Dec 20, 2017 Thank Luther for the Christmas Tree?
What wonderful music you Schuler girls provided this evening! Thank you for bringing a little bit of Germany to our little church with your “Stille Nacht and Ein Feist Berg”. Our little church actually has roots that go back to those early German immigrants who wanted a new world church that would worship and sing in the new world language of English. But that didn’t mean they wanted to abandon the faith of their fathers just update it a little
And that is the way of many things, especially Christmas traditions- new artists sing old songs and those new recordings soon become classics in their own right. This happens with other traditions as well, like the Christmas tree. At one time it was simply an evergreen tree outside on the church grounds that was decorated, then folks decorated them in their yards. Then according to folk lore- thanks to Martin Luther, they made their way inside and even had lights put on them.
As I said in last week’s message in America in the 1880’s Luther became a popular figure. A massive second wave of German immigrants came to America from 1840 to 1880 which helped make Luther well known in the US. Visiting with Tom Butts this week he told me when his last name changed from Von Boots to Butts. It was during the Civil War. His great-grandfather served in the 119th Ohio volunteers during the Civil War. The regimen came from this area and was made up entirely of German speakers, only the officers knew English! It was the English officers who didn’t want to shout out long names, so like many of his buddies Tom’s great grandfather’s name got shortened to Boots. Three generations later Boots had morphed into Butts. Interesting how things transform over time. (remember that tidbit)
Any way back to Luther’s influence and popularity. The unification of Germany as a nation in 1871 was linked to Luther’s standardizing the German language with his translation of the Bible into German. In 1883 many German immigrants were celebrating Luther’s 400th birthday. Now comes the connection with the Christmas Tree in America. Because of the Puritan background of America anything that had any semblance of a pagan background was strictly forbidden. And since the use of evergreen trees to symbolize eternal life was widely used not just by Christians but many other pagan religions the Puritans had discouraged and at times even outlawed any decorating of Christmas Trees to celebrate the sacred Christ child’s birth. In fact such a law had passed in Connecticut as late as 1840.
However, by the 1880’s Christmas trees were showing up not just in homes but in town squares. Thanks to stubborn Germans who didn’t want to give up their old world traditions and also thanks to Martin Luther and his ongoing influence. It was widely known the Luther transformed things, from an unreadable bible in Latin to a useable bible in German. From ancient difficult tunes for church songs he transformed them into beloved hymns by borrowing bar room ballads: “A Mighty Fortress/Ein Fest Berg” being one. Luther argued “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?”
So here again Luther helped transform the bad press surrounding the pagan observance of lights on an evergreen tree into a central symbol of the celebration of the eternal Lord and Savior’s birth. You might think Luther argued “Why should the druids have all the good symbols of eternal life?”
It was a widely held belief in Germany that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a Christmas sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
Christians have long been taking pagan symbols and transforming them into things that proclaims not a false God but instead the one true God. Christians excel at transforming old symbols, ceremonies of pagan lost souls into powerful proclamation of the one true God. The one true God whose love and power, grace and forgiveness can transform any life, can find any lost soul, can convert any unfortunate child of Satan into a blessed child of the savior. That is the heart of the Christian message, not one of conformity but transformation, not status quo of death but transition into life.
You think I’m nuts… just look at the cross and the transformation that God in Christ has given that symbol! What once was only a symbol of death and destruction Christ has transformed into a symbol of life and victory. Take a look at the manger. Once simply a feed trough for mangy animals becomes the place we filthy sinners find food for our souls and cleansing of our hearts.
So the Christmas tree once a symbol of pagan hopes for eternity becomes a symbol of God’s promise of eternity through Christ. For Luther the Christmas Tree was a place not just to gather family around to share the gifts of love and kinship. It was also a place to gather around Christ to receive his gifts of love and adoption into God’s family.
Too bad over time we’ve forgotten the transformative message of Luther’s Christmas tree. As we gather around our lit Christmas trees this year let’s not forget the message of the transformative message of God’s love given to us in a son born in a lowly manger, hung on a cross and raised from the grave all to grant us the transformation of going from lost to found, from death to life. Eternal life in Christ, like an evergreen. Amen.