Of Christmas Trees and Holly Leaves
by Dale Reeves
This past Monday evening, our church staff got together to decorate the church building in preparation for our worship night on Wednesday and the beginning of our sermon series, “Christmas at the Movies.” In times past, this used to be called “The Hanging of the Greens.” This did not refer to a public hanging of a whole family named the Greens that took place in the wild west, but rather it designated a church service that focused on preparing for the birth of Jesus and the second coming of Christ (his first and second Advents). The practice of bringing evergreens into the church building started in Europe and continues in many churches with European heritage to this day.
Prior to our first snowfall this week, many people in our neighborhood were out taking advantage of the warm weather just before Thanksgiving, decorating their homes with colored lights, wreaths, reindeer, nativity scenes, candy cane lanes, and all manner of Christmas-themed inflatables. Some of them have a particular theme to them. Others seem to be a hodgepodge of whatever they had in their basement or garage that was still working.
If you want to take a road trip and view some amazing Christmas light displays in our area, check out these. Or, if you want to see a mocked-up 1800s Old West Town complete with Christmas lights in Pike county, check this out.
What about you? Have you decked the halls where you lay your head at night? And, if so, what thought goes into the decorations you put up inside and outside your residence? Today I’d like to offer some thoughts on the spiritual meanings behind some of the most common items found in our Christmas decorations. The Christmas season is rich with symbolism.
He Is Everlasting
Evergreens are a symbol of the eternal coming to dwell among us as the Word of God made flesh. They are also a sign of life and growth flourishing in the midst of the dead of winter, and so of the resurrection of Christ. God has come to dwell among us as “Immanuel,” God with us! The spicy fragrance of pine and cedar remind us of the promised awakening of the earth in spring, even when all else is barren in winter. The boughs of evergreen remind us of the hope that in Christ all live forever.
The Christmas tree’s beginning is buried in various legends coming from different countries and connected with ancient peoples and with some pagan religions. For instance, the Egyptians took green date palms into their homes during their winter solstice rites signifying life triumphant over death. The druids of Northern Europe honored their chief god, Odin, by tying gilded apples to tree branches. When pagans accepted Christianity some of their winter rites continued, but the symbolism was changed to honor Christ. Today, the evergreen Christmas tree is decorated with lights to remind us of Jesus (he lives forever and is the light of the world!), and its spire points upward reminding people of God.
I grew up placing a star on the top of the tree, reminding us of the special celestial anomaly that heralded the birth of Christ over 2,000 years ago—the “star in the east.” (See Matthew 2:1, 2, 9, 10). How fitting that God would use a star to direct the ancient astronomers to the place where they would find the Christ child. Jesus uses the description “bright Morning Star” to refer to himself in Revelation 22:16.
Just as candles being lit around the Christmas season remind us of Jesus’ light that shines in the darkness for all who would follow him, so too, the symbol of bells reminds us to “ring out” the good news of Jesus’ advent to earth. The cup-shaped bells that we see hanging from wreaths and Christmas trees date back to the fourth century. Bells were originally used to summon followers of Christ to worship, and the ringing of bells and towers of chimes still bring a joyous sound of good tidings to all who hear them.
Today more than ever we need to hear the sound of the Christmas bells:
“Then rang the bells more loud and deep,
God is not dead, nor does he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
His Creation Speaks
The holly wreath symbolizes the fact that Jesus was born to die for us. The prickly holly reminds us of the crown of thorns that was placed on Jesus’ head as the Roman soldiers mocked him as the “king of the Jews.” The bright red berries remind us of the drops of blood that flowed down Jesus’ face and body so that we could receive the gift of forgiveness of our sins. Hebrews 9:22 tells us, “The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (NIV).
At the same time of the year we celebrate Christmas, long ago the Romans used to celebrate their Saturnalia, a tribute to Saturn, whom they called the God of Agriculture. They thought of holly as a gift of Saturn and believed he made it grow in beauty when all other shrubs were bare. Romans sent sprigs of holly to their friends to express good will and to wish good fortune. The early Christians developed their own symbolism, holding that the crown of thorns was made of holly leaves. Thus, the Christmas wreath was seen as a representation of the crown of thorns, symbolizing a never-ending circle of everlasting life.
The mistletoe has become for us a sign of romance, but in ancient times it was a symbol of peace. It was said that when enemies met under it, they discarded their arms and declared a truce. Thus, it became a custom for Christians to place a spray of mistletoe on the altar during this season as a reminder of the peace of God and the power of Christ to heal the hurts of the body and soul. The white berries remind us of Christ’s purity. Years ago, followers of Christ met under the hanging mistletoe in the church and gave one another the kiss of peace and reconciliation.
The Christmas flower, or poinsettia, was discovered in Mexico in 1828 when Dr. Joel Poinsett, ambassador to Mexico, was fascinated to find it and he sent clippings to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. The people of Mexico and Central America call the poinsettia, “Flor de La Noche Buena,” which means “The Flower of the Holy Night”—because it reaches full bloom at Christmastime.
Pastor and author Louie Giglio has said,
“Christmas isn’t about the rush and the crush. Christmas is about a promise fulfilled.”
I encourage you this season to take a non-rushed, meditative drive around your neighborhood—or a few hours from your home—to view Christmas displays this month. Enjoy them, not just for the beautiful decorations they are, but for the deeper spiritual meaning behind them. Allow them to enhance your worship of Christ this season.
“Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.” —Winston Churchill