The Christmas tree, rooted in tradition
A Christmas message by Dean of Gibraltar Canon Ian Tarrant.
At this time of year we see Christmas trees everywhere. On the streets, in homes, even in shops and offices. It’s like the trees have invaded and taken over!
I remember that when I was at school I asked about the origin of the Christmas tree, and I was told that the husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, brought the Christmas tree tradition to England from Germany. And I thought, but how did the Christmas tree tradition get started in Germany?
I discovered that there were pre-Christian, pagan, traditions of bringing greenery into homes at the coldest, darkest time of the year: holly, ivy, mistletoe. People were looking forward to spring, when all plants would be green again. But a whole tree?
It was some years later when I found an explanation…
In the middle ages, in Germany, and in some other countries, there was a tradition of presenting Bible stories as plays in the open air at Christmas time. In England these would be called ‘Mystery plays’ because they were revealing the mysteries of the Bible to a population that could not read. In Germany they would be staged in a town’s market place.
Some towns arranged a series of plays, going right through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The usual story to start with would be the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. There’s a tree in that story, a tree with forbidden fruit.
The people setting up the stage in the market square would need some scenery and some props. At that time of year, the only green tree that they could get their hands on would be fir tree. So they would find a fir tree, cut it down, and bring it into the market place. They would tie wooden balls onto the tree, wooden balls painted in bright colours to represent the fruit.
So you can now imagine that a week or two before Christmas, a fir tree would be set up in the market square ready for the play, with coloured balls hanging from it. This became a sign that Christmas was getting close.
These public Christmas trees were the beginning of the tradition. Having a similar tree inside your house came later. At first the only decorations were the coloured balls, but other kinds of decoration followed.
So our Christmas trees have their ‘roots’ in the Bible’s big story of rebellion and redemption. They remind us of that Bible story about temptation and sin – about people disobeying God, about the need for mercy and reconciliation. A need that Jesus met by his death on the cross, which made God’s forgiveness available for all.
When you think about it, bringing a whole tree inside your house is a very strange thing to do! Normally trees are outdoors, not indoors. In English we often talk about things being ‘inside-out’, but this is something that is ‘outside-in’.
Today when I see an indoor Christmas tree, the outside-in situation reminds me of a truth about Christmas, and it gives me a challenge for Christmas.
The truth is this: that Jesus, the Son of God, came into the creation, into our universe, from outside, to share with us the love of God at a human level. The trees are not invaders – but in a way, Jesus was an invader, leaving his heavenly home, with the good intent of dying for us, to bridge the gap between human beings and God.
The challenge that I see is this: that we should show God’s love to people who are outside our usual circle of friends and acquaintances, and to bring them inside that circle. To reach out and welcome outsiders, so that they can be insiders.
So the Christmas tree has biblical ‘roots’ – and it presents us with a truth and a challenge.