Catholic Activity: Decorating the Tree
The Christmas tree is rich in Christian symbolism, and decorating the tree is an opportunity to explain our Christian heritage. Elsa Chaney also gives suggestions to make the decorating of the tree a more Christ-centered family ceremony.
The children love to help decorate the tree, and this is a fine occupation for the vigil afternoon. Or if the family prefers to wait until the evening, the tree-decorating becomes a festive family project. Families living close to the spirit of the liturgical season do not, on any account, set up the tree and the other decorations ahead of time. They do not want to spoil the last lovely days of Advent longing and expectation by starting Christmas too early. Instead, they attune their family life to the rhythm of Mother Church and heed her wise psychology: "Prepare well," she says, "and then you will doubly enjoy the twelve full days of feasting which your Mother gives you."
The decorating of the tree is an opportunity for the mother to explain its symbolism. In medieval times the evergreen tree was used in one of the Mystery plays about the Garden of Paradise — a fir tree was hung with apples, and represented the tree of Eden by which Adam and Eve fell. When the Mystery plays were banned from Church, the tree began to appear in homes at Christmastide, and gradually became the symbol of Christ, the true tree of Life. In some places it was even hung with wafers, representing the holy Eucharist. Thus, says Father Weiser in The Christmas Book, the tree which had borne the fruit of sin for Adam and Eve, now bore the saving fruit of the Sacrament, symbolized by the wafers. But the original symbolism of the tree decorations is obscured today — the wafers gave way to all kinds of pastries cut in appropriate shapes. . . stars, angels, bells; other fruits were hung side by side with the meaningful apples, and gradually since real fruits spoiled on the tree, they were replaced by the shiny glass Christmas balls, decorations which bear only a slight resemblance to fruits. The candles signifying Christ, the Light of the world, are almost universally set aside in favor of the safer electric lights—still in the shape of flames, but perhaps not often connected with their original meaning.
But rich as is its symbolism, the tree is still only the "background" for the Bethlehem scene, which should be given the most prominent place. An overly-elaborate tree set in the place of honor and a cheap plaster crib set relegated to the second best spot, inevitably educate children in a wrong sense of values.
In other homes the children do not see the tree until it is decorated. A special "Christmas room" is set aside which no one is allowed to enter all day. Behind closed doors, mother and father "help the Christ-Child" decorate the tree and prepare the crib under it. It is not until evening that the children are called to the room. Then they view for the first time the beautiful tree, resplendent in all its colors and ornaments.
Mrs. Therese Mueller, commenting on her own family's Christmas traditions, points up the importance of preserving this element of surprise, particularly in the case of small children. "It is poor psychology to anticipate Christmas," she writes, "to break up the great climax into all kinds of little climaxes, until on the feast itself we are bored and tired of it all...even of the tree, lighted prematurely for small occasions instead of being a sudden symbolic revelation of the fullness of light in the Holy Night."
Besides the historical explanation given above, there are of course many beautiful legends and much symbolism behind the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree is a sign of the great Tree of the Cross; it is noble because it is by a tree that the whole world has been redeemed. The splendor of the Christmas tree reminds us of the redemption of even the material creation by Christ — and recalls the lovely legend that all the trees on earth blossomed forth on Christmas night. And the evergreen is traditional for the Christmas tree, for it reminds us of the everlasting life that Christ won through His Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection.
Activity Source: Twelve Days of Christmas, The by Elsa Chaney, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1955