This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

O Christmas Tree

It is the first Sunday in Advent., the season of the Church Year where we think back on the times when people were waiting for the coming of the Messiah, and when we look ahead today His return. Last year in Advent, I posted an article debunking the idea that the date of Christmas was inspired by paganism. This year, in the spirit of debunking other criticisms of Christmas customs, I offer some historical reflections on Christmas trees.

Christmas trees, it is argued, are a remnant of the pagan past. Some sources (of questionable historical value) claim they go back to ancient Egypt, others claim ancient Babylon, still others point to Celtic, Roman or Norse paganism. Some even cite Jer. 10:2-5 as an explicit condemnation of Christmas trees.

Let’s deal with Jeremiah first. Modern translations indicate that what is being discussed here is cutting down a tree in the forest, shaping it with a tool (a chisel or axe), and covering it with gold and silver to make an idol. If there’s any question in your mind about this, I suggest you read the verses IN CONTEXT. Vs. 5 and 8-9 indicate that we are dealing with an idol, and that it is wearing purple clothing, not simply draped with gold and silver ornaments. So no, it isn’t a Christmas tree, and the only way to make it one is to force Christmas trees into a few selected verses taken out of context and using the King James translation since more modern translations won’t support the argument.

So Jeremiah is irrelevant, but what about the idea that Christmas trees come from paganism? People who cite Egypt as a source argue that they worshipped palm trees, and Druids oaks, and then conflate these with evergreens. Sorry, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense since neither palms nor oaks are evergreens.

On the other hand, the ancient Romans used evergreen wreaths to celebrate Saturnalia, and for that reason the early church did not use wreaths or evergreens as decorations. Of course, the church didn’t use candles or incense either for precisely the same reason. Likewise Yule logs were a pagan custom intended to call back the sun on the Winter solstice, and holly and ivy were pagan symbols of fertility; also, the pagan custom of using evergreens as winter decorations continued to be practiced in Scandinavia even after the region converted to Christianity, though the symbolism was reframed in Christian terms (more on that below).

None of this has anything to do with Christmas trees, however.

The earliest Christmas trees date to the mid- to late 1400s or early 1500s AD in Germany and German towns in the Baltic (not Scandinavia). That’s about 700 years since the region had converted to Christianity from paganism.

In fact, the most likely source is the use of a tree to symbolize the “Paradise Tree” in medieval mystery plays dealing with the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden. These trees were decorated with apples (later changed to balls) to symbolize the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, as well as wafers to represent the Eucharist. They were placed in people’s houses, and were closely associated with the Christmas season since the name day of Adam and Eve was celebrated on December 24 in many countries.

So the origin of Christmas trees is found in medieval and early modern Christianity, not in paganism, which had not been practiced in the region for many centuries.

But we need to address another question here: what about those practices that do have pagan roots, such as Yule logs, wreaths, and holly? Should Christians avoid them, even if for us they symbolize something totally different—eternal life through Christ—than they symbolized for the pagans who originated the practices?

Missiologists today are big on the idea that we need to contextualize the Gospel, that is, that we want to create indigenous forms of Christianity on the mission field. We want to spread the Gospel, not Western culture. As a result, missionaries are taught to look for the elements in the culture that are there by common grace that provide an entry point for the Gospel, and to encourage a culturally appropriate form of Christianity rather than reproduce Western models of the church.

So here’s the question: if that’s good enough to spread the Gospel to unreached people today, why don’t we think it was appropriate when Christian missionaries did precisely the same thing: taking elements of pagan culture and reinterpreting them to provide an entry point for the Gospel to our pagan ancestors? Why are we so shocked and appalled at ostensible pagan elements that have been reinterpreted in our Christianity, but have no problem when missionaries do parallel things in other cultures? Why do we insist our Christianity be “pure,” but not the Christianity spreading among newly reached peoples?

Whatever elements of paganism may have crept into our expression of Christianity, they were culturally appropriate and necessary in their day, and have been thoroughly baptized, reinterpreted, and Christianized. We have no reason to get hung up by “pagan Christianity,” especially in the Christmas season where the pagan roots of our practices have been greatly exaggerated. The rampant consumerism of our age is a different matter, but that’s a result of our own greed rather than paganism from millennia ago.