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.
Please check back daily during the month of December as through Christmas we’ll have an entry from The Heart of Christmas: A Devotional for the Season.
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.
“Behold, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
he who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere youth;
he who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses
and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the works of their hands.
They will not toil in vain
or bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
but dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17–25)
What is the real meaning of Jeremiah 10:2–5?
What is the real origin of the Christmas tree tradition?
Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee
—Henry van Dyke
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love:
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee,
Opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!
All Thy works with joy surround Thee,
Earth and heaven reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee,
Center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Flowery meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain,
Call us to rejoice in Thee.
Thou art giving and forgiving,
Ever blessing, ever blest,
Wellspring of the joy of living,
Ocean-depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother,
All who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.