Peter Kwasniewski

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Upside-down Christmas trees trend reflects a confused, rootless world

An upside-down Christmas tree will not transmit a message of long lost medieval Trinitarian symbolism. Rather, it encapsulates a very modern appetite for irregularity, imbalance, and inversion.
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Upside-down Christmas tree in Tate, Britain. kliaigre / Instagram
Peter Kwasniewski By Peter Kwasniewski

December 17, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Thoughtful observers may debate the merits and demerits of the internet age. Nearly all are agreed that it has brought about a frightening escalation in addictions to pornography and violence; that it has amplified the phenomenon of wasting time and killing time, in spite of the fact that time is the most precious gift we have, more valuable than health or wealth; that it has vastly multiplied data while superficializing and fragmenting public discourse; that it leaves people with more “friends” and less friendship.

Nearly all, I guess, would agree that the internet has also made available the truth about many issues the Powers That Be would rather see remain hidden — the truth, for example, about the ideological liturgical reform under Paul VI, or about the criminal ring governing the Catholic Church today, or about many political alliances and strategies that depend on deception or secrecy for their success.

One thing, in any case, can be agreed upon by everyone: the internet puts on full display, around the clock, the strangeness of the world in which we live.

I am still rather low-tech, in spite of using a computer for much of my work. I spend most of my time looking at or thinking about old liturgical rites, old books, and old works of art, because they are the best, and anything good happening today happens in continuity and conversation with them. As a result, I generally find out about the latest fads and fashions (if at all) by chance, usually when they are no longer the latest fads and fashions.

It was not long ago that I first heard about the odd idea of upside-down Christmas trees, which is apparently “a thing.” It would never have occurred to me to put a tree upside-down. In an article entitled “Exploring the Upside-Down Christmas Tree Phenomenon,” Coral Nafie writes: “Hanging fir trees upside down goes back to the Middle Ages when Europeans did it to represent the Trinity. But now, Christmas trees are shaped with the tip pointing to heaven, and some think an upside-down Christmas tree is disrespectful or sacrilegious.” Nafie provides no sources for her claim that this custom has a distant precursor in the Catholic Middle Ages, but even if that were true, it’s not difficult to see why suddenly reversing the orientation of Christmas trees, after a gap of several centuries in which they were always placed right-side-up, would be, well, disorienting. (As I have recently argued with regard to another example, an ancient custom that has disappeared and is then suddenly reintroduced many centuries later will always carry a radical shift in meaning.)

This much I can say: an upside-down Christmas tree will not transmit a message of long lost medieval Trinitarian symbolism. Rather, it encapsulates a very modern appetite for irregularity, imbalance, and inversion. It’s a sort of arborial representation of dysphoria with the natural order.

Many modern people are, in fact, just like upside-down trees, because they have turned their priorities upside-down. Tradition is the root of any man, but we put modernity ahead of tradition, as if standing on our heads.

Dogmatic truth is the root of revealed religion, but we put relevance and public acceptance ahead of truth. The commandments of God are the root of holiness and social peace, but we put a false mercy and tolerance ahead of them. Liturgy is the primordial act of worship and adherence to God, but we put just about everything ahead of solemn, reverent, beautiful liturgy, which is an afterthought or nonexistent in most Catholic parishes. In all these ways, today’s Catholics are very much like upside-down trees.

It’s obvious, moreover, that if someone tries to plant a tree by its branches and leaves, while leaving the roots dangling in mid-air, it will not be able to grow, let alone bear fruit. He will be killing the tree by not respecting its inherent order, where up cannot be exchanged for down, crown for root. It is not left to our whimsy to determine what needs to be planted deep in the soil and what needs to be standing upright, pointing to the sun.

Moderns have a terrible habit of thinking their will, their volition, determines reality. A flattering illusion, this way of thinking can be true, at best, only in the minor part of reality that our free actions determine, such as cuisine or Christmas decorations; and even these have to observe the laws of nature, whereby gravity will have its way, and heating and cooling their inevitable results.

To take the premiere example of our times, moderns think they can decide whether they are male, female, or many other types of things in between or altogether off the map. But this is madness. We are what we are, and we fight that fact to our own destruction. When we accept who and what we are — and when we look toward who and what we should become, with God’s help — then real achievement in life is possible. When the tree has its root in the right place, and the fertilizer of grace (so to speak) is well applied, fruit will start to appear — lasting fruit, sweet to the taste.

A (right-side-up) Christmas tree has much obvious symbolism in it, but one of its most basic characteristics should not pass unpondered: that it arrives at a topmost point, which points upward to heaven. The point of the tree should remind us of the point of our souls: the acies mentis, the highest and most godlike power we possess, the “peak of our mind,” by which we can see, hear, and touch God, in whose image we are made. Were it not for this intellectual power, we would be no better than the beasts that perish or uprooted plants cast into the fire. Because of it, however, we are capax Dei, capable of possessing God Himself; and because of it, God Himself could become a man.

Spending our eternity with Him is the reason we were made and the purpose of our lives. This is what the Christian calendar reminds us of, year in, year out. Our home decorations should also do the same.


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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.