It is that time of year again. Inevitably, some well-intentioned Christians argue that putting up a Christmas tree is a pagan practice, and so we should avoid standing them up with decorations in our homes, out of obedience to Scripture.
As someone who has kept ornaments I made back in kindergarten, if I had heard this, back when I was a kid, it might have soured me a bit on Christianity. But in the age of social media, the debate over Christmas’ supposed pagan origins, and that of the Christmas tree in particular, seems never ending. A favorite Bible “prooftext” given for this view is from the King James Version of Jeremiah:
Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not (Jeremiah 10:2-4 KJV).
Well. Well… I guess I should toss that adorable tree into the fire, with that sentimental “Christmas mouse” ornament I once made. Right?
The irony of this mentality is that it is a variation of an argument some atheists use to discredit Christianity, that Christmas was merely an invention of “the church,” political propaganda used to create a new form of paganism, a “copy cat” faith borrowed from the ancient Mithra cult, with a Jewish veneer pasted over it, squashing other forms of paganism, in order to unite the Roman empire.
I always find it bizarre when both certain fundamentalist-type Christians, as well as certain hyper-atheists, manage to gang up together to fight against some Christian practice that was originally designed to point us towards Jesus. But is there a better way to understand this passage of Jeremiah, that more accurately reflects the original context of the Biblical author?
Debunking the Bizarre Fear about Your Christmas Tree
Now, I must admit that pulling our artificial tree down from the attic can be a royal pain. My middle-aged life now has made it more difficult climbing that ladder. Plus, as a nod toward the critics, there are a number of Christmas traditions that have very little to do with the Christian faith…. such as the Yule log. So, you could make an argument for not having a Christmas tree in your living room, if it really distracts you from worshipping Jesus… if it really is a matter of obeying one’s Christian conscience.
But it would be wrong to use the prophet Jeremiah in this passage as justification for leaving the Christmas tree up in the attic every December. At best, this reasoning is a classic case of failing to appreciate the nuances of Bible translation and misunderstanding the original context of the passage. At worst, this is like those cases where some relationally-challenged Christians can miss the boat, when engaging others concerning the topic of Christmas (like in this embarrassing story that made headlines a few years ago).
Just comparing the KJV translation with a more modern translation, such as the ESV, in verse 3, clears up some confusion:
For the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down
and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman (Jeremiah 10:3 ESV).
If you compare the phrase that I have highlighted, the act being condemned in Scripture is not the cutting down of the tree, out of the forest, by the woodman’s axe, as some might wrongly interpret from the KJV. Rather, it is the working of the tree by the craftsman’s axe, once the tree is cut down, that raises the ire of the Lord, as the ESV makes clearer.
What might the craftsman be doing? The original context is given right there in Jeremiah 10:
The instruction of idols is but wood!… They are the work of the craftsman…But the LORD is the true God (Jeremiah 10:8,9,10 ESV).
A little knowledge about the culture of the Ancient Near East goes a long way here. Old Testament scholars and historians concur that Israel’s neighbors would fashion idols out of wood, as images to be worshipped. The Bible condemns idol worship in very clear and direct terms. Only the God of Israel is to be worshipped.
But such idolatry is hardly the case with your average Christmas tree, purchased at a tree lot by your nearby shopping mall…. unless you have some eccentric neighbor who really practices Wiccanism, or some other Neopagan religion, who wants to perform some incantation on your Christmas pinecones. If you really have a neighbor like that, I would like to meet that person, to find out what truly makes them tick. Now that would be an interesting conversation.
The Bible makes it clear that created objects, in and of themselves, such as Christmas trees, have no secret demonic spiritual power, residing in their needles and branches. Rather, we are to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 ESV).
Note carefully what this text does NOT say. It does NOT say we are to destroy physical objects raised up against the knowledge of God, like a Christmas tree. Instead, the spiritual battle we fight is a battle for the minds and hearts of people. In other words, such objects have no spiritual meaning, in and of themselves. Such objects only have symbolic meaning, as we assign meaning to them. Instead, Christ calls us to properly assign meaning to the physical world, that aligns with God’s revelation, and reject such meanings that distort the way we view the world we live in.
