Several years ago, when I was working for an organization connected to a Mennonite church, a superior cautioned me that Christmas trees were not allowed to be used in any part of our Christmas decorations. This was quickly followed by the assurance that “Winter Trees” were perfectly acceptable. This little episode still makes me smile when I remember it, and I think it illustrates the controversy that surrounds some traditions. But the controversy should not turn us away from discussing and thinking about an idea. Our God loves truth, and when we use our minds to seek it out and make it known, we are serving Him. We are going to take some time to look at the history of the Christmas tree and some of the arguments that surround the practice.
The history of the Christmas tree is not easily traced because the historical record is incomplete on the matter, and myth and legend have creeped up to fill in the gaps. We do know that the modern concept of a Christmas tree, found in homes with decorations, lights, and gifts, is just the latests conception of what a Christmas tree is. When we go back in time, we find descriptions change. For example, Queen Charlotte is credited with bringing the first Christmas tree to England in 1800 (Barnes, 2). Her tree was decorated with treats and gifts for the children, making it both decorative and functional as a centerpiece for a large Christmas celebration. Going back further in time, we find Germany to be the home of the oldest recorded reference to a Christmas tree. In 1561 a law was written at Alsace that limited each home to a single tree no more than 8 feet in height (Parachin, 51). Before that date, there are only a couple of references to trees that were used as decorative elements around the Christmas season. In the late 1400s and early 1500s there are accounts of merchant guilds decorating trees with food and paper decorations before carrying the tree to the town square and burning it in a sort of bonfire party. There are also paintings and descriptions of “Paradise Trees” that were used as props in Christian dramas about Adam and Eve from that same time period (Tait, 11). Because these dramas were often put on by guilds (Bertrin) around the Christmas season, it is possible that the trees became the inspiration for the decorative tree that later developed. It is here in the uncertainty of origins that several unsubstantiated myths have taken root.
One of the myths regarding the origin of the Christmas tree involves no less of a figure than Martin Luther. According to one story, Martin Luther was walking in a pine forest one night when he looked up and saw the stars through the branches of the trees. It reminded him of how Jesus left the beauty of the heavens to join mankind on earth, so he later cut down a tree and decorated it with candles to recreate the effect for his children. It is true that German protestants were much more likely to have a Christmas tree than their Catholic compatriots, but there is no historical backing to the story. There is likewise no evidence for the myth that the Christmas tree was inspired by or mimics pre-Christian pagan traditions. While some have noted parallels with the veneration for evergreen trees that was found in Viking and Teutonic cultures, the traditions of lighting candles and hanging wreaths in Roman cults, the use of holly in Celtic rituals, and the use of evergreen branches in some Egyptian religions, there is no real evidence that the Christmas tree is anything but a tradition maintained by and originating with people who believed themselves to be Christians.
So if the Christmas tree has a clear Christian past, why are some Christians, especially Anabaptists, opposed to the tradition? There are a number of arguments, some good and some that are not so good. One of the poorer arguments is based on the premise that the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol, and should therefore be avoided by any faithful follower of Christ. This argument has two significant flaws. First, as we have already established, there is no historical evidence to support that theory. For it to be true, the practice of decorating Christmas trees would have to have quietly survived for the hundreds of years between when Christianity replaced paganism and when Christmas trees became popular. That is unlikely. The second problem with this argument is that a symbol derives its power from the intentions and understandings of the people involved. Baptism is just playing with water unless the people involved understand the significance and consequences of the act. Without understanding communion is just eating and drinking, prayer is just talking to yourself, and the holy kiss is just weird. Just as the most powerful Christian symbols and practices are pointless without Christian understanding, a pagan symbol is only pagan when the person responsible has pagan understandings. To oppose the tradition of Christmas trees on the grounds that they are in some way pagan is not a good argument.
Those who choose to abstain from the Christmas tree tradition can justify their stance with better arguments that are rooted in Biblical truths. One such argument can be crafted by looking to the first of the ten commandments found in Exodus 20:3. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is a distinct command that still applies to all who worship Him today. Anything that comes before God in our lives can become a god (with a lowercase g). The God who created us and all that we see, who came to earth in human form to save us from ourselves in an unfathomable act of sacrifice, and who is constantly giving us strength and guidance should never take second place to a tree. If the trappings and traditions of the Christmas season are in danger of overpowering the true majesty of God, they need to go.
There are other arguments for and against the Christmas tree tradition that we don’t have time to explore here, but we welcome your involvement! Feel free to leave a comment on your own beliefs or understandings about the Christmas tree tradition, and maybe an explanation of why you hold to that position. And if you know any more Christmas tree history, we would all love to hear it. Thank you for reading and remember to keep serving God with all of your mind!
Barnes, Alison. “The First Christmas Tree.” History Today, vol. 56, no. 12, Dec. 2006, pp. 2–3. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=23306685&site=ehost-live&authtype=sso&custid=s8415227.
Bertrin, Georges, and Arthur F.J. Remy. "Miracle Plays and Mysteries." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 15 Dec. 2018 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10348a.htm>.
Tait, Edwin Woodruff. “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum!” Christian History & Biography, no. 92, Fall 2006, p. 11. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=23306613&site=ehost-live&authtype=sso&custid=s8415227.
Parachin, Victor M. “The Christmas Tree.” Priest, vol. 68, no. 12, Dec. 2012, pp. 50–43. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=82828626&site=ehost-live&authtype=sso&custid=s8415227.