Nativity or Advent is a season for many wonderful things, but it’s also an opportunity for the anti-religious to hurl rhetoric against the Church.
Ranging from offensive to ridiculous, these claims are perpetuated by a lack of research, unsubstantiated assertions, internet memes, repeated half-truths or myths, and even a passionate hatred that blinds one to the absurd. Unfortunately, however, some of the assaults on Christmas or its associated customs come from Christians.
For example, traditional English and Scottish Presbyterians—many of whom arrived in the New World in early waves of Puritan immigration—are known for their rejection of all “holy days” but the Sabbath (which is Sunday for them), including both Christmas and Easter. There were even times in Presbyterian history when Christmas and its celebration was forbidden, punishable by law. In their arguments, Christmas trees were little more than pagan idols, and the holiday itself was an innovation of the antichrist.
Christmas trees were associated in traditional Presbyterian polemics with the trees of Jeremiah, ch. 10 (vv. 3–4):
A tree is cut down from the forest; it is a carpenter’s work and a molten image. They are adorned with silver and gold. With hammers and nails they have fastened them; they will fasten them, and they will not be moved.
Of course, what’s really being forbidden in the context of Jeremiah’s prophecy—and elsewhere in Isaiah, ch. 44—is the use of wood to fashion idols of false deities, not the acquisition of a tree and its decoration between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is simply a case of using the scriptures to “prooftext” an argument in one’s favor, no matter how spurious the claims might be.
In a brief article on the legitimate origins of the Christmas tree custom in the West, Fr. Daniel Daly writes:
The Christmas tree does not date from early Germanic times. Its origins are to be found in a tradition that has virtually disappeared from Christianity, the Liturgical Drama. In the Middle Ages liturgical plays or dramas were presented during or sometimes immediately after the services in the churches of Western Europe. The earliest of these plays were associated with the Mysteries of Holy Week and Easter …
One mystery play was presented on Christmas Eve, the day which also commemorated the feast of Adam and Eve in the Western Church. The “Paradise Play” told the well-known story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. The central “prop” in the play was the Paradise Tree, or Tree of Knowledge. During the play this tree was brought in laden with apples.
The Paradise Tree became very popular with the German people. They soon began the practice of setting up a fir tree in their homes. Originally, the trees were decorated with bread wafers commemorating the Eucharist. Later, these were replaced with various kinds of sweets. Our Christmas tree is derived, not from the pagan yule tree, but from the paradise tree adorned with apples on December 24 in honor of Adam and Eve.
In the Eastern or Orthodox tradition, trees (the “cedars of Lebanon”) were brought into Byzantine churches to be decorated with icons of the prophets and forerunners of Christ “according to the flesh.” This is a custom certainly worth continuing, known as the Jesse Tree.
The Tree of Jesse is a visual teaching aid—particularly helpful for children—of the “family tree” of Jesus Christ. For each of the forty days Nativity, and the twelve days of Christmas (or “Christmastide“), a new ornament depicting one of Christ’s family members is hung, and an associated scripture passage read. The readings begin with the creation of the world in Genesis, reach their pinnacle on Nativity with the birth of Christ, and then conclude with the ministry of John the Baptizer.
Whether one uses their family Christmas tree or another one specifically for it, the Jesse Tree is a wonderful custom, directly relating the “reason for the season” to our decorated trees.
There are no secret, hidden, or pagan origins of Christmas trees. Their heritage in Germanic, Christian dramatizations is honorable enough, and the Tree of Jesse is an even better way to use the trees we likely already have to draw closer to the life of our God each Nativity season.