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Christmas trees and mistletoe may seem like the quintessential emblems of the Christmas season. But these traditions bear the traces of ancient pre-Christian beliefs. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. According to one account, about a thousand years ago the German St. Bonaface honored the first Christmas tree as a symbol of the victory of Christianity over pre-Christian religions.
“People tended to worship the oak tree as being a paganistic symbol, and so he wanted to cut down an oak tree to show them that this was no longer important. So he cut down this big oak tree on Christmas and the oak tree fell. And as it fell, it destroyed everything in its path, except for a very small fir tree which happened to be growing in its path.”
Vaughn Bryant is the head of the Anthropology department at Texas A & M University.
“St. Bonaface ran over to the fir tree, pointed to it and said: ‘There, you see that was saved by divine providence. It’s an illustration of the demise of paganism and the rise of Christianity.’ And so from that time forward, the Christmas tree was celebrated.”
But other Christmas traditions reflect an adoption of so-called pagan rites. The mistletoe, for example was considered a sacred plant by many pre-Christian societies. It grows as a parasite on a number of trees, including oaks.
“Well, in the winter time, when the oaks lost their leaves, the only green thing left was mistletoe. In fact, it was so sacred that they believed that anytime somebody was in the presence of mistletoe, you could not quarrel; you could not fight.”
In ancient Rome it was said that when enemies met under a mistletoe – the symbol of hope and peace – that they would kiss and declare a truce until the following day. It may be from this practice that our present day custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
Pulse of the Planet is presented by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.