Are Christmas Trees Pagan?
Every Christmas there is the inevitable talk about a “war on Christmas.” Not all opposition comes from secularists, atheists, and Muslims. Some Christians believe the Bible does not set aside the birth of Jesus as a special calendar day to honor His birth. Such a celebration violates the “regulative principle of worship.”
Others believe Christmas has a pagan origin and that the Roman Catholic Church turned a pagan celebration into a Christian holy day (holiday). Because of this religious metamorphosis, Christians should not celebrate Christmas.
A subset of this opposition is the Christmas tree. It, too, is said to be of pagan origin, thus, Christians should not bring them into their homes.
Should we stop using wood because some people seek out for themselves “a skillful craftsman to prepare an idol that will not totter” (Isa. 40:20)? Are all trees pagan because pagans have used trees to create idols? Of course not. The Bible tells us, even in a post-fall world, that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5; cf. Gen 1:31).
For millennia idol worshippers have bowed down before heavenly bodies — sun, moon, and stars — calling them their gods. There were people in Isaiah’s day who looked to “astrologers, those who prophesy by the stars, those who predict by the new moons” seeking guidance (Isa. 47:13).
The people of Israel were warned by God not to lift their “eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven” (Deut. 4:19). God created the heavenly bodies to “be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years,” and to “be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth” (Gen. 1:14).
These heavenly bodies were not to be worshipped or given divine status. They are created things that point back to God as their Creator: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20; see Ps. 19:1-6).
Even with the misuse of the heavenly bodies, it did not stop God from choosing the sun, moon, and stars to symbolize His chosen nation Israel (Gen. 37:9–11; Rev. 12:1–2). And neither did it stop Him from using a star to announce the birth of Jesus (Matt. 2:2).
Pagans believe there is power in inanimate objects like the sun, moons, and stars, but we know better. Notice how the Bible ridicules those who turn God’s good creation into divine objects they claim should be worshipped (Isa. 44:12–20). God’s people know better. We are not fooled or intimidated; it’s just a piece of wood created by God to be used for our benefit and enjoyment. We can burn it for heat or fashion it into a tool. Should we cut down the trees in our yards because Jesus was crucified on a tree?
Some will turn to Jeremiah 10:1–10 to make a case against “Christmas trees,” actually, evergreen or more technically conifers, because idol worshipers used them in their religious rituals. Jeremiah is describing idol worship, and he ridicules it: “Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they, and they cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk! Do not fear them, for they can do no harm, nor can they do any good” (10:5). Who among us believes that a “Christmas tree” is worshipped today? When people put packages under the tree, they are not bowing down to worship the tree. The gifts are not for the tree gods.
What happens when the Christmas season passes? The tree is either taken to a recycling center or burned in the backyard. No one would ever do this to an idol.
There are carved engraved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers in the inner and outer rooms of the temple (1 Kings 6:29). The two doors are made of olivewood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers (1 Kings 6:32)
In addition, Jeremiah is describing trees that are shaped in the image of their god. Both wood and metal are used in this way (Jer. 10:3, 9–10). I wonder what the Christmas tree critics would say about building the tabernacle, the temple, and erecting a fiery bronze serpent (Num. 21:5–9). These seem to be a violation of the Second Commandment since these earthly creations were representations of heavenly things, the very thing the Second Commandment prohibited:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them. . .” (Ex. 20:4–5a).
Of course, the key prohibition is worshiping and serving them, which we know the Israelites did with the brass serpent (2 Kings 18:4), something that God commanded Moses to manufacture and raise (Num. 21:8-9). This didn’t stop Jesus from identifying it with His redemptive work (John 3:14–15).
Should we stop eating meat because the Israelites who came out of Egypt made a golden calf and worshiped it? Later we learn that calves, bulls, and sheep became part of Israel’s sacrificial system. But this was true of pagan nations as well. By using these once-used pagan symbols, it shows that they don’t have any occult or magical powers. They’re just trees, pieces of metal, animals. They are created by God.
Sex has been used in pagan rituals. Some people worship money. Logic demands that we give up sex and money. Some have done this. Every good thing given by God can be abused.
The Romans were pagans and used trees for crucifixion. Because Jesus was crucified on a tree, and the Bible says that anyone who hangs on a tree is cursed (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13), therefore we should not use trees or hang anything on them? That crucifixion tree became the tree of life (Gal. 3:14). People wear crosses around their neck! Churches locate wood from the forest, cut it down, shape it into a cross, and bring it into their places for corporate worship. Most everyone would say, “Well, we don’t worship it.”
