Monday, December 7, 2015

Lighting the Tree

In the next-to-the-last episode of the excellent 2014 PBS series The Roosevelts, there is a poignant portrayal of the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree on December 24, 1941, just weeks into the war, with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill present as one of the most memorable White House Christmas guests in history. Tonight, albeit with much less fanfare and much less world historical significance, I will, for the 6th year in a row, light our parish Christmas Tree in front of the church on wintry, windswept Summit Hill. (The photo at left is the tree as it looks now during the day, waiting to be lit tonight.)

It is usually assumed that ancient pagan winter festivities incorporated evergreens and thus represent the remote folkloric origin of our northern European Christmas Tree. Some also see antecedents of the Christmas Tree in the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Knowledge, In medieval mystery plays on Christmas Eve (traditionally also the feast day of Adam and Eve), an evergreen decorated with apples was sometimes used to represent the Tree of Knowledge and its forbidden fruit. From there it may have migrated into the home, where actual apples might be replaced by all sorts of ornaments. And then, of course, the 16th-century founder of German Protestantism, Martin Luther, is commonly credited with having been the one who added lit candles to the Tree. It has even been suggested that well-to-do Protestant families might have adopted the custom as an alternative to the nativity scenes in Roman Catholic homes. But the custom was introduced in Vienna early in the 19th century and soon spread throughout Catholic Austria. Meanwhile, Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III) is credited with introducing the custom in Britain. And then an 1848 woodcut of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their children with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle was adapted in an American publication two years later in what became probably the first widely circulated picture of a Christmas Tree in the U.S. 

In Sicily, my grandparents certainly never had a Christmas Tree. But, after immigrating to New York after World War I they immediately adopted the prevailing American custom. By my time, the Christmas Tree was the central domestic decoration of the season, although, of course, the traditional presepio continued to retain a place of special honor in our home. Our tree was usually purchased a few days before Christmas. Decorating it took considerable time, typically until sometime on December 24 itself. Also a day or so before, a lit Christmas Tree would be set up above the main door of our parish church across the street from our apartment. Inside the church, however, no trees appeared until Christmas Eve itself, when the sanctuary was transformed into a veritable Christmas forrest.

As a 4th-year graduate student, living with two roommates in a sublet faculty apartment on Lake Carnegie in 1975, I secured a second-hand artificial tree and some of my parents' redundant lights and ornaments to bring Christmas into our simple apartment. I remember the look of joy on my roommate's face as we decorated our humble tree that year. (I detest and totally disapprove of the use of artificial Christmas Trees, but it was a very imperfect world in 1975, even on an Ivy League campus!)

Nowadays, everyone decorates for Christmas much earlier than we used to. So the suspense is gone. The sense of build-up to finishing the job on Christmas Eve is lost. And, of course, at the other end of the process now there are all those already discarded trees to be seen, sadly, in the street on the 2nd Day of Christmas!

Still, the Christmas Tree remains enthroned as the central decoration of the season. As we light our tree tonight, we will pray the prayer the Church provides: May this tree, arrayed in splendor, remind us of the life-giving cross of Christ, that we may rejoice in the new life that shines in our hearts.

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