What are some famous controversial photos that maybe shouldn’t have been taken?

The pictures of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Abu Ghraib is a large prison in Iraq. During the time of the Iraq War, it became a housing facility for American prisoners of war, as well as maintaining its role as a prison in an attempt to maintain order in the country following the collapse of the Hussein regime. Housed there were convicted terrorists, murderers, robbers, and rapists, but it was the US Army staff which brought the prison its most infamy.

Early in the Iraq war, soldiers of the 320th Military Police Battalion, an Army reserve unit far from the front lines of the conflict took over command of the facility. Prior to their arrival acts of barbarity by Iraqi prison officials was not uncommon. It was, in fact, a practice in Middle Eastern society prior to the American’s intervention to take pictures of people in humiliating situations, and to release the photos as a means of shame and humiliation to force coercion. In tribal societies, this works well and it was something the Hussein regime had long practiced. Having an image of a woman, in this case a woman holding a leashed naked Iraqi, I should add, greatly increased the value of the for such a work. Culturally, a women was of an inferior status, so to be depicted in such a demeaning manner by ta women was particularly offensive to Arab Muslims.

When the Americans took over, they were advised to continue the practice. Abuses under the American Army command included being forced to pose nude in demeaning positions, evidence of violence, inducing fear with military working dogs, and mocking poses with female guards. These practices, however, go against the law of war and several levels of military law and justice, as well as standing against many treaties, so when leaders in the prison took the advice to continue the status quo for the Hussein regime, they did so without good judgement or the legal leg to support their actions. This is why investigations for the prison were already underway before news of them began to circulate with international media, which had mostly been tipped off by these very same investigations.

Following the investigation, members of the 320th Military Police Battalion was charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with prisoner abuse. The United States Department of Defense removed seventeen soldiers and officers from duty, and eleven soldiers were charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, aggravated assault and battery. Between May 2004 and March 2006, these soldiers were convicted in courts-martial, sentenced to military prison, and dishonorably discharged from service. Two soldiers, Specialists Charles Graner and Lynndie England, were sentenced to ten and three years in prison, respectively. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the commanding officer of all detention facilities in Iraq, was reprimanded and demoted to the rank of colonel.

In April of 2004, information about the goings on at the prison began to become public, following earlier stories by the Associated Press. When the news broke, it detailed images of prisoner abuse at the prison not long after the war began.

After the pictures were released, the conversation about the war collapsed. In spite of the Army’s clear message through the imprisonment of the offending Army personnel, and the demotion of one of their Generals, the story that was told by the pictures was that this was acceptable practices for the United States military. This was detrimental to the war effort in that it unfairly misrepresented the rest of the military, myself included, in our efforts to help Iraq stabilize following the removal of the Iraqi Saddamist regime. It was never viewed as a rogue act of an undisciplined and reckless unit, but as representative of the entire United States military, and, to quote a commentor below, “…but it showed the true face of USA…” This radical hyperbole defined the war for many people even today, but the story the pictures told, rather than the truth, dramatically changed the ground war.

The United States military could not really advocate itself as a force for good when this event existed. It cast a very bright light on the decisions of an extremely small group of people in the military. Within the Iraqi population, it made a sound argument that this sort of behavior was the way of the new imperial dictator, and fed propaganda against the American occupation and populist government.  The pictures generated hatred and animosity as the images touched on very deep cultural sensitivities, beyond the obvious human reactions to them. This escalated insurgency activity and fed the increasing terror campaign for three more years before the “Surge” of 2007. In the United States, the event fed the anti-war rhetoric, silencing many supporters of the conflict and empowering those who were never behind the war in the first place with new evidence to support their views. After quickly toppling the government under Saddam Hussein and breaking grounds towards a stable and free government, the legacy of the American involvement in the country was forever damaged by Abu Gharib.

This was a tragedy on many levels. First, the actions of a very few marred the image of the United States’ mission and the conduct of its servicemen. The Marines have a saying, “No greater friend; no worse enemy.” This led many potential allies to think not in the terms of no greater friend, but that the Americans are simply an enemy to be feared. Resistance from that point on, was assured based on these pictures alone. Further, it painted the entire conflict as one of cruelty, forever ignoring the extreme effort that American and coalition forces went to minimize harm to civilians and attempt to rebuild the Iraqi way of life. And even furthermore, painted the hyperbolic assumption that all Americans were really like this.

