My son, Allan, and I set out on a perfect Colorado winter day to secure this year’s Christmas tree. We ventured deep into Pike National Forest in the Rocky Mountains as we have every December for the past 22 years, this time near Kenosha Pass. A 16’ Douglas fir now offers a stately welcome for holiday visitors to our home.
While I love this tradition, the idea of bringing a tree into your house and covering it with decorations does seem a bit disconnected from the origins of the holiday recognition. I recalled having a book in my personal library, Inventing Christmas - How Our Holiday Came to Be, by Jock Elliott. Elliott writes, “Something rather like a Christmas tree first appeared in the medieval period. The miracle, or mystery, plays of the time taught the people about religion. One of the plays, about Adam and Eve, had as a prop a fir tree hung with apples symbolizing the Garden of Eden. The tree, being an evergreen, symbolized immortality, and the apples represented Adam’s fall.”
There is also a frequently observed legend that Martin Luther was the one who came up with the notion of adding lights to a Christmas tree in an attempt to capture an inspired moment of seeing stars through the forest near his home. It is difficult to imagine safely burning candles fastened to the branches of a dispatched conifer, but that was the practice.
There is great symbology with trees in the Bible, where the Christmas story is carefully documented. According to scripture, the Word of God, also known as the Second Person of the Triune Godhead in Christian doctrine, was the actual creator of all the heavens and the Earth. His creation included the paradise known as the Garden of Eden.
The garden is described to have many trees, but two in particular begin the Christmas story. “The Lord God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
God had instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of one particular tree in the Garden of Eden, “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” Well, we have all seen that painting; the snake, the apple, and the fig-leafed couple.
Soon after eating the forbidden fruit, “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” Then, in a veiled description, the Lord God lays out the consequences of their deed.
The serpent is predicted to inflict injury to the Word of God, which we now understand to be the crucifixion -- the nailing of Jesus’ body to a tree. The serpent is predicted to be dealt a final death blow, an event which we have yet to see take place.
At the moment that God confronts Adam and Eve, we read perhaps the most dramatic grammar in all of the Old Testament, “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’—“ The Amplified Bible explains, “The sentence is left unfinished as if to hasten to avert the tragedy of men living on forever in their now fallen state.”
The Christmas story that we celebrate today is far more lovely than the tragedy of Genesis 3. As Linus explains to Charlie Brown every December, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
The gifts of the magi to the Christ child were famously gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is a pure metal, a noble element that will never tarnish, a symbol of royalty for a king. Frankincense and myrrh are both fragrant gum resins from trees found only in the desert areas of south Arabia and north Africa. At that time, frankincense held the same value as gold. It was a symbol of deity, used ceremoniously to connect with God. Myrrh was valued at six times the price of gold and was a symbol of mortality used as a fragrance in human burial.
From the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we learn about God’s tree of life. It is mentioned only as a maxim in Proverbs, in the middle of the Bible. The tree of life is then only spoken of one last time in Revelation, the final book of the Bible. Here we receive hope for an eternal sentience in the garden, made possible by the Word of God, the Christ child, the creator of trees. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.”
Merry Christmas, everyone.