Are Christmas Trees Pagan?
One group of Christians is trying to keep the name “Christmas tree” rather than the non-descript “Holiday tree,” while a small minority of Christians wants to say good riddance to the very idea of Christmas trees because their origin is pagan. Who’s right?
Some time ago, my wife was asked by a national ministry to create a quilted backdrop of a large sweeping rainbow for its presentation booth that was used at various conventions around the country. I happened to attend one that was held in Atlanta. I went over to the booth and told the young lady behind the table that my wife had sewn the large background piece that adorned the display. With a frustrated look on her face, she told me that a woman had just left the booth angrily pointing out that the rainbow is the symbol of the homosexual movement and that Christians should not be using it. I reminded her that the rainbow was God’s creation, and that He had posted it in the heavens as a sign to Noah and future generations that He would never destroy all flesh by a flood (Gen. 9:12–17).
So then, who owns the rainbow? Homosexuals or the people of God? Just because homosexuals have misappropriated something of God’s good creation does not mean we cannot continue to use it. In fact, we should work to restore the image to its original redemptive meaning. Instead, many Christians refuse to display the rainbow because it has been hijacked by a group who flaunts a particular lifestyle that is condemned by the Bible.
Homosexuals have done a similar thing with the word “gay.” The commandeering of the word “gay” has made it difficult to watch The Gay Ranchero (1948), starring Roy Rogers and Trigger, or even The Gay Divorcée (1934) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. What do we do with the line from “Deck the Halls” that goes “Don we now our gay apparel”?
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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, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude” (1 Tim. 4:4; 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). Even with the misuse of the heavenly bodies, this 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 things 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 conifers1, are pagan 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 a god to be worshipped or even attempts to worship as a god?
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 (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). 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 things; things created by God not the devil. Sex has been used in pagan rituals. Some people worship money. 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?
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 image a 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.’” ((Mark Rushdoony, “The Christian Christmas Tree [December 2010]).)
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).
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). Here are some wise comments from the article “Jeremiah 10 and the ‘Pagan’ Christmas Tree” by Dr. Richard P. Bucher:
[I]t 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 Christmas tree as some pagan object brought into our homes from the pagan cold, it can be used to remind us that God promises us “the right to the tree of life” (Rev. 22:14).
- Deciduous plants, including trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials, are those that lose all of their leaves for part of the year. [↩]