It’s a widely held belief that Martin Luther invented the Christmas tree. As the apocryphal legend goes, he was walking home on a dark, snow-laded road and noticed the beauty of the stars and moonlight shining through the pines. Captured by the sight, he installed one of these trees in the house, fixed candles to it by wires, and voila! The symbolism grew from there: evergreen like the eternal living promises of God; lights in darkness that enrapture our eyes and imaginations; the gifts underneath like the gift of Christ under the star; etc. etc. etc…
I grew up with an artificial tree that got carefully packed away until next year. It wasn’t until after seminary that I experienced a live one. So I am by no means a Christmas tree purist like some, and I clearly see the benefits and blessings of each type. Do what you want, it’s your tree. But I personally prefer the live tree for its … well, for its life. The symbolism of a live tree is just more powerful than an artificial one for my Christmas devotion. Moreover, I can support a church family’s business by buying a new one from them every year. But it is harder to manage, and that’s part of its charm. But what do you do with the tree after Christmas?
Putting it up is one thing: pick out the tree, cut the end, shave enough twigs so it fits in the stand, vacuum for three hours and still step on a needle in your bare feet. Then keep watering it in a feeble attempt to make it last long enough. Just like your Christmas devotion, it’s a lot of work that goes underappreciated if you don’t slow down to watch, and it’s all for naught to a world that doesn’t understand the Christocentric nature of the season.
Taking it down is another thing altogether, and the disposal of the now-dead tree is always bittersweet to me. Christmas is always fun and meaningful, but then the dead branches only serve to remind me that my hum-drum life is back in full force like the deep freeze of winter. And just like my life, I’ve disposed of the tree in many different ways:
One year I dragged it out to the brush pile to break it down. As I was stomping on it, I turned to find three tiny faces in the window with sad looks of horror. (Whoops.) So the tiny faces got bundled up against the cold, and the tree got moved deeper into the woods so the forest critters could enjoy it. Thus our Christmas joy spread to the wildlife.
One year the creek was frozen enough, so I hacked a small hole with a hatchet and “replanted” the tree in the middle of the ice. We watched for weeks as it slowly sagged and turned brown. But one day in the spring it suddenly disappeared into the creek bed, revealing a steady stream of flowing water.
One year I made inch-thick ornaments out of the trunk intended for the following Advent. They were then painted, strung, and used the next year. The tree lives on.
The symbolism of the tree continues to reflect our natures even after Christmas is over, when it’s time to get “back to normal.” We had our little fun, we sang songs for Jesus, now we pack him away until we need him again. In fact, we can lean toward that behavior all year in church: it’s Sunday, so here’s forgiveness, here’s a sermon, here’s the sacrament, here’s the benediction, and I pack Jesus away until next Sunday.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though, if we remember the tree and its symbolism all year: just like the tree is born, lives, and dies for my joy, so Jesus Christ is born, lives, and died for my peace. Just like we don’t leave Christ in the tomb to rot, so we celebrate his resurrection and our hope for the same. Even after Christmas, Easter is around the corner. Even after Sunday, another Sunday comes. In short, there will be a new and living tree to remind us of the life and hope we have in Christ. Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.