Does your family have Christmas traditions? Do you all get together to do something year over year “because it's Christmas”, that when you think about it, isn't really Christmas?
I'm not sure you can get much farther from an iron age manger in Israel than this photo unless you actually go to a galaxy far far away. This was taken a week ago at the local Hobby Lobby as we were shopping for ornaments. Every year we all get one ornament that we feel represents the past year to us, and then a few new ornaments for "the ugly tree"(more on that later).
Mr. Roboto here falls into "the ugly tree" category. The only thing that remotely makes this Christmas related is the fact that the robot has the little ring on its head to hang it on a Christmas tree.
Which begs the question, what’s the deal with the tree? For most of my adult life, I’ve been told it comes from the church’s attempt to co-opt pagan practices by calling them Christian.
Have you heard Christmas trees come from pagan practices?
If 2020 has taught me anything, I should always check my sources. I did some research on the origin of the Christmas tree. I found lots of different things out there, but they all agreed that evergreens of various types were in-fact used by all kinds of religions in history for all kinds of purposes. So on the face of it, you could infer that the Christmas tree is originally a pagan practice.
However, as I dug further I found some pretty interesting stories about the middle age church. "One legend says that Martin Luther, who catalyzed the Protestant Reformation, believed that pine trees represented the goodness of God. Another myth popular in the 15th century tells the story of St. Boniface, who in the 8th century thwarted a pagan human sacrifice under an oak tree by cutting down that tree; a fir tree grew in its place, with its branches representing Christ’s eternal truth." (The Real History of Christmas Trees | Time)
Neither of these tales gives the impression that Christians were directly taking non-Christian practices and sprinkling some baby Jesus in a manger on them. Both of these seem to use a fir tree to provide a visual symbol of core Christian ideals, the "goodness of God" and "Christ's eternal truth."
Doesn't seem very pagan to me, how about you?
The same article goes on to talk about the first recorded use of a Christmas Tree in church practice: "In 1419, a guild in Freiburg put up a tree decorated with apples, flour-paste wafers, tinsel and gingerbread. In “Paradise Plays” that were performed to celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve, which fell on Christmas Eve, a tree of knowledge was represented by an evergreen fir with apples tied to its branches. Flanders finds documentation of trees decorated with wool thread, straw, apples, nuts and pretzels." (The Real History of Christmas Trees | Time)
So again I can't see the pagan in that. What do you think?
Well if the Christmas tree has value as a symbol of Biblical truth, then I’d say it's a worthy addition to our celebration of the birth of Christ. It's clear the previous generations filled the Christmas tree of symbolism all pointing back to God's redemptive work through Jesus virgin birth. So where does Mr. Roboto fit into that equation?
I think history provides some additional guidance here. I listened to a podcast recently about the relationship the celebration Christmas had with the early church in the United States and how the government has approached it over the years. The show was fascinating to learn how "high church" made a big deal out of it, and "low church" downplayed it. The gist of it was the "purists" believed it should be a somber holy occasion without pomp or circumstance. They downplayed the holiday so much, that if Christmas was on a Thursday you might not hear a sermon about it at all. I can’t imagine Church in December without a mention of Christ's birth, how about you?
I have to admit my mind was a bit blown by that. But on it's face it, it makes the case to put Mr. Roboto in the NOT CHRISTMAS category. However, the podcast went on to talk about the popularization of Christmas in the Victorian era. This was largely attributed to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. My youngest son and I just rewatched "The Man Who Invented Christmas" this week and that assertion made a ton of sense to me. It was Dickens who popularized that the best way to commemorate God's gift to humanity was to gather the family around the table with a big bird, and give generously to the poor.
Growing up in a Christian home, I can say these are values that were passed on to me by my parents from their parents. The annual gathering of family from near and far to enjoy turkey and all the fixings. My grandparents and parents both took time to focus on Christ's birth in these gatherings, reading scripture and speaking of heavenly things. They also went out of their way to help the less fortunate, despite us being the less fortunate in many ways.
When you think about your own experience with Christmas, did you experience similar traditions?
Every year as we left grandma's house she would have us take an ornament off her tree. She hand-made a variety of ornaments every year, stars, snowmen, Santas, elves etc... She didn't have much money, but she was amazing with a little felt and some craft glue. Those ornaments are a lasting legacy of the love she had for her grandchildren and the investment she made in disciplining me in Sunday school when I was young. Even now I make sure grandma's ornaments end up on the tree every year.
I don't have the cycles to be crafty like my grandma, but I found that tradition of picking out an ornament to be bonding for me in my family. There's something about walking down the halls of Hobby Lobby and talking about what's on the shelves that connects us. Every year there are
pop culture items that are grounded in the year in direct or ironic ways. For example, this year I chose a peanut butter jar ornament. I can't think of anything that better commemorates my families experience in 2020. The stress, exhaustion, and isolation of the year devolved into PB&J being the #1 food item consumed in my house. I know every year when I bring that out, there will be a moment of reflection on 2020 and how we persevered together.
Which brings me back to Mr. Roboto. We have a family room in our basement where the kids hang out. A few years back the kids pointed out that the space wasn’t very Christmasy. We decided to do something different and quite frankly childish. We bought a fake tree with white needles and the most non-traditional decorations possible. Over the years, we've filled it with the craziest ornaments we find in the store. In many ways, it's "the opposite" of Christmas.
But like grandma’s ornaments, these decorations have a story too. In Mr. Roboto's case my youngest brought it up to me in the store and said, "Hey Dad, we need this one for the ugly tree. You know for all the horrible movies we've watched this year." It brought an immediate smile to my face. We had watched so many B-movies in an attempt to deal with the boredom of the lock-down. What would be a better way to remember our time together than Mr. Roboto?
Like my grandma’s ornaments before, Mr. Roboto symbolizes a deep connection between family members. Shared laughs, groans, and even a few hugs in the darkest hours of 2020. If Christmas is a time of remembrance of God the Father’s love for us all, then I’d say Mr. Roboto is a good reminder of a Father’s love for his son. I could be wrong, so I’ll have to lean into God's grace on this one. But I'm going to say Mr. Roboto is definitely worthy of the ugly tree.
So what "Not Christmas" thing in your life reminds you of the Love of God the father?
Let me know what you think in the comments. I'd love to have a discussion. I'll be talking with my buddy J.J. Johnson about this topic in our Christmas @twodadsandajoke special.