While your leftover turkey sat waiting in the fridge from the day before, the First Lady was receiving from Whispering Pine Tree Farm the official White House Christmas Tree. Its growers were winners of the National Christmas Tree Association’s annual contest—think of it as the Olympic gold of Christmas tree growers.
Have you picked out your tree yet? Will you pick it from a box in your attic, from the makeshift tree lot in the mall overflow parking, or are you planning a trip to Whispering Pines yourself (that’s in Wisconsin, by the way)?
No matter your custom, the Christmas tree has become the primary cultural spark that ignites our anticipation for the holiday season and to us the most basic of all Christmas traditions, right up there with wreaths and lights. However, you may be surprised to hear how contemporary the custom really is.
The first evergreens brought into the home to celebrate Christmas appeared in northern Europe in the early 16th century. The custom didn’t become popular among English-speaking people until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who was from Saxony in Germany) brought a tree into their Windsor Castle Christmas celebration in 1841. About the same time German and upper European immigrants brought the practice to America. Our White House didn’t have its first Christmas tree until the 1850s, or even the 1880s by some accounts, and it wasn’t until 1982 that the Vatican put up its first Christmas tree.
In the earliest days of Christianity, it was the people who idolized the Roman Emperors who hung lamps to light the outsides of their homes and decorated them with evergreen laurels. Second Century Church Father Tertullian chided Christians who participated in that custom, “‘Let your works shine!’ says he (Matthew 5:16), but now all our shops and gates shine! You will now-a-days find more doors of heathens without lamps and laurel-wreaths than of Christians… ‘Then’ do you say, ‘the lamps before my doors, and the laurels on my posts, are an honor to God?’ They are there, of course, not because they are an honor to God…. Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts laurels doomed presently to burn… you are the light of the world, and a tree ever green.’”
Now don’t take Tertullian’s words and apply them directly to our Christmas celebrations either, for early Christians didn’t actually celebrate Christmas. Some early Church Fathers of his time, like Origen, even argued that birthday celebrations themselves were for pagan gods, pharaohs and worldly emperors, not fitting for the Son of God. The Christian celebration of Christmas on December 25th didn’t begin until nearly a century after Tertullian.
Yet if we’re willing to hear any of what he has to say about our festive practices this time of year, let it be this: as long as Christmas trees lit with lights are just another symbol of holiday cheer, we might as well leave them for the White House and shopping malls to erect. If we bring them into our homes this year, let it only be if every day they are a reminder to us of him who is himself light and life (John 1:4): Jesus. He’s the one who says of us who believe in him, that we are like a tree “…whose leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:1-3) and that we “... are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).
Shine bright this year, you ever greens.
If you want to read a good article about Christmas Trees or the date of Christmas, check out Christianity Today’s “Why Do We Have Christmas Trees?” and “Why December 25?” at www.ChristianityToday.com.