On the Hill – If a Tree Falls

Forget the whole Harper versus Ignatieff uproar, and the prorogued Parliament tumult. There’s another political quandary that has Canadians taking sides, and It’s got nothing to do with backbenchers or budgets. Instead, It’s all about a tree.

A Christmas tree, to be exact: Should the festively decorated foliage at Quebec’s legislature be called a Christmas tree or a holiday tree?

That was the dilemma facing Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s office this week. On Tuesday, a news release announced the premier was going to light the ?Christmas tree? the following day. Minutes later, an updated bulletin replaced the Christmas tree with a ?holiday tree.? By Wednesday afternoon it had been changed again, and the beleaguered conifer was once again a Christmas tree.

If we’re going to establish a solid argument one way or the other, the question is this: do decorated trees have an exclusive association with the religious celebration of Christmas? Not the secular orgy of gift-buying that is the popular, modern-day version, but the core tenets of the event.

And if they don’t, what’s wrong with our public, secular institutions simply calling them holiday trees in recognition of the many celebrations Canadians mark in December, religious or otherwise? (A key part of the question being the words secular and public.)

If your first reaction is to thunder that of course the Christmas tree is an ancient symbol of the celebration of Christ’s birth, you may not know that the decorated trees are, historically speaking, a fairly recent development, first appearing in Germany in the 1700s. They weren’t even accepted in North America until the 1850s (hardly making them our age-old cultural icon of the event), and many notable Christians protested loudly against the trees being associated with Christmas at all.

Oliver Cromwell, who became Lord Defender of the Commonwealth in 1653, was among those determined to keep Christmas a ?sacred event,? and preached against such ?heathen traditions? as decorated trees.

The Puritans weren’t keen on associating decked out trees with Christmas either. Their second governor, William Bradford, penalized anyone who tried to include such ?pagan mockery? into the Christian observance of December 25. And as recently as 1851, Pastor Henry Schwan of Ohio was threatened with violence when his parishioners objected to him putting a decorated tree in church.

Is the religious celebration of Christmas an integral part of North American society? Absolutely, and it is a wonderful time to reflect on and renew its message of peace, generosity, and goodwill. To defend that tradition has merit. But why insist that a symbol with deep connections to many other celebrations, some more ancient than Christmas, be named solely after one religious observance, especially by public institutions?

To settle the debate, maybe we should call them Woden trees, after the ancient Germanic peoples of Northern Europe who used mistletoe, holly, and Yule logs (along with fruit and candles tied to trees) to honour their god Woden and symbolize eternal life. Now that sounds like a party.