Posts Tagged ‘Eden’

Christmas Tree Symbolism

December 3, 2016

Anyone who knows me will know that I am a sucker for symbolism. The language of metaphor and symbolic expression is employed heavily during Christmas and has a rich history. Which is good because I’m also the type of guy that needs a good reason to wrestle a fake fir from the attic once a year and test myriad bulbs to find the one that is burnt out. If I am going through all this tedious work, there better be a good reason lest I become a Grinch.

The tree as a Christian symbol starts in the Garden of Eden where two trees resided, one that gave life and the other death. The New Testament begins with the Gospels and Christ’s death upon a cross (which Paul symbolically calls a tree) and ends with the Tree of Life in the book of Revelation. Similar symbols include the burning bush replicated in the Temple as a candelabra, and Israel as often depicted as an olive tree. It is no wonder that non-Jewish Christians erected Christmas trees as they interpreted the prophet Isaiah’s words, “The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the juniper, the fir and the cypress together, to adorn my sanctuary” (Isaiah 60:13).

St. Boniface used the symbolism of a fir tree to evangelize the Germans in the 8th century. By the 11thcentury churches put on plays in the churchyard decorating evergreens with apples and the children would act out the story of Adam and Eve’s fall. They also acted out the Nativity, Epiphany, Passion, and Pentecost, to teach the gospel in fun and creative ways since most people couldn’t read. Martin Luther in the 16th century brought the tree indoors and lit it with candles.

swirlychristmastree2cardFrom Boniface to Luther the tree took on specific meanings. The lit evergreen speaks to the light, life, and eternal love of Christ, especially in the stark winter where everything else seems dead. It points towards heaven and its triangular shape represents the Trinity. We top it with either a star or an angel, the first messengers of the Gospel to magi and shepherd, imploring us to spread the message as well. So we spread the message faithfully. God even describes himself as this festive conifer saying, “I am like an evergreen cypress, your faithfulness comes from me.” (Hosea 14:8)

I also want to remind you of the power of symbolic language. Not only can a picture convey a thousand words, it can also conceal that same message when it is in danger. Christianity has not always been welcomed and the church has often needed to communicate with stealth. We Christians may be returning to a new era of disdain and our public discourse may be challenged. When the blatantly Christian images are stripped from the public square we can still gather around the fake tree and whisper the truth when our children ask, “why does Daddy wrangle with that tree down two flights of stairs and fiddle endlessly with those lights?”

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