There are few things like a sparkling Christmas Tree that can bring a smile to our faces so easily. Every year around this time, almost instinctually, many of us acquire an evergreen tree of some variety to put in our homes. This year Christmas Tree vendors are reporting record sales. The New York Times recently ran an article entitled “Christmas tree sales are booming as pandemic-weary Americans seek solace.” Therein, it is suggested that by going out and getting a Christmas Tree, many Americans are seeking some level of joy in order to compensate for not being able to spend time with family and friends as in a normal year. Doug Hundley, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association agrees, and suggests that this year’s Christmas Tree sales can be attributed, at least in part, to the COVID crisis we are currently trudging our way through. “We didn’t realize that the Christmas spirit was going to help people with what we’ve heard called the ‘Covid blues,” Hundley said.
If we think about it, this is quite a strange practice yielding an unexpected result. After all, quite often we aren’t talking about a small plant placed in the corner of a room, but a full sized tree occupying a significant amount of space in a prominent place. Then, of course, once the tree is in the house there is the matter of decorating it, which can be a time consuming endeavor to ensure the lights all properly show and the garland and ornaments hang just right. After all the effort, the payoff is that we’ve produced something that is beautiful, albeit strange. Our consumer driven culture would place the meaning and value of a Christmas Tree in its ability to lift our spirits, like a unique product. However, if the Christmas Tree is just a consumer affair, like so many products, whatever joy we gain from it will quickly fade. Such an explanation would seem insufficient for this practice. The amount of time and energy required to get to this end result alone suggests that there must be some deeper meaning, right? Why is it that we even do this in the first place?
Where the first Christmas Tree stood is a fact that has been lost to history. In his book, Inventing the Christmas Tree, author Bernd Brunner writes that various religions of the world are known to have used trees as part of their worship, or even worshipped the trees themselves, such as ancient Indian, Norse, and Indo-Germanic religions (Inventing the Christmas Tree, 8-9). However, the Christmas Tree as we know it cannot be traced to these practices through the historical record, and instead, Brunner writes, seems to have appeared ex nihilo, “first here and there, and soon all the more frequently” (Inventing the Christmas Tree, 3). What we do know is that the current practice has its roots in the medieval mystery plays. In an age where literacy of the written word was uncommon, these plays conveyed the story of salvation history from creation to redemption. On Christmas Eve the paradise play was performed which “told the story of original sin and the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden” (Inventing the Christmas Tree, 16). Brunner adds that “also on stage, of course, was a green tree of paradise, decorated with apples and communion hosts” (Inventing the Christmas Tree, 16). This bit of historical information gives us traction for unveiling the true meaning of the Christmas Tree, and one more appropriate to all the attention and energy devoted to it. Over time the Church would officially appropriate this practice, and eventually, make a sacramental of it. In this the true power of the Christmas Tree is found, and if understood in this way, it can have a role in establishing a more lasting joy and peace within our souls, homes, and, indeed, society at large.
In the book Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers, the Church provides the Blessing of a Christmas Tree. There we discover its deeper meaning. Most basically, the significance of the Christmas Tree is communicated by the concluding prayer of the blessing. There, we pray, “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” (Catholic Household Blessings & Prayer, 81). There are two important things to note here that speak to just how naturally Christ extends his invitation of loving relationship to the human family. First, notice that the prayer recognizes and speaks to the natural emotion we experience as the result of the Christmas Tree being in our homes that was mentioned in the Times article, joy. Yet it locates this joy in a specific place, in the knowledge of the salvation purchased and offered to us by our Savior, Jesus Christ. Consequently, the Christmas Tree, as sacramental, becomes a sign of our salvation taken from the naturally occurring elements of the world. This is the way so many sacraments and sacramentals work. In each case, be it in a sacrament or sacramental, the intended effect of grace is signified, i.e., to perfect nature, as St. Thomas Aquinas says (Summa Theologica I, q. 1.8, ad. 2). Thus, just as the water of baptism that signifies and effects our cleansing from original and personal sin, and bread and wine signify and become the body and blood of Christ, our supernatural food, so too by attending to the aesthetics of the Christmas Tree in its full ornamentation in conjunction with the prayers and Scriptural passages used in its blessing, we can discover what this sign teaches us of our life in Christ.
