Can Christians have a Christmas tree, without being concerned that they are partaking in an ungodly, even pagan ritual?
What about decorating, using Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, Christmas crackers and lights?
Is it ok for Christians to give and receive gifts over Christmas and to enjoy a family meal?
Here, we will take a look at these questions and provide you with answers about whether Christians can use Christmas trees, decorate over Christmas and partake in the various activities often associated with the event.
Where did it all come from?
Over time, Christmas has become associated with a range of activities and there is certainly truth that some of these activities came into Christmas from pagan, as well as Roman and a Germanic influence.
However, many of the activities associated with Christmas have simply developed over time as cultural traditions that bear not religious significance or pagan roots to them.
Christmas itself, even as a Christian festival, has changed a lot over the years. Some parts of the celebrations have come from cultural things picked up along the way from different countries. Many of them have only come into Christmas over the last few centuries, rather than coming from ancient pagan religions as some claim.
Cultural or Religious Act?
We need to distinguish between cultural traditions and religious ceremony.
We also need to understand the difference between something that is used with specific religious symbolism and things that are used within religious festivals that do not necessarily bear ritualistic significance or represent worship to other gods.
For example, the worship of the stars or praying to an idol are clearly religious activities. They should never be included in any Christian event. However, if drinking orange juice was included in a pagan festival, simply as part of the festival and had no religious significance, then would that make it wrong for Christians to ever drink orange juice or to use it in a Christian festival? No, it would not.
There are activities which are clearly religious in nature and acts of worshipping other gods or idols, and there are activities which bear no specific religious significance and can, therefore, be used by any group, including Christian.
Which activities are simply cultural traditions that can simply be enjoyed as part of Christmas without concern that you are partaking in an ancient religious ritual?
The Christmas tree
Evergreen trees were used in the pre-Christian era. Evidence of trees, wreaths and similar plants being used as part of festival celebrations date long before Christianity. It would be difficult to pinpoint who used them first, as they are cross cultural and not specific to any one religion or culture.
They can be found in:
- Ancient Egyptian celebrations to Ra, their sun god.
- The Roman winter solstice festival to Saturnalia. To them, the tree was a celebration of life.
- Vikings celebrations in Scandinavia.
- They can also be found in cultures like ancient Hebrews and Chinese.
- Early Christians saw the evergreen as a symbol of everlasting life.
For most of these, the use of trees (mostly evergreens) simply symbolised life. Their use was often connected to looking forward to the approach of spring and summer and were not always specifically part of a pagan ritual or religious activity. It was often a cultural celebration, rather than a religious one.
However, none of these ancient uses are equated to the modern Christmas tree, so we need not be concerned that it has roots in ancient pagan rituals or foreign religions. Claiming that the Christmas tree came from pagan festivals is inaccurate, as it cannot be traced back through time directly to the pagan festivals in Rome, Egypt or anywhere else.
Just because ancient cultures used evergreens does not mean that is where the Christmas Tree came from. The fact that evergreens were used in some religious activities does not mean they came into Christmas from those religions.
Using evergreen trees in the winter festivals pretty much disappeared for a thousand years after the ancient world, apart from the occasional legend which may or may not be based on historical fact.
Where did the Christmas Tree come from?
History indicates that the use of the Christmas tree did not take root until the Middle Ages and most likely originated in Germany. The first Christmas trees can be traced back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It simply became part of the cultural traditions of the event and the development of its use is surrounded by legend and cultural myths. There is little established fact concerning its early use.
It is likely that a Paradise Tree, which was a prop in a Mediaeval play about Adam and Eve, started to get used in people’s houses around Christmas time. In the play, the Paradise Tree was decorated with Apples, but when people used it in their homes they added wafers, symbolic of Communion. This shows that right from the start, the Christmas Tree had a Christian idea behind it. The Apples were eventually replaced with Christmas balls.
Is a tree evil?
No, trees were created by God as part of creation.
