It’s time to put up the tree.
Whether in our homes or our churches, we are getting close to Christmas and the evergreens on the Advent wreath will soon be joined by evergreen trees.
Most of us will only see pretty trees with lights and woodsy aroma.
But a Christmas tree means so much more.
When I was a child, I loved the book, by Shel Silverstein, “The Giving Tree.” It’s about a boy and a tree. As the boy grows, the tree provides for his needs — at the expense of itself. But the tree, in the end existing only as a stump, is still there for the boy when — as an old man — he needs to sit down and rest on it. “And the tree was happy,” Silverstein wrote.
Tradition about Christmas trees credits Martin Luther. According to the story, Luther wanted to recreate in his house, for his children, a vision he’d seen in the night words: a tree afire with starlight. This German tradition later made its way to America thanks to Hessian soldiers fighting in the Revolutionary War.
Christmas trees have graced our churches for decades, but they took on new meaning when Pope John Paul II added a Christmas tree to Vatican Square in 1982. The tradition continues to this day. This year’s tree, an 82-foot fir from Bavaria, was set up Dec. 6. It will be decorated and lit and the Nativity scene beneath it — also a tradition since John Paul II — will be unveiled on Christmas Eve.
But a tree isn’t put in Vatican Square because it’s pretty. Nor because of Martin Luther. It’s there to remind us of God and of our life in God through Christ. As Pope John Paul II said during his last Advent in 2004, “The message of the Christmas tree is consequently that life stays ‘evergreen’ if we make a gift of it: not so much of material things, but of life itself: in friendship and sincere affection, in fraternal help and forgiveness, in time shared and reciprocal listening.”
Fast forward to 2013. On Nov. 24, the feast of Christ the King and the close of the Year of Faith, Pope Francis issued “Evangelii Gaudium,” a teaching on proclaiming the Gospel. “The great danger in today’s world,” Francis wrote, “… is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, … Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.”
Christmas is about joyfully doing good for others: giving gifts to those we love, offering charity to those in need, sending messages to people we don’t always see but still care about, baking a pie for a neighbor or singing carols for total strangers. It’s about turning our interior life away from our own interests and toward the interests of others.
When we do that, we will feel what Pope Francis calls “the missionary joy of sharing life with God’s faithful people as we strive to light a fire in the heart of the world.”
Jesus said he had come to “light a fire upon the earth” (Lk 12:49). We see hints of that fire in the winking of Advent candles and the blinking of Christmas tree lights.
So, back to those Christmas trees. What happens after Christmas? Many end up on the curb destined for landfills or mulch. Some people set their trees outside, maybe with suet cakes, to offer shelter to birds and small animals during the harsh months of January through March.
What happens to the Vatican tree?
It, too, will be recycled. What into?
As has been the tradition since at least 2008, the Vatican tree will be made into toys, as well as benches and other wood products for playgrounds and parks. It will keep on giving — and bringing joy.
The Giving Tree would be proud. You can learn a lot from a tree.