Second, it was  a tragedy of justice in that it made it impossible to accurately judge who the just were. I will remind readers that the photos are of not just political prisoners of war, and certainly not of poor innocent Iraqis, but of convicted criminals under Iraqi courts. Some were guilty of war crimes under Saddam and some after the war began in 2003. Others were convicted murders, rapists, and all manner of citizens harmful to their own people. In truth, being tied to a leash and paraded around in some humiliating fashion was a far lighter offense than those suffered by many of their victims. You won’t find much remorse from me in the way they were treated, other than that the Americans were obligated by treaty not to participate in such acts. That said, even if these were the vilest of men, that message never got through. When they were masked, their identity was hidden along with all of their individual crimes. When their clothes or uniforms were removed, you remove their allegiances, in some cases to the criminal organizations that committed acts of terror and treason against the Iraqi people.

People can hate a face of a known killer, and they can hate anyone who wears a certain uniform. They couldn’t identify with a murderer, but to them, this was just another defenseless man. There was nothing that stopped them from identifying with just a naked man. Once you look at the picture, you only see illogical cruelty; there is never a question why did that person get into prison in the first place. The pictures didn’t capture their own atrocities, but clearly communicated human suffering they experienced at the hands of people who obligated to at least protect them, be it justified on any level or not. When we no longer saw them as criminals of the most terrible nature, we only saw people, or in this case, martyrs of the American war machine. Quick to forget who these men were and what they did, it was easy to look to those others pictured, cavalier and in American military uniforms as the unjust. I’m not saying that what the American soldiers tasked with overseeing the Abu Gharib prison did was morally justifiable. I’m just not very sorry for the individuals pictured. What I am sorry for is that the stupid actions of the soldiers caused anyone who saw them, both American or Iraqi, to forgive the evils of the men pictured for the story that was immortalized in their imagery.

The seminal tragedy in this is that it made sound the argument that the Americans should not have been in the war, and were incompetent to see it through. It increased pressure to forcing them out of the country long before Iraq was ready for them to leave. In this way, it opened the door to the premature departure of American forces, therefore leaving the door open to terrorists and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to invade and conquer vast swaths of Iraqi territory and empowering them to spread terror throughout not only the Middle East, but also throughout the world into the rest of Asia, Africa, and even Europe. I’d like to hear rational arguments, not for whether or not we should have been in Iraq, but that the world is a better place now that we have given in to emotions and retreated from the region. Having said this, it isn’t just that these pictures should not have been taken. The event they recorded never should have happened. At the bare minimum, they cost the American and coalition forces years on top of the conflict. They fed emotional reactionaries into fleeing the nation with no reasonable objectives adequately met, and worst of all, led to point where far more evil crimes are being committed today.


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To what extent is Al-Qaeda a creation of the CIA?

There was a conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States which spanned the globe and affected the lives of billions of people. For the Soviets, this conflict reached its low point in Afghanistan in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s.

Mujahideen, Islamist warriors, were discovered who were willing to fight the Soviets. They were poor peasants and local warlords ruling small rural regions in Afghanistan. They had the advantage of terrain and local support, but little else.

The CIA made efforts to support the Mujahideen against the Soviets in a proxy war in which it could not be proven that the Americans were involved. The way that the CIA did this was by aiding those who wanted to see the Mujahideen succeed against the Soviets. This included wealthy Saudi individuals which had the ability to channel millions, and eventually billions through charity organizations. It also included intelligence resources from the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, since the Americans had almost no one with links and intelligence resources in the country.

Once brought together to the same table, these very different groups were able to come together to give rise to a movement which channelled a great deal of resources in the form of men, money, and weapons, against the Soviets.

The conflict was unique in that thousands, tens of thousands of Islamic fighters flooded into the various fighting factions of Afghanistan from around the world. Many came from as far away as Libya, Somalia, and even the Philippines. Never before had such an organization been created and few could have even realized that it was even happening, besides the Mujaheed themselves. A military organization unlike any other, truly international and joined by a single purpose began to form, that purpose being ridding the Islamic world of outside influences. These were new Mujahideen of Afghanistan fighting what we now understand to be Jihadists.

