What’s Christian about the Christmas tree?

What are we to make of that evergreen lightning rod that we call the Christmas tree?

There are, on the one hand, some Christians who discourage its use by the faithful since they view it as a sign of paganism or consumerism or both. There are also, on the other hand, secular opponents of Christianity who will oppose the Christmas tree’s presence at this or that court house or public square each year.

So to whom does the tannenbaum truly belong?

First, some history.

Pre-dating the Christian era, so far as we can tell, is the Yule tree, a favorite among druidic peoples in Northern Europe. Evergreen trees were kept in the home during this season (which is of course quite cold and dark in many parts of the world) as a sign that beneath the dormancy of winter, life persisted.

According to Francis X. Weiser, however, “The Yule tree had no direct pagan connection, and never acquired any Christian religious meaning in later times.”* What we know as the Christmas tree is in fact a Christian novelty whose origin derives from two other medieval Christian symbols: the Paradise tree and the Christmas light.

1. The Paradise Tree

During the middle ages, before the advent of television and video games (gasp!), one popular form of entertainment was the religious play (with the infamous “morality play” being a subset). One of the more popular of these was the Paradise play, depicting Creation and Fall (Gen 1-3).

The Paradise play concluded with the promise of a coming Savior, and so it became a favorite for Advent. And the one, conspicuous prop for the play was a fir tree, “decorated” with apples that represented the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The one, conspicuous prop for the Paradise play was a fir tree, “decorated” with apples.

The plays eventually fell out of favor, but the Paradise Tree persisted. Pious families would put it up in their homes on the Feast of Adam & Eve–commemorated December 24th in the Eastern calendar (the Lutheran Service Book appoints December 19th for the same).

The Paradise Tree came to represent not only the “tree of sin,” but also and much more so the “tree of life,” and thus was decorated with not only apples but also small pastries and candies that represented the “sweet fruits of Christ’s redemption.”

12390874_1497857720519898_79900801911700133_n2. The Christmas Candle(s)

Older still than the Paradise tree is the Christmas candle. Light has long been used to represent Christ, the “light of the world,” especially in the worship life of the Church.

In Germany, the Christmas candle became Christmas candles: a host of smaller lights placed on a stair-step wooden pyramid of sorts, with a “star of Bethlehem” adorning the top.

At some point during the 16th century in western Germany these two symbols—the Paradise Tree and the Christmas candle(s)—joined forces.

The lights and the star migrated to the Paradise tree, now replete with decorations of all sorts. The principal ornaments maintained the round shape, thus evoking the original fruit of the Edenic tree.

Even more than the “tree of sin,” though, in this Advent-age the Christmas tree reminds us of our Tree of Life and Light of Christ.

So should Christians have a Christmas tree? Most certainly! But consider decorating your tree with not only the usual baubles, but also more explicitly Christian images and symbols—like the Chrismons that we have been making in our Wednesday evening Faith & Family events during Advent.

*Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, p. 78. Weiser’s book provides much of this post’s historical background.

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