Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Tree

It has been reported in the American news media the past week or so that an elementary school in Frisco, Texas in the United States has banned the use of Christmas trees within its premises and has also forbidden students to use the colors red and green in its annual winter party.  The principal of the school explained that the the local Board of Education is enforcing the policy that "no religious belief or non-belief shall be promoted by the district and its employees" and that the school "didn't want to offend any families and since each family donates money (to the party), (it) feels that this is the best policy."

The ban surprisingly came just after Texas Governor Rick Perry signed recently into law the so called Merry Christmas Bill which essentially allows students and school staff to freely discuss and celebrate holidays as they please. Many parents and concerned Texas residents have been outraged and have angrily spoken up to condemn what they felt was political correctness carried to the extreme by the administrative staff of the Nichols Elementary School .

In Lianga like everywhere else in the Philippines and in most Christian nations all over the world, nothing else epitomizes and symbolizes the Yuletide season than the ubiquitous Christmas tree. In this town, it is even a more common component of the traditional Christmas dressing-up of homes than the more indigenous Filipino parol (Christmas star) or belen (nativity crèche or tableau), a fact that quickly is obvious to someone who takes the time to go around and visit the houses of relatives, friends and acquaintances here this Yuletide season.

I have always been fascinated since early childhood with Christmas trees and have wondered even as a young boy how something so clearly alien and foreign to the early founding cultures of this nation can be so quickly accepted and assimilated by us Filipinos as an essential requirement of our contemporary Christmas celebrations. After all, what do trees of spruce, fir or pine have to do with this tropical country? Especially the ones bedecked in twinkling lights, ribbons, red balls and other trimmings, candy canes, angel and reindeer figurines, and whose evergreen branches gleam with painted glitters and the simulated dusting of fake snow and ice.

Most historians point to 16th century Germany as the time and place for the first verifiable records detailing the use of decorated trees to commemorate and symbolize Christmas. Apparently the practice quickly spread through Europe and Great Britain. In the then English colonies of North America which would eventually become the United States, German immigrants introduced and promoted the custom and Yule trees become part and parcel of the Christmas lore and legend in that nation. American colonization of the Philippines in the early 20th century and more than a century of American influence ensured that Filipinos became quickly enamored of Yule trees, however patently strange and absurd they must have originally been to our forbears.

These same experts and most folklorists speculate that the first use of Christmas trees was a consequence of early pagan or animist religious beliefs (adopted and integrated later into Christianity) which include the worship of trees and tree groves associated with mythic gods and other supernatural beings. In the Philippine context, the belief in tree spirits and other unnatural creatures both benign and malignant who reside in trees and forests is also endemic in traditional cultures and such superstitions remain stubbornly embedded in the Christian and Catholic and even Muslim faiths of Filipinos today.

Thus it is easy to hypothesize why the practice and tradition of putting up Christmas trees this time of the year became so easily accepted here in this country. What better way can there be to ensure good fortune and good luck for the coming new year than the setting up in the main room of one's house of what essentially amounts to a shrine to all good spirits and the invisible yet powerful guardians of nature, enticing them to enter the home and bless and protect all of its occupants from all forms of harm and misfortune.

Ironically, the pre-Christian and therefore "pagan" origins of the practice of putting up Christmas trees (and its gradual integration into modern Christmas symbology) has led to heated debates in many countries particularly the the United States on whether the custom should be considered religious or secular in nature. For the Roman Catholic Church, however, two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have tacitly affirmed acceptance of the Yuletide tree tradition. John Paul II, in particular, has referred to it as a symbol of the birth of Christ and of "the tree of life" that has "blossomed in the desert of humanity."

Of course, in the Philippine setting, the Christmas tree tradition has adapted to the realities and nuances of both the local setting and native cultures. Fir, spruce and pine has given way to local substitutes from bamboo, palm or coconut fronds to garden shrubs of all types. In the more urbanized areas where access to living trees or shrubs is difficult, the use of artificial trees ingeniously made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), aluminum and even optical fibers is widespread. My mother's Christmas tree now is even made of Magkono (Philippine ironwood) branches artfully arranged and festooned with the traditional trimmings and glitters.

Yet no matter what type and manner these now durable symbols of the Christmas spirit are made of and how they are decorated and embellished, it is clear to me that much of our sentimental attachment to Christmas trees can be universally traced to mankind's subconscious fascination and admiration for the ability of evergreen conifers like pine, spruce or firs to not only survive yet even flourish in the harsh and freezing cold of winter. Even in the tropical clime we here in the Philippines are born and used to, no image is more evocative of Christmas than the mental picture of magnificent pine or fir trees, their branches heavy with the weight of powdery white frost, standing majestically still and silent in the midst of snow covered landscapes underneath the twinkling stars of a clear winter night.

The Christmas tree is certainly a tradition borrowed (or imposed in the opinion of many) from other cultures not our own. But perhaps, in the deepest recesses of our Pinoy hearts, just like in the hearts of all men of peace and goodwill all over the world, there has always been a universal need for a tangible symbol of the deep human longing and yearning for some degree of hope and surety that, in spite of  the all the chaos, conflict and despair existing in the world through out the ages, there is always a chance for something better, something worth living and working for in the dawning of a new year and in the immediate future to come. The evergreen tree standing proudly and defying the inhospitable cold of winter is clearly a potent and appropriate icon for that.

In this sense, the Yuletide tree is both pre-Christian and Christian, both secular and religious. It is also, for us Filipinos, a tradition while seemingly anomalous, yet is also not necessarily in contradiction to the spirit of our native cultures. The decorated trees (both natural and synthetic) that stand in the living rooms of our homes in Christmastime are, in the secular sense, unintentional monuments to our innate optimism as a people, illuminated symbols trumpeting our resolve to continue to strive and move on despite all the trials and challenges we as individuals and as a people have faced and will continue face ahead. In the religious sense, they can be viewed and understood in many diverse yet not necessarily contradictory and complementary ways.

The controversy and debate on whether this custom or practice impinges upon religious freedom or the doctrine of the separation of church and state is therefore, as I see it, pointless as it is unnecessarily divisive when the priority should be for universal unity and tolerance despite our intrinsic differences as unique peoples and cultures. Christmas, both as an idea and as an actual celebration, please bear in mind, will always be for all the wide-eyed and trusting children that are in all of us irregardless of our actual ages and our individual religious or political persuasions. Myth, legend and a sense of magical wonder will always be an invaluable part of it

We should all see to it that it will stay that way always.

My prayers and best wishes go out to all of you who have followed this blog for the past six years or so. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you wherever you may be.

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