Friday, December 15, 2006

Trees and Lights

Regardless of what you think about the flap at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport brought on by a Chassidic rabbi’s request for a Hanukkah menorah to be displayed along with Christmas trees, here’s an interesting aspect of both Christmas trees and menorahs that many people aren’t aware of: if you trace their history back far enough, they both can be understood as Goddess-connected, and the lights associated with both can be seen as related to the Winter Solstice.

The "Christmas" tree is not originally a Christian symbol. The story of the birth of Jesus in the Christian scriptures makes no mention of evergreens decorated with lights. Trees are Goddess symbols in many cultures. The decorated tree apparently originated in European Pagan observances. Some say it originated as a deciduous tree (specifically, an oak) in Germany, and then was changed to an evergreen when Germany was Christianized. But others say that there were traditions of decorating evergreens among some Pagans. The custom of decorating evergreen trees for Christmas was adopted by the British from the Germans in the 19th Century. There is no historical consensus on date of Jesus birth. The Christian scriptures don’t give Dec. 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth, nor is there any biblical indication that he was born near the Winter Solstice. Dec. 25 was the date of the Winter Solstice in the Roman calendar, which preceded the Julian calendar (which moved the Solstice a few days earlier). Most likely, church fathers set the date of Jesus' birth on Dec. 25 to coincide with popular Pagan celebrations that time of year, which included the birth of a son/sun-god, child of the Goddess. But in the Pagan versions, the Goddess isn’t denied her sexuality. (For a Winter Solstice invocation asserting the full sexuality of the Mother of the child born at Solstice, go here. )

On to the menorah: Though rabbinical explanations of its origin trace the menorah to the burning bush seen by Moses at Mt. Sinai , historical analysis links it to the Tree of Life, a concept within Judaism that was present earlier among Ancient Near East Goddess cultures, and especially associated with the Goddess Asherah. Two different menorahs are used today in Judaism: the 6-branched (plus usually a central candle), used year-round; and the Hanukkah menorah, which has 8 candles plus a "shamash" candle, used to light the other candles. They both can be seen as representations of the Tree of Life. (A web search for menorah+tree will turn up many Hanukkah menorahs made in the shape of trees, often specifically the Tree of Life). Though the historical aspect of Hanukkah is a celebration of the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians, c.165 BCE, and the rededication of the Temple after it had been "defiled" with a statue of Zeus, Hanukkah is also called the "Festival of Lights." One candle (plus the shamash) is lit on the first night, with additional candles lit for 8 nights until the entire 8 are lit on the eighth night. The story usually given as the reason for the growing light of the candles is that during the Maccabee-Syrian conflict there was enough oil to keep the eternal flame burning for only one night; by a miracle the flame continued to burn for 8 nights, until more oil could be obtained. But some of us cannot help but wonder if the theme of growing light is related deep down to the anticipated growing of the Sun’s light at the Winter Solstice. Rabbi Jill Hammer has created a ritual for Hanukkah incorporating Winter Solstice symbolism.

But enough intellectualizing for now. The important thing is, whatever holidays you celebrate this time of year, may they bring you much joy.


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.