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Is your Christmas tree up yet?
John 10:10b: [Jesus said] “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Although it has become one of the primary symbols of the season, the Christmas tree has its roots in pagan tradition (bad pun, I know). Evergreens were preserved through the winter to show hope of returning spring, life, and light. At first they were condemned by Christians because of their pagan associations, but as the use and symbolism changed, they became much more widely accepted. Now they proclaim the abundance of joy, the abundance of God’s gifts, the diversity of God’s creation, and the shining light in the darkness.
By the early Middle Ages, the legend had grown that when Christ was born in the dead of winter, every tree throughout the world miraculously shook off its ice and snow and produced new shoots of green. At the same time, Christian missionaries preaching to Germanic and Slavic peoples were taking a more lenient approach to cultural practices—such as evergreen trees. These missionaries believed that the Incarnation proclaimed Christ’s lordship over those natural symbols that had previously been used for the worship of pagan gods. Not only individual human beings, but cultures, symbols, and traditions could be converted. The generally triangle shape was also a way to teach about the Trinity.
The use of Christmas trees continued to grow more popular through the centuries. At the time of the Reformation, Christmas trees were used by Protestants in contrast to the crèche that Roman Catholics set in their homes. Some say that Martin Luther was the first to put candles on the tree, emulating the stars twinkling in the night sky – but this has little historical documentation. Trees were decorated with balls, recalling the fruited trees of Paradise, and with wafers to remember Communion. That tradition evolved to hanging cookies and candies on the trees, as is done today, especially in Germany.
German and Dutch immigrants brought their traditions of trees and presents to the New World in the early 1800s. The image of happy middle-class families exchanging gifts around a tree became a powerful one for American authors and civic leaders who wished to replace older, rowdier, and more alcohol-fueled Christmas traditions—such as wassailing—with a more family-friendly holiday. This family-centered image was widely popularized by Clement Moore’s 1822 poem, known today as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” (which also contributed to our modern picture of Santa Claus).
Many, many traditions combined to become the Christmas trees we have in our homes today. When that tree is recognized as a symbol of God’s promises and gifts, and not mistaken to be the center of the celebration, it is truly a wonderful way to point to Christ.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)