December - January 2023
Lighting the Darkness
O Christmas Tree!
By Eric K. Thomsen
Putting up the Christmas tree—it’s one of the highlights of the season at the Thomsen house. We have a grand time listening to Christmas music, stringing the lights (after we finally get them to work), and fluffing out the branches to my wife’s approval. And the ornaments! You’ve never seen such a variety. We have all shapes and sizes, from birds and mice to reindeers, penguins, and even pigs—yes, pigs! Some ornaments date to my grandmother’s childhood, well over a century old. Others are recent additions, received as gifts or snatched up during after-Christmas clearance sales.
We all have our favorite. My wife loves angel ornaments, and she has a wide variety. My daughter enjoys ornaments with lights and motion. If it moves, flashes, or makes some strange (or annoying) noise—right down her alley! I tend to be a little more sentimental. I like ornaments that remind me of family and childhood.
One ornament from the first Christmas of our marriage is shaped like a book. If you open the cover, you find a tiny picture of us on our wedding day—like an old-fashioned locket. I was young and skinny in my tux, and my wife, well, she is just as beautiful today as she was then.
Another is from the year my daughter was born: baby’s first Christmas. I will always remember holding that tiny bundle in my arms, knowing she was dependent upon us for everything. And still another was made by my daughter when she was three or four. I will never forget how proud she was to hang it on our tree. I treasure it, and I always will.
Honestly, in many ways, our Christmas tree has become a family scrapbook we add to once a year, a hodgepodge of memories, laughter, jokes—even sorrows when we hang ornaments from those we have lost.
What do you know about the origin of the Christmas tree? Evergreens have been a symbol of rebirth since ancient times. Bringing greenery into the home during the winter symbolized life amid death in many cultures. Romans decked out their homes with greenery in winter months, and trees were brought into homes during the old German Yule, a two-month feast beginning in November. (For the record, two-month feasts are my favorite kind.) In more recent times, Christians adopted the Christmas tree from these ancient, and sometimes pagan, traditions, an association leading some Christian groups to view trees with suspicion. In fact, English Puritans forbade Christmas trees, and offenders had to pay a penalty of five shillings!
A widely held (though difficult to verify) tradition points to the reformer Martin Luther as responsible for the first Christmas tree. As the story goes, one crisp, clear Christmas Eve, Luther was walking home through a snowy wood. As it was a beautiful starry night, Luther paused for a moment to gaze at the sky in reverent meditation. Standing in a grove of tall evergreens, it looked as though thousands of stars had settled on their branches. According to the legend, Luther cut a small evergreen, took it home, and decorated it with small candles in metal holders to recreate his experience for his children. That glittering tree became a tradition. Again—pure legend, though often repeated.
The earliest documented historical record of Christmas trees dates from 1521 in northern Germany. The document describes those early trees as decorated with paper roses, apples, strings of communion wafers, sweets, and ornate wooden dolls.
The truth is, no one knows for sure where the Christmas tree originated. Wherever it started, today the Christmas tree is among the most popular and cherished traditions. Each year, approximately 35 million live trees are purchased and decorated in the United States alone. And each element of the Christmas tree has come to represent a part of the Christmas story.
The angel atop the tree represents the heavenly messengers who appeared to shepherds on the first Christmas. Luke 2:8-14 records the encounter: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks 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.”
The twinkling lights symbolize the miraculous star that marked the place where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were staying. The Book of Matthew tells us wise men from the East (we are not sure just how far east) saw the star and traveled a great distance to find the child. Speaking of the wise men, the gifts under the tree and the exchanging of gifts at Christmas symbolize the gifts these wise men brought the Christ child. In Matthew 2:11, we read
they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—gifts for a King!
The ornaments in all shapes, sizes, and colors remind us Christmas is a celebration of salvation for the whole world—people of every shape, size, color, and creed.
Now, I realize you might be wondering where I am going with this. You probably didn’t expect to read the history of the Christmas tree in ONE Magazine. In fact, you may wish I hadn’t even mentioned a tree. For some, Christmas may simply be a painful reminder of Christmases gone by, loved ones who have died, or children long moved away. You might even be tempted to leave your tree in the big box in the hall closet.
But that is where the final symbol comes in, and that is the tree itself. You see, the Christmas tree represents life and hope—hope that came in the form of the tiny baby in the manger on that first Christmas. God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God With Us, the Savior who left his home in Heaven to endure a body like yours and mine. He crawled, walked, laughed, and sang. He cried, hungered, hurt, and suffered. And, eventually, He died to pay the sins of the world on a cross carved from…a tree. A sad end for that beautiful baby in the manger.
But Jesus didn’t stay in the tomb; He rose three days later, defeating sin, death, and the grave. He gave us hope for life beyond the grave—eternal life with Him that never ends. He gave us hope we will see our loved ones again.
Luke 2:25-30 recounts the moment an elderly man named Simeon first saw Jesus. He had waited all his life for the Messiah. In the moment he first saw his Savior, his response was beautiful: “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace…for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
Because of Jesus, Simeon no longer feared death, and the same can be true for us. You see, the Christmas tree is a wonderful symbol, a visual reminder of life—eternal life—and hope for all those who put their faith in
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your boughs can teach a lesson.
About the Author:
Eric K. Thomsen is managing
editor of ONE Magazine: