Finding Christ in the Christmas tree
All over the world, people are putting up Christmas trees this time of the year.
In southern California, a 90-foot Christmas tree was erected at the Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach, covered with strobe lights and Disney-themed music for the thousands of shoppers. (Emily Foxhall, “90-foot Christmas tree arrives at Newport Beach’s Fashion Island,” Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2013.)
All over the world, people are putting up Christmas trees for the holiday. But what does this have to do with the birth of Jesus? Is it just a pagan practice, or can we find Christ in the Christmas tree?
I. The origins of the Christmas tree
Where did the tradition of the Christmas tree come from?
There are many different stories, since ancient peoples have made use of trees and even worshipped them. One of my favorite stories is of St. Boniface, the missionary to the Germans in the 8th century. Boniface told them about Jesus Christ, but they worshipped a great oak tree. So Boniface boldly went to the oak with an axe and began to chop it down. They were ready to kill him, when a great wind came and blew the tree down. After that, the Germans converted to Christianity in large numbers.
Some legends tell that St. Boniface later decorated a fir tree to represent Jesus instead of their pagan gods. It is uncertain whether this is true.
During the Middle Ages, there was a popular medieval play in western Germany about Adam and Eve and a “paradise tree,” which was a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. Germans set up paradise trees in their homes on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it, representing the bread of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, and then later they hang cookies, and often put candles, symbols of Christ as the light. (“Christmas tree.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopeaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encylopaedia Britannica, 2012.)
Meanwhile, in the 15th and 16th century in Latvia, Estonia and northern Germany, there was a tradition of bringing an evergreen tree to the town square on Chritmas Eve, dancing around it, and letting it burn. Eventually people in Germany began to light a tree on Christmas Eve with candles. Lutheran tradition says that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther helped popularize the lighting of an evergreen tree at Christmas all over Germany.
II. Modern Christmas tree traditions
Germany settlers brought the Christmas tree to North America as early as the 17th century.
Prince Albert of Germany, the husband of Queen Victoria of England, introduced the Christmas tree into England in the early 19th century. By the 19th century, Christmas trees were popular all over the world. In Victorian England, trees were decorated with toys and small gifts, candles and candy. Blown-glass ornaments became popular in the 1870s. By 1890, strings of electric tree lights became popular to hang on trees. In the 1960s, artificial Christmas trees made out of aluminum became popular, but these were soon replaced by artificial trees that look realistic.
Many families still enjoy going together to get their own real Christmas tree. John and Pam Carper’s family have a tradition for the past five or six years, of traveling to a North Carolina Christmas tree farm, to cut a Fraser fir to bring back to Georgia for Christmas. James & Kerri Gilyard also have a tradition of getting a real tree, which they do right after Thanksgiving. Their tradition is to put on the lights first, then the ornaments, with the memorable and breakable ones up higher. Last of all, they put an angel on top.
Many families will choose a special ornament for each member of the family. We have an ornament for each child on the year that they were born. Kevin & Sharon Kendall choose a special ornament each year for each child in the family. They enjoy looking at the ornaments to see what dates they got each ornament.
That brings us back to our question. As nice as these traditions are, what if anything does a Christmas tree have to do with the birth of Jesus? Let’s open our Bibles and see.
III. God’s Christmas tree
- Israel was symbolized by a tree (Isaiah 5; Ezekiel 17; Daniel 4:10-12)
In ancient Israel, a tree symbolized God’s people Israel. Isaiah 5 gives a parable of a vineyard that was planted but failed to produce good fruit, and so it is torn down. Isaiah says, “For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah, the plant He delighted in.” (Isaiah 5:7, HCSB).
Ezekiel 17 gives another parable comparing Israel to a tree, saying God will plant a sprig on a mountain. “I will plant it on Israel’s high mountain so that it may bear branches, produce fruit, and become a majestic cedar… Then all the trees of the field will know that I am Yahweh.”
Thus Psalm 1:3 speaks of the righteous man as like a tree planted by water, and in Matthew 3:10, John the Baptists says every tree that doesn’t produce is cut down.
Daniel 4 tells how God used a vision of a tree to warn King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to beware of his pride. He told about a tree that reached to the sky, but it was cut down, and Daniel said, “That tree is you, the king.” (Daniel 4:22).
So a tree often symbolized Israel, although it could also symbolize the life of others.
- Christ is symbolized by a tree of life (Isaiah 11:1-10) and a tree of death (1 Peter 2:24)
So if we stay with the symbolism of life in a tree, notice what we read in the prophecy of Isaiah 11: “Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit… On that day the root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples. The nations will seek Him, and His resting place will be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:1, 10, HCSB).
Jesse was the name of the father of King David, so this passage is referring to the Messiah who would be a descendant of David. Notice the description of the Messiah in verses 2 and following:
“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him—
A Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
A Spirit of counsel and strength,
A Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…”
From the beginning to the end of the Bible, we read of a tree of life. In the Garden of Eden, Genesis 2:9 speaks of a tree of life, and in Revelation 22:2 we read that in heaven, “The tree of life was on both sides of the river, bearing 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…”
Jesus is symbolized by this tree of life, for Christ gives us life. And how? Because he is also represented by a tree of death by his death on the cross!
Crucifixion was so horrible it was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen, and Jews saw it as a curse. Deuteronomy 21:23 says that anybody executed on a tree is cursed, and Galatians 3:13 repeats this. So when Jesus was nailed to the cross, which of course was made from a tree, the Jews thought He was cursed.
Yet look what we read in 1 Peter 2:24: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness, for you have been healed by His wounds.”
Thus the tree of life became the tree of death so that by faith in Christ, we could enjoy life.
The best Christmas gift was not under a tree, but hung upon a tree, the tree of Calvary.
In 1957, Frances Kipps Spencer at Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia, came up with the idea of the Chrismon tree. She wanted a way to display a Christmas tree in her church that had Christian symbols, instead of gaudy, bright lights. So she covered the tree with monogrammed letters, and other Christian symbols, such as the cross, fish, crown, etc. Today, many churches display a “Chrismon tree,” which is a Christmas tree that only has Christian symbols on it.
Why don’t we have our own traditions to see and show Christ in the Christmas tree? Put an angel or a star on the top. Display a manger scene under the tree. Put a nail on a ribbon, and hang it on the tree to remember the tree upon which Jesus was nailed. Make a Chrismon tree full of Christian symbols. When your family, friends and neighbors see your tree, you can share the meaning of the symbols.
But there is something even more important than what we do with our Christmas trees. That is what we do with our lives. Let us show Christ in a Christmas tree traditions, but even more, let us show Christ in the way we carry the cross of Christ in our daily lives.
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Posted on December 2, 2013, in Books, Christian Living and tagged Bible, Christianity, Christmas, Christmas tree, faith, holidays, Messiah, religion, tradition, traditions. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.