Centuries ago Christians brought plants and flowers into the celebration of Christmas, for did not Christ come to uphold the dignity of all God’s creation? The natural world, as well as humans, angels and animals, should have a part in welcoming him.
Evergreens, from ancient times symbols of life and eternity, have always had a prominent place in Christian celebrations. Holly, with its green leaves, its prickly points and red berries, suggested that the Child born in the manger would wear a crown of thorns and shed drops of blood. Mistletoe, long associated in the pre-Christian world with healing, became a symbol of the healing power of Christ.
The poinsettia, from Central America, with its bright, star-like flowers, is a natural reminder of the Star of Bethlehem. Other plants that bloom during this season are images also of the Root of David that flowered with new life.
Many nations have contributed a rich mosaic of Christmas customs. Among the Latin peoples, the Christmas novena, nine days of prayer before Christmas, is a popular tradition. The Christmas meal after midnight Mass, in which all the family participates, is traditional among the French. Among the Slavic peoples on Christmas eve, the father of the family breaks the feastday wafers of bread and gives them to the members of his household, while wishing all the peace of Christmas.
The Christmas tree probably originated from popular early medieval religious plays, “the Paradise Plays,” performed in churches and town squares of Europe during the Advent season. The plays told the story of the human race from the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise till the Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. On stage during the play was a great tree hung with apples, symbolizing the Garden of Paradise. Soon people began the custom of putting a “paradise tree” laden with gifts and lighted with candles in their homes during the Christmas season to celebrate paradise regained through the coming of Christ.
Representing many things–the original tree of paradise, the life-giving tree of Christ’s cross, the tree John the Apostle saw in the Book of Revelations, “a tree of life, which yields twelve crops of fruit, one for each month of the year…for the healing of the nations”–our Christmas tree is rich in Christian symbolism.
What does the tree represent for you?