Therefore, this does not mean that idolatry is never a problem around Christmas. To the contrary: The consumerism and commercialization of the Christmas season, in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, fits better with the context of Jeremiah 10 in our day, as opposed to the carving of a mere piece of wood.
Redeeming the Evergreen as a Witness for the Gospel
Nevertheless, Christmas tree “Scrooges” do have a valid point to make: We do not find Christmas trees in the Bible.
But does this necessarily mean that we should forbid those firs and pines from our living rooms?
In his Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday, Canadian historian Gerry Bowler tells us that when the festival of Christmas was finally settled in the Christian calendar on December 25, around the 4th century A.D., the Christians borrowed the practice of decorating with evergreens from the Roman culture. But instead of trying to secretly smuggle in pagan rituals into Christianity, these Christians providentially saw the evergreen as a symbol of Eternal Life. The evergreen set a contrast to the darkness and barrenness of trees and other non-evergreen vegetation, that medieval Europeans in the temperate zone experienced each winter.
In other words, even though evergreens are not in the Bible, the tradition of the church over the centuries incorporated things like the Christmas tree into the experience of Christian worship, during the Christmas season. This is an example of how a tradition developed, over the course of church history, to reinforce the teachings of the Bible, rejecting the influence of paganism, …. as opposed to rejecting the teachings of the Bible, as some critics claim.
Furthermore, the whole idea of having a Christmas season to begin with was part of the early church’s efforts to provide a regular cycle of Christian instruction, so that at least once every year, Christians should have the opportunity to reflect upon the mystery of the Incarnation, as part of the church’s ongoing efforts to fully teach the doctrines of the faith to their baptized members, and newer followers of Jesus. That is also the reason why so many churches celebrate Easter once a year, to focus everyone’s attention on the doctrine of the Resurrection, among other similar practices.
Sadly, those churches that tend to ignore or minimize the Christian calendar, fail to recognize that we as humans need sacramental ways of understanding the deep truths taught in Scripture. By “sacramental,” this means the idea that the invisible realities of God are best learned by us through the visible expression of those truths. This is why the Scriptures command us to practice traditions, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Furthermore, other traditions, not explicitly taught in Scripture, can also point us towards Jesus, when properly understood.
Over the centuries, as the Roman cult of emperor worship faded in significance, so did the evergreen’s association with pagan religion. Instead, the use of lighted evergreen trees began reminding late medieval Europeans that “the true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9), and that this true light in Christ brought the promise of Eternal Life. These evergreen trees were often associated with the Garden of Eden, and therefore sometimes called “Paradise Trees,” in order to help people understand that the coming of Jesus was about restoring that which was lost in the Garden of Eden. Just as people were becoming converted to having faith in Christ, so were the ancient traditions and symbols being converted for the proclamation of the Gospel. As Jesus taught, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25 ESV).
It all comes down to this: If having evergreens in your home distracts you from worshipping Jesus, then you might want to leave that Christmas tree outside, or quietly left up in the attic. On the other hand, if you do have evergreens in your home, and you properly understand their intended meaning, they should help remind the believer of the Eternal Life we have in Christ, the Light of the World.
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ADDENDUM: A Few Extra Notes and Resources About the Christmas Tradition… And an Appeal to Christmas’ Critics Who Reject “Tradition(s)”
In the following 4-minute video, I learned from historian Gerry Bowler that many Christians in medieval Germany would hang their Christmas trees upside down from the roof rafters of their homes. How is that for a “traditional” Christmas?
For a deeper dive into the history of Christmas, and how it relates to the Bible, I found this documentary below, The Christmas Question, to be very interesting, in terms of the high quality interviews with various scholars. The film producers do a very good job examining the controversies surrounding Christmas, from different perspectives. That makes the film worthwhile.
