By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
In our land, the most visible sign of Christmas is the Christmas Tree. And the most visible Christmas Tree is on Kolkata’s Park Street. One of us spent two years in 30 Park Street’s iconic St Xavier’s College. If anyone tried to tell the people of Rabindranath Tagore that Christmas and Christmas Trees are symbols of “our colonial masters” he would earn the Bengalis’ ultimate term of contempt: “He is uncultured!” Bengalis have a great regard for a segment of their people who they call the Bhadra Log: professionals with a fine regard for social graces. People obsessed with amassing wealth are considered to be crass. Bengalis, as many of our vanity-driven netas have learnt, march to the beat of their own drummer.
Kolkata has a street called Shakespeare Sarani, its Police Choir sings Christmas Carols in Bengali, Hindi and English, and Christmas decorations on Park Street are highlighted by a great Christmas Tree.
So much for the eclectic culture of Bengal. Now for the odd note. Christmas Trees are not rooted in Christian Beliefs! They belong to a far older tradition drawn from Scandinavian mythology and their introduction into the Christmas scene illustrates a feature of religious, and also all, philosophical belief systems whether religious, political or social. Self-confident belief systems expand into alien concepts adapting and adopting them as they encounter those strange ways. The austere Hinayana Buddhism was virtually pure philosophy to the extent that the Buddha decreed. “Question everything, even what I have said!” This was too unspecified for some of his followers so they began to absorb more specific Indic beliefs and gave birth to Mahayana with its rich variety of images. But even this was not wide-ranging enough for the new converts from the far north, the people of the Himalayas. They were used to the nature spirits of the old Bon faith. When the beliefs of that faith became merged with Peninsula Buddhism, Vajrayana, the inspirational way of Buddhism and the old Bon deities were incorporated as Guardian Deities of the outer chambers of Tibetan Buddhist temples. Strong religions embrace change, absorb them, and evolve. This is how the Christmas tree became part of modern Christmas decorations. We even know when, how and where the decorated conifer tree entered modern Christian tradition.
Queen Victoria was the most powerful monarch in British history. After the fall of the East India Company, Victoria was proclaimed The Empress of India. But her German husband was never called The King Emperor. He was not even given the title of King Consort. This must have hurt him and so he tried his best to put his mark on his wife’s empire. He built the Glass-and-Iron Crystal Palace to hold an enormous Exhibition. But his most lasting legacy was The Christmas Tree.
It is quite possible that Albert was more than a little irked by the fact that Victoria was not only an empress but also the head of the Church of England. So, when he was on holiday with her, in their vacation residence on the Gulf-stream warmed Isle of Wight, he suggested that they decorate their Victorian residence with a symbol straight out of Scandinavian Myth and Legend. It was a subtle way of saying “you may be Queen of England and Head of the Anglican Church of England, but this is far older than any of those titles. This is straight out of my Northern European belief. This is the winter home of the ancient European Spirits of the Conifer Forests! Today’s Christmas Trees, all around the world still reflect these ancient, pre-Christian, beliefs.
The tinsel and glitter on Christmas Trees represent the frost that sparkles on conifers in the cold forests of Scandinavia. The shredded cotton tries to capture snow. Festoons of blinking lights try to replicate the flashing curtain of the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis. And finally, but most significantly, no Christmas Tree is complete without little figurines. Those portray the Spirits of the cold forests taking shelter in Christmas Trees standing in warm homes. Do Christians believe in all these myths? Certainly not! But do Christians love Christmas Trees? Most certainly they do. So are Christmas Trees Prince Albert’s long standing Scandinavian Jihad?
(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)