The Legend of the Christmas Tree
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37
Jesus is a Master Teacher known for getting his point across by the simplest of means. Frequently he uses similes and metaphors as teaching tools. With metaphors, Jesus helps people get a handle on complex theological ideas. Similes work because people tend to think in terms of comparisons of things, people, and ideas that are already familiar. Take, for example, the various ways Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven: The kingdom of heaven is like the sower who planted good seeds in his field but while he slept an enemy came and sowed weeds. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that is the smallest of seeds, yet it grows into a tree big enough for the birds to make their nest. Jesus uses many other simple things to teach important concepts.
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus uses something as unassuming as a fig tree as a teaching tool saying, ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Repeatedly Jesus uses whatever is on hand to point people toward the way, the truth, and the life.
As we journey through Advent in this day and time, what better metaphor do we have on hand to tell the story of Jesus than a simple evergreen tree? So, this morning, I have recruited Jaxson and Chasey to light our Christmas trees. Afterward, they will join me down front for the reading of a simple children’s story entitled The Legend of the Christmas Tree.[i] (Story is read.)
Many traditions have a long history that is impossible to trace back to their source. In my study on the topic, I learned that apples were actually used as ornaments at one time. I learned a few other things as well. For example:
Since very ancient times, long before the advent of Christmas, primitive people would take evergreen plants and flowers into their huts, seeing in them a magical or religious significance. The Greeks and Romans decorated their dwellings with ivy. The Celts and Scandinavians preferred mistletoe, but many other evergreen plants such as holly, butcher’s broom, laurel and branches of pine or fir were considered to have magical or medicinal powers that would ward off illness. This belief was found especially among the inhabitants of the northern regions with cold climates and long, dark winters; it was almost as if these plants revived thoughts of the coming spring while everything around them lay dormant.
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it—originating—many say—with St. Boniface (mentioned in our children’s story). Martin Luther (also mentioned) is widely credited for adding lighted candles to a tree. As the story goes, he was walking home one winter evening, composing a sermon, when he was overcome with awe at the brilliance of the stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he set up a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.[ii]
In early American culture, Christmas trees didn’t catch on at first. The New England Puritans held Christmas as a sacred holiday—so much so all frivolity was penalized—Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that dishonored the holy event. In 1659, a law was passed in Massachusetts that made any observance of December 25 a penal offense and people were fined for hanging decorations. This way of thinking continued until the 19th century when there was an influx of German and Irish immigrants who brought their own traditions with them across the ocean blue. Finally, in 1846 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were sketched in a popular London newspaper standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Queen Victoria was so popular with her subjects, what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain—but with the fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived. [iii]
Here in our church, our Christmas trees are made complete by the addition of Chrismons—a tradition that began at the Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia in 1957 when Frances Spencer designed monograms and symbols for Jesus Christ. Because the symbols have been used by followers of Jesus since biblical times, they are the heritage of all Christians. Soon other churches were carefully Chrismons—mostly of white and gold—to represent the purity and majesty of the Son of God. Mrs. Spencer often said that a tree is only finished when someone uses the ornaments to share the story of Christ.[iv] During Advent, we wait and we watch. What better time to tell such stories?
Jesus warns that the time will come when the sun and moon and stars behave in unexpected ways. Then the Son of Man will come in the clouds with great power and glory. For centuries, rivers of ink have been spilled over the specifics of the end times. But while Jesus gives more than a nod to the matter, his overarching message is less about the future and more about the present because what really concerns Jesus is how we live our lives now—how we love God and our neighbor.
The story of Emmanuel—God with us—is the greatest story ever told. How might we continue telling it—not just here on Sunday morning, but in other places through simple and humble ways? After all, with something as ordinary as a fig tree, Jesus points to signs of the future. With something as simple as an evergreen—the story of Jesus’ birth has been told for ages. So keep awake—pay attention to the wonders all around you. Who knows when the Spirit might inspire you to tell the story in a fresh, new way? Amen.
[i] Rick Osborne, The Legend of the Christmas Tree.
*Cover Art: Advent Candle Art Week 1 by Stushie
*Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @ https://www.liturgylink.net/2012/11/26/advent-statement-of-faith/