In order to do this, I want to focus on the interconnection of three elements here: the tree itself, the lights on the tree, and the gifts placed beneath it. Consideration of the tree itself places us within the flow of salvation history, spanning its length as it were, from creation to salvation and pointing to three events therein. The first has already been alluded to above in connection with the medieval paradise play of Christmas Eve. This play made use of a tree to signify the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. In this, the Christmas Tree reminds us both of human life as God intended and the tragic Fall of our first parents. In Genesis we are told that Adam and Eve enjoyed easy communion with God, symbolized by God’s walking through the garden with them near sunset (Gn. 3:8). Part of this free and joyful existence in communion with God was the tree of life. On St. Augustine’s reading, the tree of life was the primordial sacrament, and by consuming its fruit Adam and Eve partook of the life of eternal Wisdom, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 8.10-11).
Of course, this ideal life tragically was not to last. And, in expelling Adam and Eve from Eden our God simultaneously set out on a rescue mission, intent on bringing the human family back into life-giving communion with Him. Throughout salvation history, God sent signs prefiguring both His own Trinitarian life along with the means by which he would reintegrate the human family into that very same life and so save it. One of these signs was the burning bush, which when adorned with lights and strands of red and gold garland, the Christmas Tree can be seen to mimic, as it “burns” yet is not consumed (Ex. 3:2). St. Augustine read the burning bush as signifying the guiding mission of the Holy Spirit (The Trinity, 2.6,11-7,12). Going one step further, St. Gregory of Nyssa read the burning bush as a symbol of the Incarnation of the Son (The Life of Moses, 2.20).
In order to complete the picture, a third episode from salvation history is signified by the Christmas Tree which the Fathers of the Church saw foreshadowed in these first two episodes. For Augustine, the tree of life was simultaneously the primordial sacrament by which our first parents shared in the life of eternal Wisdom, and the prefigurement of the tree of Calvary, upon which the arms of Wisdom Incarnate would be outstretched as He offered Himself so that life-giving communion with the Triune God might be reestablished through, with, and in Him. Thus, in an earlier commentary on Genesis he writes that Adam’s stretching out his hand to partake of the tree of life “is an excellent symbol of the cross, through which eternal life is regained” (On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, 2.34). The intercessions in the blessing of a Christmas Tree point to this connection, praying that “this tree of lights may remind us of the tree of glory on which Christ accomplished our salvation” (Catholic Household Blessings & Prayer, 80). It is likewise the tree of Calvary which is foreshadowed in the passage from Ezekiel which can be used for this blessing. There, the prophet lends his voice to God, saying: “On the mountain height of Israel I will plant [a tender shoot]. It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar. Every small bird will nest under it, all kinds of winged birds will dwell in the shade of its branches” (Ez. 17:23).
The passage quite naturally serves as a transition point to a consideration of our life in Christ as members of His Body, the Church. For who could not but read that passage and be reminded of the parable told by the Savior likening the Kingdom of God, the Church, to a mustard seed, which although “the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches’” (Mt. 13:32). When we gaze upon the Christmas Tree, then, we behold a visual snapshot of the Church, the branches springing forth from its trunk signifying our lives which are sustained and nourished by the life-giving sap of Christ’s Cross, the sacraments of the Church symbolized by the water and blood which flowed from his side (John 19:34). In other words, to paraphrase Our Lord, He is the trunk and we are the branches (John 15:5). Commenting upon this passage, St. John Chrysostom writes that the image denotes the virtues which are the fruits of living in unity with Christ and which constitute the full flourishing of the human person (Homily 76 On the Gospel of John, 1).