Sadly, despite having some very good content, I really can not endorse the eventual conclusion arrived at by the film, as the film producers are associated with the Hebrew Roots Movement. The Hebrew Roots Movement, while otherwise well intentioned, has a legalistic bent to it, so please take it with a grain of salt. The Hebrew Roots Movement tends to attract certain Christians who get disillusioned with the shallowness of what passes for “standard” conservative evangelicalism. On this point, the Hebrew Roots Movement people get this exactly right. Sadly, a lot of Christians never bother to think about why they celebrate Christmas the way they do. At least the Hebrew Roots Movement people are actually thinking about it! I mean, I really think that these Hebrew Roots Movement folks mean well, in their desire to worship God in the most Scriptural way possible.
But in their sincere pursuit of a more deeply rooted faith, such Christians end up going down some rather strange pathways. Some in the Hebrew Roots Movement say that because Christmas is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, as something Christians should celebrate, then Christians should stay away from celebrating it, despite its being associated with a long standing Christian tradition.
Some even make a misguided appeal to Deuteronomy 12, to reject Christmas, somehow suggesting that the original context of Baal worship, being condemned in Deuteronomy 12, is identical to traditional Christian practices observed today that seek to honor Jesus. Go figure. Some followers in this movement even call the celebration of Christmas a sin. The film interestingly has a number of “man-on-the-street” type interviews, where people actually think like this.
One particularly odd thing about such extreme followers of the Hebrew Roots Movement is that they encourage Gentile Christians to celebrate Hanukkah instead, which while we know Jesus did celebrate that Jewish feast, there is nothing in the Bible indicating that Christians today should all celebrate that either. Celebrate Hanukkah, if you wish, as many Messianic Jews do, but there is no need to freakout about the traditional celebration of Christmas.
As one interviewee in the film, sharing my perspective put it, if you get rid of Christmas, because you do not see it in the Bible, then to be consistent, you would have to get rid of a lot more than just Christmas. I mean, A WHOLE LOT MORE! ….. More than what most Hebrew Roots Movement advocates even realize. For some reason, those who fear the creeping in of pagan traditions into Christmas seem not to be able to grasp the difference between smuggling in pagan worship into the church vs. the time-honored Christian vision of redeeming all of creation, and offering reasonable, God-honoring alternatives to pagan traditions. God is about building bridges for non-believers to come to know Jesus, as opposed to blowing up those bridges.
If not-celebrating Christmas is truly a conscience issue, then that is one thing. Believers should be able to respect the tender consciences of other believers.
But more typically, this attitude reflects a rather common misunderstanding of how tradition relates to the Bible. Contrary to such misguided belief, not all Christian tradition (or traditions) is necessarily bad. Consider what Paul says to the Corinthians church, in 1 Corinthians 11:2 (ESV): “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” There is that pesky word “traditions,” that the anti-Christmas crowd despises, but here, in the Bible, Paul appears to be affirming tradition.
Huh. Imagine that.
Such an “anti-tradition(s)” attitude towards the Bible is sadly an example of how some enthusiastic Protestants tend to adopt a nuda scriptura view of the Bible, as opposed to the classic Protestant view of sola scriptura. Advocates of nuda scriptura, or “naked scripture,” reject all Christian tradition that does not explicitly find an endorsement in the pages of the Bible. Tragically, this type of shallow rejection of a noble Christian tradition merely adds fuel to the fire, for those atheists who would like to see Christmas, along with everything else associated with Christianity, tossed into the trashbin of forgotten history.
Nevertheless, the film producers did find the top scholars of the world to interview about the subject, so with that above caveat and warning in mind, I would commend the rest of the film to you.
However, if you want to skip the debate, and you want just a 10 to 15 minute presentation, showing why it is okay for Christians to celebrate Christmas, I would recommend the two following videos from Inspiring Philosophy, a YouTube Christian apologist, who recorded two excellent presentations, one on the teaching of Scripture and the other on the history of Christmas. Enjoy!
HT: Beth Allison Barr, at the Anxious Bench history blog. For more on the history of Christmas trees, read this essay by Christian History magazine writers, Edwin and Jennifer Tait. For more on “Christmas Wars,” read this Veracity post from a few years ago.