The Saudis in particular were influential. Their money brought them great power and sway within the new military alliance. Along with their money they brought with them Wahhabi religious zealotry. These fundamentalists practiced an orthodox interpretation of Sunni Islam, calling themselves Salafis, which sought to abolish “newer” practices of other sects of the faith. They branded those didn’t practice Islam in their way as apostates (takfir), thus paving the way for their conversion to a more feudal form of the religion or even their execution. While not obvious, especially to the CIA, this had the effect of gathering thousands of warriors of divergent branches of Sunni Islam and unifying them, through forced uniformity to a central philosophical model and belief system, repressing and reforming all others. This was necessary for such an international contingent and had the effect of bringing together all of these different warriors into one single, highly motivated, highly unified, and highly organized fighting force, even if their organizational structure was nothing like any force seen up to that point in history.

I’m sure that at this point, many were trained directly by American as well as other nations’ military forces in the fighting of unconventional warfare. It would just be logical given what the Americans understood at the time and considering that, by our understanding, the militant Islamists wanted to get rid of the Soviets from Afghanistan, not all Western influences from the Islamic World. Our abilities and understanding of unconventional warfare through years in Vietnam and other conflicts meant that it was probably considered logical to aid the Mujaheedin in their fight against our existential enemy for more than thirty years. So it wouldn’t surprise me and it shouldn’t surprise you that it could be proved, though no one likes to admit or accept it, that American forces likely directly trained those who would one day fight against us in the War on Terror. If not directly, this knowledge found its way to the front lines via Pakistani intelligence agents who had established training camps all along the Northern Pakistani border with Afghanistan.

The combination of Afghanistani and international militants, Saudi funding, Wahhabi philosophy, and Pakistani intelligence, in many ways brought to the same table by American intervention against the Soviet Union were a force that reached critical mass over the 80’s and eventually brought about the humiliating defeat of the Soviets and was part of the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

This is when American involvement ended. It was no longer a concern for the Americans what happened in Afghanistan. Their enemy, after all, were the Soviets. The war was won, what left was there to do? Those who the war’s end affected the most were the Mujahideen that remained after the dust settled. They were the Islamic warriors who had fought the Soviets, brought from across the Islamic world and with the goal of rebuilding Afghanistan in their ideal Islamic image. Once the war was over, all those who were involved seemingly abandoned them. Many of these people had no avenue to return home. They were now stranded in Afghanistan, a devastated nation with little hope. Many came together to form alliances around their strongest leaders, those who still maintained their funding sources and intelligence networks abroad. These leaders included influencers such as the Saudi elite Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden and others like him, veteran officers of the Mujahideen forces were idealists, invigorated by the belief that a pure Islamic state could one day be built from the ashes of Afghanistan, one which reflected their Wahhabi interpretations of the religion. They would rebuild Afghanistan to serve as the example of the perfect Islamic state, a beacon to other Islamic nations across the world. The organization they created was built from extremely die hard adherents to their movement, vetted through tight bonds of tribal relationships and personal battlefield shared hardship going back years. This organization would serve as the base of the future Islamic state. “The Base” as it is translated in Arabic, is “Al Qaeda.”

Al Qaeda became a powerful organization very quickly. They reorganized the channel of funds from their Saudi religious leaders and family members, as well as rebuilt atrophied information sharing networks with the Pakistani ISI. They spread their beliefs, influence, and knowledge through veterans and comrades who returned as conquering heroes across the Islamic world. These heroes led in revivals of “traditional” Islamic philosophy that saw the repression of the now branded apostates and fed the movement further. They installed a new government in Afghanistan which was made up of allied students of acceptable Islamic teachings. “The Students” or Taliban, puppets of the reclusive leadership of al Qaeda, became the ruling regime in Afghanistan.

The Americans’ great folly in the matter of al Qaeda was the belief that once something is created it merely goes away. The Mujahideen were a fanatical group which served our purposes temporarily, but which had motivations and capabilities far exceeding our wildest expectations, or even their own. We may have brought together the means for their rise, but I honestly think it is wrong to imagine that anyone could have rationally predicted what would arise from it or that anyone, save for Osama bin Laden and his followers could have knowingly designed it. That said, yes the CIA and the Americans at large, had a role to play in the creation of Al Qaeda, as small and unforeseeable as that role may have been. In our time of fear against the greater enemy that was the Soviet Union, we brought all the necessary pieces that were needed to create such an organization to one table. Our failure, was that we underestimated the strength of Islamic fanaticism. We failed in that we assumed that once we, the only world’s lone superpower left the table, that all the others would as well. We failed again to oversee what took place at the table once we were no longer there. We did not create Al Qaeda, but we did create the situation in which it would be built.


