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Christmas

All about the Christmas Tree: Pagan origins,
Christian adaptation, & secular status

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Quotation:

"Many Americans celebrate both Christmas and Xmas. Others celebrate one or the other. And some of us celebrate holidays that, although unconnected with the [winter] solstice, occur near it: Ramadan, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa." John Silber 1

Silber's statement was correct when he wrote it in the year 2000. However, Islam follows a lunar calendar. Its holy days thus move earlier each year by about 11 days. Thus, by 2010, the first day of Ramadan has moved back to August.

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Overview:

Some have traced the Christmas tree back at least as far as the Prophet Jeremiah who wrote the book Jeremiah in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).

Opposition to the Christmas tree was intense in past centuries. The early Christian Church in the third century CE strictly prohibited the decoration of their houses with evergreen boughs. The decorated Christmas tree only caught on in the mid-19th century.

Modern-day opposition continues: some condemn the Christmas tree because they believe that the custom of cutting down a tree, erecting it in the home and decorating it is a Pagan custom. 1

For many people today, it is  primarily as a secular symbol of hope for the New Year and the future return of warmth to the earth. Its future is assured in spite of opposition.

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Objections to the Christmas Tree:

In the past, there have been many objections to Christmas trees:

bullet The Prophet Jeremiah condemned as Pagan the ancient Middle Eastern practice of cutting down trees, bringing them into the home and decorating them. Of course, these were not really Christmas trees, because Jesus was not born until centuries later, and the use of Christmas trees was not introduced for many centuries after his birth. Apparently, in Jeremiah's time the "heathen" would cut down trees, carve or decorate them in the form of a god or goddess, and overlay it with precious metals. Some Christians currently feel that this Pagan practice was similar enough to our present use of Christmas trees that this passage from Jeremiah can be used to condemn both:

Jeremiah 10:2-4: "Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." (King James Version).

bullet In Europe, Pagans in the past did not cut down whole evergreen trees, bring them into their homes and decorate them. That would have been far too destructive of nature. But during the Roman celebration of the feast of Saturnalia, Pagans did decorate their houses with clippings of evergreen shrubs. They also decorated living trees with bits of metal and replicas of their God, Bacchus.

Tertullian (circa 160 - 230), an early Christian leader and a prolific writer, complained that too many fellow-Christians had copied the Pagan practice of adorning their houses with lamps and with wreathes of laurel at Christmas time. 8,9,10,11

bulletThe English Puritans condemned a number of customs associated with Christmas, such as the use of the Yule log, holly, mistletoe, etc. Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event." 2,4

bullet In America, the Pilgrim's second governor, William Bradford, a Calvanist, tried hard to stamp out all "pagan mockery" at Christmas time. 4 Christmas trees were not used by Puritans in colonial times. However, if they were, they would certainly have been forbidden.

bullet In 1851, Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland OH appears to have been the person responsible for decorating the first Christmas tree in an American church. His parishioners condemned the idea as a Pagan practice; some even threatened the pastor with harm. But objections soon dissipated. 2

Even today, the complaints continue:

bulletAt Christmas 2000, the city manager of Eugene OR ordered that Christmas trees could not be erected on city properties because he considered them Christian religious symbols. He felt that their presence would violate the principle of church and state. 1 This is just one of countless conflicts that have surfaced at Christmas time over religious and quasi-religious observances.

bullet A few fundamentalist Christian groups oppose Christmas trees and even the celebration of Christmas for their members. This includes the Jehovah's Witnesses and, until recently, the Worldwide Church of God. Part of the opposition is because the custom of decorated trees originated among Pagans. They also oppose trees because of a literal interpretation of the quotation from Jeremiah.
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Origins of the Christmas Tree: 

bullet Pagan traditions: Many Pagan cultures used to cut boughs of evergreen trees in December, move them into the home or temple, and decorate them. 7 Modern-day Pagans still do. This was to recognize the winter solstice -- the time of the year that had the shortest daylight hours, and longest night of the year. This occurs annually sometime between DEC-20 to 23; most often, it is DEC-21. As the solstice approached, they noticed that the days were gradually getting shorter; many feared that the sun would eventually disappear forever, and everyone would freeze in the dark. But, even though deciduous trees, bushes, and crops died or hibernated for the winter, the evergreen trees remained green. They seemed to have magical powers that enabled them to withstand the rigors of winter.

