Time for a seasonal issue. Ho, ho, ho! Does the Bible say it’s wrong to have Christmas trees?
Some of you are now squinting and maybe laughing at the thought. Others are nodding, having heard this belief from someone or somewhere. Maybe other readers are agreeing soberly and very seriously that yes, the Bible does have a verse that forbids dressing up a tree indoors.
My hope is not to offend anyone, especially those in the third group. Also, God forbid I should actually tempt you to do something that truly would violate your conscience. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 keep me from doing that.1
What this piece won’t address is two things:
- Whether Christians or the Romans truly started Christmas.
- Whether a Christmas tree or other traditions are pagan in origin.
Perhaps a future column could address these issues, from historical and personal perspectives. Rather, the specific question is: does the Bible actually condemn decorating a Christmas tree?
Ye have heard that it was said …
It’s wrong to have and decorate a Christmas tree (Jeremiah 10: 1-5).
AKA: Having a Christmas tree could be like having an idol.
A Christian family, citing concerns about acting or appearing like the world, decides not to have a Christmas tree with their annual December tradition. They may give gifts, sing carols, or even have an Advent wreath or Nativity scene, but the Christmas tree is out. We don’t want to base things around an object that is like an idol, they explain. Jesus is the reason for the season.
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.2
What’s the truth in this?
Materialism, stress, shoppers rushing home with their treasures, silver bells, etc., are definitely not the reason for the season. Jesus is. It would be wrong to assure people that holiday traditions are fine and good without also saying they can be corrupted. Surely for some people, a Christmas tree can be something that distracts from His incarnation as a human baby.
What’s the lie in this?
But is Jesus only the reason for the season? Isn’t He also the reason for everything? Could everything include an evergreen tree decorated with bright lights, bows, ornaments? Is such a thing a “creation” of the devil or the world? Or can they only twist good things God has made?
Many people in effect “worships” things like cars, food, a job, a marriage, family members and friends, even a church. Should Christians give up on all such good things, created by God? Yes, they can be twisted. But we know humans themselves are twisted — though created as good, human nature is corrupted by sin (Romans 2-3) and even Christians still struggle with remnants of their sinful nature (Romans 6, 1 John 1:8). Christians aren’t told to avoid all other humans.
But all that may not matter if Jeremiah really and specifically condemned Christmas trees. . . .
What’s the Word?
The writer: Jeremiah, a specially appointed prophet of God to Israel.
His audience: people of God’s original covenant who, true to form, had wandered away again, tempted by idolatry and other rejections of God’s law. In short, “They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear my [God’s] words” (Jeremiah 11:10).
“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 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.”
Jeremiah 10: 1-4
“Silver and gold”? Yes, it sounds like part of a Christmas song. But was Jeremiah really addressing Christians of about 2,500 years later who, as part of celebrating Christ’s birth, might bring an evergreen tree indoors to decorate? Rather, who was Jeremiah’s audience? They were citizens of Israel, who were wandering blindly after dumb customs of other nations.
Without reading further, we might even see he doesn’t even say this is part of an idol-worship tradition. God only proclaims such customs as “vanity.” One could say that’s a sin too, but this is more the sort of “vanity” that means useless.3 God is describing their custom as just dumb.
Real idols are next. His thought continues: these objects are worthless. They can’t even do evil.
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.”
The “they cannot do evil” part is key here. Items used for idol worship are not themselves evil. They may be stupid, vain and useless.4 But what is evil is how the people treat them.
If I really tried, I could treat a Christmas tree as my idol, even worshiping it likeunto a god, and claim that passage doesn’t apply to me. Why? I could say I haven’t cut down my tree with an axe (it’s artificial!) and I didn’t use silver and gold decorations (I used green and red) and didn’t need nails to fasten it (a Christmas tree stand works just as well). But still it would be an idol.
Remember part of what Jesus told His hearers, after more debates over true and false moral laws with the Pharisees, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7: 14-23).
Heart check: do you treat your Christmas tree like an idol? Does cutting it down — or putting it together from a box — and putting up lights, ornaments and more draw you away from God? Do you value a tree too highly? For you, would it even be a worthless practice?
If so, then yes, you may have something in common with the pagan practitioners whom Jeremiah (speaking for the Lord) condemned. You shouldn’t have a Christmas tree.5
But such sin isn’t a tree’s fault — any more that it’s the Bible’s fault when, ahem, its verses like this are wrongly thought to be specifically about modern practices, which ignores the (human) author, his (and His) audience, and the reason for the writing.
Again, it would Biblically be wrong to insist someone must have a Christmas tree for whatever reason, or even celebrate Christmas at all, to be a truly spiritual person.
Yet people who are worried about acting worldly should consider questions like these:
- Would it really violate your conscience to have a Christmas tree? Or would it only seem to resemble a compromise with the world?
- Perhaps some parents believe a tree (or giving gifts, etc.) is something they must avoid for the sake of their children, so they will remember that Christians must have different standards. Yet should that truth be balanced also with the truth that objects are not evil, but how they are treated can be evil?
- What message does this show non-Christians about where we believe sin comes from?
- Depending on your motivations, could not having a Christmas tree be a kind of idol?
- Would you personally be sinning against God in your heart by having a Christmas tree?
Even if a Christmas tree, or another tradition, does have pagan origins (which itself is disputable anyway, according to Gene Veith and many others6), maybe the children of some Christians need to learn in this way that God can take “pagan” things and redeem them from sin for His glory.
A Christmas tree can be an example of this. Jesus is the reason for the season, but He is also the reason for everything. And Christmas trees, gift-giving, even stories of Santa Claus, can be included, in context, serving as teaching moments, with both showing and telling, as ways to glorify God to Christian children and their parents. That works even better than acting (in deed, even if not saying so openly), that it is a tree with lights, and not human nature, that brings sin.
After all, a prime example of a dirty pagan thing redeemed for the service of the Savior: you.
- Yet Christians with stricter standards are also told not to judge those who don’t follow those standards as somehow less spiritual or more worldly. ↩
- “The Christmas Tree Debate,” Ernest Martin, Nov. 1, 1991. ↩
- Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon: it’s the Hebrew word hebel, meaning emptiness, uselessness, vapor or mist, something that doesn’t last. The author of Ecclesiastes uses the same term to describe (from a Godless perspective) the uselessness of work, or pleasures, or anything. ↩
- The Hebrew term hebel is first used in Deuteronomy 32:21, in which God says that idol-worshipers “have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols.” That last word, idols, is translated vanities in the KJV; the words here are interchangeable. ↩
- The same could be true if you really don’t care about having a tree anyway. ↩
- See “Why December 25?”, Gene Veith, World magazine, Dec. 10, 2005. ↩