If having a Christmas tree is wrong, then putting any plants in your house is wrong, and for that matter, putting plants in your garden would be wrong too. It’s not the date of the year that makes having a tree or plant in your house wrong! It is simply a symbol of life and even early Christians viewed it that way. Using a tree within Christianity as part of Christmas celebrations is certainly not unchristian by any means. Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
What does the Bible say?
Some have raised the point that Jeremiah 10:2-4 says we should not decorate trees, claiming that this proves Christmas trees are unscriptural.
:2 Thus says the LORD:
“Do not learn the way of the Gentiles;
Do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven,
For the Gentiles are dismayed at them.
:3 For the customs of the peoples are futile;
For one cuts a tree from the forest,
The work of the hands of the workman, with the ax.
:4 They decorate it with silver and gold;
They fasten it with nails and hammers
So that it will not topple.
While at first glance, this verse seems to be referring to decorated trees, a proper study of this verse shows that it is not referring to simply having a decorated tree in your house, but rather making a tree into a carved idol to a false god, which is something completely different to a Christmas Tree.
As a Bible teacher, I believe strongly in good Bible interpretation. This includes: taking verses in context, not building a doctrine on single verses, not using a single unsupported verse to try to push your personal viewpoint (The Bible is not just there to support your personal opinion, it’s there to establish God’s truth) and rightly dividing what a verse is actually saying.
It is bad Bible interpretation to build a doctrine on a single verse or passage. I would not do it with any other doctrine, so why do it with this one? To teach something as scriptural, you need a multitude of passages, so that you can show the truth throughout the Bible. Using a single verse to support a point makes misinterpretation and abuse of the verse more likely.
Using this one passage to try to prove God is against Christmas trees is bad Bible interpretation. You would need more verses throughout the Bible to do that.
Let’s examine this passage, starting by looking at the meanings of some of the words
In this translation of the Bible, it appears like this is speaking against following customs used by the Gentiles. People could use this to say that Christians should not follow local customs.
The word translated customs here is only translated as ‘custom’ twice in the King James Version. It is also translated once as ‘manner’. However, it is translated 77 times as ‘statute’ and 22 times as ‘ordinance’. It speaks of something that is established or defined. Either a law of heaven or nature. It can be used to speak of religious or idolatrous laws and rules. It is often used to refer to God’s statues and ordinances (which are more than just customs!).
The work of the hands of the workman, with the ax (axe)
At first glance, this appears to be referring to the person cutting down the tree. However, a closer study will show that it is not referring to this.
The word ‘workman’ here is better translated as ‘craftsman’. In fact, further down in this same chapter in Jeremiah it is translated as craftsman. The Hebrew word means ‘carpenter or engraver’. It describes someone skilled in making things out of wood or stone. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the word is translated as carpenter, and does not describe the person cutting down a tree, but rather someone using the wood after it has been chopped down in order to make something out of it.
The Hebrew word translated ‘ax’ (axe) here is not the same word used for an axe elsewhere in the Old Testament. It is a different word and seems to be describing a different tool, rather than something being used to cut down a tree.
For example, in Deuteronomy 19:5, which clearly describes someone cutting down a tree, the Hebrew word for axe is a completely different word.
:5 As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live:
In Jeremiah 10, the tool being described seems to be more the tool used by a carpenter to carve the tree after it had been cut down, instead of the axe that is being used to cut the tree down. This phrase is describing a skilled craftsman carving and shaping the tree.
They decorate it with silver and gold
The KJV translated the word decorate as ‘deck’. This word simply means to make beautiful or to make something shine. It is not speaking against decorating in the sense of how we think about decorating in our time.
Use the Context of the verse
In order to fully appreciate what it is describing as being done with the silver and gold used to deck the wood and make it shine beautifully, you have to read a few verses further in the same passage.
Don’t isolate this verse from the verses around it and use it out of context, to try to make it fit your personal point. Read the context of the entire passage, and see what it is actually talking about.
In verses 8-9 of the same chapter (which is all part of the same passage and refers to the same things), it describes more about the silver and gold:
8 But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish;
A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine.
