In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…
– John 1:1-18
My own cultural heritage is Swedish and German, and both sides of my family would want to lay claim on why we use greenery to decorate the monastery chapel in Christmastide, and why you probably have some Christmas greenery or a Christmas tree in your own home or apartment. The Christmas tree as we know it originated in the Middle Ages in what is now western Germany. The Christmas tree’s popularity grew out of a medieval play about Adam and Eve, the main prop being an evergreen tree called a “Paradise Tree,” decorated with apples. (Green and red. I’ll say more about that.) The notion of a “Paradise Tree” came from the Book of Revelation where we read of “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”[i] Paradise Trees symbolized hope for a restoration of the innocence of the garden of Eden. In time the Germanic people set up these “Paradise Trees” in their own homes on December 24th, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. The Germans had borrowed this symbol for the Paradise Tree from the ancient Scandinavians who – many centuries before they had been introduced to Christianity – worshipped the gods of the trees.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking in Harvard Square with my brother, John Oyama, and we were talking about the Christmas lights (or holiday lights!) that are strung across the streets, on lamp poles, in shop windows, and on the gables of houses here in Cambridge and in so many places across the States and beyond this time of year.
“Isn’t that interesting” and “why do they do that?” we were saying to one another. If we were to ask the public works department, and shopkeepers, and you who are householders, “why do we adorn our life and livelihood with lights at this time of year?” we would undoubtedly hear a great variety of explanations, the lowest common denominator probably being, “It’s a tradition,” or “It’s our custom; this is what we’ve always done.” Which is true… mostly.