Thanks for reading!

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Quora Answers: Who have been the greatest warrior races throughout history?

This is the first of a series of posts I intend share with my followers of answers I make to questions posted on the website Quora. Quora is an internet community where the users have the ability to share and promote their questions to users who have the best ability to answer it. It is much like Yahoo answers, but updated and community centered. This series is a break from some of the themes of some of heavier articles and gets more into some of the things that just interest me.

This question was:

Who have been the greatest warrior races throughout history?

Jon’s Answer:

The Spartans

It wasn’t just that these guys were awesome in 300. It’s that barring a bit of literary license where they didn’t wear enough armor and the field was bit off, not to mention the mutant Persians, the story was totally true.

The Spartans were a fierce culture that prided itself in its military upbringing. The warriors were those who were the survivors of the first eugenic filtering process in history, where the babies who were not born up to code were discarded. The male children, upon the age of adolescence, were taken to warrior training until they reached manhood. From this point on they become part of the Spartan Army as a Spartan Hoplite.

The Spartans were not only a fierce band of warriors, but also the best tacticians of the era.

  • While the rest of the world was content to create a massive slave army, the Spartans were one of the first to create a volunteer army. They believed, and rightly so, that free men would fight harder if they had something to gain or lose from the wars.
  • While the rest of the world was content to armor their warriors in cloth with wicker shields and copper or brass weapons, the Spartans were using bronze helmets, chest plates, bracers, shin protectors, spears, swords, and their most unappreciated weapon… the Spartan shield.
  • The importance of the shield, however, wasn’t that it was one of the most offensively powerful tools of war, it was in modern terms a force multiplier. A force multiplier is something in war that increases the offensive or defensive capabilities of many other tactics or tools. The shield gave a Spartan warrior complete protection for their entire body against both arrows, spears and other warriors. The shield was unique in that it had the ability to also be used offensively to create massive amounts of force directed into opponents. This force has been measured to be able to generate force in access of being hit by a car, in the face.  Even more importantly the shield allowed the Spartans to perfect a tactic called the Phalanx.
  • The Phalanx was a tactic in which many Hoplites form a wall of shields. Several actually, many rows deep. Projecting from the walls of shields were row after row after row of spears. And not the tiny spears from 300, 30 feet long spears. Yeah, 30 feet. Imagine trying to fight through a wall of pointy spears, only to have to push through a wall of bronze, only to face the fully armored Spartan warrior himself. It’s just a bad day for everyone, isn’t it?
  • To emphasize their brutality, there was the Spartan habit of ritualistically slaughtering the outlying tribes around Sparta. This was called the Perioikoi and these people were called the Helots. They were a race of free Greeks who were conquered and enslaved by the Spartans. After that they put them to fields. After all, the Spartans were all already busy being warriors, how could they be expected to also be farmers? Every now and then the Spartans would also declare war on the Helots. It wasn’t really a fair fight since they didn’t allow them to train or make weapons, but it must have been fun for them. They held the Perioikoi for more than 100 years. Was it cruel? Yes. Was it barbaric? Yes. Did it make for callous and viscous fighters? Definitely.
  • There was also an interesting perspective of the Spartans; never run, never quit. There was a saying attributed to Spartan mothers who sent their sons off to war: “Come back with this shield or upon it.” What this entailed is actually very deep. The shield was over forty pounds of metal. It was not an easy thing to haul around. For this reason, running was not a very necessary skill when using the shield. And as I mentioned before, it was basically the center of the Spartan military strategy. Now let’s consider you are facing a terrifying battle. You decide to run. You could never escape with the shield so the only choice for a Spartan coward was to abandon the shield. The other option referred to the respect Spartans gave to their dead warriors. The warriors who survived would carry their fallen back on the shield to Sparta for honorable cremation. This gave the Spartan warrior three choices in battle. To win and return with the shield, to die in the service of Sparta and be carried home upon the shield, or run in which you had better not return at all.
  • Finally the battle of Thermopylae, perhaps the greatest military event in history, is the legacy of the greatest warrior race in history. This battle was the pinnacle of military perfection in that it stacked a monumentally outnumbered force against one of the largest armies in the world. The Spartans perfectly used their terrain to funnel the hordes of Persians into their spears. A shear rock face guarded the West flank and the sea was directly to the East. The Persians were so inferior in armaments and training that tens of thousands were slaughtered at the hands of 300 Spartan Hoplites and around 1000 other Greek Hoplites.

