The Christmas Tree Debate
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1991
The first question that should be asked in regard to this subject is the following: Is there a command anywhere in the Holy Scriptures that a human should cut a tree out of the forest, set it up in one's home at the time of the Winter Solstice, deck it with trinkets and various decorations, and then place a star on its topmost part to show an association of the tree with the signs of the heavens? There is, of course, no such command nor suggestion that such a thing should be done.
In spite of this, there are millions of Christian believers who do this very thing at the time of the Winter Solstice. It is well recognized by all educated people today that the practice is purely and simply a retention of pagan doctrines in the Christian home and church and the custom has nothing to do with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures.
Indeed, because of the command of the apostle Paul in the New Testament that Christians ought to "flee idolatry" (I Corinthians 10:14) and the statement of the apostle John to "keep yourselves from idols" (I John 5:21), the authorities in Post-Reformation England condemned the celebration of Christmas altogether as being a pagan institution (without the slightest warrant in the Bible) and made laws forbidding it to be celebrated. Anyone found cooking a Christmas ham had their dinner taken away and they themselves were arrested. Similar laws were put into effect in the American colonies. In Massachusetts, the following law was passed in 1659 and was enforced on the people for 22 years before it was finally repealed.
"Whosoever shall be found observing Christmas, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, every such person shall pay as a fine five shillings to the county."
The reason that the pilgrims were forbidding the celebration of Christmas (and the festivities that went with it) was because they were wise enough to realize that the Bible did not condone such customs of the early heathen that had nothing to do with the teachings of Christianity. In fact, they had many scriptures that made it quite clear that God was not pleased with such idolatrous celebrations. One such command was found in Jeremiah 10:2,3.
"Hear you the word which the Lord speaks unto you, 0 house of Israel. Thus says the Lord. Learn not the way of the heathen [non-Israelite nations], and be not dismayed at the signs of the heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain."
The pagan customs of the Gentile peoples were held in contempt by the people of God who lived in the biblical periods. This has not been the case, however, in modern times. It is usually reckoned by modern Christian authorities that the many customs of our early pagan forefathers can be innocent forms of frivolity and celebration and that God in no way condemns such practices. The vast majority of church leaders of the various denominations not only condone the Christmas and Easter celebrations that they know come directly from pagan religious ceremonies, but they actively encourage the use of them in the churches themselves and in the homes of the people. Among such customs is the setting up of Christmas trees. This custom is nothing more than a retention of pagan "tree worship" (which anthropologists and historians have for centuries informed the general public), but the setting up of Christmas trees continues unabated in multitudes of Christian churches around the world.
With some kind of twisted reasoning, the church authorities tell the laity that all these pagan customs are innocent enough as long as they "put Christ back into Christmas" with their worshipful adoration of the nativity of the Christ-child. But a problem arises How can the church leaders "put Christ back into Christmas" when he was never in Christmas in the first place? December 25th for the birth of Christ was not even suggested as being the time of Jesus' birth (and certainly not celebrated by early Christians) until A.D.388. The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics states: "The writings of Chrysostom enable us to fix with considerable exactness the date at which the observance of the Feast of the Nativity on December 25 was introduced at Antioch, he states that its observance was not yet quite ten years old" (vol.3, p.603).
It is true, however, from the evidence we have available that the Magi (the Wise Men) gave their gifts to Christ on December 25, 2 B.C. This was not the birthday of Christ. Revelation 12 shows, and I abundantly prove this in my new book "The Star that Astonished the World," that Christ was born on the Jewish Holyday of Rosh ha-Shanah (the Day of Trumpets) which answers to our September 11, 3 B.C. Christ Jesus was at least 15 months old when the Magi presented their gifts to him on December 25. So, if people wish to follow the pagan manner of giving Christ gifts at the time of the Winter Solstice, they could wait until December 25th (like the Magi) and give their gifts to Christ at that time. Or, since December 25th in 2 B.C. was the third day of the Jewish festival called "the Dedication" (or Hanukkah, mentioned by the apostle John in John 10:22), then people could wait until this day to give gifts to Christ. This year (1991) the third day of Hanukkah is Wednesday, December 4th. At least by people giving gifts to Christ on the festival of Hanukkah there is no tinge of idolatry or pagan practices associated with that period.
But waiting specifically to December 25th to give gifts to Christ (as did the Magi) is merely continuing the general customs of the heathen. All historians know this. And as far as I am concerned I have no argument with those who still want to observe the time with the heathen. Thank God, none of you is on earth to please me. Anyone can do what he or she pleases. As for me, observing Christmas customs is analogous to childishness in the faith. It shows a lack of understanding regarding what pleases or displeases God and Christ Jesus. To my wife Ramona and me, Christmas is simply a workday like any other day of the week.
