Word of the Day: tree
I have heard for years that Christians adopted for their purposes the Roman Saturnalia, a feast occurring at the winter solstice, for their celebration of the birth of Jesus, or was it the feast that Aurelian instituted, that of the Unconquered Sun? Well, it is nonsense either way. Christians long acknowledged that pagans could come to some measure of the truth, and in the case of the great Platonists, the truths they saw might be profound indeed. That’s why Augustine said that he read, in the books of the Platonists, not in the same words but yet essentially the same truth, that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.But, said he, he did not read there that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. He did not read the Nativity there. To suggest that Christians would celebrate the birth of Jesus on some seedy old agricultural feast (Saturnalia) is like suggesting that they would seek out pagan brothels for getting married in. As for ol’ Sol, Romans had never been sun worshipers, until Aurelian invented the feast, probably as a response to the Christian feast that was already being celebrated at that time.
The truth, if anybody is interested in it, is that there were reasons behind suggesting December 25, or January 6, depending upon your calendrical scheme, as the date to celebrate Christ’s Nativity. The ancient Christians had a pious tradition of holding that a martyr would leave the world on the same date at which he or she had come into the world. They naturally were most interested in determining on what day the Martyr of Martyrs died. Examining the gospels and going back to the right year, they determined that Good Friday was on March 25 (or April 6). Hence that was the date for celebrating when the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us – the Annunciation. (Note, by the way, what Christians must therefore believe about the evil of pre-natal infanticide.) Advancing that date nine months, they came up with our date or dates for Christmas. In addition, if the high priest Zachariah was celebrating the Jewish high holy days (in September), and if John the Baptist is conceived at that time, then when his wife Elizabeth arrives at her sixth month of pregnancy, that too places the Annunciation in March, and the Nativity nine months later.
But what does all this have to do with a tree, you may ask? Well, I’ve also heard it said that Christians derived their fascination with trees from the Germans, for whom the tree was an important cultic object. That may or may not have something distant to do with decorating Christmas trees, but otherwise it too is nonsense. Again, from the earliest times, the tree is to be found in Christian iconography. And why not? Christ died upon a tree, and that tree, the cross, became for mankind the Tree of Life. Go to the old church of San Clemente in Rome, and you’ll see one of the most magnificent mosaics in the world, of Christ upon the Cross, which is sprouting forth branches and flowering into a glorious and universal life-giving tree. Christians were quick to see the relationship between the Cross, an instrument of death that in the grace of God brings life, and the Tree of Life in Genesis, the Tree that Adam and Eve could not partake of, because they were banished from Eden for their sin.
What about the word, tree? It’s not related to Latin arbor. It was Old English treow, as was the word for true. Grimm’s Law tells us to look for Latin d where we have Germanic t, and that suggests that treow is kin to Latin durus, hard; cf. English endure. The old Welsh word for trees in general was pren, and that’s no cousin to tree, but derw, their word for the oak, the toughest of all the trees, is.
How do we get from an oak to the truth, from treow to treowth? Ask a carpenter. If a wall stands true, it stands straight, not bevel. It does not bow. The tree is fixed in the ground and stands tall. It is an emblem of unswerving devotion.
The flesh of the Holy Child is soft and supple. The wood of the Cross is bitter and hard. Truth, Truth unflinching against the enemy but meek to those He came to save, hung upon that Tree, which stood fast and true on a Friday long ago.