Updated: Apr 21
If you're going to do Different, be sure your reasons are sound.
This final part of my Christmas series continues a holiday from usual themes to talk about why celebrating the season is a good and healthy thing to do. The topic is important because some folks think we should do away with Christmas.
But their "different" is based on bad information and limited thinking—
not a good foundation for making a major change in life.
AN EPITAPH IN BEND, OREGON READS: "HE KEPT CHRISTMAS WELL."
The words derive, of course, from Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge after he embraces the goodness of Christmas. In the Oregon cemetery, though, they refer to the 51-year-long life of my brother-in-law. There were many things he did right in his not-quite-long-enough life, and one of them was to honor the celebration of Christ’s birth in every way possible.
Barking Up the Wrong Tree
Much has been made in recent years about how we should reject certain ways of keeping Christmas—and possibly whether or not we should “keep” it at all. Trappings like Christmas trees and yule logs are often cited as having their roots (so to speak) in pagan celebrations. Hence, Christians shouldn’t participate in them, so the argument goes.
People accept this to their own detriment. They may have the courage to do something different according to their convictions, but as I’ve noted before, it’s a bad idea to make a significant change without having well-grounded reasons.
Christmas trees are often cited as an example of a pagan custom wrongly brought into celebrating Christmas. There’s a bigger reason than origins not to get hung up on this, and I’ll get to that shortly. First, though, I want to offer my approach to setting the historical record straight.
While trees have been used in various religious contexts throughout history, the connections between the pagan use and Christmas use is superficial: They used them; we use them, so there must be a connection. (In last week’s article, “Do as They Do, Not Just as They Say,” I also noted the superficial connection between the date for Christmas and historical pagan celebrations.)
These connections are often attributed to way-ancient use of trees that pre-date Christianity. But there’s a direct connection between a very Christian use of trees at Christmastime and what we do today.
The direct ancestor of modern Christmas trees appears to be a custom begun in 13th century Germany.
For centuries prior to that time, the church had celebrated the feast day of Adam and Eve on December 24. The celebration was the pre-cursor to celebrating Christ’s Nativity, the day on which Adam and Eve’s sin was set right.
In the 1200s, German celebrants introduced the "Paradise Tree" into their celebrations to commemorate the Tree of Life that Adam and Eve lost but Christ restored. The restoration means we can partake of new life in Him.
In some churches today, there's still a connection. Here, for instance, are a few words of an ancient hymn used in Orthodox Christian churches in a Christmas Eve prayer service known as The Royal Hours of the Nativity:
Prepare, O Bethlehem, . . . God hath appeared to mankind from the Virgin,
taking our likeness and deifying our nature. Wherefore, Adam and Eve are made new, crying, Goodwill hath appeared on earth to save our race. (emphasis added)
Trees were set up to reflect this gospel truth: Paradise is restored through the incarnation, Christ’s coming to earth as a man, the event honored at Christmas.
The Paradise Tree—and by historical descent, the modern Christmas tree—commemorates our restoration. Which also brings us to the best reason not to be put off by so-called pagan roots to our celebrations.
Setting Everything Right
Regardless of the exact origin of trees, logs, et al, objecting to them as part of a Christmas celebration overlooks the most obvious application of the gospel message: Redemption.
Christ came to reclaim the world for God.
Even if every pagan root were actually as pagan as some people charge, the answer would still be “So what?” because of this one fact. With Christ’s entry into the physical creation, everything in the world was taken out of the hands of the devil and placed into the Kingdom of God which Christ said He brought to earth.
The point of Christianity has been to redeem all that was lost at the Fall. Everything is redeemed—including symbols and objects that pagans used to call theirs.
Speaking as a Christian: It’s all ours now—brought back by Christ’s advent to how we were meant to be from the beginning. There were no pagan trees in the Garden of Eden, and there aren’t any now in the Kingdom of God.
So, trees, logs, sparkly lights—whatever is honorable in recognizing the coming of Christ—are made good again, just as God saw in His creation: “Behold, it was very good.”
Keep It Up!
The inscription on the Oregon grave marker is 20 years old now, but since I live in Tennessee, I see it only every so often. Nevertheless, there are plenty of reminders I—and you—can use to keep Christmas well. Trees, lights, gifts, special prayers, worship services, Christmas carols. May you enjoy however you keep the Day.
God bless us every one.
Another fascinating, historical use of the tree image in conjunction with Christ's coming is reflected in the ancient "Jesse Tree Icon." This poignant sermon-in-art shows Jesse, King David's father, as the root from which a family tree grows that ends in the Virgin birth of Christ.
In case you missed the first two parts of this series, click here to read Part 1, "To Do or Not to Do —Christmas" and here for Part 2 "Christmas: Do as They Do, Not Just as They Say."
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