So, let us not belabor the issue. The pagan origin of Christmas and its Winter Solstice celebrations are so well known that no further proof of the matter should have to be made by me. All of you reading this article realize this to be the truth. The majority of Christians know that one is simply perpetuating heathen customs when one cuts a tree, takes it into the home or church where it is erected at a significant site, decorates it with metal trinkets or stream it with metal or cloth ribbons and attach the images of animals or Santa Claus. People then surround it on December 25th (the time of the Winter Solstice) to adore the new born "Sun" (sorry, I should have spelled it "Son" to give the pagan custom a Christian twist for all Christian devotees).
Since the pagan origin of these things is so well understood by all intelligent people, then how can there be a discussion in Christian circles that would provoke "The Christmas Tree Debate" which is the title of this article? The debate is not over whether the Christmas tree is pagan because every mature Christian knows that. What has become a matter of discussion, however, mainly among Christian theologians, is whether the Christmas tree (or something similar to it) has been singled out by Jeremiah. The section of Scripture that evokes this debate is Jeremiah 10:1-5 and 8,9. Let us see what Jeremiah states with the King James Version being the basis of the translation.
"Hear you the word which the Lord speaks unto you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord. Learn not the way of the heathen and be not dismayed at the signs of the heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain. For one cuts a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman with the axe. They deck it [the tree] with silver and with gold. They fasten it [the tree] with nails and with hammers that it move not. They [such trees] are upright as the palm tree, but speak not. The tree [KJV: stock] is a doctrine of vanities. Silver is spread into plates is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of the workman, and of the hands of the founder. Blue and purple is their clothing. They [the trees] are all the work of cunning men."
The King James Version gives a reasonable translation of the Hebrew words as spoken by Jeremiah. You will notice that I have identified the pronouns in brackets, and what I have stated follows the Hebrew wording and context precisely without ambiguity. These trees are decked with gold, silver, as well as with rich weavings of blue and purple fabrics. Jeremiah compared the use of these decked-out trees to the practice of idolatry and such trees were being used in false worship.
If one leaves alone the simple context with all the subjects kept in view, one is left with the impression that Jeremiah is condemning the idolatrous act of "tree worship." And it makes perfectly good sense that this is what the prophet is condemning. There are some translators, however, who substitute other meanings to a few of the words above and they arrive at the conclusion that Jeremiah is speaking about getting some timber (cut wood) from the forest, carving it into the shape of an idol (be it human, or a part of the human anatomy) and then plating it over with silver and gold (as one might mold or gild metal onto wood). In brief, they claim that the subject of Jeremiah is not a tree (or trees) or "tree worship" but a carved idol made out of wood that has been gilded with gold and silver. In effect, the translators who adopt such a translation have got rid of the "tree worship" theme that the simple use of the Hebrew seems to advance and have substituted it with a theme simply condemning the making of particular types of idols.
But what does Jeremiah mean? This is where the debate among scholars begins. Is he basically referring to plain and simple "tree worship" that was then prevalent all over the Middle East? Or was he actually selecting out idols that had been manufactured out of wood (usually carved from blocks of wood) and then gilded with a veneer of gold or silver? There are examples of such gilding in the Bible. It is found in the creation of the Ark of the Covenant located in the Holy Place (Exodus 25:10-16), and Isaiah shows that some images were also fashioned in the gilded fashion. "The workman melts a graven image, and the goldsmith spreads it over with gold, and casts silver chains" (Isaiah 40:19). Many idols were not gilded, however. The next verse in Isaiah says it is the poor and impoverished pagan who cannot afford gold or silver and is subjected to creating an idol out of wood alone. "He that is so impoverished that he has no oblation chooses a tree that will not rot; he sees him a cunning workman to prepare a graven image that shall not be moved."
Though the majority of ancient idols were made of solid clay, stone, bone, metal or wood, most were not gilded over with gold or silver. They were on the other hand commonly decorated or painted with such substances and it is thought that this is what Jeremiah may have been talking about. So, just what does the section of Jeremiah really mean? This is the question that modern scholars have been concerned with in interpreting the passage of Jeremiah quoted above. Let us see what the evidence holds in this regard.
When Jeremiah said "one cuts a tree out of the forest," the word for "tree" is a Hebrew word that ordinarily means a living tree that grows in the ground. The "trees" in the Garden of Eden, including that of the knowledge of good and evil as well as the tree of life, were indicated as being ordinary "trees" by the use of this word. True, it can sometimes means a block of wood, but when Jeremiah said to cut a tree "from the forest," a forest is made up of numerous trees usually over a vast region of land. A forest is made up of many trees, not many "blocks of wood" or "pieces of timber." The immediate context of Jeremiah shows he is really talking about a tree that one can cut down and that it [the tree] can be decked or adorned with gold or silver and/or blue or purple cloths.
