The tradition of decorating a pine tree for the holidays wasn’t always a Christian one and has a sorted history only Christ could redeem.
“’Christmas is really about bringing out your inner pagan,’ historian Kenneth C. Davis told CBS This Morning. According to Davis, Christmas was celebrated as early as the fourth century, suggesting that it had almost nothing to do with Jesus Christ.”
Pointing out pagan roots in Christmas traditions is a fairly standard secular approach to undercutting Christian celebrations. Objectively, though, some of the seasonal staples are a bit strange if we consider them more closely.
For example, evergreen trees don’t grow in the Middle East; it’s doubtful any of the earliest Christians were erecting pine trees in their houses to celebrate Christ’s birth, so why do we do it?
Should we even have Christmas trees then?
The Winter Tree of the Dead
Naysayers of Christian Christmas traditions would not be wrong in pointing out that the Christmas tree has had a sorted past.
Evergreen plants were historically used as symbols of long life and fertility, and the early Romans made them decorations in the house where they would hold their feasts to honor the god Saturn.
One of the earliest records specifically noting holiday tree decorations is a grisly one, unfortunately. The northern European god Woden—later and more popularly known as Odin—was celebrated on mōdra-niht, Christmas Eve. In his myths, Woden hung himself, impaled by a spear, in the boughs of a tree and then was resurrected after nine days. To memorialize this, worshipers are said to have hung the carcasses of animals and sometimes people from sacred trees near their villages.
Later stories tell about Saint Boniface, a monk who took the gospel through Germany in the eighth century, encountering locals sacrificing animals around an oak tree.
In an ABC News interview, Dr. Dominique Wilson related the tale: "Boniface seized his axe and felled the tree in order to stop the pagans worshiping a false idol and the pagans were waiting for him to be struck down by lightning, but it didn't happen. So at this stage, he took the opportunity to convert them."
According to the old story, the oak stump produced the sprout of a fir tree, which Boniface decided was a sign from God. Evergreen trees’ triangular shape is said to represent the trinity as well as be a symbol of Christ’s eternal life.
Regardless of which stories are true, there’s no denying that the Christmas tree had a bit of a rough start.
Adam and Eve’s Pine Tree?
Fast forward now a few centuries, and the Catholic churches in Germany were often throwing medieval plays to help the illiterate general population learn Bible stories.
One of the more popular plays featured Adam and Eve going back and forth beneath a “paradise tree” which was usually a fir with apples hung from its branches. Since the religious feast day for humanity’s first mother and father was near the end of December, it was only natural for many Germans to bring the “paradise tree” into their homes for the enjoyment of children and adults alike.
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the Christmas tree notes that the first traditional decorations, besides apples, were wafers “symbolizing the eucharistic host, the Christian sign of redemption.”
The wafers were eventually replaced by cookies, and soon after, people began adding figurines of biblical people or ornaments in the shape of Christian symbols.
Around this time, a popular story holds that Protestant reformer Martin Luther started the tradition of adding lights to Christmas trees. “Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.”
Despite this, the Christmas tree was still seen as unwholesome for a long time after its conversion, so to speak. Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell called it a heathen tradition, and Governor William Bradford attempted to outlaw this “pagan mockery” among the pilgrims.
It wasn’t until 1836 that Alabama became the first state in the US to legalize the celebration of Christmas, and after 1870, American schools began to close for the day.
The Two Trees of Humanity’s History
Glossing over the Christmas tree’s history is tempting, rather like ignoring some of the wilder shenanigans in a person’s pre-conversion past.
It might be equally as easy to condemn the practice of decorating evergreen trees for the holiday as some early clergy and theologians did, complaining that it drew believers into pagan celebrations and distracted from honoring Christ.
A thoughtful article in Christianity Today notes, however, that many missionaries to the Scandinavian countries took a different approach to Christmas trees. “These missionaries believed that the Incarnation proclaimed Christ's lordship over those natural symbols that had previously been used for the worship of pagan gods. Not only individual human beings, but cultures, symbols, and traditions could be converted.”
A tree that represented death and new life seems to be indelibly printed on the minds and imaginations of humanity, an echo of our souls’ history and God’s promise to Adam and Eve beneath the branches of one tree that he would bring salvation with his son and another “tree.”
The nonbelievers of the ancient world longed for someone to pull back the curtain of death and offer hope. They looked for this redemption in the wrong places, to be sure, but they recognized a shadow of the truth in the world around them as Romans 1:20 points out.
“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse”
What Matters in the End
Early in Acts, Peter has a vision of all types of animals and someone telling him to eat them. He protests that they are impure according to the stringent Jewish laws, and the voice says, “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean” (Acts 10:15).
Several gentiles show up at the place where he is staying and invite him to the house of a roman officer named Cornelius. Entering a gentile’s house would have made Peter unclean and unfit to enter the temple and worship God, according to Jewish law. However, he goes anyway.
Paul delves into the heart behind this with the Galatian church leaders.
“We who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive by faith the righteousness God has promised to us. For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or being uncircumcised. What is important is faith expressing itself in love. You were running the race so well. Who has held you back from following the truth? It certainly isn’t God, for he is the one who called you to freedom” (Galatians 5:5-8 NLT).
God brings us out of the darkness and puts his Spirit and a new nature in us. That should be what defines us and our relationship with the world.
“I don’t think God cares so much whether we put balls and lights on a tree,” Gary Wilkerson pointed out in a Christmas sermon. “He cares about whether we’re a light to the city, a light to the world.”
Like the Christmas tree, let each of us stand as a witness to our personal history redeemed.