Each day between December 1-25, we will look at one of the traditional symbols of Christmas, what these symbols mean and how they tell the Christmas story of our Savior’s birth.
Today, Christmas trees are the center of our festivities. Everywhere you go, you can see decked out trees with glittering lights and ornaments that have become part of the beauty and meaning of Christmas. But where did the tradition of trees come from and what is the meaning of them? While there are several legends and stories throughout history about the Christmas tree, four of the most popular ones are from Germany — making it the likeliest place of origin. The stories span from the 8th to the 16th century; three are rooted in historical fact and may even be connected to one another. The fourth tells about a special Christmas visitor.
The Legends from Germany
Christmas Trees in Paradise Plays
One legend of the Christmas tree comes from their use in the medieval German Paradise Plays, held outdoors and portraying the creation of mankind. The Tree of Life was a fir tree decorated with apples. These plays started with the creation of man, acted out the first sin, and showed Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise (the Garden of Eden). It closed with the promise of a coming Savior, which made the play a particular favorite during the Christmas season. In the play, the Garden of Eden was most often represented by a fir tree hung with apples and surrounded by candles. Later, other ornaments were hung upon them such as paper flowers, and gilded nuts.
Martin Luther’s Christmas Tree
Martin Luther was perhaps the first to use a lighted tree. The story tells us that on one Christmas Eve, Martin Luther wandered outdoors and became enraptured with the beauty of the starry sky. Its brilliance and loveliness led him to reflect on the glory of the first Christmas Eve as seen in Bethlehem’s radiant skies. Wishing to share with this wife and children the enchantment he had felt, he cut from the forest an evergreen, glistening with snow and took it home. He placed upon it candles to represent the glorious heavens he had seen. The use of a candle-lighted tree spread to all Europe, then America came to regard it as the central ornament of Christmas.
St. Boniface and “Felling of Thor’s Oak”
The first story is about St. Boniface, an 8th century missionary to some of the remotest tribes of Germany. He is probably best known for what is called the “Felling of Thor’s Oak”. This legend says that upon entering a town in northern Hesse, Boniface learned that the people worshiped the god Thor. They believed that Thor resided in a great oak tree among them.
Boniface determined that if he wanted to earn an audience with the people, he would have to confront Thor. He announced before the people that he was going to cut down the oak, and he openly challenged Thor to strike him down. Miraculously, as Boniface began to chop the oak, a mighty wind blew and hurled the tree to the ground. According to the legend, a fir tree was growing in the roots of the oak, and Boniface claimed the tree as a symbol of Christ. As a result, the people readily accepted Boniface’s message, and the tree would serve as a reminder of the mighty God who was humbly born into the world as a man on Christmas day.
A Christmas Visitor
Once on a cold Christmas Eve night, a forester and his family were in their cottage gathered round the fire to keep warm. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. When the forester opened the door, he found a poor little boy standing on the door step, lost and alone. The forester welcomed him into his house and the family fed and washed him and put him to bed in the youngest sons own bed (he had to share with his brother that night!).
The next morning, Christmas Morning, the family were woken up by a choir of angels, and the poor little boy had turned into Jesus, the Christ Child. The Christ Child went into the front garden of the cottage and broke a branch off a Fir tree and gave it to the family as a present to say thank you for looking after him. So ever since them, people have remembered that night by bringing a Christmas Tree into their homes!
Decorating the Tree
In Germany, the first Christmas Trees were decorated with edible things, such as gingerbread and gold covered apples. Some years later, glass makers made special small ornaments similar to some of the decorations used today. In 1605, an unknown German wrote: “At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlors of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, sweets, etc.”
Throughout the years it is the Christmas tree that forms the background for tiny white lights and various Chrismons or ornaments. First, the lights we place on the tree remind us of Jesus, who is the Light of the World. Once the lights are on, we add Chrismons that proclaim the brith, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, with the commercializing of Christmas, ornaments have moved away for the religious symbols are now sentimental or representations of non-Biblical Christmas figures or even just plain colored ornament balls.
Topping the Christmas Tree
At first, a figure of the Baby Jesus was put on the top of the tree. Over time, it changed to an angel that told the shepherds about Jesus, or a star like the Wise Men saw.
Christmas Tree ”skirts” started as Christmas Tree “carpets”. They were made from heavy fabric, often decorated and with fancy frills around the edges, and were used either on the floor, or on tables, and went under the trees and their stands – rather than ‘around’ them. These skirts would catch the needles from the trees and also protect the floor or table tops from dripping wax coming from the candles on the trees. In Germany in the early/mid 1800s it was also ‘fashionable’ to have a nativity scene under trees (especially if the trees were placed on tables) and so these scenes also stood on the Tree carpets
In ancient time, the cedar was revered as the tree of royalty. It also signifies immortality and used for purification. Sometimes, this tree is used as a sign of Christ, who reigns as King forever, and whose coming, in justice and righteousness, will purify our hearts. Therefore, this evergreen, symbolizes the eternal life which our Savior has won for us.
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