As we approach the beginning of the season of Advent, in preparation for the commemoration of the birth of Christ, many of His followers will take the time to engage in communal activities to reflect upon and celebrate this most profound event in human history. Yet perhaps because we have grown so accustomed to being able to worship as we please, we have become lazy in our understanding of how very much the Christian message is despised in some quarters. At the same time however, if we get too caught up in the pettiness of the present age, we may lose sight of the fact that hope is the touchstone of Christianity itself.
In the city of Brussels, capital of what for the time being is known as Belgium, it has long been customary to erect a large Christmas tree in the middle of the city’s magnificent Grand Place. This is a large, public square, bordered by the city hall and other stately buildings from various historical periods, where people gather to celebrate, protest, do business, commune with officials, and so on. An annual Christmas market is held here, centered around the town Christmas tree, though of course the custom of having a municipal Christmas tree in the center of it is not unique to Brussels, for we can find the same practice in many large cities and small towns around the world.
Recently however, the burghers of Brussels have decided not to display a Christmas tree in the Grand Place. Instead, this year’s installation is a “sculpture” – really a tower made up of television screens – which one can climb to the top during the day to enjoy the view, and which at night puts on a light and image display. It sounds rather like the entrance to an amusement park to me, but there you are.
City officials deny that there is any political motivation behind this move. However, some Belgian politicians and journalists have expressed their concern that this “Electronic Winter Tree” was chosen to not cause offense to those who are members of other religions, such as the Muslims who make up 25% of the city’s population. One could add, for that matter, that non-believers resident in Brussels were probably included in that equation, given that most of them are members of the European Parliament.
There are a number of obvious responses to this decision which any reasonable person could make. However what this decision clearly betrays is really rather curious. It is not so much a demonstration of a kind of trendy stupidity, which seems to hold sway over much of Europe these days. Rather, it is a deeper ignorance Europeans have of their own history and culture – something they have long accused Americans of – as they rush seemingly with glee into their own personal demographic and cultural disaster zone.
If one were to stroll around the Grand Place today and look up at the buildings, being careful not to be blinded by the lights from the “Electronic Winter Tree” of course, one would immediately come to the conclusion that not only was one in a Christian country, but that in fact one was in a decidedly Roman Catholic country. The tower of the town hall, for example, is crowned not by a flag, an orb, or a simple spire, but rather a statue of the Archangel St. Michael triumphing over the Devil, whom he is trampling with his feet. The facade below him is a virtual forest crammed with hundreds of statues, including figures from local history and figures of saints from throughout Christendom, such as St. Sebastian, St. George, St. Florian, St. Christopher, St. Augustine, and many others.
This fact aside, what is perhaps the ultimate irony here has been lost as a footnote in the somewhat outlandish reporting I have read to date on this story. For even though the Christmas tree is gone, the city’s Nativity Scene will still be put on display in the square. Yes, you read that correctly: there is no city Christmas tree, but a life-size physical representation of the birth of Jesus, complete with the Christ Child, Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi, is out on the Grand Place for all to see. There are even live sheep being kept in the stable, which is built of timber and filled with straw, to help draw the visitor into contemplation of the miracle at Bethlehem, in much the same way as St. Francis of Assisi did when he set up the first known Christmas crèche in the town of Grecio in 1223.
This brings us back to where we started, which is a challenge to reflect on how we as Christians on this side of the Atlantic engage in the public square with those who do not share, or who are virulently opposed to, our religion. For the Christmas tree is but a symbol, adopted and modified through custom, that can just as easily be replaced by something else; it is not essential to Christian belief or practice. If we are so focused on this one, single object as an inherent aspect of the celebration of Christ’s birth, then we are missing the point.
Aren’t we all just a little bit guilty of forgetting that it is the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas, and not the first day of Winter? If the Christmas tree, with its lights, decorations, presents, and so on, is nothing more than a tradition, from which we gain no spiritual insight or example, then it is meaningless. By focusing on the tree, to paraphrase the old saying, we are in danger of missing the forest of witnesses, like those carved on the entrance of Brussels’ city hall, who preached, taught, suffered, and died so that the Christian message of salvation would spread to all the corners of the earth.
In that regard, perhaps what is going on in Brussels will remind us that we need to rediscover not only our Christian heritage, but our actual Christian faith. We should not be afraid to proclaim it and defend it, but we need to make certain that it is the actual Birth of Christ that we are celebrating at Christmas, and not some sort of combination of retail therapy and local custom. Otherwise, we will soon be left with nothing other than to wish each other a Happy Winter Solstice, and be done with it.
Nativity Scene on the Grand Place, Brussels