The Christmas tree is a symbol of immortality, resiliency, longevity, and rebirth. Taoists once believed that if a pine's resin was allowed to flow down its trunk and onto the earth, a fu-lin or mushroom of immortality would grow from it in 1000 years. Eating the fu-lin would give a person eternal youth.
Growing tall as it weathers the hardships of wind, snow, and rain, the pine tree in the forest symbolizes long-suffering, steadfast friendships, and enduring fame. The pine's strength in the face of adversity makes it symbolic of those who have become strong through suffering, or who have kept to their beliefs and promises in spite of opposition. In Scandinavia, a myth of enduring love surrounds a certain pine. It is said that this tree grew from the blood of two lovers who had been wrongfully executed in the forest. During the Christmas season, strange lights can be seen shining in its branches as a testimony of their innocence and love.
One Christmas Eve in 8th century Germany, the missionary, St. Boniface, gathered newly baptized Christians together to renounce paganism by cutting down the sacred oak they once sacrificed under. As it fell, the oak split into four pieces revealing a young pine growing in its center. Boniface suggested that the people take this pine as a symbol of their new-found Christian faith because it's shape points toward Heaven, and it's evergreen foliage reminds us of eternal life.
In Rome, the immortal pine was used to celebrate the spring festival of Arbor intrat. Each year on March 22, members of the cult of Cybele cut down a pine tree and carried it to the Palatine temple. There, it was bandaged, wreathed with violets, and mourned as if it were the body of Attis, son of Cybele, who, disturbed by his mother's attentions, had castrated himself and died beneath a pine tree. His soul was believed to have found refuge in the pine and his blood caused violets to spring up around it. Three days later, he was miraculously restored to life. Egyptians, on the other hand, used the palm tree as an image of resurrection and decorated their homes with its branches during the winter solstice.
The vertical symbolism of the pine tree was emphasized by Christians. This tree, which forever pointed heavenward, was a reminder to seek out heavenly rather than earthly treasures. It was a symbol of the saints, their self-denial, and their patience. A meet Christmas symbol, the tree was also a symbol of communication and mediation between heaven and earth because it's roots reached into the earth and its branches soared into the heavens.
Today, one can still see the Jesse-tree. Most popular during the 13th century, this nativity tree was decorated to look like the family tree of the Christ Child. Adam and Eve are displayed at the foot of the tree and Jesus rests at its top. The wicked serpent is entwined around its trunk. This tradition may have come from the Messianic prophecy: "There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots" (Is 11:1).
The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden were blended together in many customs and legends about the fir tree. Adam and Eve Day was celebrated on December 24th. During the Middle Ages it was customary to perform Paradise Plays on the Church grounds on this holiday. A single fir tree strung with apples was used to symbolize both of the garden's trees.
Legend states that the fir is the Tree of Life. When it was created, it had flowers, leaves, and fruit like other trees, but when Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, these shrunk into the needles and cones we see it bear today. The fir did, however, blossom briefly on the night of Christ's birth. It also bears the name "Tree of Life" because it is believed to have been the tree upon which Christ died.
French and German legend calls the Christmas tree the "Tree of Humanity." One Christmas Eve, Bonchevalier found a pine tree lit up with candles and having a star at its top. Some of the candles stood upright, while others hung upside down. His mother told Bonchevalier that this was the "Tree of Humanity." The upright candles represented good people, while the inverted candles stood for evil people. The star at the top was the Christ Child watching over the entire world. Such a tree reminds us to be like our Father in Heaven who sends the sun and rain to nourish both the righteous and the unrighteous (Mt 5:45-46).
Jacob Riis records that Christ sent Faith, Hope, and Love to choose the first Viking Christmas tree. They chose the Balsam fir for this honor because it was as wide as God's love, as high as the Christian's hope, and it bore the shape of the cross on every branch. The pine is one of the trees God planted in the desert to give shade to the thirsty; to prove His power over the elements; and to show His care for the needy (Is 41:17-20).
