The Christmas Tree

December 4, 2015

The Pastor's Page

UnknownTraditional Beginnings.  The Christmas tree finds it origins in the medieval mystery plays of Europe, particularly in Germany.  Bands of minstrels and actors traveled from city to city to conduct skits about various truths of the faith.  One such play reenacted Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden and the fall of humanity, a dark moment in history to coincide with the darkness of the winter solstice.  The play had a Paradise Tree, the tree of life, a green fir tree decorated with apples, the forbidden fruit.  Over time, to add hope to such a depressing event, the tree was also decorated with bits of bread or crackers:  sin came from eating the apples; grace comes from receiving the Eucharist.  Eventually, the popularity of mystery plays faded, but the tradition of the tree remained without the previous focus on Adam and Eve’s sin.  The tree adornments evolved from apples, to apples and oranges, to brightly colored round objects, to the Christmas bulbs of today; and the crackers evolved to cookies cut in the shape of stars, angels, and animals, to the Christmas ornaments of today.

Location.  The oldest and most traditional location for a Christmas tree is inside the family home.  It is now also common to have one or more trees inside the church where they add to the solemnity of the feast and add joy to the good news of the Nativity.  The trees should never obstruct the view of the altar, lectern, or presider’s chair.

Timing.  According to the Book of Blessings, “the Christmas tree is set up just before Christmas and may remain in place until the solemnity of Epiphany” (No. 1571).  Many prefer to display a Christmas tree throughout the majority of the Advent-Christmas season beginning on the First Sunday of Advent and continuing until the Baptism of the Lord.

Symbolism.  The Christmas tree inside the family home is small and young when compared to a fully grown tree outdoors, a symbol for the Christ child who when born was both small and young.  The wide base of the tree angles upward to a pointed treetop which directs attention to heaven from which the Christ child has come (Jn 3:13b; 6:38) and to where he will return (Lk 24:51; Eph 1:20; 1 Pt 3:22).  The evergreen branches represent eternity:  the eternal love of God; and Jesus, the eternal word (Jn 1:1); an eternal being, “the one who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:8); and the one who brings the gift of eternal salvation (Heb 5:9).  The sparkling Christmas lights represent Jesus, the Light of the World (Jn 1:4,5,9; 8:12; 12:46).

Blessing Ritual.  The Christmas tree may be blessed during Advent, on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day.  When the tree is blessed at home, the blessing may be offered by a parent or another family member.  The blessing may also be incorporated into Morning or Evening Prayer, or be part of a Liturgy of the Word.   The tree is illuminated after the blessing prayer is completed.  A scripture reading may be read before the blessing prayer, and three options are offered:  Titus 3:4-7, Genesis 2:4-9, or Isaiah 9:1-6.  Psalm 96 can be used as a Responsorial Psalm.  The hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, may be sung.

Blessing Prayer.  “Lord our God, we praise you for the light of creation:  the sun, the moon, and the stars of night.  We praise you for the light of Israel:  the Law, the prophets, and the wisdom of the Scriptures.  We praise you for Jesus Christ, your Son:  he is Emmanuel, God-with-us, the Prince of Peace, who fills us with the wonder of your love.  Lord God, let your blessing come upon this tree.  May the light and cheer it gives be a sign of the joy that fills our hearts.  May all who delight in this tree come to the knowledge and joy of salvation.  We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen” (No. 1586, 1595).

About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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