    This battle was much more important because it served as a maneuver that stalled the Persians long enough that the Athenian navy was able to sail around the land battle and assault the Persian fleet. This disrupted the supply lines of the Persian army and most likely cost them the strategic victory in the battle. The Spartan warriors were able to fight and stall the Persians, a force that many have estimated at more than 1,000,000 warriors, keeping them at bay for more than 3 days. By comparison, the Alamo, where Texas soldiers were famed for fighting gallantly against a massive army of Mexican soldiers was 150 against 5,000 and lasted around 90 minutes. While the Spartans were all eventually killed, they achieved one of the most stunning strategic victories of all time: 300 Spartans, 1 million Persians and 3 days. This battle was the moment in time when the Spartans gained the respect of the entire world as the greatest warrior race in history.

    But don’t get me wrong. All the rest of you are entitled to your opinions.

And as a special bonus: A lego phalanx. Enjoy.

Will This Winter be the Occupy’s Valley Forge?

There has been a lot of talk about that Occupy is dying down now that the weather is turning and it isn’t fun anymore to bang drums in the middle 20 degree weather. Campuses in numerous cities are breaking up due to this or because of local government interaction. In places like LA and Philadelphia the tent cities are being broken by police while smaller sites, such as the one near where I live in Denton Tx, were for the most part abandoned voluntarily.  And while the camps continue to fade many will be thinking “So this is the end of Occupy?”

Not that a good job wouldn’t help…

I seriously doubt it. Many are indeed abandoning the tent cities erected over the past several months that have evolved into a type of forum for an endless open air debate on the nature of the government, economics and social reform. There was also a lot of weed.  The people however will carry the discussion home, influencing those who are close to them and pushing the conversations they had to the rest of us.

It is those who stay behind though. Those hard-core believers in the… something. If they survive this winter, these individuals will be the ones who make the news some three to four months from now.

What those who stay in the tents and endure are going to do for the movement will be very important for its future evolution. They will face cold and rain, snow and ice and intense feeling of “is it worth it?” “Why are we sitting out here in the cold with the entire nation thinking our movement is a joke?” And while they sit something else may happen.

They will talk. As they talk, those that are left, will be creating a conversation that will be different than what they have been saying before. This conversation will be different because it won’t be clouded by the flood of their current population. The flood of fair weather idealists, drugged out self-righteous know-it-alls and the remnant hippies reliving the 70’s that are the current populace of the camps will likely take their leave until the nice weather returns and protesting is a fun sport again. And those that are left will be consolidating the ideas that are left. Their muddled message about the greed of the 1% may finally evolve into something that people can deal with. Those people may together be able to realize some economic truths and realities and create a message that the majority of American people can understand and get behind.

While I don’t agree with the economic views of the Occupy movement and I feel that most of what I heard from them at this point is idealistic, some of it selfish and most of it lacking realism or a long term understanding of what their ideas will end up meaning for the country. I believe however, that some of those taking part in the Occupy protests are intelligent people. I think that if these people do stick it out they may come up with some good ideas, some real ideas and something that can actually create real discussion with the American public.

I compared this period that Occupy is about to go through as their Valley Forge.  No so much in selflessness and courage, nor also the desire to seek both personal and governmental independence, but in zealousness at least. What happened at Valley Forge was that a beaten and weakened Continental Army weathered the winter of 1777-1778. At that time they were a band of confused, unequipped, demoralized and lost group of individuals lacking a clear vision and direction for the future. During that winter they received leadership from our founding military fathers. When the winter was over what came out of the fort was a strong, disciplined Continental Army guided by a shared mission and vision and led by strong leaders. The comparison pretty much ends for me there, but for many Occupiers they see this as their Valley Forge moment. In many ways they may be right, if they can come out of this better then they went in.

