The Tree

It’s Christmastime, and there is a large tree in my house covered with lights. I’m sure many of you have one of those as well. As I’ve observed our tree, I’ve thought about the symbolism of trees in the scriptures, particularly in the Book of Mormon.

Near the beginning of the Book of Mormon, a tree becomes a major focal point. The central symbol in Lehi’s dream was “a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy” (1 Nephi 8:10). All of the characters in this dream are defined by their reaction to the tree. Some eagerly eat the fruit, some wander away, and some actively mock those who are partaking.

When Lehi’s son Nephi prays to see what his father saw, the first thing he sees is “a tree…like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow” (1 Nephi 11:8). To help Nephi understand the meaning of the tree, an angel shows Nephi the birth of Jesus Christ. As Nephi observes Mary holding the baby Jesus, the angel asks, “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” Nephi replies, “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things,” and the angel replies, “Yea, and the most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:21-23).

Nephi refers to this tree as “a representation of the tree of life” (1 Nephi 15:21-22, 1 Nephi 11:25), which correlates it with one of the trees in the Garden of Eden. (See 2 Nephi 2:15.)

The prophet Alma references the tree of life several times as the objective of our individual spiritual journeys. To church members in Zarahemla, he extended the following invitation from the Savior:

Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely.

Alma 5:34

And he promised the Zoramites that, if they would plant the word of God in their hearts and nourish it, it would become “a tree springing up unto everlasting life” (Alma 32:41).

The tradition of a Christmas tree covered with lights originated in sixteenth-century Germany. Protestant reformers viewed a simple tree as an appropriate replacement for Nativity scenes, which they associated with the Catholic tradition. A popular legend held that Martin Luther was the first to place candles on the tree, to symbolize the starry heavens and remind his children of their Savior. Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg introduced the tradition in England, which was popularized by her granddaughter, Queen Victoria. In the United States, Sarah Hale, who championed Thanksgiving as a national holiday, also popularized the tradition of decorated Christmas trees in homes.

(See “The Christmas Tree Is A Tradition Older Than Christmas,” Troy Bickham, Texas A&M Today, 15 December 2022, “The First Christmas Tree,” Alison Barnes,  History Today Volume 56 Issue 12 December 2006, “The Stealth Campaign to Bring the Christmas Tree into American Homes,” Leslie Landrigan, New England Historical Society website, 2022.)

Today, I will let the Christmas tree in our home remind me of the tree of life. I will remember how the angel in Nephi’s vision associated the tree with the birth of the Savior. I will remember Nephi’s and Alma’s testimony that the love of God can fill our hearts with joy and lead us to eternal life.

2 thoughts on “The Tree

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  1. Thanks Paul. On the topic of trees…did you notice how the OT begins with a tree in the garden (Genesis 2-3) and ends with references to “roots and branches” (Malachi 4:1) and family trees (Malachi 4:6)?

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