Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know…

by Sankirtana das

Rabbi Bogomilsky thought he was making a simple request – to place a eight foot menorah display among the dozen or so Christmas trees which decorated the international arrival hall at the Seattle Airport. He was hoping that the airport management would be reasonable and have it up in time for Hanukkah which begins this Friday evening. He was even willing to pay for the installation. Instead of putting up the menorah, however, airport officials removed all the Christmas trees. Now the Christians are up in arms and the rabbi’s name is mud.

Here in New Vrindaban, you will see a Christmas tree next to the altar when you visit the temple this month. In the past at Christmas time we have made a tiered structure with a dozen Tulasi plants into a Christmasy display with tinsels and lights. The devotees danced around the Tulasi tree with great joy, bringing together and celebrating the spirituality of both the East and the West. I forget, but there is an academic term for the fusion of two cultural or spiritual traditions in this way.

Of course, the evergreen and Christainity was also a fusion. The Christmas tree was introduced to English high society by Prince Albert who put up an evergreen for the holidays in Windsor Castle in 1841. It had been a pre Christian German symbol, and most Christians at that time abhorred the idea of connecting the tree with Christmas. But within 10 years the fanciful custom took root in England and by the end of the 1800’s it also become an established tradition in America with Woolworths stores selling Christmas tree decorations and all.

But the question is, why did Rabbi Bogomilsky feel slighted by the tree? The evergreen (the ones in the airport however were plastic) and the decorative lights are really universal symbols. The Rabbi, for instance, could have seen the Christmas tree display as the Torah itself, which is referred to as the Tree of Life. The Torah is likened to the branches of a great tree spreading into the sphere of our lives, and it calls upon us to make every act an act for God. Upon seeing the tree, he could have thought, “the airport management has kindly reminded me of my connection with my scriptures, the Torah.”

When Buddhist see the tree, they can be reminded that the Buddha attained enlightenment sitting beneath a tree. At one point in his meditation when he was assailed by raging storms and other strange occurrences, a divine serpent arose from the roots of the Bodhi tree to protect him.

Nearly a thousand years ago on this continent, the Peace Maker called for a great council by the shores of Lake Onondaga. There, he carefully uprooted a Pine tree and urged the representatives from the gathered tribes to throw their weapons into the hollow of the earth. Then the tree was replanted over the weapons. The tree (the Tree of the Long Leaves) became known as the Tree of Peace. Thus the Great Peace was declared and the five nations of the Iroquois was established.

Caitanya Mahaprabhu implores us to be as tolerant as a tree which patiently endures the rain and cold and heat and various hardships. The Vedas also explain that one of the most pious and selfless acts is to plant a fruit tree.

Srila Prabhupada taught the devotees to see Krishna everywhere and in every thing. He always emphasized that Krishna Consciousness is presenting universal spiritual principles, and that we can honor all efforts to praise God. Symbols of spirituality and peace from whatever tradition can surely be revered by all.


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