Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Oh Christmas Tree!

It's funny -- a year ago I wouldn't have been able to do this. I'm waiting for auto service right now, and last year I'd have no way to do ministry work of any kind other than read books -- if I had any. Now, thanks to my notebook and wifi, I can post a blog entry, answer e-mail, bum around on TWeb, and write an E-Block article. Only thing I can't do is make films. Oh well.

Anyway, here's an item from the December 2008 E-Block which is appropos to the season -- are Christmas trees pagan? Snort.

After years of doing articles on the claim that Christianity stole major beliefs from pagan religions, I've become rather sensitive to the methods used by those who make such claims. What I could not have predicted is that my investigations would serve well for analyzing claims with quite a different intent: Namely, that some Christians are reputedly celebrating pagan holidays with pagan elements that they have "Christianized." From there, those of us who do such things are accused of participating in "Satan's deep secrets" by having a Christmas tree in our home, and passages like Deut. 7:26 are quoted ("do not bring a detestable thing into your house") to add the scent of brimstone to the proceedings.

Some of what follows was inspired by a claim made on the TheologyWeb forum that Christmas trees in particular are merely pagan dross in new dress. Before getting to the particulars of the case, I'll set some background up.

First, the pattern of both the Bible and the church has been to "claim the territory." The two most poignant examples I can give come from my own series on the copycat myths.

Critics note that the date of Easter (and correspondingly, Passover) come on the same dates as certain pagan holidays. My reply is that we would expect God to institute His own holiday for Israel at the same time as the pagan holidays, for two reasons. The first is a matter of divine honor: The days belong to God, not the pagan deities, and God will inevitably reclaim them. The second is more practical: If Israel is attending their own festival the same day, the temptation is reduced to celebrate the pagan holiday - much like a department store will have a sale on the same day as a competitor as a way of drawing away their business.

Similarly, the early church would "revamp" pagan art pieces and create their own version, if you will: Mithra slaying the cosmic bull would be reworked as Samson killing the lion in the same position. Jesus did this as well: The communion is a revamp of Jewish practice, which in turn is one of several examples of fellowship meals widely practiced in the Greco-Roman world.

Second, I have answered claims that the Christian fish symbol is a stolen pagan trademark by pointing to the fact that certain objects are so commonplace that it is absurd to assert a "trademark" on them for exclusive use by one group. The classic modern example is that of Exxon being sued by Kellogg's for the use of a cartoon tiger. The suit was based on more than simply that a tiger was used: Rather, it was based on detail-similarities. The number of brands that use a tiger as a symbol - independently - makes any idea of borrowing outlandish.

I raise these points again as two serviceable answers (albeit mutually exclusive) to the claim that Christmas trees are latent pagan symbols. Because there is little information available from credible sources on the origins of the Christmas tree, I cannot say with certainty which of these arguments is applicable, but one surely will be. Here is how each might apply:

No one owns the tree: The National Christmas Tree Association seems to represent the consensus view that the Christmas tree had its origins in Europe in the 1500s. [1] This may or may not imply an innovation, but if it was, then the matter is the same as the fish symbol. Trees of all kinds have been used as symbols for a variety of purposes. To claim then that the Christmas tree was "borrowed" from pagan practice, apart from evidence, would be ludicrous - and on this account, I will say plainly that Christians who say that the Christmas tree is pagan are rather sparse when it comes to documenting a connection - little better off, indeed, than those who say that the Christian fish came from paganism.

Claiming the territory: On the other hand, if ever it were proven that pagan ideas inspired Christmas trees - what of it? Then it would be easily regarded as a case of reclaiming what is rightfully God's, just as God Himself did when He claimed the date of Passover, and just as the church did when it created scenes like those of Samson.

At this point, I am inclined to regard the first explanation as the most likely one. The psychological effect of bringing a green tree into one's environs in the dead of winter, and decorating it festively, seems to me more persuasive as an "origin story" for Christmas trees than an idea that some Christian family saw a pagan celebratory effort and got the idea from there.

Moreover, evidence for pagan tree worship in Europe of the 1500s is fairly sparse. (The closest possible precedent seems to be Vikings who used evergreen boughs - a space of several hundred years for inspiration.) But let us now consider the arguments made by those who would prefer we take our trees down.
The Christmas tree was originally known as an asherah pole.
The reference here is to a pole erected to the pagan goddess Asherah, who was reputedly a consort of Baal.

Worship of Asherah disappeared well before Jesus was on earth; to suppose that Europeans of the post-medieval era reached that far back for an idea is like saying that Quetzalcoatl inspired the story of Jesus (which, of course,some Christ-mythers do say happened!). To see a connection here is to use the same logic as is used by those who paganize the fish symbol: "Here's a decorated tree. There's a decorated tree. Must be a connection!" Other cultures have also decorated trees in different ways and for different purposes (for example, "wish trees" found in Japanese temples). Is there a connection there as well?

The Christmas tree is a pagan altar! The pole, balls and tinsels are sexual symbols representing a phallus, testicles, and semen.

