Bible Study

5. Tree of Life

Why do we decorate a tree to celebrate the birth of Christ? Lt. Colonel Dean Hinson explains. by Lt. Colonel Dean Hinson

The Christmas tree has become an almost universal symbol of the Christmas celebration. Bringing in evergreen branches or trees that do not lose color through the winter, has been recorded in ancient history in a variety of pagan customs. The evergreen, standing amid the leafless trees in winter, offers a promise of life with the coming of Spring. So how did this practice of decorating a tree to celebrate Christ’s birth come about?

Many believe it was Martin Luther, leader of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, who began the Christmas tree tradition. As the story goes, Martin was walking toward his home one winter evening when he noticed the bright stars twinkling through the evergreen trees. He brought a tree into his house and decorated it with candles, attempting to recapture the scene that reminded him of Jesus as the Light of the World!

An earlier story goes back to the 11th century’s very popular religious plays. One of these was the Paradise Play, performed on December 24, that told the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, their disobedience and subsequent eviction from the garden and access to the Tree of Life. (See Genesis 2 & 3). The stage for this play simply had a fir tree decorated with apples. The people became so used to the Paradise tree at Christmas that they began putting them up in their homes and decorating them with red balls instead of apples.   

The custom of the Christmas tree migrated with German immigrants. The first instance recorded in the United States is by German settlers in the early 1800s. This first Christmas tree is claimed by both Easton and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Its popularity is tied to Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a picture of the royal family gathered around a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. The picture was reproduced in Philadelphia in December 1890, but “Americanized” by removing the Queen’s crown and Prince Albert’s mustache.

Finding and decorating our Christmas tree became a family tradition both when I was a kid and with my three boys. We would search the tree lots to find the perfect tree—usually returning to the first lot and tree we examined. Bringing it into the house and trimming it so that it fell just short of the
ceiling with the angel on top was an accomplishment. Then one evening the family would fill the tree with ornaments that had sentimental meaning to us—from a special place or event, or those the boys created. 

Recently we have added a special ornament, a six-inch spike or nail. It is so heavy that it must be placed very close to the trunk of the tree, hidden by the other ornaments. But we all know that it is there and why we use this special ornament. It reminds us that it was on a tree that Jesus, the grown up whose birth we celebrate, was crucified on a tree. This nail connects the crib with the cross and tells us why Jesus came to earth and was born in a manger. 

In His letter to the Church in Ephesus Jesus says that, “To everyone who is victorious I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). After receiving both commendations for hard work and patiently suffering without quitting, they heard the complaint from the Master that they had lost their first love, not loving Jesus or each other as they did at first. If they didn’t listen to this rebuke and change their ways, their lampstand would be removed, and they would lose their place among the churches. Today, Ephesus is a very popular tourist attraction with 2,000-year-old ruins, foundations, streets, and stones, but no longer is it a city or a church.

The promise of Revelation 2:7 reminded the hearers of Genesis 2 & 3 when God planted in a garden the Tree of Life and how Adam and Eve were banished and the garden guarded by “mighty cherubim” with “flaming swords” to deny access to the tree. The word “paradise” is a Persian word meaning a sanctuary or area set apart for the king’s use. This would have been a place of trees and flowers providing tranquility, shade and recreation.  

The word for “tree” in this passage is also interesting. There are two Greek words for it, dendron for a normal living tree and xulon meaning timber or a piece of wood. You would expect the use of dendron in this passage, but xulon is used instead. The New Testament used xulon for the cross of Jesus. This is based on the Septuagint’s (Greek translations of the Old Testament) use of xulon in Deuteronomy 21:23 which says, “anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed in the sight of God.”

 In his letter to the Galatians, Paul said that, “But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When He was hung on the cross (xulon), He took upon himself the curse for our wrong doing” Galatians 3:13 (see also 1 Peter 2:24).

So, what the Romans used as a means of torture and death became a Tree of Life–the cross of Christ! We who listen and heed Jesus’ words to the Church in Ephesus are promised access to this tree and the fruit it produces. 

As you put up your tree this Christmas, may it remind you of the tree of life upon which Jesus was crucified to provide life for all of us who call Him Lord and Savior!

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