There is a further way to show that the context of Jeremiah is speaking of a literal tree. He states that the "tree" which is decked with ornaments and is nailed in place is like a "palm tree" that is upright [secured with hammered metal] so that it remains rigid and erect. This is what Jeremiah wrote if one uses the simple meaning of the Hebrew words as a guide. A "palm tree" is certainly being discussed by Jeremiah because the only other time the word is used in the Bible, it clearly refers to a living palm tree (Judges 4:5). This is a reliable clue.
But some interpreters do not want Jeremiah referring to a "palm tree" in this section of scripture. They want it to be a pillar, a type of scarecrow that one would put in a garden or a cucumber patch (like an idol referred to in the apocryphal work Baruch 5:70). As Keil and Delitzsch show in their commentary on this verse, the scholars who thought up this interpretation understood the "palm tree" to be the pagan god Priapus (in the form of a phallic symbol -a pillar shaped like the male organ as a sexual object) which was placed in a cucumber patch as a scarecrow. I imagine such a phallic display would frighten off the crows. Keil and Delitzsch, however, utterly dismiss this interpretation. They say it has little in common with the context of Jeremiah. And this is true. There is not a tissue of evidence from the context that this is what Jeremiah meant by his "palm tree."
Granted, phallic symbols were found in wide profusion in the ancient pagan world in devotion to Priapus or other fertility deities (our modern steeples and spires on churches are a remnant of such phallic shapes associated with the pagan heathen temples and their holy places). And, according to the scholars who first suggested "the pillar in a cucumber patch" interpretation for Jeremiah, they imagine that this was a type of "sex object" that Jeremiah was speaking about. But modern translators who adopt the suggestion are not honest because the majority do not want to offend the sensitivities of the biblical readers and they normally leave out the part that the male sexual organ is the object of Jeremiah's discussion.
They should have had no worry. Jeremiah is really talking about pagan "tree worship" that the Israelites of his time had taken up. The palm tree (which is an evergreen like most Christmas trees today) was being decorated with gold and silver spiral ribbons like those that come forth from the working of a lathe and also with blue and purple cloth ribbons. Such trees were known as asherahs. They are mentioned several times in the Old Testament and often are translated by the English word "grove." But the word asherah has been shown to refer to a single tree that can be living, cut out of the forest, or depicted in various abstract forms. Indeed, the most ancient form of all pagan religion is simple "tree worship." Long before most nations of the world took up depicting their gods and goddesses in human or animal form, it is known that well-nigh the whole of the world's population (civilized or savage) were thoroughly engrossed in various forms of "tree worship." The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics has a large article that shows the universal proclivity of all ancient peoples (including the Hebrews) to indulge in the worship of living trees and those they had cut out of the forest for religious reasons (vol.12, pp.448-457).
Such "tree worship" was well known in the time of Jeremiah and later. The oak was universally held in esteem. In mountainous areas cedars and firs were worshiped. In more desert regions the palm was the tree most worshiped. As the The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics states: "Tree worship pure and simple, where the tree is in all respects treated as a god, is attested for Arabia in the case of the sacred date-palm in Nejran. It was adorned at an annual feast with fine clothes and women's ornaments" (vol.12, p.449). The encyclopaedia goes on to say that the biblical mention of the women of Judah draping the asherah with their garments near the Temple at Jerusalem is another example of tree worship (II Kings 23:7).
This kind of heathen activity is precisely what Jeremiah is referring to in chapter 10. He was telling the Israelites not to learn the way of the heathen by cutting a tree out of the forest and decorating it with spiral ribbons of gold and silver like those coming from the workings of a lathe, and adorned with blue and purple fabric ribbons. Such customs were normally associated with the seasonal feasts of the pagans (especially those of the Solstices or Equinoxes). The modern Christmas tree is a prime example in our day of what the heathen were doing in the time of Jeremiah.
One wonders what Jeremiah, if he were alive today, would say about all the Christmas trees that now decorate our Christian homes and Christian churches? Would he sound a similar alarm like he did among the ancient Jewish population in Jerusalem? He probably would. And knowing how the apostles of Christ said to flee idolatry, the apostles would probably be equally against perpetuating these heathen customs. But as for the preachers and religious leaders today, they condone the whole thing and delight in the pagan festivities.
Ernest L. Martin
© 1976-2021 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions