The Christmas Tree
We’re living at a time in which many of the walls that once separated communities have been brought down. At Chanukah parties around the world only weeks ago, I’m sure many people who aren’t Jewish lit candles, ate donuts, and exchanged gifts. As Christmas nears, and New Yorkers of all stripes walk to work through the labyrinth of Christmas trees that dot the city corners, numerous friends have asked after my perspective on this holiday, it’s symbolism, and what it means to play in rituals that aren’t entirely our own.
At The New Shul, we approach Judaism and spiritual practice from the mystic’s point of view, a radical perspective, which understands that religions are simply tool-kits to assist in spiritual and psychological evolution. From that vantage, another ritual, even a foreign one, is just another opportunity for consciousness shifting activity, ceremony, and celebration. There will be minor downsides to mixing and matching tool-kits, every bit will not attach to every screwdriver. But if you’re Jewish and shy about your Christmas Tree exuberance, don’t be bashful. Tell your friends, that your rabbi sent a message explaining the meaning of the Christmas Tree, because religion is simply the play-space of ancient symbol, and meaning, symbol, and ceremony, all transcend the bounds of ethnocentrism.
The Meaning of a Christmas Tree
1) Axis Mundi - In mythology, the Axis Mundi is the cosmic axis, the pillar connecting the heavens and the earth by which the world continues to stand. The Axis Mundi can be a mountain or an erected statue, a totem pole, a ladder, a beanstalk, a skyscraper, or a tree. In addition to its sustaining function, the axis is also the channel which mediates the gift exchange between heaven and earth. The heavens bestow on us their goodness, the bounty of our lives, sustenance and life-force. We in turn, in great gratitude for all that has been given to us gratuitously, give back through that channel, prayers, love, and gratitude, that heaven may know the contentedness of our hearts. What a beautiful celebration, Christmas, to bring into the center of our homes, at a dark and cold hour, the very symbol which is a sign of the bond of heaven and earth.
2) The Cross of Sacrifice - The Christmas tree is also a sign of the cross upon which Jesus is crucified. The mystical perspective is not dominated by the themes of sin and redemption that have done much damage to the story of Jesus. The child of god on the cross is a symbol of sacrifice. We cannot live in the world without consuming it. Something is always dying, as we live. But we are afforded the opportunity to give unto others just as much as we take. This ability to sacrifice, to give the world our time, our resources, our love, is the power by which healing and goodness flow into our lives. It is the supreme spiritual act. The custom of giving gifts, when material hedonism is removed from the ritual, is an homage to the gift of Jesus, and the power of sacrifice.
3) Tree of Life - The pine trees spilling needles into the streets, into our living rooms, is a sign of the one tree that stood at the center of the garden. It is said that all of the waters of the earth ran beneath that tree -- every sip of water that touches your lips, once touched the tree of life. She is a symbol of the eternal. So many of our woes and troubles rise up from false notions that our essence can be lost or will die. Oh but the tree of life. Soul, life-force, spirit, goodness, light -- all eternal. Those green needles in the white winter are a reminder that the sun will rise from the dark; that cycles are the vehicle of renewal. When we allow ourselves to be turned inside out through the circles of time, we ourselves are the tree of life.
Happy holidays everyone. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year! Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Zach Fredman
PS - I’m converting to Christianity. There’s a Jesuit monastery in the Catskills off route 28; I’ll be there.