While for many modern people Christmas decorations are just an
expression of a commercial cult, the Christmas tree and the candles,
stars and other things decorating it can be full of symbolic meaning
to a Christian.
The tree itself, being evergreen, is a symbol for eternity and everlasting life. Unlike many other trees, it doesn't lose its leaves in a cold and sometimes hostile environment, and sets an example for us to overcome such situations likewise.
Psalm 1 likens the faithful ones to trees, planted by the rivers,
which bring fruit at the right time and whose leaves don't wither.
The fruit is symbolized by the various things we attach to the tree.
By the fruits one recognizes the value of a tree (Matth. 7,17-19).
Trees are healthy only as long as they are rooted in well-watered
ground, which stands for communion with God; if they lose this
connection they soon lose their life and are disposed of. A similar
analogy is drawn by Jesus in John 15,5-6.
The stars are symbols of orientation. As seafarers used to determine
their position and correct their direction with the help of stars,
so God used the stars to direct the magicians
to see the ruler of the universe become a baby in a stable. And so
the stars remind us that our life is a journey towards God, and to
look for His guidance so that we don't get lost in the distractions
of the world.
The candle lights are a powerful symbol. In the Gospel of John,
Jesus is often likened to the light which expells the darkness.
Each advent we light a few candles, each sunday one more; but on Christmas day, many, many candles are lit. This 'explosion' of light is typical for the kingdom of heavens - at first hardly noticable, it soon becomes the dominating force. (In Mark 4,30-32, Jesus uses the example of the mustard seed to drive home the same message.) And when Jesus returns, suddenly light will be everywhere (Luke. 17,24).
In Roman 13,12-14, Paul ask us to wear Christ. We are the true
Christmas trees, and wearing Christ amounts to letting us be
decorated by His light. In Luke 12,35, Jesus asks us to let our lights
burn. But it is not just an outward process as with the Christmas tree:
In the communion we not only wear Him, but eat and digest
Him (John 6,50-58), so that His life grows in us and we can bear real
fruit, not just dead things attached to us.
The right image for this is that the Christmas tree catches fire (and for obvious reasons we don't implement this part of the parable in our celebrations; but sometimes it happens nevertheless). Indeed, Jesus said: 'I came to light a fire on earth; how would I enjoy to see it burn already' (Luke 12,49). Paul reminds us to burn in spirit (Rom. 12,11), and not to quench the fire (1. Thess. 5,19).
Yes, living with God may be a dangerous thing, and we may become
afraid of His overwhelming power (Acts 5,11-14). We rather keep
buckets of water ready to make sure that what is ours is not
destroyed. However, Jesus came not to baptize with water,
but with fire which burns everything that is not useful to Him
(Luke 3,16-17). If you cannot let go of everything you have, you
cannot be His disciple (Luke 14,33). In the first few centuries
of Christianity, this was clear to anyone who became a Christian,
and being baptized meant to consider yourself being dead (Roman 6,3;
Col. 3,3). But nowadays, this is often watered down, and the
Christian message lacks the transforming power of a real fire.
The shepards of Bethlehem were very afraid when they were confronted with the glowing light showing the presence of the kingdom of heavens; but the angel said: 'Don't be afraid; I am bringing you great joy!' (Luke 2,9-10). This is the message of Christmas: God has come close to us, a radiating, burning power, one which can transform our life to one of joy, a life which honors God and brings peace to people.
Arnold Neumaier (Arnold.Neumaier@univie.ac.at)