Each year Christians are faced with the surprisingly difficult question of when to put up the Christmas tree. The world around us gives us different answers. For retail stores, it is often the day after Halloween. For many offices and corporate spaces, it is the weekend after Thanksgiving. This year, the White House lit the National Christmas Tree on the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. And some Catholics either put up their tree around the First Sunday of Advent or on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8).
But the original custom was to put up a Christmas tree only on Christmas Eve. Even the federal government respected this custom: the first U.S. President to light the National Christmas Tree, Calvin Coolidge, did so on December 24, 1923. The reason for this is simple. Contrary to popular belief, the Christmas tree was not a “baptism” of pagan Germanic yule traditions but an entirely Christian symbol.
In the Eastern Churches December 24 is the Feast of Adam and Eve, who according to tradition felt really, really bad about the Fall and spent the rest of their hundreds of years on earth doing penance and eventually achieving sanctity. Although this feast has never been on the Latin calendar, medieval Roman Catholics took it to heart. Special mystery plays were held on this day that featured a Paradise Tree, a tree representing both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as well as the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden. The tree was decorated with apples (for the forbidden fruit) and sweets (for the Tree of Life). When the mystery plays were suppressed during the fifteenth century, the faithful moved the Paradise trees from the stage into their homes. The apples were later substituted for other round objects (such as shiny red balls), and lights and the Star of Bethlehem were added, but the symbolism remained essentially the same.
Thus, our modern Christmas tree is actually the medieval Paradise tree, a reminder of the reason why God deemed it important to become man in the first place and a foretaste of the sweet Tree from which our Lord’s birth would once again enable us to taste. The lights of the Christmas tree also form a glowing Jesse tree, with each light representing one of Christ’s ancestors and the Star representing our Lord Himself.
So where does this leave us today? Kudos to those who can hold out to December 24 to observe the classic custom, but in many areas finding a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve takes a Christmas miracle, even if you’d settle for a Charlie Brown version. So here are some practical options:
1. Buy a tree when it is still available and store it (and water it) in the garage until December 24. Place it in your home and decorate it on Christmas Eve, before you head out for Midnight Mass;
2. Fudge a little and put the tree up on December 17, the first of the O Antiphons or Golden Nights (which we will talk about in a later post). On the first night leave it bare, and then on subsequent nights decorate it gradually until it is ready by Christmas Eve;
3. Fudge a little more and put the tree up on December 17 and decorate it then, but perhaps wait until Christmas Eve to turn on the lights;
4. Overcome your scrupulosity and put up the Christmas tree when it is convenient for you. After all, family religious customs should be an occasion of joy and not another reason for anxiety.
Over the years our family has experimented with all of the above. How about yours? Sound off on the Drinking with the Saints Facebook page.
And, of course, there is also the question of when to take the tree down. Here in our adopted home of Waco, Texas, the city collects Christmas trees from immediately after Christmas until the day after Epiphany. It either mulches them or throws them into Lake Waco to create a habitat for catfish. The Christmas tree should be the center of family festivity for the entire Twelve Days of Christmas, from December 25 until January 5, the Vigil of the Epiphany. And so I am glad that the Keep Waco Beautiful Chipping of the Green Christmas tree recycling service is operating on January 7, when participants are “provided a small bag of Christmas tree mulch.”
I must confess, though, that we don’t always meet even this deadline. Instead of helping catfish, our trees end up sheltering rat snakes as the trees compost in a part of the yard our children tend to avoid. The good news is that the resulting soil is rich and fertile, and in the summer we occasionally find a lost ornament no longer hidden behind green needles, ready for the next Christmas.