9 Silver is beaten into plates;
It is brought from Tarshish,
And gold from Uphaz,
The work of the craftsman
And of the hands of the metalsmith;
Blue and purple are their clothing;
They are all the work of skillful men.
Verse 9 talks about the silver being ‘beaten into plates’ and again refers to the ‘work of a craftsman’, adding in a metalsmith. This Hebrew word here describes something being spread out by beating. The same word is used in Isaiah 40.
The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains.
The word translated ‘spreadeth’ here is the same word, and describes the silver and gold being spread over the graven image, like a plating.
What is Jeremiah talking about?
So, in Jeremiah 10:2-4, where it refers to decorating or decking a tree with silver and gold, it is not a reference to hanging silver or gold balls on the tree, or covering it with Christmas tinsel, but rather to plating the wood (which has been carved by a craftsman into an idol) in silver and gold. This is consistent with other verses in the Bible and is better Bible Interpretation than trying to claim that Jeremiah 10 is talking about Christmas Trees!
Jeremiah is describing the process of a craftsman making an idol out of wood, carving it, then plating it with silver or gold. This has nothing to do with a Christmas tree and cannot accurately be used to say Christmas trees are wrong.
People see the reference to ‘tree’ and then can’t seem to see beyond that to understand what this verse describes happens to the tree. It does not stay as a tree before being put in the house.
The language used here is similar to Galatians 3:13, which describes Jesus as being hung on a tree. However, it was not in the shape of a tree when Jesus was hung on it. The term ‘tree’ used here refers to the original material being used to make something from, rather than the end product that is being used.
Can Christians decorate over Christmas?
So, the first thing to ask is: Is there something inherently evil and unchristian about decorating your home?
If there is, then you should not decorate your home at anytime, not just Christmas.
Do we decorate when we celebrate our own birthdays or our children’s birthdays?
Are decorations evil?
Most certainly not. Decorations are not established religious symbols, they are simply. a means to adding to the joy of an occasion. Just because decorating has been done in the past in religious festivals, does not make it exclusively part of that festival! The concept of decorating is cross cultural and has been used throughout different religions in time as part of their events. It is not unchristian, nor is it directly a pagan act.
Christmas decorations are not religious or idolatrous symbols, they are part of the occasion of celebration. Many of the Christmas decorations are unique to Christmas itself and have found their way to us through various cultures that have celebrated Christmas through the years. Many of the ones we know today only go back a few hundred years and are not rooted in ancient pagan rituals as some claim.
There are only a couple of decorations that can specifically be pinpointed as being part of non-Christian religious ceremonies.
Which parts of Christmas celebrations can be directly traced to pagan roots?
There are some activities sometimes associated with Christmas in some cultures (not all), which could be said to have pagan significance. These may be the ones Christians should be aware of. However, they are far fewer and less widely used than things like the Christmas tree and decorating.
Mistletoe itself was sacred to Druids and thought to bring good luck as well as protect from witchcraft. However, that does not mean the plant itself is evil and cannot be used by anyone else! It did not necessarily come in to Christmas due to the Druids, and could have found its way in to Christmas celebrations by a different path. This means that it’s use in Christmas does not necessarily have the same meaning as it did to the Druids.
The idea of kissing under the Mistletoe started with kissing under a ball of twigs and greenery, decorated with fruit. Eventually this was changed to using Mistletoe. This indicates that the tradition did not start with Mistletoe, so it is unlikely that Mistletoe came to Christmas directly from the Druids.
The term Yule is a direct reference to Nordic and Anglo-Saxon religious festivals to their god Odin. The idea of burning the Yule log was seen as a way of warding off evil spirits. In some cultures, a tree was burned for the same purpose. This is of course very different to having a nice log fire in the house over winter to keep warm and was specifically a superstitious ritual.
Today, some still use the Yule log as a traditional event to start their Christmas fire. It is worth being aware where this idea came from. However, I am not aware of any Christians these days that burn a tree as part of their Christmas celebrations.
