Christmas tree burnings invoke symbol of Jesus as light to the world on Epiphany

By David Paulsen
Posted Jan 4, 2024
Gulfport bonfire

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Gulfport, Mississippi, hosts a Christmas tree bonfire for Epiphany each year on a beach near where the former church building stood until it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Photo: St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

[Episcopal News Service] The Christian holy day Epiphany, on Jan. 6, is also known as the “Feast of Lights,” and some Episcopal congregations celebrate this feast quite literally, by burning Christmas trees and greens in recognition of Jesus as a light to the world.

“If you’ve ever seen Christmas trees burn … they go up in a tremendous blaze,” the Rev. Hillary Raining told Episcopal News Service in describing the annual Epiphany bonfire at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, where she is rector.

A similar blaze is planned at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Russellville, Arkansas. The fire, a mix of Christmas trees and ordinary firewood, will be followed by a short liturgy and blessing of kits of chalk that attendees can use to mark their front doors with the initials of the Magi, another beloved Epiphany tradition.

“It’s something that allows us again to remind folks that the church is in the world and not just in the church building,” the Rev. Mercedes Clements, rector at All Saints’, told ENS.

And at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Gulfport, Mississippi, the congregation will continue a local Epiphany tradition dating back more than 50 years when it hosts a Christmas tree bonfire on a nearby beach. The Epiphany bonfire has taken on greater meaning to the St. Mark’s congregation in the years since Hurricane Katrina destroyed the former church in 2005.

“We celebrate in prayers of hope and gratefulness for the New Year, then enjoy hot chocolate and the first King Cakes of the year,” the church says on its website.

The light from a Christmas tree fire invokes symbolism partly rooted in Epiphany’s origins as an alternative to pagan festivals that were held on the winter solstice – the darkest day of the year. Also known as Three Kings Day, Epiphany traditionally commemorates the day the Magi were introduced to the infant Jesus. Light also is a familiar motif in contemporary lectionary readings for Epiphany, such as Isaiah 60:1-6: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

Some of the clergy interviewed by ENS emphasized that the purpose is not to demonize darkness but to celebrate Jesus’ earthly role.

“It is not a good-bad binary. Darkness is not the representation of bad or evil. It’s just a contrast,” said the Very Rev. Steven Thomason, dean of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, Washington. “The spiritual journey includes both, and can honor both.”

St. Mark’s will hold its Epiphany festivities after sundown Jan. 5, starting with Holy Eucharist in the cathedral. Worshippers then will proceed out to the parking lot, where Advent wreaths and other Christmas greens will be burned in a fire pit. Dozens usually attend, sipping hot chocolate and apple cider around a modest blaze.

“It’s still a nice fire to warm by and to have the brightness of the light,” Thomason said. “It’s a great source of joy for folks in the middle of winter.”

At All Saints’, the church in Arkansas, the bonfire is scheduled for the evening Jan. 6. Clements will lead an adaptation of Evening Prayer as worshipers gather outdoors around the burning trees. The church is located on a wooded property, so the congregation will keep the blaze small for safety, Clements said, while still “bringing some light into the darkness, and reminding us that Jesus does that in our lives.”

Raining, the rector at St. Christopher’s in suburban Philadelphia, noted that Christmas tree burns have ancient roots in Twelfth Night celebrations, which marked the end of the Christmas season. And though burning trees may not seem like the most environmentally friendly practice, Raining said it is preferable to leaving trees on the curb for disposal in a landfill. Also, the ashes from the fire will be used to fertilize the grounds of the church.

St. Christopher’s will host its Christmas tree bonfire in the evening Jan. 7, with the public invited to bring trees and greens from home. Past bonfires have been community events, attracting some residents who don’t normally attend the church. The church also invites the local fire department, both as a safety precaution and so Raining can bless the fire truck.

“We really consider this part of our pastoring the community,” Raining said. “There’s something about gathering in what in the Northern Hemisphere are the darkest of nights and being able to talk about Jesus.”

Attendees also are encouraged to identify things they wish to let go of in the new year and write them on slips of paper. The slips then are tossed into the fire and sent up, like prayers.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.