Whether you agree with Occupy or think they are bunch silly misguided kids on a tantrum, if they can survive this winter what will come out next spring will be a galvanized group. Their ideas my be better or they may be worse, but what is certain is that those who survive it will be leaders of the new Occupy, whether they like it or not.

Will it? That ball is Occupy’s court now.

Origins of the Christmas Tree, Santa Claus and other Christmas “Myths”

A traditional clay nativity scene.

There is a lot of talk among many circles of the nature of many traditions in many Christian holidays.  What does a fat man breaking into the homes of tiny children have to do with the baby Jesus? Did baby Jesus have a Christmas Tree? Does the Easter Bunny summer with the Reindeer in Aspen? Many say that all of these are proof of our pagan traditions, and that the Christians are pagan for following them. Many would also like to believe that the entire holiday is nothing but a huge collection of things to make us buy more things. I however have been digging around and believe I have discovered some things that many may find surprising, enlightening or entertaining about the delightful if sometimes confusing traditions of our favorite holiday.

One story I sadly remember is of my nephew. When he was three he informed us that Santa Claus wasn’t real. His daddy told him that, (please read with a white trash accent) “We don’t worship pagan symbols ’round here.” Well as the good uncle I sat my nephew down and reaffirmed to him that no, Santa Claus was not a pagan and he is indeed real.

Santa Claus – Can he be trusted? Yes he can.
A fresco painted of Saint Nicholas

Santa Claus: Santa was indeed a real person. He actually did go by the name of Nicholas, his Greek name when he was a monk in the early Christian church around what is today Myra, Turkey. He lived in the 300’s and became famous for his great acts of charity. (At least he was real, but don’t tell the kids.) One story speaks of him giving dowries to three young, pious, impoverished girls so that they could be wed, and not go into other forms of lifestyle. Another speaks of him saving three wrongly prosecuted men from being put to death. For these and other reasons he was made a saint in the church. In his native home of Myra there is the first church dedicated to Saint Nicholas and many more have risen in Europe since the 7th century. He is also considered the patron saint of children and many others. His uniform is also of Christian decent as it is an evolution of the canonical robes worn by later Christian cardinals.  How all these turned into breaking and entering to give presents in return for good deeds and tasty treats I can only guess, but I can promise you children that Santa Claus is real. So be good for goodness sake.

December 25: I am sorry folks, Jesus was not born on this day. Many agree that it fell sometime around the spring, probably around April or May. Some accounts I have read also place it in early January. The Bible was not clear on this and, in spite of the fact that his entire of family was Jewish, there were no good records for the exact time of his birth. What most biblical scholars do agree on is that it was not December 25th.

Jesus Christ fulfills the role as “The unconquered Sun” a tradition of solstice in fourth century Rome.

The reasoning for this date was to bring the important celebration of Jesus’ birth and overshadow important pagan traditions of the time. Some of these include the celebration of the Winter Solstice, Roman New Year and other holidays including the celebration of Saturnalia. Saturnalia, interestingly enough, was a Roman holiday where masters served their slaves in recognition of the duel sides (bipolar) nature of their god Saturn. During this holiday the Romans gave gifts to their slaves and a nature of equality and brotherhood was recognized during the festivities. It was also a great time to party. Along with the date, this is where many believe the practice of gift giving and merriment during Christmas comes from. In fact, in the middle ages the church tried to repress the act of gift giving because of it’s paganistic roots. (I know I thought it came from the wise men too.)

In any case, these holidays all fell close enough to each other and held a strong enough pagan tradition that in the 300’s the early church set a day when we as Christians would recognize the birth of Jesus. This allowed the influence and meanings of the pagan holidays to gradually fade away as their traditions began to become part of Christmas as we know it.

