Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Christmas Tree, An Idol?

It is Christmas time, and that apparently means it is time for another round of the Christmas debate. While not all of you might be aware, there is a debate between those who think that Christmas is a pagan holiday and those who think that Christmas is a Christian holiday. I do not have time to make a "in defense of Christmas" post, but this year I want to make a few notes on the tradition of the Christmas Tree.

That the pagans did worship trees is not disputed. But if we say that because pagans worship evergreen trees, we cannot have Christmas trees, we run into some problems. Are we saying that because a pagan might have a picture of a natural scene and worship it, we cannot have a picture of a natural scene and marvel at God's creation? Are we saying that because many modern day materialists might worship houses and cars, that we should live in a cave and ride a bike? Many pagans do worship things like trees, rocks, flowers, etc… But doesn't stop from God from using His creation, including evergreen trees, in very many illustrations, symbols, and examples.

"The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, 
 the cedars of Lebanon that he planted." (Psalm 104:16)

"I will be like the dew to Israel; 
he shall blossom like the lily; 
he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; 
his shoots shall spread out; 
his beauty shall be like the olive, 
and his fragrance like Lebanon. 
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; 
they shall flourish like the grain; 
they shall blossom like the vine; 
their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

"O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? 
It is I who answer and look after you. 
I am like an evergreen cypress; 
from me comes your fruit." 
(Hosea 14:5-8) 

"And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?" (Matthew 6:28-30) 

Also look up Job 38-41. We even see almond blossoms used as decoration in the Temple (Exod. 25:31-35). I am not saying that evergreen trees cannot be used as an idol, and I am not saying that there are not times when having a Christmas Tree could be a stumbling block. If you are living in a culture (like ancient Germany) that worships evergreen trees and views them as sacred, then cutting down a few on your land and tuning them into firewood might be better. This goes back to Paul's discussion on food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8. Symbols do mean things, and you do not want to damage the conscience of the weaker brother. We have a right to eat food offered to idols, because idols are nothing, "But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak" (1 Corinthians 8:9). So if I was evangelizing a culture that worshipped evergreen trees, I would probably not have a Christmas Tree, "lest I make my brother stumble". But I would teach the true way to view an evergreen tree, and I would hope that 1300 years later that Christians would be able to used God's creation for His glory.

"I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)

"Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates." (Revelation 22:14)

[Note from 2023:]

I wrote this post twelve years ago, and I thought I would update it with a couple quotes on the origin of the Christmas tree, including a reference to Martin Bucer, a Reformed pastor you can learn more about from this blog post and this two-part lesson series
The Christmas tree as we know it seemed to emerge in Lutheran lands in Germany in the sixteenth century. Although no specific city or town has been identified as the first to have a Christmas tree, records for the Cathedral of Strassburg indicate that a Christmas tree was set up in that church in 1539 during Martin Bucer's superintendency. (Frank C. Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy, 2012)
The modern Christmas tree, though, originated in western Germany. The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a 'paradise tree,' a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the eucharistic host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, symbolic of Christ as the light of the world, were often added. In the same room was the 'Christmas pyramid,' a triangular construction of wood that had shelves to hold Christmas figurines and was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century the Christmas pyramid and the paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree. (Encyclopedia Britannica, "Christmas Trees")
There is something obviously natural about decorating with evergreen branches and trees in the winter time when so much else is dead or drab. In addition to this, we can use it to remember the birth of Jesus, who was born that he might bring life to a world under bondage to corruption. He came to restore fallen man to that life once symbolized by the tree of life, a symbol that appears again at the end of the Bible in Revelation. Jesus is himself the source of eternal life to all who partake of him.


Dana Adams said...

We love this time of year and celebrate it to the fullest! Merry Christmas to you and yours sir Bringe!
Mrs. Adams and family

Elisabeth said...

Interesting viewpoint.
Lisa Tull

Savories of life said...

I wanted to share some of my thoughts You might also like:How we must Celebrate Jesus Birth.
Given to me by a friend and edited by me,
In America today, the mention of Christmas conjures many images for us all. The Christmas tree and the abundance of nicely wrapped presents. Christ’s birthday. Singing Christmas carols, chestnuts on an open fire, Yule logs, Mistletoe, Holly and evergreens, wreaths, and of course , Santa, reindeer and flying sleighs. Have these anything to do with Jesus?

The 12 days of Christmas came from the celebration of Horus or Marduk. The celebration for the rebirth of Horus lasted for 12 days, also for the celebration of the 12 day battle of Marduk to conquer the deities of darkness. It is in the Sumerian celebration that the next oldest tradition came from, Gift Giving. During their celebrations, the Sumerians held huge parades (Christmas parades anyone), wished good tidings to each other and exchanged gifts. The Greeks adopted the Solstice with celebrations honoring Zeus’s victory over Kronos and the Titans. The Romans also celebrated Saturnalia and their religion of Mithraism. It was the biggest celebration of the year and gift giving was expected from everyone.
December 25th was particularly important in the cult of Mithras, a popular deity in the Old Roman Empire. Robert Myers (a proponent for celebrating Christmas) in his book Celebrations, says: "Prior to the celebration of Christmas, December 25th in the Roman world was the Natalis Solis Invicti, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. This feast, which took place just after the winter solstice of the Julian calendar, was in honor of the Sun God, Mithras, originally a Persian deity whose cult penetrated the Roman world in the first century B.C. ... Besides the Mithraic influence, other pagan forces were at work. From the seventeenth of December until the twenty-third, Romans celebrated the ancient feast of the Saturnalia. ... It was commemorative of the Golden Age of Saturn, the god of sowing and husbandry."

I hope you do not mind all my comments. Answer only the ones you want too. I am trying to learn not start debates:)

Peter Bringe said...

Like I said, I don't have time to write a complete "Defense of Christmas" post, but here are a few thoughts. Even if all that is true (I don't think it is all that simple: http://christian-civilization.org/articles/rethinking-the-pagan-origins-of-christmas/) I have already granted in this article that the pagans worshiped evergreen trees. And for all the other "borrowed" elements of Christmas, the same arguments apply. Here is another's post for thought: http://melodys-notes.blogspot.com/2008/11/apology-for-christmas-by-melody-seppi.html

-Peter B.
Deo Vindice