December 14, 2022
Many times over the last couple of decades, I have encountered a strange argument about Christian Christmas observances. The argument is that Christians adopted pagan customs for their own religious observations. One example that is frequently cited is the Christmas tree. Folks will say that Christmas trees were associated Druids or Egyptians or Roman cultic groups and that the church simply co-opted them. This morning, out of curiosity, I began researching the origin of the Christmas tree. I learned some surprising things. It is true that ancient cultures all over the world used evergreen trees for various observances and holidays. Regarding the Christian use of the tree, I learned that German Christians in the 16th century were the first to bring spruce trees into their homes and decorate them for the celebration of Christmas. Later, decorations began to include lights (candles). Some folks believe Martin Luther was the one who introduced the use of Christmas lights. The date that these traditions were born kinda quashes arguments about pagan adoption, as their is far too large of a historical gap for it to makes sense. The far more interesting thing I learned in researching the history of Christmas trees relates to why they did it. When these holiday innovators looked at evergreen trees, they saw a long list of attributes that reminded them of Christian doctrines. Here is a brief list of the various Christmas Tree attributes that they assigned symbolic meaning to. Christmas trees are typically triangle shaped. Triangles have 3 sides, which reminds us of the Trinity (the three persons of the Godhead). The fact that the trees remain green year-round reminds us of the resurrection and everlasting life in Jesus. The needle leaves were said to represent the thorns on the crown of thorns Christ wore to the crucifixion. Later, lights were added to symbolize Christ as the light of the world and as a nod to Matthew 4:16. Traditionally, trees were decorated with bells, which the medieval church used to express joy. I also came across the idea that the tree itself is an arrow pointing to heaven. There are a few other symbols associated with the tradition, but I suspect I have made my point regarding the rich tradition of symbolism and religious associations between the most popular Christmas decoration and the church. Here’s the thing that really surprised me in all the stuff I learned: I hadn’t heard any of it before. I’ve celebrated around 46 Christmases and never knew that the tree was a bundle of religious symbols and reminders of bigger truths. This is a huge deal, because when a symbol loses its meaning, then it is just a dead ritual. Christmas trees can be beautiful, but when they tell great truths about God’s love for us, Jesus’ saving work on the cross, or our eternity in Heaven, they are even more beautiful because they’re more than just tinsel and twinkle. It’s sort of like my wedding ring, which is an outward symbol of the lifelong commitment I made before God to love and honor my wife. If I forget the marriage and just see it as a piece of gold jewelry, I forget what makes it truly beautiful. As it turns out, many of the Christmas traditions we enjoy have their roots in beautiful symbolism meant to remind us of the bigger truths in our world. I think this is especially important in the Christmas season when spending money, losing our minds with excess busyness, and excess stress is most of what is on our collective minds. It’s then that the symbols most need to carry their bigger meanings into our minds and hearts.