Skip to comments.The (Christian) Symbolism of the Christmas Tree
Posted on 12/20/2005 2:48:30 PM PST by churchillbuff
The Christmas tree has become a symbol of the spirit of Christmas in many countries and many, if not all, our homes. What led Christians to adopt this custom?
The first mention in history of fir trees used in Christmas celebrations was in 12th century Germany. A fir tree was used in mystery plays as the so-called "paradise" tree. These dramas were held outside during the Advent and Christmas seasons and the fir tree symbolized the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. The evergreen fir tree is a sign of hope throughout the winter season--hope in the promise that the rest of nature too will awaken to new life in the coming spring. The message of this symbolism was simple: through Jesus Christ we too have hope for everlasting life. Indeed, Jesus Christ has become our tree of life--the paradise tree. As such the evergreen Christmas tree reminds us that even though our earthly season must come to an end, yet we will live through the grace of our Lord Jesus.
The use of the indoor Christmas tree began early in the 17th century, in Strasbourg, (which at that time belonged to Germany, but is now France) spreading from there throughout Germany and then into northern Europe. In 1841, Albert the German-born husband of Queen Victoria, first introduced the Christmas tree custom to Great Britain. He had the first decorated Christmas tree set up in Windsor Castle in 1841. The first Christmas trees in the New World were introduced by Hessian soldiers in 1776. Later German immigrants brought the tradition into wider use in the US. The custom of decorating a community tree began in the early 1900's and is a popular custom in the US today.
What is the symbolism of the Christmas tree today? Well first of all, the fir tree is an evergreen--it does not die or fade away or lose its needles in the winter. In this sense it has soon come to represent the immortality of the resurrected Christ.
The lights in the Christmas tree also have a deeper meaning. Originally the lights used were candles, of course. During my childhood days in Germany my grandparents still lit dozens of candles in their Christmas tree. The candles too were meant to symbolize Christ, specifically his self-giving love and gift of life to us. As many of us know, the candle provides light and warmth as it consumes its own substance, the wax. So, too, did Jesus give of his own substance--his life--so that we might find divine light. And when we have found divine light for ourselves, we too are enabled through the power of the Holy Spirit to give of ourselves to others. After all, Christmas is the feast of love, where we share gifts with each other as Christ shared the gift of life with us.
There's some excellent background on this in Fr. Francis X. Weiser, S.J., The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs.
I knew Fr. Weiser when he was teaching at the Weston Seminary in Massacusetts back when I was in college. I did a google search and found his book posted on-line:
Fr. Weiser grew up in a little village in Bavaria.
Brilliant co-opting of a pagan symbol:
Evergreen = ever-living
Triangular shape = Holy Trinity
Circular shape = never-ending
PS: the early history of Advent and Christmas is laid out in Weiser, chs. 5-6.
"...for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not."
My wife having opemed a retail shop recently, it fell upon me to put up a tree this year if we were to have one. In the attic we have enough decorations for a dozen trees as the wife in other times has put up as many as five in our home. I found some strands of plastic clip on candles we last used at least 15 years ago. Needless to say only about half of them lit but being determined , I spent half a day getting them to work. Our tree this year wears only those candles. I am messmerized by its beauty,It is the most wonderous tree we have ever had. But of course I feel that every year. Merry Christmas to all my freepin friends!
Jeremiah 10 is clearly talking about the construction of an idol, not a Christmas tree. V. 5 makes that crystal clear: "They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not" (no one in their right mind expects a decorated tree to speak, but an idol is a different matter); "they must needs be borne, because they cannot go." (IOW they have to be carried around, because they can't walk by themselves).
"Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, ... For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not."For the record, I have a tree up. Always have. Always will. It isn't overly decorated with expensive items like gold or silver and it is not in vain. It is humble and I do not worship it.
Sometimes, it is the odd tree that is the most beautiful. We have our late daughter's Beanies on the tree. I added more lights than we had last year and some icicles. It is absolutely beautiful. It looks like all of the animals are peeping through ice and it is sparkling with the lights and icicles. It brought back so many memories when I put it up. One of them is not a Beanie but another brand of Uncle Sam. I was in a store and they had a box of 4 ornaments with a picture of an angel. I added 2 of those for our daughter and gave the other 2 to our other daughter. In a way, she represents our real angel.
Tree lit with candles. Hmmm . . . tree . . . open flames . . . maybe it symbolizes the burning bush of Sinai.
Bottom line: you can fabricate symbolism however you wish. Everyone knows that the "Christmas" tree has its origin in paganism. However, the meaning assigned by pagans has long since been lost and co-opted by the earlier Christian adoption of the tree, along with assignment of different symbolism.
In any event, Freepers, have yourselves a merry little Christmas, give proper honor and worship to the namesake of the holiday, and don't drive yourselves too crazy with the symbolism issues, because there's thousands of years of history and tradition that will mess with your mind if you allow it.
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