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( Originally Published 1909 )
The stories I have just told you are pretty enough and may amuse an idle half hour. But we must now pass from the region of myth into that of history and science.
My sexagenarian readers will not need to be introduced to the science called comparative mythology. But for the sake of the six year olds it may be well to explain, as simply as I can in a few words, that comparative mythology is a branch of human knowledge which compares the myths and legends of one age and one people with the myths and legends of another age and another people, the object being to show how the later myths descend from the earlier ones, or how all the myths go back to some parent germ in the far-a-way past.
By the aid, then, of the science of comparative mythology let us seek to study the historical growth of the idea that is now embodied in the Christmas tree. Here, indeed, we are in a whirl of problems. Comparative mythology is one of the most interesting and also one of the most difficult of sciences. In the present case it must take account of the fact that we English speaking peoples of the present day, and especially we Americans, are a hodge-podge mixture of many races and many religions. Somewhere in our brains we preserve dim memories of a thousand conflicting myths of the past which without knowing it we have inherited from our ancestors. In other parts of our brain we retain the facts and fictions which have been told to us by our elders, or which we have learned from books.
Now in all times and in all countries we find records of the worship, at some former period, of a tree as a divinity,-in other words as a god.
Greatest and most famous of all these sacred trees was a quite imaginary one which the Scandinavians called the ash-tree Yggdrasil. Nobody had ever seen it, but everybody among these imaginative people believed in its existence.
It was supposed to be a tree so big that you could not possibly picture it to your fancy, which encompassed the entire universe of sun and moon and stars and earth. And it had three roots, one in heaven, one in hell and one on earth.
The serpent who gnaws the roots of Yggdrasil was of course a heathen idea. Yet you cannot help seeing in him some likeness to the serpent of Genesis who is held to be a symbol of Satan, or the devil. Like Satan he seeks the destruction of the universe.
When the roots of Yggdrasil are eaten through the tree will fall over and the end of all things will have arrived.
Now among the Anglo-Saxons or early inhabitants of England, who were in part descended from the Scandinavians, Yggdrasil survived in the Yule log, which they used to burn on Christmas Eve, as it is still burned in many an English home today.
And this is how the pagan tree was transformed into the Christian Yule log:
The missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons denounced the Yggdrasil superstition. They made their converts hack to pieces all carved figures representing the idolatrous symbol, and then cast the pieces into the flames as a token that the Christ-child had destroyed heathenism.
Among the Germans and the Norsemen, however, the sanctity of the Yggdrasil myth could not be destroyed. It had to be transformed, and transferred to Christian uses by identifying it with some Christian or Jewish symbol like the tree of life in Genesis or the cross of Christ in the New Testament.
Compare the great tree Yggdrasil and its three roots with the description which a certain writer of the early middle ages, called Alcima, gives of the Tree of Life.
"It's position," says Alcima, "is such that the upper portion touches the earth, the root reaches to hell, and the branches extend to all parts of the earth."
Evidently Alcima had been influenced by Scandinavian legend as well as by biblical lore. Of course you will understand that he was speaking not of the actual cross, but of the cross as a symbol of Christianity.
Let us extend our researches a little further into the region of comparative mythology.
You will find Adam and Eve commemorated in old calendars under date of December 24th. This is the eve of Christmas. The symbol of our first parents is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Christmas itself is the day of Christ, whose symbol is the tree of life or the cross. It is easy to see that when the minds of men were escaping from paganism into Christianity the tree of the old mythology grew to be associated with the birthday of Christ and thus with the cross. So the lights of the Chanuckah Festival of the Hebrews were borrowed to adorn the sacred tree, and the seven-branched candlestick, as a figure of that tree, was even introduced into the churches.
The representation-so common among the early painters and especially the painters of Italy-of the serpent squatting at the foot of the cross had of course its Christian meaning, but its adoption into Christian art was in great degree influenced by the fact that the cross had become popularly identified with the serpent tree of the old pagan myth.