God created trees. He made them for us: for home building, decoration, shade, construction of fences, tables, chairs, sheds, and so much more. Just because pagans might have carved up a tree to make an image of a false god to be worshipped does not mean that we can’t use them to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s “indescribable gift” to us (2 Cor. 9:15).
The Christmas tree, as it is now designated, is an evergreen that reminds us that we have “eternal life” in Jesus Christ (John 6:40). “The association of trees with life has continued. Even today we call needle-bearing trees that do not go through a period of dormancy evergreens, and California’s famous coastal redwoods are known by the species name sempervirens, or ‘always living.’”1
The shape of the tree reminds us that we are “born from above” (John 3:3). The needles on the branches remind us that Jesus was “pierced through for our transgressions” (Isa. 53:5). The lights hung on the tree remind us that Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and through Him we are to be “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). It’s a reminder that the “tree of life” and its fruit await us (Rev. 2:7; 22:2).
The ornaments we hang on the tree and the presents we place under the tree remind us that “every good thing given, and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17).
Consider these words from Isaiah that pertain to the judgment of the king of Babylon: “Yea, the fir trees rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, Since thou art laid down, no feller is come up against us” (Isa. 14:8).
“The final portion of this passage [Isa. 14:3-8] is extremely eye-opening,” says Joe Kovacs, author of Shocked by the Bible 2. “Once the wicked oppressor, better known as Satan the devil, is done for, even the FIR TREES will be rejoicing, because no FELLER, which is a person who cuts down trees, is going to chop them down for Christmas trees anymore.” I’m shocked by this bizarre interpretation. Isaiah isn’t describing some end-time event related to Satan. Isaiah was describing the “king of Babylon” (14:4), a long-dead tyrant and persecutor of God’s people. Kovaks completely misses the historical context as the following points out:
No feller is come up against us—The literal and figurative senses melt into each other, the former perhaps being the more prominent. It was the boast of Assurbanipal and other Assyrian kings that wherever they conquered they cut down forests and left the land bare. (Comp. Isaiah 37:24 : Records of the Past, i. 86.) As the fir tree, the cedar, and the oak were the natural symbols of kingly rule (Jeremiah 22:7; Ezekiel 17:3; Ezekiel 31:3), this devastation represented the triumph of the Chaldæan king over other princes. On his downfall, the trees on the mountain, the kings and chieftains in their palaces, would alike rejoice. (Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers)
John Gill writes something similar:
[T]he fir trees … are represented as singing and rejoicing, as inanimate creatures often are in Scripture, these being now in no danger of being cut down, to make way for his armies; see Isaiah 37:24 or to furnish him with timber for shipping, or building of houses: or else these words are to be understood metaphorically of kings and princes of the earth, comparable to such trees, for their height, strength, and substance; see Zechariah 11:2 who would now be no longer in fear of him, or in subjection to him.
Isaiah 14 doesn’t have anything to do with Satan (on “Lucifer,” go here) or Christmas trees.
Here are some wise comments from the article “Jeremiah 10 and the ‘Pagan’ Christmas Tree” by Dr. Richard P. Bucher:
[I]it is abundantly clear that the “decorated tree” to which Jeremiah 10 refers is an idol, very likely the Asherah. Therefore, it is very superficial Bible interpretation and pure silliness to understand this passage as directly referring to the use of a fir tree for Christmas! If, and I repeat, if those who set up a Christmas tree fall down and worship it as a god or goddess, complete with altars and incense stands, then Jeremiah 10 applies here. Or if someone loves their Christmas tree more than God, then such a thing might also be considered spiritual idolatry. But apart from these exceptions, I think it is abundantly clear that Christians who erect Christmas trees are NOT worshiping them as gods or goddesses, nor are they loving them more than their Savior Jesus Christ. They are simply using the Christmas tree as a fun custom, one that can remind them of Jesus who is the branch of David (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15), the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). One that can remind them of the tree that led Adam and Eve to sin, but more importantly, the tree on which Christ Jesus died to make atonement for the sins of the whole world (Acts 5:30; Gal. 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24).
Instead of condemning the evergreen tree as some pagan object brought into our homes from the pagan cold, let’s view it as a reminder that God promises us “the right to the tree of life” (Rev. 22:14).