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Why There is a Christmas Tree
Many moons ago my favorite pre-Christmas pastime was my nightly vigil in the floor of our darkened living room. At the foot of the best tree our pasture had yielded that year, I would sit basking in the glow of a few simple strings of colored lights. Intoxicating cedar smells surrounding the tree were an incense to me as I sat worshipfully admiring Mother’s best efforts at seasonal décor. Fragile, glittering glass balls which had survived many a prior Christmas tree stint were placed just out of reach of curious hands. By this time, Mother had also become a devout fan of fake snow, bubble lights, and that long-popular shredded silvery tinsel. The star on the tree top was crafted by us both from cardboard and aluminum foil and was the final and most important adornment of our tree.
But, my evening reveries did not consist of selfless contemplation on ‘the true meaning of Christmas’....no.... they were sweet waking dreams about what I might find beneath those fragrant boughs come Christmas morning.
Children are naturally self-centered and it never occurred to me back then to question the true symbolism of a Christmas tree. That realization usually comes later in life when you begin to have second thoughts about the effort of securing a live tree and dealing with the mess it leaves in its wake. More often today, the hollow ease of displaying a green plastic Chinese reasonable facsimile wins out. Yes, the inquiry of the great ‘WHY ARE WE DOING THIS ANYWAY?’ usually comes when we get old and jaded. We already have at least two of everything, two drawers full of drawers, 200 pairs of socks, and every kind of kitchen and bathroom gadget imaginable... enough clothes in the closet to start a second-hand store... and when we are asked ‘what do you want for Christmas?’ emphatically reply... ‘I don’t NEED anything, but please don’t give me something that will require dusting. Chocolate, yes, chocolate will work!’
When we reach this point in life, it is time to ask the question “What does a Christmas tree have to do with celebrating the birth of Christ?”
Since time began, almost every culture used evergreens... trees, boughs, and circular wreaths... to celebrate the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year. Many of those cultures worshiped their version of a “sun god” and they recognized even then that this date marked the inevitable return of fertility and fruitfulness that would come with a new spring.
Whatever plant life that stayed green and full of life throughout the freezing winter became sacred symbols of everlasting life, and the certain victory of life over death. The holly with its lively green leaves and bright blood-red berries were a shoe-in for representing the spirit of Christ.
Many of our Celtic ancestors even worshiped oak trees. The 8th century Benedictine monk, St. Boniface, is credited with the origin of our Christmas tree. As an English missionary to the Germanic regions of Europe, he came upon a group of misguided pagans worshiping a large oak tree. Legend holds that Boniface lost his temper and chopped the oak down. When a green fir tree quickly grew out of the oak stump, it became the symbol of a new life in Christ. He taught them that the triangular shape of the tree represented the Holy Trinity and that the tip of the tree directs us toward Heaven and the triumph of life over death. Worship of a ‘sun god’ was then redirected to the worship of the Son of God.
The tradition of bringing an evergreen inside the home was started by 16th century German Christians. Until the mid-1800’s, Christmas trees were viewed as pagan icons in a very Puritanical America.
Then in 1846, England’s Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, were sketched with their children in the “Illustrated London News” standing in front of a most beautifully decorated Christmas tree. The Queen was immensely popular in Britain and throughout the world, resulting in Americans finally accepting the Christian ideal of a Christmas tree.
Researching the true meaning of the Christmas tree has opened my eyes to the role that trees certainly played throughout Jesus’ life. The Bible tells us that the newborn baby Jesus’ first cradle was a manger...a lowly wooden cattle trough in a stable. Like his father, Joseph, we know that as a young man Jesus was a carpenter. As a builder and craftsman by trade, the Lord’s hands surely worked daily with wood. And finally, Jesus was crucified by being “nailed to a tree” which we know was a cross made of wood.
When Mother and I were finished decorating we would fasten our humble little homemade star on the tree top with ‘bobby pins’. I now realize that this final touch meant that our tree was pointing heavenward to the beautiful star of Bethlehem and ultimately to the Light of the World, Jesus.