Origin of Christmas Tree

St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Roanoke, VA; photograph by Jim Forney.

Contrary to popular belief, the Christmas tree was not adapted from ancient European pagan beliefs. The Christmas tree has a younger history than pagan practices of first through third century European tribes who Christian missionaries encountered. Pagan Germanic and Scandinavian tribes initially used the hawthorn or cherry trees or branches in their celebrations.

Most likely use of Christmas trees started with medieval plays popular in the early middle ages (476 AD) to the beginning of the Renaissance (c 1400 AD).  Initially called morality, miracle, and mystery plays, these plays began in churches and taught Bible lessons for everyday life; that is, the plays had a moral. Plays that celebrated Jesus’ birth were linked to the creation story, primarily because Christmas eve was the feast day of Adam and Eve (Tait and Tait, 2008). Over time, the plays became raucous and were moved out of churches into public squares or town centers.

In nativity plays, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a Paradise tree. Paradise trees represented both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life (Holy Trinity Church). Paradise trees that symbolized the Tree of Knowledge were decorated with apples to symbolize the forbidden fruit; while Paradise tree that symbolized the Tree of Life were decorated with sweets.  Round pastry wafers (cookies), that symbolized the bread of the Eucharist, were placed on the Tree of Life. When morality plays were suppressed in the 15th-16th century, Paradise trees were moved into homes. Over time red balls substituted for the apples, lights were added, and a Star of Bethlehem placed on the tree top.

Traditionally the Christmas tree was put up on Christmas Eve and taken down on Twelfth Night, the Vigil of the Epiphany. Part of the reason for the short span of time the Christmas tree was in place was to differentiate the Christmas tree from pagan trees which often times had trees planted in boxes inside the home the entire winter months.

Christian scholars and historians are not sure when evergreen trees were first used as Christmas trees. Evergreen means having foliage persists as opposed to dropping annually. Evergreen trees retain their green or blue-green color throughout the year, rather than changing color according to the seasons. In cold, snowy, dark winters in Europe, evergreen trees were a sign of everlasting life with God.  By the end of the Middle ages, a common legend some Christian’s believed was that when Christ was born, near the shortest day of the year (December 25), every tree on earth produced new green shoots despite their ice and snow coverings.

In 21st century United States, popular choices for Christmas trees are in the fir, pine, spruce, cypress, and cedar genus. Firs (Abies) include the balsam fir, Fraser fir, and noble fir. Pine (Pinus) used as Christmas trees are the Eastern white pine, Scot’s pine, and mountain pine. With its bluish-gold needles, spruce (Picea) are a favorite Christmas tree. Spruce varieties used as Christmas trees include the Norway spruce, Colorado blue spruce, and (in the Pacific northwest) the Klamath mountain spruce. At times, the Arizona cypress (Cupressus genus) the eastern red cedar (Juniperus genus) are used as Christmas trees.

Frequently, churches that understand that Christmas trees are distinct from pagan worship include a 15 – 20-foot tree in their sanctuary. Below the evergreen tree are placed red poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). What we think of as flaming red petals are actually the leaves of the plant. Poinsettias are a recent addition to Christmas decorations but perhaps years from now will be part of Christmas traditions.

Copyright 10/09/18: Carolyn A. Roth

Nettles, Nuthin but a Weed

Bible References: Job 30.7; Proverbs 24.30-31; Isaiah 34.13; Hosea 9.6; Zephaniah 2.9.

Nettles are a weed. Together with various underbrush, they comprise the short, scrubby plants in Holy Lands. Often, when reading the Bible, I thought that nettles was merely a synonym for  thorn or brier; however, various translators and scholars offered five times when Bible writers specified “nettles.”6,17,18 In each instance, the writer asssociated nettles with wastelands.

The first Bible writer to use “nettles” was Job. Job lived east of the Jordan River in Uz. Job documented haggared, hungry men, banished from society, huddled among nettles. In one Proverb, the sayings of the wise, the writer described lands of a sluggard: Where once there was a vineyard, the land was covered with nettles. Prophets, Isaiah, Hosea, and Zephaniah, foretold destruction of Edom, Northern Kingdom, Moab, and Ammon. Specifically, Bible prophets described that these kingdoms would become wastelands, with nettles growing in once-cultivated places.

