up a lot of its beliefs from extant Jewish mythology.
  5. In summary, certainly a bunch of the harmless stuff, like bunnies that lay eggs, Christmas trees, lights, etc. probably came from Roman cults. But the rest, it’s hard to say, and harder still because some of the people who are interested in propagating this train of thought are doing so to discredit Christianity as a religion. [Whatever that means. I don’t see the fact that a religion has particular sociocultural/historical roots as incompatible with believing in it, but even in my religious days I was never a literalist.–Ed.]