Sri Lanka’s top Catholic told priests on Wednesday not to put up Christmas trees in their churches, saying they had no religious significance and had instead become the festive symbol of parties and shopping centres.
Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, issued a statement telling clergymen to “try to avoid putting up Christmas trees inside the churches”.
“These do not belong to the sacred significance of Christmas but are more connected to social and family celebrations… They have also become symbols of Christmas in malls and public squares,” the cardinal added.
Sri Lanka is a mainly Buddhist country but around 1.2 million of its overall population of 21 million people are Catholics.
December 25 is a national holiday in Sri Lanka and shops and streets are often festooned with Christmas decorations and lights during the festive period.
Speaking to the BBC, Reverend Ignatius Varnakulasingam, a priest in Colombo, said the Church was not against the Christmas tree entirely – which he acknowledged was “fun” – but simply its installation in places of worship.
“The Christmas tree is not a liturgical symbol,” he said. “(It) cannot be put in the sanctuary of the Church.”
While the Vatican has a Christmas tree, it is not installed in St Peter’s Basilica but outside, in the Square, the priest noted.
The origins of the Christmas tree are somewhat disputed. Historians say trees first began to appear in homes as part of the pagan tradition, with evergreen boughs put above windows and doors to ward off evil spirits and illness, or as a symbol of everlasting life. The Christmas tree as it is now known is generally traced to Germany, where Christians began bringing them into their homes in the 16th century. Some say the Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to do so; others say it first began to be used in nativity plays as a symbol of the Garden of Eden.
For his part, Rev. Varnakulasingam said the Christmas tree originated in Europe, particularly in Germany, where people suffered from a lack of greenery in the winter so put evergreen foliage in their homes “so that they would see the green colour”.
He also rounded on Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, saying the Church would like to return to his more religious predecessor, Saint Nicolas, but acknowledged that it would be difficult because “all the shops, they all have Santa Claus”.
In general, the concept of Christmas was being degraded, the priest concluded. “Sad to say now in the USA they don’t say ‘happy Christmas’ but they say ‘(happy) holidays’.” (The Telegraph)