Christmas Customs, Part 1 :: LIGHTS

We all have our holiday traditions and Christmas customs. Some are handed down through the generations, others are sparked afresh in that moment of beautiful inspiration. But how do they point to Advent and the birth of Jesus? During Advent, we’ll have a few stories and examples of how the customs and traditions we use to celebrate, sometimes unthinkingly, can be powerful ways of explaining the beauty of Christmas to our friends, family and children this Advent season. What are your traditions? How do they point to the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago?

In Christmas Vacation, Clark Griswold epically boasted of hanging on his house over “250 strands of lights, 100 individual bulbs per strand for a grand total of 25,000 tiny white lights” while his impatient family shivered in the cold. He (rather prophetically) dedicated their first lighting to the “Griswold Family Christmas” and behold… absolutely nothing happens. But of course, the problem is discovered and resolved, blinding the neighbors and restoring life as it should be.

So why do we even have this tradition? Where did it come from and how has it gotten so extravagant over the years?

Before electric lights first appeared in 1882 (not gaining popularity until the late 1930s), the tradition of decorating trees with lit candles (sounds safe, doesn’t it?) stretches all the way back to Germany in the 1700s. After the Protestant Reformation, the German bourgeois set up conifer tree displays decorated with edible fruits and candied nuts as an alternative to the “Christmas crib” (predecessor to the modern “nativity scene”) tradition in the Roman Catholic Church. “Legend has it” that the first candle-lit Christmas tree was set up by Martin Luther. While walking through the woods one night he saw a thousand tiny lights glimmering from a forest of evergreen trees and, upon closer inspection, realized it was actually the stars reflecting off newly formed icicles. So he cut down a tree, brought it into his living room and attached dozens of small candles to it’s branches to remind himself of the living presence of Jesus among us as the “light of the world.” 

This reminded me of a far older “home décor” tradition originating in Exodus 12: 21-27 (click here to read the passage). 

Jesus is the light of the world, the Passover lamb, the shining sacrifice that reconciles our relationship with God. Christmas lights, like lamb’s blood smeared on the door, are a visible public reminder and declaration that where light shines, darkness may not enter. When our children ask us why we decorate with lights, be it Christmas tree or suburban ranch, we have an opportunity to explain that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5), and His living presence in us makes our hearts completely inhospitable to darkness. 

Isaiah prophesied over 2,700 years ago that, “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). If you or someone you know are walking in darkness this Christmas season, find solace that the Divine Light has come as a beacon of hope to a hurting world. Though it may feel like night yet reigns in this world, the birth of Jesus on a cold winter’s night foreshadows a dawn that will never set. Just as the lights on our Christmas trees and homes push out the darkness and keeps the night at bay, so to do we have a Light that shines brighter than the sun, with a burning and brilliant love that can never be dimmed by time or threat. May He shine as a bright reminder of God’s love  every time you see a tree or house twinkle with tiny lights.