December 25, 2012

The Christmas Tree: An Orthodox Perspective

By Sergei V. Bulgakov

Almost everywhere among Christian peoples the real feast, as the feast of the birth of the divine Child, is considered by preference as a feast for children, for whom it has become customary to put up a fir-tree, decorated with various toys and sweets and in the evening shining with lit candles attached to its branches. It is recognized that this custom passed to us from Germany where it existed from ancient times. According to the ideas of the Archpriest J. Debolsky, branches of a fir-tree can serve as an instructive paradigm that our nature in itself, as a lifeless and a barren branch, that it is only in Christ Jesus, the Source of life, light and joy, can be chilled and bear spiritual fruit (Gal. 5:22-23).

According to the opinion of others, the fir-tree serves as a symbol of the tree of life, returned to us with the birth of Christ the Savior; being decorated with lit candles, it serves as a symbol of the spiritual light, enlightening the world with the coming of Christ, and, by the hanging fruits, it serves as a symbol of the endless kingdom of grace and of its saving fruits, revealed with the birth of the Savior.

But the famous preacher Archpriest J. N. Polisadov in one of his sermons calls the custom of putting up a fir-tree for the children "completely ridiculous, purely German or, more precisely speaking, some kind of paganism, unbecoming to the feast of Christ at all, with pure absurdity".

According to the opinion of the "Tserkovnyi Vestnik" [Church Messenger]: "It is quite natural, that in grayhaired antiquity the fir-tree was made an accessory of some kind of pagan festival, but subsequently all the pagan spirit in the custom has disappeared and gave up its place to other ideas and feelings. In Germany during the past time all members of the family, peacefully and ritually gathered around the fir-tree, enjoyed reading stories about the birth of Christ, sang appropriate festal hymns and songs. It was then considered obligatory to distribute gifts to the children, maids and the poor. The doors of every home were hospitably opened for the hungry and needy. Grades and ranks were forgotten at this time" (see "Tserkovnyi Vestnik "[Church Messenger] 1893, 52). All this, certainly, is fully appropriate for the feast of Christ. And in general it does not present anything prejudicial in putting up a fir-tree for children, if this entertainment is so arranged that it has a moral-educational value for them, if their teachers manage to lead their idea from contemplation of the decorated fir-tree to the Bearer of all blessings, to the born Christ, and to stimulate in their hearts the feeling of awesomeness and gratitude of unspeakable benefactions for the human family by Him, if fir-tree gifts laying around them serve as an encouragement for them to good behavior, and if it will stimulate in them the feeling of compassion for the needy and their needs to help them and to share the received gifts, etc. Unfortunately, other teachers are far from all this. Still more sorrowful that frequently the children's feast of the fir-tree turns to debauchery for adults.