The Christmas season takes on a rapid momentum of its own as, all at once, streets and avenues glow with angels and stars shining from every lamp pole. Wreaths of greenery and twinkling lights seem to spring up seemingly overnight everywhere, as if by magic. Lighted candles gleam from windows and there is an air of anticipation in the humblest of homes. All of these decorative symbols, especially the Christmas tree, date back hundreds of years and often their religious significance gets lost among modern commercialism.
It is generally accepted that we owe our affinity for Christmas tree decorating to none other than German religious reformer, Martin Luther. The story goes that while walking through the woods late one snowy Christmas eve, in the early 1500s, he was so stunned by its awesome star-lit beauty, that he plucked up a green fir tree, brought it inside his house and decorated it with candles. To him the fir tree symbolized God’s creation and at the same time celebrated Christ’s birth. The candles were reminiscent of the stars he saw that night.
Some popular lore has it that German immigrants brought the tradition of Yuletide tree decorating to the United States and slowly it became a universally accepted practice among Christians of every denomination. Actually, even before the 1500s, the evergreen or fir tree was associated with Christianity since Saint Boniface, more than a millennium ago, brought the teachings of Christ to the “heathens” of modern-day Germany.
Legend has it that he came across a group of pagans conducting a ritual around an oak tree. He became enraged and cut the tree down, using its wood to build a chapel. In the oak’s place, a fir tree sprung up and Saint Boniface believed that to be a “sign.” He used the tree’s triangular shape to explain the Trinity, the at-once singularity and plurality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Other decorative traditions associated with Christmas have their origins in ages past and come from a variety of countries.
For example, wreaths are also typical of Christmas and were first commonly used in the Middle Ages. Back them it was popular to adorn them with fruit, nuts, pinecones and ribbons. Because evergreens retain their lushness throughout the year, they have been seen as a representation of everlasting life. In England, the Druids placed holly and mistletoe over their doors to ward off evil spirits.
So, modern Christmas decorating customs have their roots in many countries dating back hundreds of years. Of them all, however, none is more meaningful or popular than the crèche, or manger scene, which depicts the birth of Christ in a stable at Bethlehem. The Holy Child sleeps on a bed of hay in a lowly manger, surrounded by his Mother Mary, Joseph, oxen, donkeys, shepherds and the three magi, or kings, from far off lands bearing gifts, all of them under the watchfulness of a host of angels and a star of inconceivable brilliance.
This scene is represented all over the world in many ways with figures of every kind and size: live depictions in church yards, tiny arrangements under the tree or on a table, or elaborate figurines adorning a mantle or some other place of honor.
It’s immaterial whether Christmas comes around slowly or swiftly, or where the Yule decorations originated. The Christmas season’s true message is always the same. It is a time of joy, love, giving and peace on earth, goodwill to men.