Yet this leaves our picture incomplete, for we are not attached to Christ nor do we remain so attached merely through our own volition. Rather, we are incorporated into the life of Christ by the power of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. This is seen in the other optional reading for the blessing of the Christmas Tree which comes from St. Paul’s letter to Titus. There the apostle writes: “But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Ti 3:4-7). This element of life in Christ is clearly seen in the Christmas Tree if we bring its lights back in to focus. Once upon a time, the Christmas Tree was decorated with actual candles (Inventing the Christmas Tree, 19-21), and even today many lights are still formed so as to bear a resemblance to a candle’s flame. Throughout Judeo-Christian history, flames have been read as symbolic of the human family’s lived relationship with God. For example, Raymond Brown notes that when commenting on the theophany of Exodus 19 which immediately precedes the giving of the Law, “the Jewish writer Philo (contemporary with the NT) describes angels taking what God said to Moses on the mountaintop and carrying out on tongues to the people on the plain below” (An Introduction to the New Testament, 283). This, of course, is very similar to the imagery used by Luke in Acts to describe the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Our Lady and the Apostles at Pentecost. Luke writes that “there appeared to them tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit…” (Acts 2:3-4). For the Fathers of the Church, only after the descent of the Holy Spirit was life lived according to God’s Law made possible. For example, Augustine, following Paul’s Letter to the Romans writes, “Impose the law: nobody carries it out, nobody fulfills it. Add the assistance of the Spirit; what is commanded is done, because God is assisting” (Sermon 229M.2). He goes on to conclude that if the fullness of the law is love, as Paul asserts (Rom 13:10), and the Holy Spirit is the very love of God poured out into our hearts (Rom 5:5), then the Spirit Himself is the indwelling of the Law, not carved on tablets, but on human hearts (2 Cor 3:2-3) as Jeremiah had prophesied (Jer 31:33). This fits with our previous reading aided by Chrysostom concerning the branches of the tree signifying the life of virtue that results from unity with Christ, when we consider that Aquinas taught that to live according to the eternal and natural law was nothing less than to live a life of virtue (ST I-II, q. 93.6 & 94.3).
Yet we might see the lights on the Christmas Tree another way, although not in a way that negates this reading but rather giving it increased depth. We might see them as signifying human persons enlivened by the divine Person of the Holy Spirit. The prophet Daniel wrote that “those with insight shall shine brightly in the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever” (Dn 12:3). In a similar vein, on a couple of occasions Origen had taught that beside Christ as Sun, and the Church as Moon, the saints were the stars that shone in the sky, exemplifying for us life in Christ (Homily 1 on Genesis, 7; cf. On First Principles, 2.10.2).
But the lights on the Christmas Tree could just as easily be read as those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells and is leading to increased conformity to the life of Christ by way of imitating the lives of the saints, i.e., you and me. To the degree we conform ourselves to the life of Christ by imitating His life and the lives of His saints, cultivating His virtues within us in the process, we too begin to shine as stars amidst the darkness of the world. For, as Gregory of Nyssa writes: “virtues are the rays of the ‘Sun of Justice,’ streaming forth for our illumination, through which we ‘lay aside the works of darkness,’ so that we ‘walk becomingly as in the day,’…By doing all things in the light, we become the light itself” (On Perfection). Similarly, commenting on the story of creation in the Confessions, Augustine compared those who lived out the works of mercy, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked, to stars which shine with the brilliance of God’s glorious love upon the earth (Confessions, 13.18.22). He goes on to exhort his readers, “run everywhere, you holy fires, you fires so beautiful, for you are the light of the world…He to whom you have given yourselves is exalted, and now he has exalted you. Run, then, and make him known to all nations” (Confessions, 13.19.25).
But how are we to carry this light, this torch that burns so intensely within us to the nations, so as to make God’s glory known to the world? The answer has in part already been given, and is signified by the last element to be considered here, i.e., the gifts resting below our Christmas Trees. Ideally, the gifts we exchange are not merely objects given to one another, but signify a gift of self to the other. This is precisely what a life of virtuous love is and strives for, to make the whole of our lives one complete gift of self to God and neighbor. Thus, Augustine advised us: “if you want to acquire charity, look into yourself, and find yourself…it’s if you don’t give yourself that you will lose yourself. Charity herself speaks through wisdom and tells you something to save you from panicking at being told, ‘Give yourself’” (Sermon 34.7). Similarly, the Second Vatican Council taught that because we have been created in the image of a God Who is Triune relationship, the human person “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 24). Through our gift of self we simultaneously imitate the virtue of Christ and His saints and begin to take our place within God’s constellation of stars, the radiance of our virtuous love shouting amidst the darkness that God desires something more for the human family than the sorrow and sadness of the life of strife, division and chaos that so mercilessly plagues our society today. He desires nothing less than for all to be united to Him through His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, just as in blessing the Tree we pray that the light and cheer it gives might be a sign of the joy of salvation to all who gaze upon it, each time our eyes fall upon it throughout this Christmas Season let us pray that God enkindle within our hearts the fire of His Love, so that the radiance of Christ’s virtue may dispel the darkness within us and through us scatter the darkness of the world, so that “the peace of Christ may dwell in our hearts and in the world” (Catholic Household Blessings & Prayer, 80).
May the Peace of Christ be with you and your family this Christmas.
Your servant in Christ,