Christmas is coming up, and a lot of you have probably started to see the rolling out of badly paraphrased or out of context “Jeremiah 10” excerpts paired with condemnations of the Christmas tree as pagan and evil. I would like to address this by focusing on the actual origins of the Christmas tree, but before I do, let’s take a look at Jeremiah 10 and see what it is really talking about.
“Learn not the way of the nations,
nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens
because the nations are dismayed at them,
for the customs of the peoples are vanity.[a]
A tree from the forest is cut down
and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.
They decorate it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so that it cannot move.
Their idols[b] are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil,
neither is it in them to do good.”
There are a few important things to note about this passage. The first is that it is explicitly worked on by a craftsman after being chopped down – the word used for craftsman in Hebrew refers to an artisan or craftsman, not a lumberjack. The word used here for “axe”, ma`atsad, exists twice in scripture, and the other time it refers to the tongs of a blacksmith. Many older translations think of this as a small craftsman’s axe, which makes sense given the context and the word used. In the many places in scripture where they are discussing a larger axe for chopping down trees a different word, garzen, is used. So there is no doubt – this verse refers not to a Christmas tree but to a carved wooden idol. Which is why, later in the excerpt, it refers to them as idols and talks to them as though they are idols. They are compared to scarecrows and it is pointed out that they cannot speak – hardly criticisms one would level against a Christmas tree, but very obvious ones when we are discussing carved idols.
It is tough, with this information before us, to justify the idea that Jeremiah 10 is condemning Christmas trees. Still, if Christmas trees are pagan in origin, some would still attempt to use Jeremiah 10 to argue that, in principle, all pagan practices should be shunned. So let us examine the actual origin of the Christmas tree.
It is absolutely true that evergreen trees had a big symbolic significance in pre-Christian, pagan Northern Europe. There are some records of these people groups decorating trees outside, and of bringing the branches of evergreen trees into the house. But none of these things can be said to be true Christmas trees, and while the reverence for evergreen trees might have pagan origins, the first Christmas trees were Christian in origin and showed up, at the earliest, in the early 16th century. The earliest renditions featured apples hung in the tree as a symbolic throwback to the Adam and Eve story, and a bunch of other stuff was added shortly afterwards. It started in Northern Germany, with unverified tradition attributing them to Martin Luther, and spread out from there to the rest of the world.
So that appears to settle that.
But there are other pagan influences on Christmas. As we spread, we absorbed and co-opted traditions of pagan holidays like Koliada and Yule, many of which can still be seen today. Do the warnings in Jeremiah 10 apply to these things?
The answer seems obvious: No. Jeremiah 10 condemns the adoption of idols. Idols were other deities, and the creation of idols is said to be a practice we should rightly shun. But from a Christian perspective, trees and December 25th and all of these things were ultimately created by God. Paganism didn’t steal them away from Him, that doesn’t even make sense. Must we refuse to use anything a pagan in the past has used, no matter how holy our intentions in using it? Of course not, that is absurd. Using trees to celebrate the birth of the Messiah and gathering together to be grateful and to love each other and spend time together as a family… How can that be anything but good?
With these things in mind, enjoy your Christmas, and know that, at the very least, the Christmas Tree is a totally Christian invention.