By David Timms
Historians usually conclude that our Christmas tree tradition began when devout Christians in Germany first brought decorated trees into their homes in the 1500s. But in Australia in the 1970s, our family hadn’t quite caught on.
For some years, when I was a child, we simply placed our gifts under the television set that stood in the corner of the living room. My sister and I decided to make a change. What’s Christmas without a tree? So, we scraped together our savings and bought a four-foot artificial tree. It was the early 1970s and cheap artificial trees looked very cheap and very artificial. But we could barely wait.
As soon as everyone had gone to bed that Christmas Eve, Karen and I sneaked quietly out to the “TV corner” and started setting up our tree. We intended to surprise our parents and youngest sister in the morning. But our loud whispers and excitement woke our father who came out to find us. It didn’t matter much. The tree—the glorious four-foot plastic tree—became the symbol of a real Christmas for us.
Trinkets, Trees, and Traditions
For many of us, Christmas involves copious quantities of gifts, ornaments, cards, carols—and trees. One family I know on the west coast keeps 50 packing boxes of trinkets and trees in paid storage. Every item in those boxes is carefully numbered and cross-referenced to maps of each room in the house. Each item is also renumbered to identify its correct storage box once the season ends. It’s an extraordinary and impressive production.
Other folk consider Christmas the “catch-up” season, when they send a card or letter to all their family and friends to tell the main news of the past year. The cards fill baskets or hang on walls.
Still others agonize over the gifts. How much should we spend? Do we buy intuitively or ask for a list from the recipient? How many different gifts should we buy for each person? Do we get something they need or something they want—or something they have never thought of? This can quickly become the stuff of Christmas.
Many families have unique traditions that make Christmas meaningful for them. In one family all the men jump into the outdoor pool on Christmas morning, regardless of the air temperature. Another family serves meals to the homeless on Christmas Eve—”Jesus in disguise.” Still others sit around a fireplace on Christmas Eve and read the Christmas story. (In southern California we usually had to open all the windows to cool the house down first.) Christmas without such things would hardly feel like Christmas at all. Sound familiar?
However, this litany of Christmas practices barely gives thought to the Christ. The busyness of the season distracts the best of us. We hardly have time to think. Last-minute dashes to department stores and post offices, long lines, and online ordering deadlines pile the pressure on us. We know that “Jesus is the reason for the season” but we marginalize him; not because we want to—it just happens. The chaos of Christmas can stifle our spiritual sensitivity. With all of the noise, busyness, planning, and purchasing, God can seem strangely silent. Has he grown quiet or have we become deaf?
An Ancient Decision to Make Today
None of this is new. The infamous innkeeper at Bethlehem, who rejoices to remain nameless, faced our same chaos. Out-of-towners arriving by the truckload for the Roman census, a rare opportunity to make a fistful of cash from weary and competing travelers, and surely some problems with plumbing and empty lamps that kept him running frantically into the evening.
It was hardly a peaceful night that first Christmas. Hotels with “No Vacancy” offer little rest to the front desk. And the innkeeper had to decide whether he had room for the pregnant Mary and the Christ-child she carried. His best effort, as we now know, was to provide an unsanitary compromise.
Do we not face the same dilemma? The commercialization of Christmas is as old as Christianity. We bemoan it publicly, but we’ve grown accustomed to it privately. And we make that same ancient decision over and over, year by year.
Truthfully, Christmas hospitality can stretch us: people to entertain, end-of-school events, office parties, and meals to cook (and clean after). Wherever we turn we see people. The roads are jammed. Stores are crowded. It’s ancient Bethlehem all over again.
And, much like the frazzled innkeeper of old, we may have the best of intentions but end up offering a pretty unsanitary compromise to Jesus. After all, we have legitimate concerns. If we welcome Christ into the house, will he disturb us? If we make space for him among us, will it make our guests feel awkward? If we invite him to join us for the meal, will he kill the conversation?
So, somewhat like the plot of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Jesus gets consigned again and again to the manger area—outside, out-of-sight, away from the hub. The door shuts, and it’s business as usual.
The Tree (Again)
Perhaps that Christmas Eve back in the 1970s provides a useful reference point, even today, in the midst of our hustle and bustle. The television served as a symbol of fleeting entertainment. Karen and I wanted a tree—something that reflected longevity, stability, and tradition. The television made Christmas ordinary. The tree—even a scrawny, artificial one—made it different.
Now, 40 years later, that tree speaks with even greater authority. On the one hand it invites us to think about Jesus’ birth. On the other hand, it also declares his death.
In ancient Israel, the “tree” symbolized a shameful death. People who faced execution for grievous crimes would be stoned and then their bodies hung and displayed on a tree for further public humiliation. Those who experienced this ultimate shame were described as “cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:23). The apostle Paul certainly saw a connection with the crucifixion of Jesus on a cross (Galatians 3:13).
Thus, as we put out our Christmas trees this year, let’s chat about the evergreen (everlasting) life that Christ offers us—and take a moment to tell the story (again) of his death on a tree. Perhaps this season, our trees could serve double duty; hold the star (or the angel) and declare the gospel.
The one born in the manger was born with a purpose. His birth points to his eventual death and resurrection. The message is not just of Christ under the tree, expressed in the gifts and grace received, but on the tree and beyond the tree. The angel was quite right in that original announcement to Mary: “You shall call his name Jesus, for He will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, New King James Version).
What might we discover through the tree this year, if we look more intently and listen more carefully?
David Timms teaches at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.
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