The Tree

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The Levittown Tree

My Teutonic ancestors would have been proud of me as I stood in the freezing wind-blown snow looking up at a large fir tree in Levittown that was about to be lit with colorful lights. The Levittown Chamber of Commerce did another great job of bringing together talented dancers, singers and musicians to begin the holiday season. And while a decorated tree says “Christmas!” to many, did you know there is really no connection of a tree to the Christian Feast of Christmas.

There are two accounts in the New Testament that involve the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Neither account mentions a date — some think that the mention of shepherds tending flocks suggest that he was born in the spring and there is nary a tree in sight in either account. So what’s with lighting up trees in December?

Europeans were decorating with evergreens prior to Christian times. Why? ‘Cause that’s what they had. Just a today we might put up some cornstalks to celebrate the fall (no religious significance there) so too filling one’s house with the scent of evergreens was a seasonal thing, and it came non-too-soon in the otherwise bleak winter. When one’s town was surrounded by forest, it didn’t take much work to go out and bring in some branches. After all, there was little winter farming work to be done.

The pagans had an annual fear of the sun dying as the days grew shorter and they celebrated the lengthening of the days (noticeable by the 25th of December) with drinking and partying and often much more, none of which is suitable to recount in a family newspaper such as this! When Christianity became the popular spirituality, Christians found it impossible to stop the generations-old partying. They simply placed the feast of the birthday of Jesus over the pagan feast, now tamed with prayer and a reflection on God’s saving work. And the tree decoration was simply bundled along with that.

Early Americans did not decorate with trees at Christmas. This custom really only became widespread after German immigrants brought this practice to our country in the early 1800s. The first time a “Christmas Tree” was erected in the White House wasn’t until 1889. But it’s been popular ever since.

I love a nice live evergreen tree in my living room. I’m not fond of the plastic ones, no matter how realistic they have become. Yet I always keep in mind that while a tree makes a splendid decoration, it’s just an accompaniment to what Christmas is really about: At a particular time in human history, God became a man so that he could guide us in the ways to live and love, and that humanity could be forever connected to the divine. That man Jesus was killed, but rose from the dead, revealing God’s desire to raise all to eternal life.

As our neighborhoods are beginning to be lit up with colorful lights, I hope people will keep them burning past December 25th. After all, that day is only beginning of the Christmas season, regardless of what the Macy’s parade says! Traditionally the season lasts til at least the Epiphany (around January 6th) , when we recount the story of the Magi bringing gifts to the newborn child. Some keep the celebration going til the following Sunday when we celebrate the start of Jesus’ adult ministry at his baptism.

In any case, let’s remember that the “reason for the season” is not found in our decorations, but in our actions of faith and charity.

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Christmas Mass Schedule at Saint Bernard’s

Christmas Eve

4:00 pm in Church • Father Ralph
4:15 pm in Auditorium • Father Joe
6:30 pm “Gentle Christmas” Mass in Church • Father Innocent
12 Midnight Mass in Church – Carols begin at 11:30 pm • Father Ralph

Christmas Day

7:30 am • Father Innocent
9:00 am • Father Joe
10:30 am • Father Joe
12 Noon • Father Ralph
There is no evening Mass

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Pastor of St. Bernard's since 2013 and known for his engaging homilies and community presence, Father Ralph Sommer is also a treasured columnist for the Levittown Tribune.

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