Of the five references to nettles, I was intrigued with the one by  Zephaniah who wrote that Moab and Ammon would be places of nettles, a wasteland forever. Zephaniah declared that God heard Moab and Ammon’s  insults, taunts, and threats against Judah.  In retaliation for that behavior, Moab would become like Sodom and Ammon like Gomorrah.   Both would become places of nettles and salt pits.

In comparison to Sodom and Gomorrah, Moab and Ammon’s behavior didn’t seem that bad. Their sins were taunting and insulting Israelites and threatening to occupy Israelite territories. To understand the extent of Moab and Ammon’s taunts, read Ezekiel’s prophecy (chapter 5). According to Ezekiel, Ammon rejoiced when God’s sanctuary (Temple) was desecrated. When Moab saw Judah vulnerable and fall, they discounted Judah’s God.  Neither Moab nor Ammon recognized that Judah and God  were separate entities.

God’s declaration that Moab and Ammon would become like Sodom and Gomorrah should have disturbed Moabites and Ammonites.  Their ancestors (Lot and his daughters) once lived in Sodom.  Ancestral history would have included tales of God raining burning sulfur on the two cities.  The outcome was fiery destruction of the cities, people, and vegetation on the plain where cities were located.

The Plant

In present day Israel, five different types of nettles grow. Bible scholars aren’t positive which nettle Bible writers had in mind when they used “nettles.” Many botanists agree that Zephaniah’s nettle was the Urtica urens, known as the burning nettle, dwarf nettle, and small nettle.  Both the leaf blade and slender stalks grow stinging and non-stinging hairs. Stinging hairs are long, sometimes bristly. Prickly hairs contain two parts a) a softer vessel at the base and b) a minute tube-like structure tipped by a round bulb. When a hair contacts skin, the bulb breaks off, exposing a needle-like point. The point penetrates  skin and injects an irritating substance. The outcome is a burning dermatitis which can last more than twelve hours.  Burning can occur even after visible symptoms (redness, swelling) fade.

Symbolism

In Zephaniah’s prophecy against Moab and Ammon, the burning nettle symbolized burning and fire. Burning means to destroy by fire.3  Fire occurs from combustion of a fuel and results in light, flame, and heat.  In the Bible, sometimes fire and burning had a positive meaning, i.e., burning bush, the cloud of fire above the Tabernacle. At other times, the Bible depicts burning and fire as negative, i.e., they cause destruction. For example, Isaiah  prophesied that Judah, who rejected God, was to be destroyed in the same way that fire licks up straw and as dry grass sinks down in flames.

Sometimes I’m frightened when I hear or read of clergy, politicians, and ordinary citizens mocking and discounting God.  Equally, when the United States waffles in its support of Israel, I feel disquiet.  Do these individuals read Bible and secular history?  Do they know that Israel holds a special place in God’s eyes and heart?  God may punish  Israelites with burning fire; but, God will never reject them totally.  God’s plan is to redeem a remnant of Israelites. “At that time I will deal with all (nations) who oppress you” (Zephaniah 3.19 NIV).

Reflection: Have you ever felt oppressed? When? What was the situation? By whom? Are you a child of the living God? Have you considered that God is going to deal with individuals who oppress you?

Copyright 7/13/2019; Carolyn A. Roth

Time To Order Christmas Gifts

Is giving a book — a Christian book — part of your plans? Now is the time or order one (or more) at the lowest rate possible. Go to http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com and purchase one (or more) of the following:

Strange Vine: Devolvement

Bible Reference: Jeremiah 2.21.

Historically, the domesticated grape vine and vineyards were associated with Israelites. Israelites went from being a choice vine, planted with sound and reliable vine  stock, to a strange (corrupt, foreign) vine. The alteration between a choice versus strange vine occurred because Israelites turned from God.

In the Ancient Near East, the grape vine was the Vitis vinefera. Archeology records suggested that the V. vinefera was domesticated in the Late Stone Age, which in the Ancient Near East ended about 3000 BC. After the Flood (Deluge) and during the era of Israelite patriarchs, grapes, and grape vines were V. vinefera.

