Whether you put yours up the day after Thanksgiving or wait until Christmas Eve, the Christmas tree is one of the most ubiquitous symbols of Christmas. Nearly every household in America has at least one tree. We see them in yards, stores, schools, businesses, and town squares. There are tree lighting ceremonies in many towns. One might say that Christmas woudn’t be Christmas without the tree. And in a very real sense, that’s entirely true.

People have been using the evergreen as a Christmas tree for at least a thousand years. During winter, it reminded people of the spring to come, and for Christians the sign of growth and life amidst the bare branches of the other trees is an apt reminder of the life we have in Jesus. But let’s look beyond that. Let’s look back to a time before Christmas even existed; back to one of the very first trees on this earth.

You know the story. Adam and Eve were living in Eden in paradise. There were two specific trees named in this garden: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Regarding these trees, God said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Ouch. Point taken. Ah, but Satan, in the form of a snake, tempted them to eat of it, and they did. Just like that, sin entered the world. Not just sin, but death. God meant what He said. They ate of its fruit and death was the result. But that wasn’t the end.

Fast forward now about 4000 years to another tree, this one not beautiful to look at. On the rough hewn beams of a cross suffers a man condemned to death for sins not His own. The tree doesn’t look like much. Neither does the man on it. But in this moment of apparent weakness, Jesus is earning salvation for everyone who believes in Him. For you see, anyone who eats of the fruit of this tree will have life. The words of the hymn “The Tree of Life,” written by Rev. Stephen Starke, beautifully explain and contrast the trees from Eden with the tree of the cross.

The tree of life with every good in Eden’s holy orchard stood,
And of its fruit so pure and sweet God let the man and woman eat.
Yet in this garden also grew another tree, of which they knew;
Its lovely limbs with fruit adorned, against whose eating God had warned.

The stillness of that sacred grove was broken, as the serpent strove
With tempting voice Eve to beguile and Adam too by sin defile.
O day of sadness when the breath of fear and darkness, doubt and death,
Its awful poison first displayed within the world so newly made.

What mercy God showed to our race, A plan of rescue by His grace:
In sending One from woman’s seed, The One to fill our greatest need–
For on a tree uplifted high His only Son for sin would die,
Would drink the cup of scorn and dread to crush the ancient serpent’s head!

Now from that tree of Jesus’ shame flows life eternal in His name;
For all who trust and will believe, Salvation’s living fruit receive.
And of this fruit so pure and sweet The Lord invites the world to eat,
To find within this cross of wood the tree of life with every good.

(Lutheran Service Book, hymn 561)

Without the message of these trees–one representing death, the other offering life–Christmas would be pointless. Jesus’ birth would mean nothing without His perfect life and His death and resurrection for you. So the next time you see a Christmas tree, think of Jesus, who “bore our sins in his body on the tree,” as 1 Peter 2:24 reminds us. Indeed, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a tree.