When the Holy Family was running from Herod's soldiers, a hollow old pine tree hid the exhausted family in its trunk for a night. In the morning, the Christ Child blessed the pine with His little hands. Because of this, it is said that by cutting a pine cone lengthwise, we can see the prints of the Holy Infant's hands to this day.
During the New Year holiday, the Japanese place a pine tree on each side of the entrance to their homes as shelters for the kami which they believe will bestow blessings upon their household. Perhaps these blessings include fertility, and the marital love and fidelity symbolized by pine trees in many cultures.
According to Virgil, early Romans decorated pine trees with little masks of Bacchus (a fertility god). As the wind blew these trinkets around, Bacchus was believed to grant fertility to every part of the tree the masks faced. During their midwinter festivals, Romans also decorated with evergreens to shelter woodland fairies and gave small trees to their friends as New Year's gifts. Their Mithraic "Tree of Life" was a pine in which birds and creatures symbolic of the souls of the dead or unborn lived.
Other ancient tree trimming customs include the Chinese sacred trees which were draped with red banners bearing prayers of thanksgiving and praise. European Druids decorated oaks and pines with apples, candles, and cakes in the form of various animals and birds as a thank offering to their gods of fertility, agriculture, and light. Greeks and Romans decorated the trees sacred to their gods and goddesses with garlands of flowers and cloth. In Finland, Lapps filled little boats with bits of food and placed them in a pine tree marked with sacred symbols. Then they killed a reindeer and placed its internal organs in another tree which they smeared with the animal's blood.
Christian legend states that on the night of Christ's birth, in spite of snow and ice, all the trees of the earth blossomed for joy, and bore fruit. In addition, all earth's rivers ran happily with wine. In honor of this legend, Austrians brought boughs of cherry, hawthorn, and pear trees into their homes at the beginning of December and placed them in jars of water so they might blossom in time for Christmas.
Another popular story claims that one stormy Christmas Eve, a forester and his family heard a knock at the door of their cottage. Opening the door, they discovered a little child whom they fed and bedded down in spite of their poverty. In the morning the sound of an angelic choir awakened them. Their visitor was the Christ Child! As a reward for their hospitality, He tore a branch from a nearby fir and planted it in the ground. Immediately, it grew and was covered with fruit, nuts, gold, and lights. The Christ Child promised this tree would forever provide for the forester's family in winter.
The setting for the Cherry Tree Carol is a garden where Joseph is beset with doubts about Mary's pregnancy. When Mary asks Joseph to pick her some cherries, he angrily replies, "Let him pluck thee a cherry, that brought thee with child." Whereupon, the unborn Christ commands, "Bow down then the tallest tree, for my mother to have some."
At midnight on Christmas Eve, all earth's trees are said to bow in homage to the Holy Infant. This created a problem for one young rider who had tied his ass to a prostrate tree. In the morning, he discovered the poor ass had been hung when the tree finished worshipping and resumed its upright position.
Some people believe Luther invented the Christmas tree to show his young children the beauty of the forest and the night sky. However, since the earliest verifiable reference to a Christmas tree appears almost 60 years after his death, this origin is largely discounted.
The Christmas tree as we know it began to be seen in the 16th century, and was not popular outside of Germany until the 19th century. At first, trees were only about two feet tall and were set out on tables. Most decorations were pretty candies, cookies, fruits, and other items meant to be admired and eaten by guests. These trees were sometimes called "sugar trees." Later paper ornaments became popular. Finally, in the late 1800's, glass ornaments and electric lights made their debut. Tall trees did not become popular until the Christmas tree came to America - a direct result of this country's abundant natural resources.
Unless otherwise indicated all scripture quotes are from the NKJV Bible.
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© 1997 by Suzetta Tucker
To cite this page:
Tucker, Suzetta. "ChristStory Christmas Tree Page." ChristStory Christian Bestiary. 1997. http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/legend01/xmastree.htm ().