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O Christmas Tree

  • John Mark Reynolds Torrey Honors Institute
  • 2011 2 Dec
O Christmas Tree

Every year we have the best tree ever.


This is much less remarkable than it seems for each Christmas tree has decorations gained from all the past trees, plus new additions formed that year. Each tree takes part in the memories of all prior incarnations. Once in the stand, this tree becomes part of the tree that has been and will be again.

I can see in it the tree my dad wired and propped up with blocks. I see the year Robin helped and we hung more tinsel on her than the tree. I see the tree 25 years ago that had a few ornaments from childhood and new ornaments from our wedding. There is the Theodore Roosevelt ornament, the Mickey Mouse ornament, and the Star Trek Enterprise ornament.

It is ever more eccentric and uniquely our own. Someday there will be the last tree we will raise together, Hope and me, but our children will carry a piece of us further on, just as I remember my grandparents each Christmas. Each tree is a bit theirs, but also a bit the tree of my descendants, if I have any, 50 years from now.

When I am forgotten, if the family continues, then we will still be there because we are in Christ and Christ is in Christmas.

I love getting a real tree, because its glory fades. It is glorious on Christmas Day and glows every night of the season, each night reminding us of life, death and rebirth. As Christmas reaches its conclusion at Twelfth Night, the tree shows its age. We take it out, but it does not really die.

The tree disappears, but the tree will come again.

Of course, all this meaning comes because our tree is a symbol of the glorious Incarnation. Christ is born and we glorify him by feasting following the fasting of Advent. The tree has roots in the earth and a head in heaven. The Baby lay within the wood of a tree and glorified it by his presence. Jesus took the ugliest of trees and made the wood sweet by His Blood. We gild the tree just as we gild all trees, even crosses, because we honor his birth, life, death and resurrection.

It is a beautiful tradition.

Conscientious souls often worry about the origins of this Christmas custom.

Some have suggested pagan roots, but since we know almost nothing about ancient pagans I am always intrigued by how these careful Christians know this fact. When I ask for sources, I am given speculations sourced to Victorian authors intent on finding pagan roots in everything to undermine the established church or books by New Age gurus speculating on slender evidence.

The only people claiming to know the details of ancient paganism are the handful of modern pagans who have invented a mythological past and believe in it and a few Christians who take them seriously. Most of their better ideas can be traced to the sort of obscure 19th-century writers who found Atlantis in every underwater ruin and fertility rites simply everywhere.

But really, if it could be proven that the Christmas tree has pagan roots, then I am sorry to have been told. After all, if Saint Paul could eat meat sacrificed to idols in a pagan era when that meant something, then I can enjoy a tree in my house. Paul ate to the glory of God; I decorate to the glory of God.

Paganism, if it ever touched this jolly tradition, long lost control of it. Tradition has good Prince Albert bringing trees to England for his love-match Victoria. Americans honor the prince who helped Mr. Lincoln keep England out of the Civil War, and so I hope this story is true. If not, then my family knew only innocent delight when we bought a tree, though Dad did get mad that one year when the tree kept tipping.

Sometime this week we will purchase and decorate the best tree ever. I hope you can join us in anticipating Christmas to come.

Christ will be born and we will glorify Him.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and professor of philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Rochester. Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.

Publication date: December 2, 2011

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