Does the Christmas tree have roots?

24 Nov

A few days after Thanksgiving day and the trees are already up. What a wonderful holiday tradition! And aren’t traditions wonderful? They serve to unite and build communities and uplift our spirits. The singing of the national anthem before a game, numerous wedding traditions, graduation ceremonies, Thanksgiving dinner, anniversaries, the list goes on and on. Traditions are there as reminders of our past, some sort of recognition or celebration, and sometimes they even point to a future hope. In short, they tell us who we are and where we are going.

So where do the roots of the Christmas tree lie? Last night I took a few minutes to nerd out on the significance of the Christmas tree. I found numerous explanations, most I have heard before, but I also found a “new” one.

There is the one where the Christmas tree is a borrowed custom from pagan rites commemorating the feast of saturnalia, where the evergreen symbolizes life even in the midst of death. That would be a bit of a bummer, IF it were the real story behind the Christmas tree.
Maybe it is an interpretation of the yule log of Germanic paganism. Snopes.
Some explain that the tree has three corners, symbolizing the trinity. Geometrically speaking; that’s just not true, unless there is some breed of conifer I’ve never heard of.
There is the theory that the tree points to the sky, reminding us of things above our human situation. Ever seen a tree that does not point up?

No satisfactory explanations of the Christmas tree tradition could be found. Nothing really pointed to the past or towards the future, nothing in these theories helps the tree significantly anchor our identity.
Around 1650 Lutheran theologian Johann Dannhauer wrote in his The Milk of the Catechism that “the Christmas or fir tree, which people set up in their houses, hang with dolls and sweets, and afterwards shake and deflower. . . Whence comes this custom I know not; it is child’s play . . .”
Seems pointless… but wait for it.

“Karas has amply demonstrated that evergreens have been a symbol of rebirth from ancient times. Bringing greenery into one’s home, often at the time of the winter solstice, symbolized life in the midst of death in many cultures. The Romans decked their homes with evergreens and other greenery during the Kalends of January. Living trees were also brought into homes during the old German feast of Yule, which originally was a two-month feast beginning in November. The Yule tree was planted in a tub and brought into the home. However, the evidence just does not exist which shows that Christians first used trees at Christmas as a symbol of rebirth, nor that the Christmas tree was a direct descendent of the Yule tree. On the contrary, the evidence that we have points in another direction. The Christmas tree appears to be a descendent of the Paradise tree and the Christmas light of the late Middle Ages.
From the eleventh century, religious plays called “mystery plays” became quite popular throughout Europe. These plays were performed outdoors and in churches. One of the most prevalent of these plays was the “Paradise play.” The play depicted the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin, and their banishment from Paradise. The play would end with the promise of the coming Savior and His Incarnation (cf. Gen. 3:15). The Paradise play was simple by today’s standards. The only prop on stage was the “Paradise tree,” a fir tree adorned with apples. From this tree, at the appropriate time in the play, Eve would take the fruit, eat it, and give it to Adam.”

Finally!!! So now we have a decent story of the Christmas tree. But how did it get off the stage and into our homes? Easy, someone banned the plays. But by then they were such a part of the tradition that people just cut down trees and put them in their homes. They would decorate the trees with apples (symbolizing the fruit of sin) and homemade wafers (symbolizing the fruit of life).
There you have it; the Christmas tree is a powerful tradition, full of reminders of the past and celebration of the future.

One Response to “Does the Christmas tree have roots?”

  1. rlwhiting November 25, 2012 at 2:21 am #

    Yay!!!!!!!!!! The Christmas tree wins!!! You just made my day. I was afraid you were in the pagan-camp with Robert (don’t quote me on that, lol).


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