We are now in the midst of the advent hype and Christmas trees are popping up all over the place. I invite you to take an opportunity to wonder with me about the Christmas tree, one of the beloved symbols which has grown to universally represent Christmas. For people of different cultures and religious backgrounds it marks the celebration of the “festive holiday season”. But perhaps it, like so many other things which seem inoffensive to the majority, has lost the meaning of its roots. Let’s see if we can dig through history to find out just how this innocent tree made its way into our homes, churches and shopping centers and what it may offer us today.
The decorative and symbolic use of evergreen wreaths, trees and garlands predated the modern Christmas tree. The ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews along with the Vikings and Saxons used these as a symbol of everlasting life, encouraging hope in the dark depths of winter. European pagan converts to Christianity continued to decorate homes and barns with evergreens to scare away the devil in the dark season. It is no surprise then that the modern Christmas tree was received so well, echoing a beloved ancient practice for so many cultures.
We can see it developing popularity in folk law where the tree inspired saints and sinners alike to reflect on the nature of God. One such 8th Century folk story sees Saint Boniface using an evergreen tree, after miraculously having grown in place of an oak tree he cut down as a demonstration against pagan worship of trees, as an example of the trinity with its triangular shape which he claimed was pointing the pagans towards heaven and belief in the one true God.
A fir tree was used in medieval mystery plays given on the 24th December (commemoration/ name day of Adam and Eve) when the “tree of life” was decorated with apples (forbidden fruit) and wafers (Body of Christ in Eucharist). Eventually over time the apples were replaced by red balls (baubles) and the wafers with other sweet treats – which I’m sure we can recognize in the popular decorations for trees today.
The domestication of the Christmas tree was born out of Germany in the 16th century Lutheran reformists’ tradition. There is a fanciful tale that Martin Luther himself, began the tradition of putting candles on the tree, to represent the light of Christ. Often topped with a star – to represent the star of Bethlehem, or an Angel – to represent one of the many angels who are part of the Christmas story, the tree made its way into Church as early as 1539 at the Cathedral in Strasburg.
Its popularity spread in the 18th and 19th Century through Europe, to Britain and the Americas through German influence, picking up cultural adaptions as it became part of both the public and private celebrations of Christmas wherever it was introduced. It has been used as a tool for reconciliation in the practice of gifting a tree to mark armistice and the breaking of hostilities between nations previously at war. In 2004 Pope John Paul called the tree a symbol of Christ.
There are many more historical details and representative symbolisms that could recommend the Christmas tree to us. You may like to learn more yourself. It certainly seems to me that if more people had an opportunity to learn the meaning behind the Christmas tree it will continue to be a tool for reconciliation, peace and celebration. The greatest gift we can give this year may be sharing the Christmas tree and all its meaning with those around us… Who will you invite to TREErific? Who will find Jesus through the Christmas tree you share with them this year?
Wishing you all every blessing and many decorated Christmas trees
The Rev’d Jamee