Vitis orientalis was the wild grape from which the Israelite grapevine was domesticated. A major difference between the wild and domesticated grape vine was what the two vines produced. The wild grape vine bears red fruit, like red currents. These small red, sometimes black, berries have an acid taste and are considered worthless by individuals living in the Middle East. In contrast, the domesticated grapevine produces succulent, large grapes which could be eaten fresh, dried into raisins for winter consumption, and made into wine.

Wild grapes (undomesticated) have male and female flowers on separate plants.  Unless different-sex vines are planted in proximity to each other and the wind or a pollinator (insect, such as a bee) carries pollen from the male to the female flower, the flower won’t develop into a fruit.

When mankind domesticated the grape, they developed a grape variety (V. vinefera) in which the vine produced both male and female flowers. Opportunity for the grape flower to remain unpollinated was reduced substantially. Plants that contain both male and female flowers are called “perfect” or “complete. ”

The Plant

In Jeremiah’s allegory, we read that Israelites, a complete grape vine (V. vinefera), became a wild vine (V. orientalis). The choicest vine went backward to an earlier version. This wild vine once again produced red, hard, acid-tasting fruit. No longer did it produce juicy grapes. A further explanation is found in the English Standard Version Bible which reads, “you turned degenerate and became a wild vine” (Jeremiah 2.21 ESV).

Interpretation

Degenerate means immoral, corrupt, perverted, wicked, or deteriorated.3 How did it happen that God’s chosen people, who were to be his light in the world, devolve to such an extent? Apparently, Israelites made a conscious decision to stop serving God. On high hills and under spreading trees, Israelites set up idols.

Jeremiah wrote that despite Israelites turning their backs on God. When trouble hit their country, Israelites entreated God to come and save them. Jeremiah recorded God’s response to the degenerate Israelites—get the gods you made yourself to come and save you in your trouble.

In the United States of America (USA), most twenty-first century Christians read Jeremiah chapter two and don’t relate to his message. They don’t set up idols under trees and worship them. They are (nominally) Christians. The USA, the richest and most powerful country in the world, was founded primarily by religious groups. Almost everyone knows about the Puritans and Quakers who believed in God and wanted freedom to live out those beliefs.

Reflection: USA citizens don’t worship idols—how absolutely obscene to even suggest that they do! There is no comparison between them and Israelites in the Promised Land. USA citizens would never act like Israelites acted! Most assuredly, USA citizens haven’t degenerated! The USA is a Christian nation. They remain complete and perfect. Or, maybe not. Think about both scenarios, i.e., degenerating into a strange vine and remaining as a strong, productive vine. The distance between the two isn’t all that far.

Copyright July 10, 2019; Carolyn A. Roth

Death in the Stew

Bible Reference: 2 Kings 4.38-41.

Elisha was a prophet  (848-797 BC) in the Northern Kingdom and a disciple of Elijah. Elisha’s long ministry was during reigns of Kings Joram (Jehoram), Jehu, and Jehoash (Joash) over the Northern Kingdom. In this story, Elisha was in Gilgal, north of Jericho in the tribal lands of Manasseh. Gilgal was in the midst of a famine.  A company of prophets was meeting with Elisha. Elisha directed his servant to cook a large pot of stew for the men.  The servant went out into the field to gather herbs.  Finding a wild vine, the man filled a fold of his cloak with gourds from the vine.  Although no one recognized gourds, they cut them up and placed them in the stew.

After the stew cooked, it was fed to prophets.  As they ate the stew, they became sick and cried out, “O, man of God, there is death in the pot” (2 Kings 4.40 NIV).  Immediately, Elisha directed servants to get flour.  He put the flour into the pot.  The flour was probably stirred into the stew.  Then, Elisha directed that the floured-stew be given to the company to eat.  Believing Elisha mitigated the poisonous substance in the stew, the prophets ate it.  None became sick.

The Plant

Many botanists and Bible scholars proposed that the wild vine and gourds were Citrullus colocynthis, a cucumber-like plant with laxative effects. C. colocynthis is called “the bitter gourd.”  In the past, it may have been eaten, however, in the twenty-first century this gourd isn’t considered an edible plant.  It grows in sandy soil and gravel in Israel. As an herbaceous vine, the bitter gourd trails over the ground or climbs fences using tendrils. Leaves resemble those of a watermelon or the familiar garden pumpkin.

