The Christmas Tree
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Early Christians decorated their homes with evergreens during winter as a reminder that, even though everything else dies in the cruel, cold months, evergreens live on. For those Christians, evergreen decorations represented the steadfastness of faith and symbolised life in the midst of death.
In the eighth century, when Saint Boniface explained how an evergreen tree’s triangular shape symbolised the three Persons of the Holy Trinity ~ Father, Son and Holy Spirit ~ Christians began decorating the trees; this tradition has continued to today.
From the eleventh century, religious plays called “mystery plays” became quite popular throughout Europe. These plays were performed outdoors and in church buildings. One of the most prevalent of these plays was the “Paradise play.” The play depicted the story of the creation of Adam and Eve; their disobedience to God, and their banishment from Paradise. The Paradise play was simple by today’s standards. The only prop on stage was the “Paradise tree,” a fir tree adorned with apples (to signify the forbidden fruit) and wafers (symbolic of communion, life and redemption). The Paradise tree was later placed in homes and round objects such as shiny red baubles eventually replaced the apples.
From this tree, at the appropriate time in the play, Eve would take the fruit, eat it, and give it to Adam. The play would end with the promise of the coming Saviour and His Incarnation (cf. Gen. 3:15).
Another custom was to be found in the homes of Christians on December 24 since the late Middle Ages. A large candle called the “Christmas light,” symbolizing Jesus, who is the light of the world, was lit on Christmas Eve. In Germany, many smaller candles were set upon a wooden pyramid and lit. Besides the candles, other objects such as glass balls, tinsel, and the “star of Bethlehem” were placed on its top.
It is widely held that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
The Christmas tree made its royal debut in England when Prince Albert of Saxony, the husband of Queen Victoria, set up a tree in Windsor Castle in 1841. Five years later the royal couple were sketched in the London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. After this the tradition grew in popularity, though in 1850 Charles Dickens was still referring to it as a “new German toy.”
In 2004, Pope John Paul called the Christmas tree a symbol of Christ. This very ancient custom, he said, exalts the value of life, as in winter what is evergreen becomes a sign of undying life, and it reminds Christians of the “tree of life” in Genesis ~ an image of Jesus, the supreme gift of God to humanity. In the previous year he said: “Beside the crib, the Christmas tree, with its twinkling lights, reminds us that with the birth of Jesus the tree of life has blossomed anew in the desert of humanity.”
Tree of Truth
For many Christians the Christmas tree still retains the symbolism of the Paradise tree. The tree reminds us of the tree in Eden by which Adam and Eve were overcome and which thrust them into sin. But more importantly, the tree reminds us of the tree by which our sin was overcome, namely the tree upon which Jesus was crucified.
Is it a stretch to refer to the cross as a tree? Hardly, for this is the language of the New Testament itself! The apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” And Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.”
Therefore, the Christmas tree is a wonderful symbol and reminder of salvation and forgiveness through Jesus Christ! This Christmas, every time you see a Christmas tree may it remind you of Jesus. He is…
- The one who is evergreen, the giver of life, and the one who never dies.
- The one who redeems and restores us to fellowship with God.
- The one who is the light of the world. Who said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
- The one the angel announced as “good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in [Bethlehem] a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.
Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room.