As a child I enjoyed the Christmas tree in the Christian-Reformed Church in our village, where the annual Christmas festivities of our elementary school were held, and the Christmas tree in the Dutch Reformed Church in the center of the village, where we celebrated Christmas with the children of the Sunday school. We were the only seventh-day adventists in the village. My parents had chosen to enroll me, my brother and my sisters in the Christian elementary school and not in the local public elementary school. And because my grandfather was Dutch Reformed and lived with us, we had a link with the Dutch Reformed Church and its Sunday school. You could say that, for Adventists in the middle of the last century, our family was quite ecumenical. But a Christmas tree in our home was taboo.
As children, we could not understand why there was no Christmas tree in our home. All other children in our class had a Christmas tree at home. My mother explained to us why having a Christmas tree was wrong. Having a Christmas tree was something pagan. And that is why Adventists did not have a Christmas tree in their church or at home. We were not satisfied with that explanation, and our continuing protests were successful over time. A few pine branches made their entrance and, I think, I was about twelve or thirteen years old when for the first time we had a small Christmas tree in the corner of the room, with a few cheap balls and some hideous garlands, and with a dozen dangerous real-life candles, as lights.
Other seventh-day adventists in the Netherlands also gradually began to have Christmas trees. (To the amazement of many it was discovered that most Adventists in the United States did not object to a Christmas tree. So, why should we?) In the Netherlands the Christmas tree also gradually made its entrance in the Christmas services in the churches. In many places this did not happen without a good deal of argument. When I had my internship as a minister in Amsterdam, a Christmas tree in the church caused quite a commotion. Our Adventist church building was rented to a Baptist congregation on Sundays. These tenants had been kind enough to leave their beautiful Christmas tree in the church after their own Christmas celebration, so that their Adventist brothers and sisters could also enjoy it during their Sabbath worship. But that was not appreciated by everyone. A few of the younger church members decided, before the service began, to dump the tree, with its decorations and all, in the canal in front of the church building.
In many countries the traditional objections to the pagan tree remained. When I visited Kuwait at the beginning of 2001, on behalf of the Trans-European Division, this once again became very clear to me. On Friday evening a special service was held in which the members of the congregation (mostly migrant workers from Pakistan and India) could ask questions that I would try to answer. After all, it did not happen so often that someone from a higher church organization came to visit them. Almost all questions during the Q and A time were about the Christmas tree. Apparently, a lot of trouble had arisen about this issue shortly before. It kept bothering me for days that our small Adventist congregation in this 99.9 percent Muslim country apparently saw having or not having a Christmas tree as their biggest problem.
I am writing this blog in our living room, at a distance of about three meters from a beautiful Christmas tree that has been decorated with great care. I do enjoy our tree. Yes, I know that having a Christmas tree goes back to a Germanic (pagan) custom that was introduced into the Christian Church in the Middle Ages. But this dubious origin plays absolutely no role anymore. Nor is it a problem for me that drinking hot chocolate is something that originated with the Aztecs. For me, the Christmas tree is now a dual symbol. For several weeks, the lights of the tree remind me in a special way of “the Light of this world” which, as one of the carols tells us, “has made its saving appearance”. But for me, the Christmas tree is also an annual confirmation of the hopeful fact that changes in the church are possible (even though we often have to wait a long time for them) and that legalistic customs and man-made rules can disappear at some point in time.
Actually, for me, the Christmas tree has become a sign of freedom. The freedom that Christ has brought us, which also frees us from human hassle and makes us happy and grateful for the pleasant things that brighten our life in the darkest weeks of the year.