O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, you stand in woodland beauty
You are as green in winter’s snow as in the summer’s richest glow
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, you stand in woodland beauty
I would be the first one to tell you that the above lyrics are tree-worship. It seems to be a great waste of time to stand in front of a tree and, though it cannot see nor hear you, flatter the tree by telling it how beautiful, green, and glowing it is. After all, why worship the tree when you can worship the tree’s Creator?
This idea of tree-worship leads us to consider an interesting question around the Christmas season: What about the Christmas Tree? Should Christians celebrate the Messiah’s birth with a Christmas Tree? Or is that a pagan practice that, at its roots, worships trees?
This is a good question, and a question that should be answered. The simple answer to the question is that there is nothing wrong with a Christmas Tree. It is not sinful in any particular way - it is an inanimate object. But simply because a tree is inanimate does not mean that we have dealt with all the implications of including trees in our Christmas celebrations. While money is neither good nor bad, the love of money is certainly not a good practice - it is the root of all sorts of evil! Thus, the real question to consider is this: Is the Christmas Tree profitable, in any way, when celebrating Christ’s birth? This is the question this article will seek to address.
Everyone knows a Christmas Tree when they see one. They average around six feet tall, with a fanned-out bottom that gradually and perfectly crests to a pointed top, upon which perfectly balances a small, golden star. With this iconic shape comes both a caution and a consideration.
First, the caution. Not only does everyone know a Christmas Tree when they see one, but they also know that when they do see one, it means there will be, or already are, dozens of brightly wrapped gifts holding “stuff” for the honoured recipient. The Christmas Tree tends to draw our eyes downwards. We are fascinated by the gifts. It does not take an article to tell you that this type of focus at Christmas time is not the best thing for us as Christians. The name Christmas tells us the very purpose of the holiday (or, shall we say, holyday) is to celebrate the incarnation of the holy Christ. To stare at the gifts littering the feet of a Christmas Tree is simply a wrong focus.
Gifts are not a bad thing at Christmas, though. Gifts give opportunities for us to demonstrate love and thoughtfulness towards one another, and they remind us of the wise men bringing gifts to baby Jesus - a story with which we are all so familiar. In fact, gifts can remind us of the greatest Gift of all, the Gift of God’s Son, and thus cultivate in us an attitude of gratitude rather than greed. So, what do we do about gifts under the Christmas Tree?
We can consider the shape of the Christmas Tree. As mentioned earlier, the Tree crests to a point on top. It should draw our gaze upwards, to the Creator of the Tree itself. Christmas Trees point us to the truths we hold dear at Christmas: The Most High gave us His Son, Who condescended to this earth to save His sheep. The tree, rather than distracting us from the “true meaning of Christmas,” actually points us to it. We must guard our eyes from the downward pull of presents and follow the God-made geometry of the Christmas Tree - up, up, up - to remember our Heavenly Father and His incarnate Son.
If you are still dubious as to whether the Christmas Tree actually points us to God, please do not give up just yet. There is another aspect of the Tree that must have adequate consideration: The Story. When you think of the story of the Christmas Tree, it might first come into your mind that this evergreen is a pagan ritual. And this notion is not unfounded. It is generally accepted that the pagan Romans used to bring little evergreens into their homes during the New Year. Some also ascribe similar practices to pagans in the Baltic states. Thus, while there is much dispute as to the exact origin of the Christmas Tree, we can be certain that the concept of an evergreen in a house for a holiday is pagan.
This might be a big deterrent for you. Which Christian would ever want to indulge in a pagan practice such as this? Is that not unholy? Would not God disapprove?
The problem with throwing out a Christmas Tree on the basis of its probable pagan origins is twofold: First, we don’t respond this way to other practices. Second, it doesn’t finish the story.
Christians today have many practices that are originally pagan that we don’t have a problem with. Take, for example, the names of our months and planets. We do not have a problem with “January” even though the name derives from “Janus,” a Roman god of the door (January is the door to the New Year). We also do not take issue with “Venus” and “Jupiter,” even though such planet names are derived from the Roman goddess Venus (goddess of love) and the Roman god Jupiter (king of the gods). Thus, if we as Christians already accept pagan names because they are no longer associated with pagans or their rituals, should we not view Christmas Trees in a similar manner?
And, we still have to finish out the story. The Christmas Tree (not the pagan evergreen) was propagated, surprisingly, by Martin Luther! Yes, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation loved the tradition of putting up a tree in his home and for his family at Christmas time. Unlike the pagan rituals of evergreens, Luther’s purpose in the tree, as we have received the tradition, was to remind his family of the life and light of Christ amidst the truly bleak midwinter. The Christmas tree was actually inaugurated as a tradition to remind us of Christ, not to celebrate Roman gods. Lights point to the True Light who came into the darkness (cf. John 1:4-5). The star points to the star God used to lead the Magi to Jesus in Matthew 2. The story of the Christmas Tree is a story founded on a Christian tradition to celebrate Christ in the midst of darkness. If we adopt “January” and “Jupiter” as simply names of months and planets, how much more should we adopt the Christmas Tree as part of Church history celebrating the Messiah!
As fascinating as the shape and story of the tree are, the draw of the presents and the reminders of the trappings of the world’s nasty perversion of Christmas (better to be called “Self-mas” as opposed to “Christ-mas”) may still outweigh the benefits of the Tree as described above. Yet, there may still be one final pine needle to break the camel’s back. That is, the surface of the Christmas Tree.
Now, please humour me with a rabbit-hole for a moment: A forest is a group of trees. Forests are also called woods. Woods, then, are extensive patches of land upon which trees grow. Woods are called woods because the trees which make them up are themselves woody. When we axe down trees, we are usually seeking wood (or perhaps paper). The surface of a tree is woody bark. Fish are scaly, bears are furry, trees are woody. It is a fundamental attribute of the tree.
Why that less-than-philosophical excursion into the composition of trees? Because wood is not only fundamental to trees, but also to the death of Messiah. It is quite clear in Scripture that Jesus Christ was crucified on a wooden cross. 1 Peter 2:24 actually says that “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree…” The very sacrifice that necessitated the incarnation took place on a tree. A cursed tree, upon which hung the Lamb cursed for us. If the Christmas Tree does nothing else, ought it not to point us to the death of Christ? Its woodiness must point our attention not just to the “Christmas Story,” but to the “Good Friday Story.” The substitutionary atonement of Jesus for us is proclaimed at Christmas Time in the Christmas Tree.
The Christmas Tree, then, is not altogether pagan and evil. Its shape points us to our Creator, its story points us to Church history, and its surface points us to the death of our Christ. The Christmas Tree, rather than hindering our worship at Christmas Time, can enhance it! As the culture presses “Self-mas” into all facets of Christmas, perverting everything from food to family to gifts to trees, we can be reminded by the Christmas Tree of the reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place.
So, let us not throw the Tree out with the Tree-worship. God has constructed the Tree to point back to Himself and to point to His Son. If we keep these truths in mind, it is only natural for the Christmas tree to be an enduring decoration at Christmas: Both for this Christmas and Christmases to come!