It's about much more than pretty holiday decor ...
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In his book on the history of the Christmas tree (published in Polish, Historia świątecznej choinki), author Fr. Józef Naumowicz explains, “The story of the Christmas tree began with performances (Paradiespiel) organized in the 12th century on the church squares before Christmas, depicting the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise.”
Why was the paradise theme important right before Christmas?
The idea was to explain why God decided to become human, where original sin came from, and why we all need salvation. The performances were so popular that in time the liturgical commemoration of our first parents, Adam and Eve, was celebrated on December 24.
Christmas tree as the tree of knowledge
In those early performances, the tree of knowledge of good and evil was an important prop. In Europe, it is difficult to find a fruiting apple tree in December, so the green coniferous tree played the part of the tree from paradise. The exact species did not matter. A healthy evergreen was chosen and placed in a central location. Later, symbolic decorations were hung — fruit, chains symbolizing the serpent that tempted Eve, and globes made from unconsecrated wafers symbolizing the world redeemed by Jesus.
The symbolism of light was also important. Lit candles were a sign of Eternal Light, which is to say, Jesus. A star symbolizing the one that led the three wise men to Bethlehem was placed at the top of the tree.
Tree of hope
With time, the trees were moved into the churches, homes, and offices of various institutions. While the performances died out, the Christmas trees remained. They were a reminder that with the birth of Christ came the hope to regain the lost paradise. There were more and more ornaments placed on them, not necessarily related to the original meaning. Eventually, people started putting Nativity scenes under the tree.
The Christmas tree as we know it today came from Alsace – a once German region that today belongs to France. In Poland, Christmas trees arrived from Germany and became popular at the beginning of the 19th century, although there are signs that at the end of the 17th century in Gdansk one could buy a decorated or unadorned Christmas tree at the market. Initially the tree was hung from the ceiling, with the tip down.
Not pagan, not Protestant
Sometimes we hear and even read in supposedly academic articles that the Christmas tree is a Christianized relic of pagan beliefs, symbolizing wealth and prosperity. Fr. Naumowicz in his book disproves this myth. There were no trees used in the celebrations of Christmas until the shows about exile from paradise; before that, wreaths woven from plants and flowers, in use since the Roman times, were common. That’s how we came to use the Christmas and Advent wreaths, especially popular in Anglo-Saxon culture. The Church has long accepted the use of wreaths, simply rectifying the occasional misunderstandings.
According to another legend, the Christmas tree was invented by Martin Luther, who supposedly one day brought home and decorated a tree to surprise his wife. Of course, the Christmas tree is much older than that.
When to put up and take down the tree?
Christmas trees appear in stores and on the streets earlier every year, even before American Thanksgiving! As to when we should put up and decorate the tree in our homes, traditions vary, and since it is not a properly liturgical ornament, there are no official hard-and-fast rules. The important thing to remember is that it is a Christmas tree, so it should coincide at least roughly with the Christmas season. Thus, the most traditional option is to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve, although many people prefer to do it earlier, such as the beginning of Advent, the period of preparation for Christmas.
As for when to take it down, it’s a good idea to continue to enjoy the tree during the liturgical time of Christmas, which by the Catholic calendar ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, generally celebrated on the Sunday after January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Some people follow a tradition of keeping the tree up until February 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.