Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
--Hebrews 13:8 NRSV
I know our culture has already put Christmas in its rearview mirror, but according to church tradition, we remain in the season of Christmas which lasts for twelve days (hence the Christmas song). I didn’t grow up knowing anything about the liturgical seasons of the church (this was all too “Catholic” for the Southern Baptist churches I grew up in). Christmas passed and we stopped singing carols in the same way radio stations stop the 24-7 Christmas music on December 26. I’ve grown to like the idea of lingering with Christmas no matter what our culture does, because once the pressure of shopping and family get-togethers has passed, we can focus just on the meaning of Christmas itself, as well as its rich traditions.
I’m still learning about the traditions of Christmas. This year I learned about Christmas wreaths, which I have never given much thought to before. Here’s why.
When I got married, I came to understand there are two types of people in the world: those with artificial Christmas trees and those with natural Christmas trees. I came from a plastic Christmas tree family. Each year we took the box containing the tree from the basement and assembled our plastic tree. I still have warm feelings of nostalgia when I think of that fake tree. It disappeared in one of my parents’ moves after they became empty nesters. I knew from movies and TV shows that there were people who bought a real tree every Christmas like I also knew people in Australia said, “G’day.” It was interesting cultural trivia but nonetheless utterly foreign.
My wife, however, came from a real or natural Christmas tree family. One of our early matrimonial negotiations was over what kind of Christmas tree to get. We settled on a real tree but every year since I have looked longingly towards our storage bins of Christmas decorations missing my plastic tree.
Over the years since, I have bought natural Christmas trees at big box home improvement stores and more expensive tree lots. As an associate minister in New York, I led the annual youth Christmas tree sale which was the fundraiser for our youth mission trips. It wasn’t until those sales that I saw people gathering up the pruned branches as if they were precious treasure. You see, not only did I grow up with a plastic Christmas tree but also plastic Christmas wreaths, so it was completely new to me seeing people gather up the branches to make their own wreaths for decorating their homes and even the graves of loved ones. Why were wreaths so special to these folks? I simply had accepted the existence of Christmas wreaths but never thought of what they meant, not until this year, I guess.
I came across an article at Time.com entitled, “Christmas Wreaths are a Classic Holiday Decoration With a Surprisingly Deep History.” I wondered about the “deep history” and discovered that the tradition of making Christmas wreaths came from 16th century Germany. Christmas trees were trimmed to fit small rooms and to make them triangular in shape in order to represent the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The Time article quotes author Ace Collins who wrote the book Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. He notes that the tree trimmings were kept and used because “These people were living in a time when everything in their lives was used until it was gone.” The way I grew up tree trimmings of all kinds were merely yard waste, besides plastic trees had no extra parts, so this idea of using all of the tree is a new concept for me.
For Germans living in the tumultuous times of the 1500’s (the Protestant Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, the rise of the printing press and more), the fir trees and the wreaths made from them were symbols of resilience. In the same way the evergreen trees withstood the dangerous and harsh winters, so could they withstand the danger of their times. The branches twisted into a circle represented eternity, no beginning and no end, so the wreaths became a reminder of the promise of eternal life Christ offered them. The Christmas wreath was a sign of hope in difficult times.
In our own difficult times of a pandemic-filled 2020, let us linger in the Christmas season and take in the message of the Christmas wreath. Just as the fir tree weathers a harsh winter, so can we make it through this time of trial. We can hold onto the hope of God’s eternal care for us no matter our temporary struggles. We can trust that just like the circle has no beginning and no end, so does our God, who exists beyond the constraints of our existence but nonetheless chose not to stay apart from us but instead came to be one of us.
The last line of the Time.com article caught my attention. It ended with another quote from the author Ace Collins: “We live in a throwaway culture,” says Collins. “The wreath was born out of not throwing things away.” In our disposable culture of convenience that has produced an ecological crisis, we can learn a lesson from our spiritual ancestors who gathered up the scraps from their Christmas tree trimmings, so nothing was wasted. This is a lesson I never learned from the plastic Christmas tree of my upbringing.
The concept of nothing being wasted is also perhaps another spiritual offering for us this year. God doesn’t let anything in our lives go to waste, but instead makes use of even our struggles and failures to enable our growing as human beings and as Christians. Just as the trimmings from Christmas trees are gathered up and made into wreaths rich in meaning, so are the pieces of our lives gathered up by God to give us the rich existence we crave.
Seen in this light, I guess twenty-five years into my marriage, I must finally admit I have converted from plastic to natural Christmas trees.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples.
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