After the vine withers, gourds are seen lying in the soil or sand. Over time, rinds break down. Seeds enter the soil or are eaten by animals.  Bitter gourd is propagated by seeds or by root segments; seeds germinate after spring rains. The bitter taste and severe laxative effect are in the pulp. When washed and consumed separately from pulp, seeds are described as tasteless.

Likely, flour added to stew was from barley, the flour of the poor in Israel. Possibly, flour coated the gourd pulp and/or the prophets’ stomachs and intestinal tracts. Flour reduced or eliminated the gourd’s severe purgative effect, which could easily lead to dehydration and death. Alternatively, prophets’ faith in Elisha and his flour remedy could have opened a door for God’s power to detoxify the gourd stew. The chronicle of Elisha’s life showed that time-after-time God assisted Elisha as he walked in God’s path (2 Kings chapters 4 through 6).

Symbolism of Elish’s vine

In the Elisha episode, the bitter gourd is associated with death. The prophets thought they were dying after they ate the gourd-filled stew. Originally, God’s plan was that men and women didn’t die, but, lived forever. Because Adam and Eve desired to be independent of God, they disobeyed him. Subsequently,  the human race became subject to death. Throughout the Old Testament millennia, only Enoch and Elijah didn’t die physically. God doesn’t take pleasure in death. God wants even the wicked to repent and live. Certainly, God wouldn’t have taken pleasure in the death of his prophets.

Some individuals fear death. Job personified death as the “king of terrors” (Job 18.14 NIV); however, Job declared that death is naked before God. Ever gracious, God made a simple way for men and women to live forever. Jesus, the Christ, said that anyone who hears his word and believes God … “has crossed over from death to life” (John 5.24 NIV). By his own death, Jesus bought immortality for the human race. Jesus’s death overcame Satan, who holds the power of death in this world.

A way of looking at physical death is that death is a gift, not punishment, from God.  God allows our bodies—often with pains and diseases—to die so we can be raised to a new life. Younger individuals may die so they don’t have to face agonies that result from life in a fallen world.  Possibly, you and I will physically die before Jesus comes to take the saved from the earth.  As Christians, we don’t have to believe that death is the “king of terrors.”

When Jesus comes the second time, Christians who have died will rise. This is named the “first resurrection.”  Our bodies—decomposed, blown up, or cremated—will be raised.  Perishable, mortal bodies will become imperishable and immortal. Our physical death will be swallowed up in Jesus’s death and resurrection.  Then, we will live with Jesus eternally.

The apostle John wrote that blessed and holy are those who take part in the first resurrection.  They won’t participate in or be hurt by the second death.  The second death is the lake of fire reserved for those who didn’t believe in Jesus as Savior. Elisha’s belief and actions saved prophets from dying from poisonous gourd stew.  Jesus’s actions save us from eternal death.  After reading about the lake of fire, I know it’s not someplace I want to go.

Reflection: Why did God, the author of the Bible, put the story of Elisha and a deadly vine in the Bible? This story seems so unimportant in the scheme of the Bible. What are we to learn from it?

Copyright: July 6, 2019; Carolyn Adams Roth

Please visit my website at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com

Matrimony Vine

Bible References: Joshua 10.10-11; 1 Samuel 17.1-2;  Chronicles 11.9; Nehemiah 11.30; Jeremiah 34.7.

Azekah was a notable Israelite town located at the foot of the western mountains in tribal lands of Judah. When Joshua routed Canaanites at Gibeon, Israelites pursued and killed Canaanites all the way to Azekah. In the war between Israelites and Philistines in which David killed Goliath, Philistines camped near Azekah. King Rehoboam built up Azehak as part of fortifying Judah. Azekah was a city which held out against the Babylonian king’s army when Judah was attacked and Jerusalem under siege. After the Jews were restored to Jerusalem and Judah, Jews lived in Azekah.

The Plant

In the Bible it was common to name a town for an abundant plant in an area. Azekah means Lycium, which Israeli botanists and Bible scholars identify as box thorn.7,16 Israeli botanists identified the box thorn of Israel as the Lycium mediterraneum (L. eupoeaeum), commonly called the European matrimony vine, Chinese matrimony vine, and desert thorn. The box thorn is a member of the largely-poisonous nightshade family, Solanaceae; but the killing alkaloid found in most nightshades isn’t  detectable in matrimony vine.