Scandinavia was not the only place that had its sacred tree. Egypt, for instance, had one in the palm, which puts forth a shoot every month. A spray of this tree with twelve shoots on it was used in ancient Egypt at the time of the winter solstice as a symbol of the twelve month or completed year.
From Egypt the custom reached Rome, where it was added to the other ceremonies of the Saturnalia. But as palm trees do not grow in Italy other trees were used in its stead. A small fir tree, or the crest of a large one was found to be the most suitable, because it is shaped like a cone or a pyramid. This was decorated with twelve burning tapers lit in honor of the god of Time. At the very tip of the pyramid blazed the representation of a radiant sun placed there in honor of Apollo, the sun-god, to whom the three last days of December were dedicated. These days were called the sigillaria, or seal-days, because presents were then made of impressions stamped on wax.
In further honor of Apollo, who was a shepherd in his youth, images of sheep were shown pasturing under the tree. Apollo himself sometimes took charge of the herd, or taught the shepherds the use of the musical pipe. All these customs were skilfully adapted by the priests of the early Church to Christian uses. Shepherd and sheep were retained as symbols of Christ and his flock. As you know, our Lord is frequently alluded to as the good shepherd and is so represented in religious paintings. The sigillaria of the old Romans were also turned to a new use, the wax being now stamped with figures of saints and other holy persons.
A few pages back you were told that the day before Christmas is the day which our pious forefathers dedicated to Adam and Eve. Hence, you will remember, figures of our first parents appeared at the foot of the tree, while a serpent entwined itself around the roots or the trunk. This was the serpent of the Old Testament, but I have already explained how it was also a Christian adaptation of the serpent of the great ash-tree Yggdrasil.
I may add, right here, that the serpent still makes its appearance at the base of a Christmas tree in many parts of rural Germany where old customs still survive in their original purity.
And now by grouping all these facts together we find that long before the coming of Christ there was scattered all over the world an idea that an illuminated tree was a symbol of holiness. Therefore it was only natural that it came at last to be associated with the birthday of Christ and with the period of the winter solstice which the followers of Christ had rescued from pagan practices and pagan superstitions and adapted to the religion which He had founded.
This association was made all the more natural because the candles that twinkle on the Christmas tree were anticipated in the candles lit by the Jews on their Chanuckah or Feast of Lights. Chanuckah is still celebrated among them with all the old forms. It falls on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, or ninth month of the Jewish calendar, which roughly corresponds with our December or twelfth month.
On that day, in the year 165 before Christ, the temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by a Roman army under Antiochus, had been purified and rededicated by Judas Maccabeus. Antiochus had put out the lights of the seven-branched candelabra that had been kept burning ever since the temple had been finished. A jar of sacred oil, sealed with the ring of the High Priest, was discovered untouched. There seemed to be only enough for one day but when it was poured into the lamp it lasted for a full week. This miracle happened just in the nick of time, for it would have taken seven days to obtain a fresh supply of oil. It was then decreed that the week beginning with the twenty-fifth day of Kislev should be celebrated as a festival forever.
Accordingly on that day in every year the Jews light a candle in every home, on the next day, two, and so on, until the seventh and last day of the feast when seven candles twinkle in every home.
Now if Christ was born on the twenty-fifth day of December he probably came into the world at a time when every house in Bethlehem and Jerusalem was ablaze with lights.
In this connection it may be added that one of the German names for Christmas is Weinacht or Night of Dedication, as though it were somehow associated in the popular mind with the Jewish Chanuckah. Another curious fact which bears out the same theory is that the Catholics of the Greek Church call Christmas the Feast of Lights.
With another Jewish festival Christmas has a verbal link. This is the feast of the Passover when a lamb is killed and eaten. Christ is often symbol ized as a lamb. Saint John the Baptist, you remember, greeted him as "the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world."