"The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown."
No matter what your views of Christmas are or what your spiritual beliefs may be, the history of Christmas and its seemingly unusual traditions is a fascinating subject. In a day and age when making fun of Christmas, or simply disregarding it altogether, has become fashionable I thought I would take the time to share a bit of what I know about Christmas and why many of us do the things we do every December.
Most Christian traditions that we are familiar with can be traced back to the Middle
Ages, a time when many pagan symbols and practices were incorporated into the then new beliefs. And although the Christmas tree is almost uniquely German in its heritage and didn’t come into common use elsewhere until the 19th century it, being an evergreen and a tree, is both medieval and pagan in spirit.
The most common and ancient Christmas symbol is the evergreen. When the snow falls in the winter the wood is not completely bare and the evergreen reminds us that even in the darkest days of the year there is still life and the promise of
renewal, a spring in which the world is reborn each year. More than symbols of everlasting life, evergreens endure the harsh and bitter temperatures like Christ who endured much suffering while here on earth.
Of all the European evergreens Holly perhaps has the most associations with the life of Jesus as it is a plant that tells so much of the story of his life. Its thorns represent the crown of thorns, its blossoms the white of purity and its berries the deep red of the blood shed by Christ during his trial and crucifixion; therefore Holly also represents transfiguration. In the once popular carol (a beautiful song that is sadly not heard much these days) the last refrain tells us, “The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.” Every part of the Holly relates to the story of Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life. It is as much a part of Christmas as Santa Claus and yet most people in our 21st-century world have forgotten its meaning.
So the next time you are hanging some bright-colored bulbs on the tree remember that the tree is more than just a vehicle for candy canes and lights. The tree is one of God’s greatest creations. It provides food and shelter for many creatures and the oxygen that we humans need to survive. The evergreen represents endurance and a reminder that after every winter comes a spring and even trees that lose their color and shed their leafy canopies each autumn endure and are reborn anew after a long winter sleep.
Christmas is a time of remembrance and reflection. It is also a magical time filled with mysterious symbols that quietly tell a tale that is thousands of years old, a tale of peace on earth and goodwill to men. Remember and reflect upon that the next time you look at a Christmas tree.
- Illustration of Victorian Christmas trees.
- Gerard van Honthorst, "The Adoration of the Child", ca. 1620. Oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
- Early 20th-century Christmas postcard depicting dancers in medieval costume.
- Early 20th-century Christmas postcard with holly as a integral part of the motif.
- Victorian engraving of Victoria and Albert with a Christmas tree. It was the German Albert who first introduced Christmas trees to England in the 19th century. The new fashion quickly spread to American households.