Box thorns are thorny shrubs that grow between four-inches and two-feet tall. Stems, light brown and hairless, branch profusely. Older vines contain spines which can be up to five-inches long. Most stems end in a pointed spine. Green leaves, small and narrow, grow on alternative sides of stems. Leaves shed with the onset of summer.

Flowers are attractive. They grow solitary or in clusters and are funnel-shaped with white, green, or purple corolla. I can imagine a bride carrying down the church aisle a bouquet that includes these white flowers. Lycium produces complete flowers with functional male and female parts, but on occasion a flower is only female.

Most Lycium fruit is two-chambered, fleshy, and a juicy berry. Israeli box thorn berries are red and eaten by birds. Berries are seed-filled. There are as many as seventy-to-eighty species of Lycium. The L. barbarum grows in China where roots and leaves are used in traditional medicine to treat skin rashes and promote hair growth. The fruit of L. barbarum is the goji berry, commonly consumed as a dried fruit.

Often a plant genus spreads and grows in contiguous countries. In contrast, the Lycium genus has a non-contiguous distribution around the globe. South America has the most species, followed by North America and southern Africa. Most Lycium species occur in arid and semi-arid climates.

One of the most abundant plants in the Middle Atlantic states where I live is the boxwood shrub. Buxus is a genus of about seventy species in the Family Buxaceae. Although box thorn (matrimony vine) and boxwood shrubs have similar names, they are two  distinct plants. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a box thorn growing in southwestern Virginia.

Reflection: The matrimony vine is a thorny bush. That seems strange at first thought, considering its common name is matrimony vine. On deeper reflection, I concluded any couple who has been married for any length of time knows that marriage has thorns as well as beautiful flowers.

Copyright July 6, 2019; Carolyn A. Roth

Please visit my website at http://www.carolynrothministry.com

Madder Vine, Blowing in the Wind

Bible Reference: Exodus 1.15-20; Judges 10.1.

Some Bible persons were named after plants. Puah means madder in Hebrew. One of the Israelite midwives in Egypt was named Puah. We have little information about her, other than that she willfully disobeyed the pharaoh of Egypt to save Israelite newborn sons. In response to her brave actions, God gave Puah a family of her own. Tola’s father was named Puah. Tola was a judge for twenty-three years in early years after Israelites entered the Promised Land. Tola and his father, Puah, were from the tribe of Issachar.

The Plant

In Israel, madder is an evergreen perennial vine (Rubia tinctorial, R. tinctorium). Madder vines can reach a length of six feet; each vine is only about one-fourth inch in diameter. I planted madder seeds where they received afternoon sun. They grew vigorously. Roots ran under the ground to spring up as much as six-feet from the original planting site. Roots contain a compound, alizarin, that is brilliant red. At one time this compound was used to dye military jackets (red coats) of British soldiers. When animals eat roots, milk, urine and bones can turn red.

Supposedly, the madder plant climbs on trees and posts; however, I couldn’t train vines to climb a trellis. They just sprawled on soil, going in multiple directions. The vine wanted to take over the entire section of the garden. The madder vine feels rough. The feel comes from leaves which are prickly on the top. On the underside, leaves are covered with tiny spines which adds to their rough texture. Flowers aren’t distinctive, appearing yellow-green with five petals. Madder vine grows from seeds, produced in the fruit. Seeds are initially red, but turn black when mature.

The Message

The Hebrew word for Puah is puvvâh, from the primary root word, pâ’âh which means “to blow away” in the sense of scatter into corners. The symbolism of madder comes from its Hebrew root. In ancient Israel, the cycle of apostasy, repentance, and redemption presented in Judges was repeated for centuries. Finally, God scattered Israelites throughout Assyrian and Babylonian Empires.

Jesus gave listeners a powerful word on scattering. He said, “He who doesn’t gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12.30 NIV). If Christians don’t gather individuals into the kingdom of heaven, they are in effect allowing them to be scattered.

Reflection: At the end of each day, ask yourself if you gathered or scattered for God that day. When you stand before God’s judgement seat, how will you feel when you realize that some individuals aren’t there because of your lack of effort? You left them scattered in the world without Jesus.

Copyright: July 2, 2019; Carolyn A. Roth