de(tales): paradise tree
This very special Christmas Eve de(tale) comes to you from my mother, Pamela Strickland, who has been writing some Advent reflections this year. She asked me to read them over (as I often ask her to do with my work) and I greatly enjoyed walking through them this Advent. When I got to this one, I found myself fascinated by the idea of the paradise tree and the fact that Christmas Eve is Adam and Eve's feast day. I wanted to share this with you, and today seemed the perfect day. I hope you enjoy reading it, and "meeting" my mom. Merry Christmas Eve, friends.
This year I waded into Advent deeper than I ever had before. I began to write little meditations about all sorts of different aspects of the narrative, the characters, the prophesies, and the spirit of the season. Cara, my favorite editor, helped me refine and clarify my musings so that I could give my little volume to my friends as a gift. The following selection is adapted from that collection and at her request, is being included in her de(tales) series. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas Eve!
Legends, traditions, symbols, carols. The Christmas season is full of them. Every so often, controversies arise over this and that, as opposing sides face off over civil liberties, paganism, capitalism, childhood innocence.
Of course, symbols are an important part of our faith, given to us by Christ Himself— the bread and wine, the waters of baptism. But the way we celebrate His birth is all over the map, traditions cobbled from everywhere, some with dubious beginnings. So how can we ensure that our focus is on the true Reason for the season as we deck our halls? Do we chuck the tree, the garlands, the wreath, the ornaments and various other “Christmas” decorations we have adopted as a culture that did not specifically arise from the Incarnation story?
Let’s consider the evergreen tree.
The evergreen tree was an ancient symbol of life in the midst of deep winter. Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches during the festival of Kalends in January, and ancient inhabitants of what is now Northern Europe cut down entire trees (Yule logs) to bring into their homes. Many early Christians frowned understandably on these practices, knowing as they did that within the pantheistic culture of the day, it essentially constituted worshipping false gods and perpetuated baseless superstitions. The second-century theologian Tertullian condemned those Christians who celebrated the winter festivals by decorating their homes with laurel boughs in honor of the emperor:
“Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix their posts laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. YOU are the light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”
Interestingly, by the Middle Ages, the legend had grown that when Christ was born (in the dead of winter, apparently) every tree throughout the world miraculously shook off its ice and snow and produced new shoots of green. At the same time, Christian missionaries preaching to Germanic and Slavic peoples were taking a page from the Apostle Paul’s evangelism playbook and began working within the frame of reference of their audience’s cultural practices—like Paul did with the altar to the “Unknown God” on Mars Hill.
Who says that something from nature that Satan had co-opted to keep people in bondage could not be turned into just one more thing to declare the glory of God?
But actually, it doesn’t appear that trees were used as a symbol of Christmas until many centuries later—long after the fall of the Roman Empire and the unification of the Germanic States—at the beginning of the Renaissance in the 1500s. They were not a holdover from the Roman festival of rebirth after the winter solstice, or the German festival of Yule, or any other pagan celebration. Several sources confirm the probability that Christmas trees started because of church dramas depicting biblical themes enacted on feast days. The plays celebrating the Nativity were linked to the story of creation—in part because Christmas Eve (Dec 24th) was the feast day of Adam and Eve. That play depicted the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin, and their banishment from Paradise. The play would end with the promise of the coming Savior and His Incarnation. Thus, as part of the play that day, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a “paradise tree” hung with fruit. Really. The Paradise tree, as it had in the Paradise plays, symbolized both a tree of sin and a tree of life.
By the late Middle Ages, (the Middle Ages spanned the 5th through the 15th centuries A.D.) these had moved to open air theaters in town squares dominated by laypeople. The performers began taking liberties with the original storyline in the name of entertainment and they got rowdier and more imaginative as time went on. Eventually, these plays were banned in many places, but people missed them and began setting up paradise trees in their homes to compensate.
The earliest Christmas trees used in homes were referred to as “paradises.” For this reason, the people would decorate these trees with apples (representing the fruit of sin) and homemade wafers (like communion wafers which represented the fruit of life). The custom gained popularity over time, with some members of the clergy protesting, (of course) and other setting up Christmas trees in their church sanctuaries, where, alongside, a pyramid of candles was lit, signifying Christ as the Light of the World. (These lights were, at some point in time, moved onto the tree itself, much to the chagrin of the fire marshal, I’m sure.)
Someone has suggested that, for Christians, the humble evergreen tree can still evoke the symbolism of the Paradise tree. It has the potential to remind us of the tree in Eden by which Adam and Eve were overcome and which thrust them into sin. But as importantly, it can bring to mind another tree, as well—the one on which Christ Jesus hung when He was crucified and our sin was overcome. That was the main point of the Incarnation, was it not?
So, whether you deck your halls with a Christmas tree or not, Advent is a good time to be intentional in wherever we look and in whatever we do, to make ready a place for God to be with us. It is more about listening with our hearts than overthinking our motives...or our decorating choices.
You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.