Vol. 1 No. 2 - Nativity 2006
Puritans, Pagans, and Pudding
For better or for worse, that which is considered "Canadian Christmas" is an inheritance of Anglo-Protestantism, bearing with it much of the Orthodox inheritance of one thousand years ago. The popular use of the Christmas tree is a case in point: this Christianized pagan tradition brings into our homes a natural symbol of everlasting life - the evergreen tree - presenting it for us to honour by our decoration, a reflection of the Life-Giving Tree of the Cross. Christmas gift-giving, where we lay our treasures at the foot of the Tree, reflects our imitation of the Magi from the East, whose memory we commemorate on the feast of the Nativity.
The pagan roots of so many Christmas customs are all but forgotten by most of us, and rightly so. They have been filtered through centuries of practice in the lives of saints, and so come to us sanctified, not by some ideology or isolated interpretation of scripture, but by the experience of holy people. This is the very reason that Serbian Orthodox continue to decorate the badnjak tree - the Balkan yule log - and burn it in a marvelous bonfire on Christmas eve, commemorating (often without knowing it) the rejection by their ancestors of the worship of the pagan god Badnjak, and their embracing of faith in Christ. While these Christian roots have been obscured by the sheer joy of drinking warm plum brandy outside on a cold winter evening, the evident Christian universality of the practice can't be lost on anyone whose ancestors turned from paganism to Christ. The baptism of all of Europe, the Mediterranean, and most of Africa has produced near-exact parallels in experience, which make the strange relic of badnjak-burning strikingly relevant for all Orthodox Christians today.
Yet there are those who would seek to "clean up" this inheritance, to scrub it free of anything that bears a trace of pagan roots, to reconstruct Orthodox Christian practice along protestant lines - and quite ignorant protestant lines at that. Even Martin Luther, who re-popularized the use of the Christmas tree, recognized the potency of ancient rituals, which were baptized by filling them with Christian purpose and content. This is the very reason Saint Patrick used the clovers that covered Ireland to explain the Holy Trinity: the clover brought with it the weight of pagan spiritual significance, which when properly redefined within the norms of the Church, was powerfully effective in the conversion of the Irish. We see this again and again with the use of the ankh in Egypt, the blessed greenery at Pentecost, and the blessing of wheat in memory of the dead.
Such is the case with the Christmas pudding, or "plum" pudding, as it is sometimes erroneously called. The roots of this sweet dish are lost in the mists of time, but its association with holly, luck, and good omens strongly suggest pre-Christian origins. Yet it is the Christianized use of the dish that has found its way to contemporary tables, or at least to the references in Christmas carols, heard until recently in Canadian schools. Like the symbolic number of twelve dishes on Ukrainian Orthodox tables on the eve of Nativity, the Christmas pudding has thirteen ingredients, for Christ and His disciples. A sprig of holly tops the pudding, in honour of Christ's crown of thorns, and the whole brandy-soaked dish is set alight as a symbol of the Lord's Passion. Even the preparation of the dish - stirred from east to west, in memory of the movement of the Magi - speaks to the deep Christianization of our heritage. Thankfully, this heritage is still part of the Christmas memory of Canadians who have not been overtaken by trips to the shopping mall as the major source of symbolic pilgrimage in celebration of the birth of Christ.
Like so many other good things, the Christmas pudding was outlawed by the English Puritans, as far too rich and far too pagan in origin for their own squeaky-clean reconstruction of pseudo-Christian life. It was not until the time of Queen Victoria, at the urging of her German husband, Prince Albert, that the Christmas pudding was reintroduced, along with the Christmas tree (Queen Victoria had one in each room, decorated in blue and gold, her favourite colours). As Canadians, we have these Anglo-Germans to thank for reviving the authentic Christian symbolism in Christmas celebrations still part of Canadian life today.
I can still recall from childhood, the moment when my grandfather would light the Christmas pudding, bathed in brandy, the silent room as the younger ones watched in wonder as the precious offering burned with the Light of Christ's Passion. Of course, we did not know the meaning of any of this, since it had already been obscured by history and the secularism that has now all but engulfed the celebration of the birth of Christ for the bulk of Canadians. Still, we watched, knowing that something ancient and significant transpired each year on that Christmas table, something whose meaning was beyond all of us.
In this tiny flame burned the inheritance of the ancient Christian tradition, delivered to us children, unknowingly. And it is this same flame, this same inheritance, which must guide us in the west, as we seek to reconnect with the ancient, authentic witness of the Orthodox Christian Faith. No clever imitations, contrived in the kitchens of modern minds, can be a substitute for this inheritance, tested by time and the witness of generations of faithful. Without these, we are alone, seeking to stand on our own human wisdom, rather than walking in the path of the saints, who even in the simplicity of the Christmas table, manifested Christ in every action, where every act was a prayer, every green bough was a symbol of the Resurrection, and every flame pointed to the Uncreated Light of Christ.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Nativity, 2006)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.