Written by Young Adult Staff Minister Brandon Steenbock
The day after Thanksgiving, my family and I drove to a tree farm, rode a wagon over the river and through the woods, and cut down a Norway Spruce to put in our living room. It was the first time in a long time we used a real tree, but ever since my wife and I married we have had some kind of tree in our house. Christmas just isn’t complete without it.
The Christmas tree might be the most common of all Christmas traditions. Whatever else you do to celebrate, it is essential to cut down a tree, drape it in lights, garland, tinsel and ornaments, and put some present under it. But why is it a tradition to make a minor fire hazard out of something that belongs outdoors?
Evergreen plants and religious celebrations have a long history together. Before Christianity made its way to northern Europe, nature religions saw evergreens as a symbol of ongoing life in the long winters, and a promise of new birth in the spring. When the hope of the Gospel spread north, these symbols of life became attached to the hope of resurrection in Jesus and the new life he brings through faith.
Medieval Christmas celebrations featured evergreen branches hung over doorframes, or evergreen trees paraded through the village square, along with people dressed as saints like Santa Lucia and St. Nicholaus. But according to legend, the first person to put a Christmas tree in his home was none other than Martin Luther.
Luther was walking through the woods in the evening, pondering an upcoming sermon, when he looked up and saw the stars twinkling through the branches of a fir tree. The sight made him think of how Jesus left his home in heaven to come down to earth for us. To share the imagery with his family, he cut down a tree and brought it into the house, and hung candles on it to mimic the stars. Since the Luthers had people in their home all the time (they lived in an old monastery), word quickly spread and a new tradition was formed.
My grandfather would often teach us grandkids that the green of the tree reminds us of the new life we have in Jesus, that the lights on the tree remind us of the light of faith Jesus puts in our hearts, and that all the pretty ornaments remind us of the beauty and glory of Jesus as the Son of God. The gifts under the tree remind us that Jesus is our greatest gift.
But we love telling the story of when my younger brother was four years old and helping cut down the tree that year. The lady at the tree farm was telling him that she likes to say a prayer to the tree to thank it for giving its life to help our homes be beautiful at Christmas time. My brother just screwed up his face and said, “Don’t you think you should pray to God, he’s the one who made the tree!”
However you decorate your tree, let it remind you that your hope is found in Jesus. Merry Christmas.