The famous Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center

The Christmas Tree: This story is more interesting than you might think. It turns out that this tradition may technically have descended from pagan roots, but there is more to this story. The Christmas tree that we have today probably came around the end of the 1700’s around Germany. At that time the German Christians were really reinventing the holiday at that time, not in my opinion to do anything wrong, just to add some culture and something new to the celebration. They started erecting Christmas trees with decorative candles (and I don’t know how they didn’t burn down the entire place with open flame on a dried out tree in the middle of the living room.) This is also where we get the traditions of tree ornaments and Christmas lights. Once these traditions started in Eastern Europe they began to spread to the rest of Europe and eventually to the Americans through immigrants, most likely the Dutch. But where did the Germans come up a tree in the living room?

There are two majors beliefs as to the origin of the Christmas tree. One is believed to be around a play in which the “Paradise Tree” stands as the centerpiece of the play featuring Adam and Eve in the creation story. The other story (which I like better as it tells a richer, fuller story) is about how the Christmas tree is descended from some of our ancient ancestries. This is where some pagan roots to the tree story start to show.

Yggdrasil – The Nordic “World Tree”

In many Norse, Gaulic and ancient Germanic religions, trees were key figures of their religion. To the Norse the holy tree of Yggdrasil held up the entire world, which consisted of many realms included the realm where the gods lived and where humans lived, as well one for the elves, dwarves and their own version of Hell, which they called… Hel. In any case, trees were an important part of these religions and the cultures of ancient Europe, particularly France, Germany, Western Russia, Scandinavia and England. Where this becomes a Christian story is here.

Bonifacius brings down the Donar Oak before the Chatti.

In the early 700’s a Catholic Monk named Saint Boniface (Bonifacius) did much work to convert the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe. One legend speaks of him traveling to a city of the Chatti, a Germanic tribe. There he found a mighty tree called the Donar Oak, which to the people there, symbolized their patron god. Well Boniface would have none of that and he felled the tree (along with the Frankish troops who protected him from the angry savages.)  According to legend this tree was used to build a chapel to Saint Peter and was the birthplace of the Benedictine order. You will also see images of Saint Boniface with an ax, a reference to this popular legend.

This may sound strange, but it makes perfect sense for a Christmas story. If this legend is truly viewed as the beginning of the Christmas tree myth then it represents something much deeper than a tree.  When Saint Boniface went to Germany he went to spread the news of Christianity to the pagans. By felling the tree his action symbolized the arrival of Jesus and the death of the pagan religion in Europe. For that reason we can say that the Christmas tree is a very good symbol of Christmas as it stands for a subtle reminder of our pagan roots giving way to Christianity when Jesus was born.

Reindeer, the North Pole and the Elves: I don’t have a clue. My best guess is they are just plain pagan. You just can’t really justify those. Deer are important for many of the Norse legends and a symbol of Odin (also considered to have some relations to the modern Santa myths.) And the elves are Norse myths as well. At least these little guys are cute and kind instead of the eternal hunters of man that the ancients made them out to be. The North Pole… well I guess they chose that because only recently have we been brave or dumb enough to go there and prove it wrong. In any case, these are all northern traditions, along with the holiday commonly known as Yule (hense Yule time.) It would make sense that since they were the last regions to come into Christianity before they started keeping good books of what is and isn’t Christian, that many of their myths made their way into Christian traditions. Don’t worry though, these aren’t a big deal anyway.

What I hope you gained from this article is a few insights on things most Christians never think about (or tried not to think about because it may have led to places they didn’t want to go.) By studying the histories however, we can learn a great deal about our traditions that reestablishes some of our favorite merry making activities as authentic Christian activities. When my children are young I plan to tell them to leave cookies for Santa (who favors my wife’s chocolate chip) and when they are older I will tell them about what the real Saint Nicholas did for the people of his village. We will also decorate the tree and when they are older I will tell them about how Saint Boniface taught the Germans about Jesus and how he started the Christmas tree tradition. They will also place stars on the trees, sing both the secular and Christian Christmas songs and go to church to see the plays.

I also hope that readers consider this. What symbols, acts, decorations or traditions are yours these Christmas holidays, it matters less about where the tradition comes from and more about what it means to you and those you celebrate it with. Doing something that may have been similar to something done by people dancing around a fire fifteen hundred years ago doesn’t make you a pagan. And these traditions we now celebrate are now important to our culture and heritage. So don’t get caught up and worry too much about what everything in the holidays may or may not have meant, but just enjoy the traditions of your special holiday.

Merry Christmas,

-Jon

Also see other posts about the holidays at the Christmas Discussion.