It is that time of year…you know, the most wonderful time of the year! Houses and trees are adorned with lights and festive decorations. Did I mention the presents, and, of course, the SHOPPING? There will be parties, laughter, and music…Santa Clauses….mangers….special church services. But, this time of year also brings sadness, conflict, and questions.
Questions such as:
Should Christians celebrate Christmas?
How should Christians celebrate Christmas?
Much like many areas of Christianity, Christmas has become very “worldly,” with consumerism and paganism running rampant. So much so that many believers now dislike the season and are refusing to participate.
While these concerns are legitimate, I have come to this conclusion:
Christmas is what we make it.
We can make it about Christ or we can make it about presents…Santa Claus….food….family, or whatever. (Yes, for Christians, Christmas should automatically be about Christ, we should not have to make it anything….I get it..but, sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.) Furthermore, it is my belief that the problem lies with us, Christians, and not the world.
Yes, I believe the problem is that we, Christians, no longer know our Christian traditions and symbolism. We have bought the world’s lie that Christmas really is a pagan holiday. We have failed to educate ourselves and our children. We have gotten wrapped up in the worldly Christmas and not the Christian Christmas. I am guilty of this as well. It wasn’t until two or three years ago that I realized that while some of our Christmas practices stem from the pagans, there really is a Christ-centered theme for most of all Christmas traditions, practices, and symbols.
Therefore, today and next week, I thought it would fun, helpful, and educational to examine some of the most common Christmas traditions so that we can use this season to best glorify Christ and not feel guilty about it at all.
The Christmas Tree
There are many questions, myths, and confusion regarding the origin of the modern Christmas tree. Truthfully, I don’t think any of the proposed answers or histories are 100% correct. I will say that it is likely that early Christians did adopt some of the pagan’s winter solstice celebrations into our own traditions, including the Christmas tree. Now, that being said, any connection to the pagans was lost long, long ago. Unbeknownst to many of us, we have adopted my pagan beliefs into our society, such as the days of the week (Saturn Day, Sun Day, Moon Day). Does this mean we use the days of the week to worship pagan gods? Of course not! God can and will use anything for His glory.
Genesis 50:20 (NKJ): 20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.
The Christian History of the Christmas Tree
The evergreen tree was an ancient symbol of life in the midst of winter. Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches during the New Year, and ancient inhabitants of northern Europe cut evergreen trees and planted them in boxes inside their houses in wintertime.
But by the early Middle Ages, the legend had grown that when Christ was born in the dead of winter, every tree throughout the world miraculously shook off its ice and snow and produced new shoots of green. At the same time, Christian missionaries preaching to Germanic and Slavic peoples were taking a more lenient approach to cultural practices—such as evergreen trees. These missionaries believed that the Incarnation proclaimed Christ’s lordship over those natural symbols that had previously been used for the worship of pagan gods. Not only individual human beings, but cultures, symbols, and traditions could be converted.
Of course, this did not mean that the worship of pagan gods themselves was tolerated. According to one legend, the eighth-century missionary Boniface, after cutting down an oak tree sacred to the pagan god Thor (and used for human sacrifice), pointed to a nearby fir tree instead as a symbol of the love and mercy of God.
Not until the Renaissance are there clear records of trees being used as a symbol of Christmas—beginning in Latvia in 1510 and Strasbourg in 1521. Legend credits the Protestant reformer Martin Luther with inventing the Christmas tree, but the story has little historical basis.
The most likely theory is that Christmas trees started with medieval plays. Dramas depicting biblical themes began as part of the church’s worship, but by the late Middle Ages, they had become rowdy, imaginative performances dominated by laypeople and taking place in the open air. The plays celebrating the Nativity were linked to the story of creation—in part because Christmas Eve was also considered the feast day of Adam and Eve. Thus, as part of the play for that day, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a “paradise tree” hung with fruit.
These plays were banned in many places in the 16th century, and people perhaps began to set up “paradise trees” in their homes to compensate for the public celebration they could no longer enjoy. The earliest Christmas trees (or evergreen branches) used in homes were referred to as “paradises.” They were often hung with round pastry wafers symbolizing the Eucharist, which developed into the cookie ornaments decorating German Christmas trees today.
The custom gained popularity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, against the protests of some clergy. Lutheran minister Johann von Dannhauer, for instance, complained that the symbol distracted people from the true evergreen tree, Jesus Christ. But this did not stop many churches from setting up Christmas trees inside the sanctuary. Alongside the tree often stood wooden “pyramids”—stacks of shelves bearing candles, sometimes one for each family member. Eventually these pyramids of candles were placed on the tree, the ancestors of our modern Christmas tree lights and ornaments. (Christianity Today)
How does the Christmas Tree Symbolize Jesus?
It represents the Paradise Tree(see above), which reminds us of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace. Jesus came to restore us back into grace and reconcile us with God.
It represents the cross. This one may be confusing and some argue it is a stretch, but I happen to think it is great symbolism.
In the Old Testament, Messiah is viewed prophetically in terms that relate to a tree.
(1) He is portrayed as a shoot or branch which would grow out of the cut down stump of the house of David (Isa. 11:1). Isaiah 11:1 reads, “ A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
(2) He is also seen as “the Branch of the Lord,” as “the Righteous Branch,” and as “God’s Servant, the Branch” whom God would raise up on the human scene to give righteousness and life to the nation, and to all who would believe in Him. This is declared to be the work of God’s doing, not man’s (Isa. 4:2f; Jer. 23:5-6; 33:15-16; Zech. 3:8; 6:12).
From these passages in both the Old and New Testaments, we see that God has His own Christmas tree in the person of His Son and in His Son’s work or death on a tree, the cross. But note, God’s tree is not decorated with lights and ornaments or tinsel, nor surrounded underneath with gifts or presents filled with perishable items purchased from our vain manner of life. Rather, under God’s tree are imperishable gifts of infinite value which were purchased by the death of God’s Son on God’s tree, the Cross. (Bible.org)
Furthermore, Jesus died on a cross made of wood. Where do we get wood…tress of course! Acts. 5:30; 20:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1Pet. 2:24.
It symbolizes our salvation. Christmas trees are Evergreen Trees, meaning they are ever green…always green. This symbolizes our salvation and the work of the cross…Jesus’ work.
Interesting stuff huh? Good news…more is on the way. Join us next week as we take a look at gift giving, Santa Claus, and much more.
In the meantime, I encourage us all today to enjoy this time of year without guilt and with great joy. Let us take advantage of the season to focus on Christ, bring glory to God, and share the love with Jesus to others.
Be Blessed and Be a Blessing,