The Christmas Tree Tradition
To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life,
which is in the paradise of God.
This Christmas season, as in those gone by, it is commonplace to hear Christians condemn trees adorned with ornaments as idolatrous. The following passage from Jeremiah is often cited as support for the condemnation:
This is what the LORD says:
“Do not learn the ways of the nations
or be terrified by signs in the sky,
though the nations are terrified by them.
For the customs 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 that it will not totter” ( Jeremiah 10:2–4, emphasis added).
While this passage may sound to modern ears like an uncanny description of Christmas trees from the sixth century BC, the historical and biblical context precludes this anachronistic reading of the text. The very next verse precludes the pretext: “‘Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk’” ( Jeremiah 10:5, emphasis added). Jeremiah’s description of a tree cut out of the forest and adorned with silver and gold and fastened with a hammer and nails so that it would not totter is, therefore, a reference to wooden idols, not Christmas trees.
In point of fact, Christmas trees originated in Christian Germany two thousand years after Jeremiah’s condemnation of manmade idols. They evolved over time from two Christian traditions. One was a “paradise tree” hung with apples as a reminder of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. The other was a triangular shelf holding Christmas figurines decorated by a star. In the sixteenth century, these two symbols merged into the present Christmas tree tradition.
As such, the Christmas tree began as a distinctively Christian symbol and can still be legitimately used by Christians today as part of their Christmas festivities. Christmas trees are not, however, essential to Christmas. Christian celebrations can certainly be complete without a tree adorned with ornaments. Like all symbolic objects that aid worshipful remembrance and celebration of Christ (e.g., the elements of communion, baptismal water, crosses, paintings, and so forth), we must never allow Christmas trees to take the place of that to which they point: namely, God’s eternal redemptive purposes from the fall in Paradise to salvation in Christ.
It is my prayer that this Christmas season you will be reminded to use the symbolism of the Christmas tree in the home of an unbeliever as an opportunity to explain that the reason for the season is the Savior.