bulletNot having evergreen trees, the ancient Egyptians considered the palm tree to symbolize resurrection. They decorated their homes with its branches during the winter solstice. 3

bullet"The first decorating of an evergreen tree began with the heathen Greeks and their worship of their god Adonia, who allegedly was brought back to life by the serpent Aessulapius after having been slain." 5

bulletThe ancient Pagan Romans decorated their "trees with bits of metal and replicas of their god, Bacchus [a fertility god]. They also placed 12 candles on the tree in honor of their sun god" 2 Their mid-winter festival of Saturnalia started on DEC-17 and often lasted until a few days after the Solstice.

bullet In Northern Europe, the ancient Germanic people tied fruit and attached candles to evergreen tree branches, in honor of their god Woden. Trees were viewed as symbolizing eternal life. This is the deity after which Wednesday (Wodensday) was named. The trees joined holly, mistletoe, the wassail bowl and the Yule log as symbols of the season. All predated Christianity. 5

bulletChristmas traditions: 

bullet One Christmas tradition was that St. Boniface (675? - 755 CE; a.k.a. Winfred) cut down a deciduous tree in the presence of some newly-baptized Christians. The tree was an oak -- once sacred to the former Pagans. It miraculously split into four pieces, revealing an evergreen tree growing from the center of the oak stump. This was interpreted as symbolizing the death of Paganism and the establishment of Christianity. 3

bulletAnother is that Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) was so impressed by a forest scene that he allegedly cut down a small fir tree, took it home, and decorated it with lighted candles. This is probably a myth, because the earliest documented record of a Christmas tree in Germany is dated to almost 60 years after his death.

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History of the Christmas Tree: 

The modern Christmas tree tradition dates back to Western Germany in the 16th century. They were called "Paradeisbaum" (paradise trees) and were brought into homes to celebrate the annual Feast of Adam and Eve on DEC-24. 4  They were first brought to America by German immigrants about the year 1700. Christmas trees became popular among the general U.S. population about 1850. 2

President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) arranged to have the first Christmas tree in the White House, during the mid-1850's. President Calvin Coolidge (1885-1933) started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923. 4

Today, the Christmas Tree has become accepted by most Christians, by people of other faiths, and for those who do not follow an organized religion. It has become a popular late-December tradition and part of our present-day culture. Christmas Trees grace households and office buildings alike.

The trees take on a variety of shapes, sizes, and costs. Both the Christian and secular worlds have embraced traditional green firs, beautiful white flocked trees, and even pre-lit Christmas trees for those who have allergic reactions to live trees.

As Gail Quick, University of South Carolina - Beaufort's Dean of University Relations, commented on the occasion of a community tree-lighting ceremony.:

"This Christmas event every year is the glue that holds this community together - this and the July 4th fireworks. This always makes me feel good. Some of us still believe in Santa Claus." 6

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. John Silber, "Anti-Christmas stance isn't rooted in fact," Boston Herald, 2000-DEC-28. See: http://www.bostonherald.com/ Note: The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar that moves each year relative to the Gregorian calendar. Thus it just happend to be celebrated near Christmas during the year 2000. *
  2. Diane Relf, "Christmas Tree Traditions," Virginia Cooperative Extension, 1997-AOR, at: http://www.ext.vt.edu/ *
  3. "Christmas tree: Pointing towards heaven," at: http://ww2.netnitco.net/
  4. "What is a tree?," at: http://www.serve.com/ *
  5. "Should Christians celebrate Christmas?," at: http://www.sovereigngrace.net/ * 
  6. William Dean, "Christmas tree lighting sparks holiday spirit," Carolina Morning News on the Web, at: http://www.lowcountrynow.com/ *
  7. "The Christmas Tree as a Symbol of Pagan Baal Worship," The Ellen White Research Project, at: http://www.ellenwhite.org/ *
  8. "Tertullian," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  9. David Beaulieu, "Christmas Tree Decorating: The History of the Christmas Tree," Landscaping, About.com, at: http://landscaping.about.com/
  10. Turtulian, "On Idolatry," XV.

* Unfortunately, since the first draft of this menu was written in the year 2000, most of the above references have gone offline. You can sometimes resurrect archived copies of websites as they existed in the past by using the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive site at: http://www.archive.org/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-DEC-29
Latest update: 2013-OCT-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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