Yes, that's as bad as it gets. Regrettably, documentation of claims like these are sparser than hen's teeth. In all of this, I am reminded of one Skeptic, Lloyd M. Graham, who in a book Deceptions and Myths of the Bible read all sorts of sexual symbolism into the garments of the high priests. I'll put these sexual parallels of the Christmas tree down to the same sort of, er, fertile imagination! [3]

Relatedly, there is a claim that the rounded ornaments were identified by Christians with "witch balls" designed to capture evil spirits (an idea perpetrated, naturally, on Wikipedia as well). How this coheres with them also being testicles is not clear, but it seems that this is merely a superficial similarity with no real connection, as "witch balls" appear to have been invented in England. In any event, actual documentation of a connection seems to never be available.

Jeremiah 10:1-5 forbids Christmas trees!

This one involves some quite creative exegesis, since it is rather clear that Jeremiah could not be aware of a "Christmas tree" hundreds of years before the holiday existed and around 2000 years earlier than Germany of the 1500s. Even so, the quote:

Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: 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. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

There is some debate over whether Jeremiah here refers to a tree that is cut and used, decorated, as an idol; or whether the tree is cut down, and carved into idols, which are then decorated. In any event, the answer is the same as before: The purposes are entirely different; no one worships a Christmas tree, and no one uses them as an image (a place where a deity comes down to communicate with us). The gold and silver are not decorations here; they are offerings of great honor and prestige to the deity.

You have to bow down to place gifts under the tree, which is like bowing at an altar and presenting gifts to a pagan god!

Indeed. I can only suppose that those who make this argument are worshipping the gods of plumbing when they place a container of Drano under their kitchen sink. This argument - often used in tandem with the Deuteronomical admonition, "Do not worship Yahweh in that way, the way of the heathen." - is a confusion of categories, first in that it confuses gifts for others to be gifts for the god of the tree (!), but as well in the fact that merely bowing for practical purposes is not an act of "worship." If it were, Elisha could hardly forgive Naaman for bowing in the temple of a pagan deity when he assisted his aged master (2 Kings 5).

In any event, no one is worshipping God or a god with Christmas trees. A Christmas tree neither "serves" nor is used to "worship" God. The Christmas holiday (ideally!) is meant to honor God by practice of observation, memorializing an event associated with an act of His, the Incarnation. In that way it is closer to the way Israel laid rocks down as a memorial at such events as the parting of the Jordan. This is an important distinction: Worship, as noted elsewhere, means service. While one may worship someone that one honors, worship is far from the only means to ascribe honor; the two acts may be consecutive but the concepts themselves do not overlap.

Faced with such points, those attempting to dissuade the use of Christmas trees have little to offer but more threats of divine punishment, such as this one:

Let me remind you, however, that you don't determine what is right and what is wrong. God determines what's right and wrong. If the Christmas tree is not an idol to you, why are you so reluctant to give it up? What are you doing down on your knees when you place your gifts under it?

The point has been made, however: It is not "wrong." Being down on your knees
in such instances is not "worship" in any sense, and the gifts are not for the tree, or for a deity. As for "reluctance," it seems to be a case of self-fulfilling prophecy; the objectors could select any object in someone's home, like a pendulum clock, and make any sort of claim about it, such as that the pendulum is a "phallic symbol." Then, when they are corrected on such notions, this is taken as a validation by the objecter that you are wicked and sinful! To refuse to submit to the whims of those who refuse to admit error is not "reluctance." It is, rather, refusing to indulge and encourage absurdity.

So, our conclusion: While claims are made that everything from tinsel to bells to the use of the colors red and green are of "pagan origin," the making of genetic connections is never argued nor documented that I can find. In that respect, those who try to dissuade us from the use of Christmas trees are regrettably much like those who say that the story of Jesus was borrowed from a deity named Mithra who was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead after three days.

And just to make it clear, Mithra didn't do any of that.


[1] See here.
See here.
[3] The actual origins of the accoutrement of tinsel is, regrettably, not much better documented. It is generally attributed to the same period in Germany as the time the tree was first used. Ornaments have a more certain history; they are given as the invention of a German glassblower, Hans Greiner, in the 1840s. Needless to say, neither history lends itself well to a hypothesis of origins in the worship of an Ancient Near Eastern deity.


  1. Hi J,my conscience is wracked of guilt because of Jeremiah 10:3-4. Isn't a workman a lumberjack? What I'm trying to ask is, isn't the cutteth tree, the result of a workman with an axe? These verses have damaged my conscience over the past two months. Please help.

    In Christ.

    1. No, "workman" means a craftsman. There were no professional lumberjacks at that time. The same Hebrew word is used of people who engrave in stone (Ex. 28:11).
      The person is someone who makes idols for a living.

    2. Thanks J.P. but could the Hebrew word "charash" ever be interpreted as "woodcutter" anywhere? I agree that "charash" in most cases means "craftsman" but don't Hebrew words change its meanings with different sentences? I've met a translation that translates it as woodcutter. I've been told that modern translations "water-down" Jeremiah 10:3-4. Is this true? What does the phrase "work of the hands of the workman" mean? Does it merely describe the cutting of a tree? Or is there something else to it? If my reasoning is wrong, please do correct me. I'm sorry to ask so many questions. Please respond. Regards.

    3. No, there is no way it could ever be interpreted as "woodcutter." Whoever claims translations are "watering down" such things is merely paranoid and not able to answer the real argument. I know of no translation that uses the phrase you quoted.

      Please email me at for further questions. :)