This is the third article in the series ‘10 Things to Do with Your Family This Christmas Season.’
Stately, well-proportioned, vividly green and alive. Bedecked with warmth and light and beauty. Surrounded with the smells and imagery and memories of one of the most beloved times of year. The Christmas tree is a commonly recognized piece of Western culture in our era. All manner of symbolism and legend has been attached to its presence during the Christmas season and there are many interpretations of the story of its origin.
Henry Van Till said that “culture is religion externalized.” The immediate responsibility of the Christian is to “externalize” or practice the Christian religion, and thereby build Christian culture. Dominion is simply the responsibility of the self conscious Christian to exalt Christ and his law in every area of life… To conform all things to the perfect law of liberty.
Romans 8 declares that, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The redeemed man is the instrument of God to enact cultural reformation. Two men stand out in history as being instrumental in cultural dominion regarding the celebration of Christmas: Saint Boniface and Martin Luther.
Saint Boniface (675–754 A.D.), though a flawed man to be sure, understood that the fallen nature of man was incapable of obeying God. He understood that the practices of druidism which incorporated, through sacrifices, the worship of trees and springs was contrary to Christian Culture.
Willibald (Boniface’s disciple and contemporary biographer) in his work, Life of St. Boniface, gives his eyewitness account of a providential victory during an evangelistic mission:
“Boniface … attempted in the place called Gaesmere, while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter. And when in the strength of his steadfast heart, he had cut the lower notch, there was present a multitude of pagans, who in their souls were most earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, driven by a divine blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and as if by the gracious dispensation of the Most High it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length, were seen, unwrought [that is: not accomplished] by the brethren who stood by. At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling. Then moreover the most holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree a wooden oratory, and dedicated it to Saint Peter the Apostle.
From this account have sprung many legends. Since the written history during that period is limited due to the widespread illiteracy and paganism, many stories were passed down by word of mouth. While some are obviously symbolic embellishments of fact, fabricated for the purpose of inspiration or even propaganda, there are others that ring with truth. One of these legends continues that after the felling of the pagan oak, Boniface pointed to a small fir tree near its base and observed that in it were represented the characteristics of God’s eternal mercy and forgiveness through his Son Jesus Christ, whom they should worship in spirit and truth.
Whether this part of the tale is true or not, from this time on in history accounts arose of the tradition of the yule log, and the yule tree. The yule log was a direct result of Boniface’s teaching that creation was to be used by man for warmth and joy, not worshiped. The yule tree, sometimes called “God’s Tree”, the “Eden Tree”, and the “Paradise Tree” went through a few morphs. At first it was only a tree sometimes set up outside or inside the house. The eastern church began celebrating Eden Day or Adam and Eve Day and by 1000 AD it was fairly popular throughout Europe, held on December 24 as part of advent. During that festival, they paraded the Eden Tree, hung with fruits, nuts and treats, through the streets of a city. Later in northern Europe, the tree was often hung upside down (some opine to conserve space in small homes), and the triangle shape in many accounts represented the trinity.
While the myriad accounts about the yule tree vary, it is fairly certain that Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, was the first to wire candles on the boughs of an evergreen he brought into his home for Christmas. The story goes that while gazing at the stars during a walk through the woods, he marveled at the beauty in the trees and the stars and the glory of God that shines out through Christ. He went home and set up the tree whose beauty he believed was consistent with the eternal unchanging nature of God and adorned it with lights to tell his children the story of Jesus, the light of the world.
From Germany to the rest of Europe and eventually to America the tradition spread, and with it the Christian tradition of evergreen as symbolic of eternal life and the glory of God in the advent of our Savior Jesus Christ.
In the death of paganism, Christ builds his church; in the ashes of man’s wickedness God establishes the light and kingdom of Christ. The use of creation for the benefit of man and the glory of God replaced the worship of creation. When Boniface walked into the midst of men given to a fierce hatred of God and of their fellow man, he understood that culture had to be converted to be consistent with the gospel. If men’s hearts are revived, so are their homes, their families, their traditions, their desires, their affections … their world.
Modern interpretation of the story declare the Christian traditions to be borrowed. How ludicrous that is when we consider that the fear of God and the joy of his creation predate any pagan outcroppings of rebellious re-definition and idolatry. Where the pagan worshiped the evergreen tree, the Christian recognized that this particular creation glorified an attribute of God, as all creation does.
When you bring a tree into you home today, most won’t know the true old story. But let them have no doubt about truth. Bring in your tree to declare a day of remembrance and joy before the Lord.
“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low. The crooked straight, and the rough places plain.” — Handel’s Messiah, Isaiah 40:4
The story of the Christmas tree is the story of the irresistible power of the gospel to subdue and redeem not only men’s hearts, but the very creation to the glory of his name.