One of the most popular of these plays—The Paradise Tree—was performed on Christmas Eve. It dealt with creation and the sin of Adam and Eve, and ended with the prophecy in Genesis 3:15 of Christ, the future deliverer.
The play was unusual because its only prop was a huge fir tree laden with apples placed in the middle of the stage. Earliest commentaries say that Eden’s “tree of life” was a fir tree, and the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was an apple tree. The focal point of the play was Eve’s taking a bite out of the forbidden fruit and giving it to Adam—actions that brought about the fall of humanity.
Later on, Christian families set up paradise trees in their homes as symbols of redemption through the birth of Christ. Because of this close association with the work of Christ, the paradise tree became known as the redemption tree. At first apples, representing the fall, were secured to the branches of the tree. The tree itself symbolized the Savior.
As the redemption tree tradition developed, the apples were put into a basket at the foot of the tree, and sugar-coated fruit, candies and communion wafers were secured to the branches instead (representing the sweetness of the Savior and the fruit of His redemption). Soon there were so many fruits, candies and treats on the tree that its boughs were weighed down.
A German craftsman solved the problem by making glass-blown pieces of fruit that were much lighter than actual fruit. These became the artificial decorations we have today, derived from Christ-honoring Christmas traditions rooted in a desire to glorify Jesus.
Christmas greenery. God Himself, speaking through Isaiah, inspired the idea of using a variety of evergreen trees to decorate the sanctuary of the Lord: “‘The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the pine, the fir and cypress together, to adorn the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify the place of my feet” (Is. 60:13).
By the 16th century, Western Christians were practicing the Christmas tradition of “greening” the church and home with evergreen trees, branches and cones. Laurel wreaths pointed to the victory of Christ. Holly and ivy later replaced laurel, carrying the idea of peace (because of the birth of Christ) and joy (because of the glad tidings of Christ).
The holly wreath, with its thorns and red berries, symbolized the crown of thorns, with the red berries representing the drops of Christ’s curse-reversing blood. That is why we deck those halls with boughs of holly!
The significance behind the Christian observance of Christmas lies in the person it celebrates. If our Christmas celebrations are to be more meaningful and filled with festive joy, Christ must become the forethought of everything we do instead of an afterthought.
So go all out with Christmas decorations, but use only those symbols and traditions that point to the Savior’s birth, person and work. Get out the crèche, golden horns, silver trumpets, harps and bells, angels, shepherds, stars and musical notes, lights and wreaths, and holly wreaths and evergreens. Let every decoration and tradition point to some aspect of Jesus Christ, who alone is the life of the party.
Peter Bertolero is a theologian and pastor of Legacy Christian Church (formerly Fresno Christian Growth Center) in Fresno, Calif. This article was adapted from his book GreenTree.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
What do bells have to do with Christmas? For centuries church bells rang all over the world, expressing the glad tidings of Christ’s birth.
In medieval times bells somberly tolled an hour before midnight on Christmas Eve, warning the powers of darkness of the approaching birth of the ultimate Deliverer. In England this was called “tolling the devil’s knell.”
At the stroke of midnight, which ushered in Christmas, the bells started ringing joyously and continued every hour afterward. Christmas bells have played a major role in ancient Christmas traditions, warning the devil and his demons to flee, as well as calling Christians to joyous exaltation over the birth of Christ. This hope-producing Christmas tradition was referenced in the carol by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Decoding a Christmas Carol
The 12 days of Christmas mentioned in the carol by this name refer to the 12 days of feasting and celebration originally designated in the sixth century as a time to commemorate the incarnation of Christ. The 12-day period began on Dec. 25 and ended on Jan. 5.
The carol dates to the 16th century when Roman Catholics were experiencing religious persecution in England. From 1558 until 1829 it was illegal for them to practice or express their faith in any form in public.
In fact, to be caught in public with any material about the Christian faith brought imprisonment and death. Out of this intense persecution, “The 12 Days of Christmas” emerged as a kind of coded message affirming belief in Christ and in the Bible.
Each of the 12 days represents an important aspect of the Christian faith that the disciple was to learn and adhere to. Here are meanings hidden in this clever Christmas carol:
First day: The “partridge in a pear tree” represents the birth of Christ on Christmas Day. Christ is portrayed as a partridge because of the instinctual habit of mother partridges to pretend to be injured in order to decoy predators away from their helpless young.
Second day: “Two turtle doves” refers to the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Third day: “Three French hens” stands for the three virtues written about in 1 Corinthians 13:13: faith, hope and love.
Fourth day: “Four calling birds” symbolizes the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Fifth day: “Five golden rings” points to the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Sixth day: “Six geese a-laying” stands for the six days of creation and the affirmation that Almighty God is the creator and sustainer of all things.
Seventh day: “Seven swans a-swimming” represents the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Romans 11: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving and generosity, leadership, and compassion and mercy.
Eighth day: “Eight maids a-milking” stands for the eight beatitudes Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 5), each beginning with “Blessed are“: (1) the poor in spirit; (2) those who mourn; (3) the meek; (4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; (5) the merciful; (6) the pure in heart; (7) the peacemakers; and (8) those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Ninth day: “Nine ladies dancing” represents the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23.
10th day: “Ten lords a-leaping” symbolizes the Ten Commandments (see Ex. 20:1-17).
11th day: “Eleven pipers piping” refers to the 11 faithful disciples. Because Judas Iscariot, the 12th disciple, betrayed Jesus he is not included among the faithful.
12th day: “Twelve drummers drumming” emphasizes the 12 doctrinal points of the Apostles’ Creed, which outlines the core beliefs of the Christian faith.
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