This is definitely one of those songs I don’t think about much at Christmas because I hated singing it when I was growing up. But it popped up in a service at church recently with decidedly Christian lyrics. Usually it’s a song about the lovely evergreen that teaches us to keep going, life is ever-renewing, that sort of thing, but this new spin talked about the evergreen as God’s creation and celebrated “how richly God has decked thee.” The tree, because it’s always around, served as witness to Jesus’ birth and reminds us of the miracle of that renewal as well as showing us how to stand fast in our trust of what God can do. Okay, I can work with that.
This is originally a German tune from the 16th century—at least, the music is. The lyrics seem to be as scattered as the needles of such a tree at the end of the Christmas season (don’t tell me you haven’t found them hiding behind the living room hutch in March). But they all agree on this being a loving serenade of the Christmas tree, the tannenbaum (which is German for “fir tree,” a name we retain even though most modern Christmas trees are spruce). The concept of the tree as we know it has been around for a while but was cemented into the celebration of the holiday in 19th century England, mostly by the atmosphere that birthed and then celebrated Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Fortunately we no longer put live candles on the tree as the lighting instruments—lot of fires in flammable houses from that practice.
(It’s a little weird to have a song that celebrates the power of living via a tree that we cut down [kill] in order to put in our houses, but no one asked me.)
While I do still dislike the song itself, I really like this new concept of its call to faithfulness for us. The last stanza (in some versions) has the couplet “Thou bidst us true and faithful be / And trust in God unchangingly.” Kind of a lot to put on a poor tree, but then the Old English poets wrote a whole thing about the tree that got made into a cross and its thoughts on the matter, so I guess just acting as example is fine. (It’s called The Dream of the Rood, by the way, and is one of my favorite OE poems.)
Christmas, in the Christian faith, is so much about what God is doing—that’s part of why I like Advent because it’s about what we are doing. We are waiting, preparing, hoping and dreaming and sighing and living into this ever-renewing promise of life and life abundantly. Since I’m a person who puts her tree up as soon as possible (but not until after Thanksgiving, of course; mixing the holidays is a cardinal sin), I can definitely count this as an Advent piece. Like the tree that stays patiently green while the snow and the rain rest on its needles, I wait as my living self in this Advent space for the Christ to be born—although I’m usually a lot less patient than the tree. After all, I don’t live nearly as long. (Just so you know, Reader, I’m sparing you from the tangent on Ents that’s going on in my head right now, so be glad of that.) But I, too, am called to be “true and faithful” as well as green—vibrant, engaged, alive—in the winter. (That’s a little easier for me than some considering winter is my favorite season, but I think we can both make the metaphorical leap to the wintry times when it’s a little harder to be green.) I make zero promises as to the trusting “unchangingly” bit, but to return to the God Who has also decked me out pretty richly with the faith that this birth changes everything may be something I can do.
Especially when sitting in the lovely glow of lights on the Christmas tree.
Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us, since our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water. Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable. (Hebrews 10:22-23, CEB)