A practice of bringing plants into the home during winter, especially the boughs of evergreen trees, has a long history in Europe. Sometimes it had religious significance and sometimes not. We know that in medieval Europe, ‘the tree of paradise’ was decorated with shiny red balls representing the forbidden fruit from the Genesis account of the Fall. Trees were associated with a number of different festivals and celebrations.
Associating a decorated tree with Christmas seems to have originated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, perhaps first in Estonia and Latvia, and then, a little later, in Germany. One popular story links the origins of the modern Christmas tree to the German Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. He is said to have been walking through the forest one night before Christmas, when he looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas so that he could be our Saviour. They recreated the scene in the family home and the practice soon caught on.
Eventually, through the German princes and princesses who occupied the English throne in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and through Hessian soldiers who were deployed in the garrison in Québec, the practice of decorating a Christmas tree in the home crossed the English Channel and then the Atlantic Ocean. Today the installation of Christmas trees is well-known right around the world. It adds to the celebratory tone of this traditional Christian festival.
The joy of Christmas is, as Luther put it, the arrival of the one who is our Saviour. In 2020, after a year of dislocation and stress, a Christmas tree is a tangible symbol of life and a reminder that against all odds there is hope. That hope centres on a child born in extraordinary circumstances and in fulfilment of an ancient promise, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Forgiveness, new life and the restoration of all things are found in him.
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