“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blatter! Du grunst nicht nur zur Sommer-zeit, nein auch in Winter, wenn es schenit.”
OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–For those of you who don’t speak German, the English equivalent of the lyrics of this familiar Christmas carol basically say, “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how steadfast are your branches! Your boughs are green in summer’s clime, and through the snows of wintertime.”
One of the most widely recognized symbols of Christmas is the tree — for both the secular and the sacred world. For non-believers, the tree is just something that holds ornate decorations and strings of bright lights, something under which gifts for loved ones and friends are placed. For Christians, however, the tree is more than just a seasonal decoration which serves as a roost for tiny lace angels, plastic drummer boys, felt stockings, balsa wood reindeer and orbs of plastic or shiny blown glass or maybe popcorn on a string.
Christmas at the Nigh household is a celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior. My wife, Glenda, delights in her collection of nativities, and we have at least one displayed in every room; yes, even the bathrooms. She has nativities from around the world — Bethlehem, Guatemala, Malawi and Peru to name just a few. At last count, Glenda had 40 nativity scenes.
While the nativities come out first, we also eventually put up nine decorated Christmas trees, almost one for every room. There is the “family” tree in the formal living room; the “antique” tree in the den; an original aluminum tree from the 1960s, complete with its rotating, four-color wheel, in the front bedroom; the “angel” tree in another bedroom; smaller trees in two bathrooms; the “kitchen” tree; a tree to match our color scheme in the master bedroom; and my favorite, the “Green Bay Packers” tree in my office.
The family tree holds the ornaments we bought for each other and for our two children during the years they were growing up, and the ornaments the kids made in school … at least it did until this year when my daughter, Kristin, was married last June and took her box with her. Son Jeremy has yet to take the plunge, so we still have his box.
Inside that box is my all-time favorite ornament — a hard plastic gingerbread man, decorated with pink “icing.” During Jeremy’s third Christmas in 1980, we made the mistake of putting it low on the tree, where our firstborn, who was 2 and a half years old, could reach it.
Even today, each year it is placed on lower branches in keeping with our own family tradition. I delight in seeing the teeth marks my son made in the hard plastic gingerbread man’s arms and legs as he tried to eat a Christmas “goodie.” It’s amazing how hard a 2-year-old’s teeth are!
The tradition of trees at Christmas is generally attributed to Saint Boniface, an English missionary, known as the Apostle of Germany. Legend has it that he came upon some men in 722 A.D. who were about to cut a huge oak tree to use as a stake (Oak of Thor) for a human sacrifice to their pagan god. With one mighty blow, Saint Boniface is said to have felled the massive oak, and as the tree split, a beautiful young fir tree sprang from its center. Saint Boniface told the people the lovely evergreen — with its branches pointing to heaven — was a holy tree, the tree of the Christ child, and a symbol of God’s promise of eternal life. He then instructed the people to henceforth carry the evergreen from the wilderness into their homes and surround it with gifts.
The tradition of decorating the Christmas tree is said to have been begun by Martin Luther in 1510, when he was walking through snow-covered woods one Christmas Eve and was struck by the beauty of snow shimmering in the moonlight on the branches of the fir trees and by the twinkling of stars he could see through the boughs. When he got home, Luther set up a little fir tree inside his home and decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Jesus Christ’s birth.
The tradition of Christmas trees is said to have been brought to the United States by Hessian troops fighting for the British during the Revolutionary War. The practice also was brought to our shores by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Christmas trees didn’t become popular in England until the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The Christmas tree of that era was decorated with tinsel, silver wire ornaments, candles and strung beads. It was customary to have several small trees, one representing each member of the family, set on a table with each person’s gifts placed beneath their tree.
In 1846, the Illustrated London News pictured Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children surrounding a Christmas tree. Because of the reigning couple’s popularity, the Christmas tree soared into a state of fashion in English society. The East Coast of America also soon adopted the Victorian tree.
The commercial Christmas tree market in the United States was born around 1850. Today, some 36 million Christmas trees are produced each year, and 95 percent are shipped or sold directly from Christmas tree farms, which now number more than 15,000.
Six species account for the majority of trees purchased each year. Scotch pine ranks first, comprising about 40 percent of the market, followed by Douglas fir, with about 35 percent. Other big sellers are noble fir, white pine, balsam fir and white spruce. The fact that balsam fir twigs, more than any other evergreen twigs, resemble crosses may have had much to do with the early popularity of balsam firs being used as Christmas trees.
Although Christmas trees are topped with many objects, such as angels, most often they are accented with a star, which is symbolic of the star in the east as described in Matthew 2:7-12 (NASB):
“Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go, search carefully for the Child: and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.’ After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. After coming into the house, they saw the Child with Mary, His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.”
Christians the world over celebrate the greatest gift of all during this season — God’s gift of love, his provision of his sinless sacrificial lamb to die on the cross for us.
One of Glenda’s favorite trees is the angel tree. She always places a symbol of that love under it — a Dreamsicle angel kissing the baby Jesus in a manger.
Nigh is managing editor of the Baptist Messenger .