Lee originally wrote this piece after Christmas, however, we felt it was just right as a lead up to the big event. This column was initially published in the Kings County Record January 12, 1993.
Christmas, at least the commercial one, is over and gone and the stores are gearing up for the next major festival: Valentine’s Day. Last night being Twelfth Night, the end of the traditional twelve days of Christmas, we took the tree down and put away the ornaments, the strings of lights, the candleholders and the Stedman's angel I bought several years ago and get teased about, who graces (I think) the very top of the tree.
Truth to tell, I always have a hard time taking down the tree. Something in me rebels against the dismantling of this gentle symbol of peace and hope. I know the time has come to take the tree down. That does not make the process any less of a hurdle, though.
The tree this year as in other years was brought from our back pasture, cut down and hauled home by a party headed by our youngest daughter. The same daughter also supervises the stringing of the lights and the hanging of the ornaments, it being my duty to admire the finished product, which I am always glad to do (particularly because I have not had to take a hand in the whole process).
Because of the timing of the decoration of our tree, it misses being identified with all the commercial hoopla surrounding the days leading up to Christmas and so can exist in a kind of innocence that suits very well with the deeper significance of the season.
When the children were at home, I was able to avoid taking the tree down to a large extent but in recent years only my wife and I have been at home on Twelfth Night.
In spite of those who have their reasons for 'proving' that the Christmas tree is really the survival of this or that ancient pagan fertility ritual, the 'ever-green' tree has its roots in the rich soil of Christian devotion. Already in the third Christian century a Christian writer said of the faithful: "You are the light of the world, a tree ever green."
Five centuries later, in northern Europe, we hear of a fir tree being dedicated to the Christ Child by St. Boniface, the Apostle to the Germans, one of the great figures in the history of Western Europe and an Englishman by birth though much better remembered today in Germany than he is among the English.
The custom of bringing a tree home and decorating it seems to be more recent, although the nature of the decorations is such as to carry us into the realms of humble piety, realms which, like all truly humble things, carry a rich freight of meaning.
One story often told suggests that Martin Luther cut down the first Christmas tree and brought it home and decorated it with candles to represent the starry sky over Bethlehem. At the foot of the tree, beneath the 'stars,' so the story goes, he put carved wooden figures to represent Joseph and Mary and the Holy Child in the manger, as well as the ox and the ass and other animals.
Whether Luther was the first or not, the custom of setting up an evergreen tree and decorating it seems to have begun in Germany. I would like to think that the memory of St. Boniface and his fir tree had something to do with it. Whether it did or no, the Christmas tree spread from the German area of Europe to the New World with the waves of German immigrants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and with the Hessian soldiers at the time of the American Revolution. Indeed, the evergreen tree seems to have come to the New World earlier than to England, where the first tree was apparently set up by Victoria's Consort, the German Prince Albert of Saxony, in 1844, for the pleasure of the royal children.
On our tree, by happenstance rather than planning, hang a number of brightly painted artificial apples. These counterfeits, I find, evoke the 'Paradise tree,' a fir tree hung with real apples, which appeared as the representation of the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden of Eden in the medieval mystery play called the Paradise play. Coming after the play which enacted the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the Paradise play with its Paradise tree speaks of the coming, "in the last days," of the Saviour. And so, the Paradise play links the 'ever-green' tree with its 'ornaments' to the coming of the Christ Child through whom the gates of Paradise, shut with the Fall of Adam and Eve, will once more be opened. The glittering balls we hang on the tree are the faint memory of the apples of Paradise.
In many ways the trees of our rather secular celebrations still whisper to us of these earlier times, when heaven was closer to the earth and men walked among marvels and thought the invisible world, with its angelic choirs, more real, more true, than the physical world around them.
Please be sure to read the bonus post titled bonus footnote for more information on the history of the Christmas Tree.
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.