Stealing Christmas Part 1: The Tree

This week, as we creep closer to the 25th of December, we’re running a daily excerpt from Jason Boyett’s article “Stealing Christmas” (which appeared in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of RELEVANT). In it, Jason takes on some of the traditions we associate with the birth of our Savior and finds that some of them didn’t start out so “Christian.” So, since we live  in a culture often defined this time of year by a “War on Christmas” or a “War Defending Christmas,” we thought it would be fun (and informative) to look at where some of our most beloved traditions really come from. Check back each day to find out more ways that we’ve “stolen Christmas.”

Part 1: The Tree

The origins of the evergreen Christmas tree are so shadowy, few places agree where it came from, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t Bethlehem. Ancient Egypt is a contender. Around the time of the winter solstice—the longest night of the year, occurring on either Dec. 21 or 22—Egyptians would bring palm branches into their homes, taking a hopeful stand against the encroaching darkness.

Ancient Rome might also be a culprit. In late December, the Romans observed the feast of Saturnalia—a week-long winter festival honoring the god Saturn—by making evergreen laurel wreathes and placing candles in live trees.

Our Christmas trees might have roots in Scandinavian folk mythology. According to these beliefs, the entire universe was contained in a really big ash tree called Yggdrasil, which balanced the sun, moon and stars in its evergreen branches. With this in mind, the ancient Scandinavians celebrated the winter solstice by hanging apples, nuts and little animal-shaped cakes from evergreen trees. Perhaps the ornamented trees reminded them of their place in the universe. Or rather, the universe’s place in Yggdrasil.

Regardless of the culture, these tree-related customs reminded people winter wasn’t forever. After all, the winter was a scary time for ancient pagans. The days grew shorter. The sun appeared less and less. Vegetation withered up during the winter months. But evergreen trees? The harsh winters didn’t faze them. Maybe evergreens had magical powers. Maybe they were eternal. Which is why eventually connecting them with Jesus wasn’t all that difficult.

One Christmas tree origin story involves St. Boniface, an eighth-century monk and the eventual archbishop of Germany. He had a run-in with some local tribes who worshiped a tree at Geismar known as the Holy Oak of Thor. They considered the tree some kind of leafy deity. Boniface wasn’t too keen on this, so he did what any good saint would do: He chopped down the sacred tree.

According to legend, the tree split to reveal a small, miraculous fir tree growing amid its gnarled roots. Boniface seized the timely metaphor and suggested the little fir tree ought to remind those pagans of Jesus. See how it seems to point toward heaven? And see how its color is constant, like the love of Christ? And see how it sorta seems to symbolize the death of paganism and the rise of Christianity?

So Boniface (and in other tales, Martin Luther) gets credit for the Christmas tree. But most scholars agree this story is probably apocryphal. It pretty conveniently disguised the fact that evergreen trees have always played a big role in winter solstice observances. A big, fat, pagan role.

8 Comments

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Jim Gray commented…

the entire tree thing is an american tradition...not a Biblical one...

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John commented…

December 25th was obvious because of the feasts that were already taking place at the time - feasts that were mentioned like Saturnalia and others that celebrated the Winter Solstice. The celebrations centered around the Solstice, which was the longest night of the year (in terms of elapsed time from sunset to sunrise). The next day, the nights would begin to be shorter - thus, the end of the Winter Solstice symbolized the "birth" or "re-birth" of "light" into the world, since the days would start getting longer. In addition to that, plants and vegetation would soon return, so the "light" brought "life" with it. It was very easy for Christians to see the obvious connection to the Incarnation. It is not much different than pastors and churches today taking a "pagan" element - such as a TV show or movie - that has nothing explicitly to do with Christ, yet pointing out the ways in which it reveals the Messiah. Easter is similar - there were pagan feasts and celebrations celebrating the seasonal "return" of "life", symbolized by bunnies and chicks and flowers. It was natural for early Christians to explain the Resurrection story along with those celebrations as a means of evangelism.

And on a side note, we have no idea when Jesus was actually born. Many people suggest that it was not in December simply because the Bible says that the Shepherds were "keeping watch over their flocks AT NIGHT" (emphasis mine). Some have pointed out however that the climate of Bethlehem is not as harsh as say, New England - and therefore the plausibility of them staying in the fields overnight in December is not a stretch. One scholar - Alfred Edersheim - lays out a case that December 25th (give or take a week or two) IS actually the birthdate of Christ, due to the known date of the death of King Herod.

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Larry Westfall commented…

It doesn't seem very important to me to discover where the practice of decorating a Christmas tree came from. It would prove to be good trivia I suppose. Christmas is a time that we have set aside on the calendar to celebrate the birth of Christ. Why we do that or the fact that we have chosen December 25 doesn't seem to be that important to me either.

Is it really an un-Christian act to decorate a tree? If an evergreen tree can be used to symbolize eternity then by all means use it. It doesn't matter what culture used it first and what they used it for. We can use the beauty of God's creation for good just as he intended.

Is everyone and every church that celebrates the birth of Christ on December 25 in error? My son was born on December 25 and we have never celebrated his birthday on this day so that his special day does not get lost in the season. Does that make me a bad parent? My son still feels special on the day that we choose to celebrate and it hasn't, from my perspective, diminished his spiritual or emotional stability. Again, if we have chosen this day to celebrate the birth of Jesus, then what does it matter? If Jesus was born in July or September it doesn't change the fact that we as Christians have something to celebrate. Maybe the problem is that we only do it once a year and we need to fight about how to get it right. Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year! The whole world changes for this brief moment in time. Why not do something with it? That is what Christ would do!

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Anonymous commented…

Angela,

There's a difference between a ritual and a tradition. Christmas trees are a tradition that we have adopted. As someone else stated in the comments, many of the traditions that we now treat as sacred, were started to appeal to the non-Believers, which is in keeping with Jesus and His mission. To go one step further, and I don't think Jason Boyett would disagree with me - much of what we 'stole' to create this holiday season of Christmas was more redeemed by believers who did as Paul did on Mars Hill - take a pagan representation of something and show how it can also represent Christ the Creator and Redeemer - and does because He DID create everything.

The Jeremiah passage tells Jewish people not to do as the heathens do. The Acts passage, along with Romans 12, tells Christians to redeem this fallen world by transforming and renewing our minds to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth.

While some traditions and rituals are to be avoided, I hardly think Christmas trees fall into something that is going to bring us down into sin. Unless of course, we start worshipping the traditions and rituals more than the Christ, which is a much bigger issue than can be discussed here, but is happening in churches across the country, ignoring what the Bible teaches in favor of human rituals (like incense, priests/pastors, sermons, stale communion, etc.)

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elranya commented…

You're taking that verse out of context. It states they'd cut down a tree, and a workman would chisel it, and they'd adorn it with silver and gold. He's talking about the idols they make and worship, which we are to have nothing to do with. Read verse 5, "Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak, they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them, they can do you no harm nor can they do any good." This has nothing to do with the tradition of decorating an evergreen at Christmas time.

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