What about other Christmas activities?
There is evidence that the idea of giving gifts at Christmas came from the Roman practice as part of their winter solstice. However, does this mean it is wrong for Christians to do at Christmas? Giving gifts at Christmas became part of early Christian Christmas celebrations, although the idea eventually died out. Through the Middle Ages it was replaced by giving gifts to rulers. Giving gifts to other people was revived again around the time of the Reformation, mainly from local customs rather than other religions.
Giving is a scriptural concept, and the birth of Jesus itself is God’s gift (to the world). Unto us a Son is given (Isaiah) and John 3:16 for God so loved the world that He gave… ‘
Giving to others at Christmas time is certainly not anti-Christian or unscriptural by any means, nor can it be said to be a religious act exclusive to one religion.
Is that a religious activity that bears significance to only one non-Christian religion? If it did, and was exclusively associated with an act of worship to a foreign god, then it should have no place in Christianity. The fact is that there is no uniquely religious significance (exclusive to any one religion) to the idea of giving gifts to people. It is an idea that can be carried out by Christians without fear that it is an act of religious service to a foreign god. The same is true for many of the activities that have been brought into Christmas from the Roman (and other) celebrations in their own festivals. They brought across parts of the celebrations that had no specific or unique religious significance and could therefore be included into a Christian celebration and still hold to Christian values.
Holly, ivy, rosemary
Rather than having religious significance, most of these items simply have symbolic meaning. Rosemary symbolises remembrance. Holly and Ivy represent the masculine and feminine and when combined are symbolic of stability in the home. Their use is not of religious significance, but rather culturally symbolic.
The use of candles was brought into Christmas by Christians to represent Jesus, who is the light of the world. Since electricity did not exist until recent times, candles were used. The use of Christmas lights is a modern concept, due to the discovery of electricity.
These are a recent addition and have no religious reason or significance either way. They are simply part of the celebration. Even today, they are not used by all cultures at Christmas time. They are primarily a cultural issue.
Enjoying family time over a meal is not wrong, and is certainly not ungodly! Making a special occasion out of it is not wrong, even in the Old Testament, God told the Jews to set aside feasts and celebrations to remember key events (like the Passover). This involved a meal together as a family.
What about all the partying and commercialisation over Christmas?
Controversy over too much partying and drinking over Christmas is not new to our time. During the Middle Ages, Christmas was known for being a time of drunken partying. As far back as Elizabethan England, Christians protested against the excessive drinking over Christmas.
Should we back off celebrating Christ’s birth simply because the world takes the occasion as an opportunity to party?
Just because people abuse the occasion does not mean Christians should back off or abandon it. Rather, we should stand strong on what the occasion means and reminds us of: the birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the world.
Christmas is now so well established within the international calendar that for Christians to back out of it would mean it is carried on in the complete absence of light. This could only mean it becomes more and more unchristian. Would it not rather be best to continue to use the opportunity to present the world with the truth of Christ’s birth and continue to encourage a Christian influence over the Christmas season. Since the event is so well established as a yearly celebration, is it not best for Christians to continue to use the occasion to spread God’s love and truth
Hold to the core Christian values of Christmas. Celebrate a time of giving and family time. Don’t feel condemned about decorating or having a Christmas tree. If you choose not to, that is a personal choice, but do not try to preach to others that it is wrong. It can be a personal conviction, but it is certainly not a scriptural command. Don’t allow people who are anti-Christmas being used by Christians and try to use Christianity as their avenue to put you off it.
There may be certain aspects of the decorating that you choose to keep out of your home as part of the Christmas celebrations (for example the Yule Log, due to its significance and history). This is a personal choice. However, you can keep certain aspects out and still decorate without feeling condemned.
Non Christians and those of other beliefs may choose to celebrate in ways that do not reflect Christian truths. Rather than condemning them, you can use Christmas as a time to spread God’s love, be a witness and Biblical truth, without getting in to arguments about it.