By Elysia McColley
Santa Claus is not in the Bible, and neither is a holiday commemorating Jesus’ birth on December 25. But what about Christmas trees? Some people point to Jeremiah 10:1-4 to show that Christmas trees actually are in the Bible. The passage reads,
Hear what the Lord says to you, people of Israel. This is what the Lord says:
“Do not learn the ways of the nations
or be terrified by signs in the heavens,
though the nations are terrified by them.
For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.”
Yikes! Does this passage mean that God forbids Christmas trees? The answer is yes… and no. Yes because trees that people cut down and decorate have long been associated with pagan worship, which God hates. No because when we as Christians decorate Christmas trees, we are not worshiping a pagan god. Christians recognize only one God, so there is no room for any pagan deities or pagan worship.
Paul on Mars Hill
When confronted with pagan beliefs and practices on the Areopagus (Mars Hill), Paul did not give any room to the idea that there could be any god other than God. In Acts 17:22-29 we read,
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To An Unknown God. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us. ‘For in Him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill” (NIV).
In this sermon that Paul delivered, he actually quoted from two hymns to Zeus, one a poem called Cretica and another from an astronomical work by a poet named Aratus. Zeus was a pagan god worshiped by the ancient Greeks, and Paul used hymns written to him to point the people to the One True God! In doing so, he left no room for the idea that the pagan deity deserved to be worshiped and utterly dismissed the idea that any graven image is in any way like God. He redeemed the culture.
With that thought in mind, let’s look at the pagan origins of Christmas trees and how they came to be associated with Christianity. We will see how the reformer Martin Luther redeemed the culture by sanctifying this pagan element.
The Origins of the Christmas Tree
Ancient Germanic, Norse, and Celtic peoples venerated trees. Norse cosmology centered on the World Tree, and one Yule tradition involved burning a particularly long log, the Yule log, for 12 days. Evergreen trees were particularly important for these Nordic peoples in the winter solstice celebrations, as they symbolized life and fertility in the cold, dark winter months. In this sense, the origins of the Christmas tree are thoroughly pagan.
Now, let’s go back a minute to the passage in Jeremiah. There are plenty of people who believe that these verses refers specifically to carving trees into graven images, a practice that is explicitly forbidden in the Ten Commandments. I don’t think the Bible condemns Christians who place Christmas trees in their homes, but it does condemn idol worship. Part of redeeming the culture means making sure that you are not worshiping the tree or the gifts placed around it. Christmas is about Jesus, not the tree and not the gifts.
Enter Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century German monk who sparked the Protestant Reformation. Legend says that one night shortly before Christmas, he was out walking among the trees. He looked up and saw the stars twinkling through the tree branches, so he used the image as an object lesson. He went home and told his children that Jesus left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. He may have been the first person to place a Christmas tree in his home in association with the Christian holiday.
What matters here is not the pagan origins of the Christmas tree but rather how Christians gave it a symbolism filled with the message of Jesus’ coming. Some Christians see the symbolism extending beyond Jesus leaving the stars of heaven and see the Christmas tree as a foreshadowing of the cross on which He would die. They are perfectly right to do so, because this symbolism redeems the Christmas tree from its pagan roots and sanctifies it to the glory of God.
In closing out this series, here’s a few thoughts:
- Many of the traditions associated with Christmas have deep pagan roots.
- The church co-opted these pagan elements so as to encourage people to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel instead of pagan feasts.
- Christmas is a Christian holiday, and we must celebrate it as such. Doing so requires that we reject pagan themes, such as Santa Claus, and sanctify traditions, such as the date of December 25 and the Christmas tree, so that we are only worshiping Jesus.