In the U.S., the definitive sign that your household has entered into the Christmas spirit is that the tree is up and decorated. Although there is great variety in the ways we celebrate, decorate and commemorate the season, the tree is a common, unifying symbol.
As you can imagine, the history of the Christmas tree is long and complicated. Trees have symbolized many things through the ages, and with good reason. They are strong and dignified, living and resilient. Their wood is used to build things (including mangers and crosses) and their branches and leaves protect small animals and birds. In some cultures, trees are thought to have their own spirits, and to be worthy of worship. And certainly they do point to and reach toward the heavens!
The conifers we use as Christmas trees have the added symbolism of a triangle shape (Trinity, anyone?). And of course they stay green through the long winter, symbolizing the hope we always have in Christ, as fresh as the day he rose from the dead. I can certainly attest to this effect of the evergreen; one reason I don’t mind the long winters in Connecticut is because of the gorgeous view of five stately green conifers in my back yard. I am not a fan of snow, but snow settling on pines is one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.
Despite these symbolic tidbits, the most interesting thing I’ve read about the history of the Christmas tree is a tradition that is really more of a precursor. It comes from the medieval European tradition of celebrating Christmas Eve as “Adam and Eve Day.” Evergreens, symbolizing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, were decorated with apples, symbolizing the forbidden fruit. At some point, white wafers, symbolizing the Eucharist, were also hung on the trees. And so two foods decorated the medieval “Paradise Tree” – one which brought down the human race, and another which is an “antidote”, a sign of our redemption.
Decorating “Paradise Trees” is a tradition that persisted but evolved. Fresh apples were replaced with – you guessed it – bright red balls. Now sure, I’ve thought vaguely before about the relationship between the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of the Cross, and the Christmas Tree. But this year, when those bright red balls go on, I might just see old Tannenbaum in a whole new light!