When I was in primary school, one of our regular December tasks was to make paper chains to decorate the classroom. Remember those packs of brightly coloured strips, with gum to lick at one end, weaving each through the previous one to make long looping garlands? Growing up in the 70s, we made them at home too.
Then, when my own children were small, and going through a frugal crafting stage (me, that is, not them!), we made paper chains by recycling pictures and adverts from magazines. They joined other homemade decorations like bells made from egg boxes, string, and foil plus doily angels. We still have these on our tree all these years later.
But the poor old paper chains, whether manufactured of homemade, after Twelfth Night, were crumpled and thrown in the bin.
They’re a strange thing to adorn our houses when we think about it though, aren’t they? Why do we take a symbol of imprisonment and slavery, prettify it, and turn it into a frivolous decoration? Why do we hang a chain on a Jesse Tree?
The latter is an easier question to answer. We’re moving on in history in our Advent journey. God’s people and their kings abandoned God’s ways and ignored His prophets so they were defeated and led away in exile to Babylon – in chains.
Yet God does not abandon them. Even in their exile He promises a new covenant, a different kind of covenant, with them (see Jeremiah 31.33-34). He gives them hope, hope that they will not be chained and exiled from Him forever. And we know that hope to be beyond returning them to a specific land; we know that hope of freedom to extend to a new way of life free from sin and destruction. Or as Charles Wesley put it:
‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night.
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray –
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off,
My heart was free,
I rose, went forth,
And followed Thee.’
So maybe it’s not so incongruous to decorate our homes at Christmas with chains? But maybe it’s even more significant that we throw the chains away?