My family and I participated in an annual tradition. We set up and decorated our Christmas tree. As I came home from church the other day, I noticed that traffic was heavy coming from the mountains. Car after car cruised down the road sporting a freshly chopped evergreen tied to the vehicle. While their evergreens were real and ours was more of the artificial flavor, a recent conversation caused me to ponder whether the tradition was a good idea. Many claim that Christmas trees hold a pagan past and represent anti-Christian beliefs. Is this true? Are evergreens symbols of paganism or are they symbols of Christianity? Well, the answer is “yes” to both. This article will investigate the origins of the Christmas tree tradition and will investigate the place of symbols.
Evergreens: A Pagan Symbol?
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime” (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2012, http://www.britannica.com/plant/Christmas-tree). To the Egyptians, the evergreen represented resurrection. For many other cultures, it was a symbol of eternal life. For the Hebrews, the evergreen had distinct representations which will be addressed in the next section. Many pagans would hang evergreen limbs in their homes to signify the winter solistice. The evergreens served as a reminder that the days were going to lengthen and were possibly used to worship a sun god. “Germanic peoples would celebrate the winter festival by honoring the pagan god Odin. Many believed he would fly through the night sky (on a magical flying horse) and determine who would be blessed or cursed in the coming year. Many decided to stay indoors, fearing Odin’s wrath” (Mintz 2014, International Business Times).
So, those who claim that the symbol of evergreens holds a pagan past are correct. However, what should be remembered is that evergreens holds a distinct symbol in the history of the Christian church as well.
Evergreens: A Christian Symbol?
As noted in the previous section, evergreens holds a symbolic place with the ancient Hebrews. Evergreens served as a symbol of God’s eternal nature. Hosea quotes God as saying, “O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit” (Hosea 14:8). Isaiah considers the cypress to be a symbol of God’s blessings when noting that “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 55:13). Some even hold that the evergreen could be a symbol for the tree of life.
So, how did the evergreen become associated with Christmas? Well, there are several theories. An ancient tradition laced with fact and legend supposes that Boniface could have been the one who initiated the tradition in Germany. Boniface, also known as Wynfrith, was appointed by Pope Gregory II as a missionary to the Germans in the early 700s. Boniface was an ardent defender of Christianity and sought to destroy paganism in any way possible. Boniface was aghast to find that the Germanic peoples were worshipping an oak tree devoted to Thor (some say it was to Odin). Galli and Olsen note that Boniface “immediately took an axe to it. After only a few blows, the tree toppled to the ground, breaking into four pieces and revealing itself to be rotted away from within” (Galli & Olsen 2000, 365). The aforementioned is documented historical fact. Legend has it that an evergreen had begun to grow inside or around the Oak of Thor. Legend states that Boniface taught that the evergreen served as a symbol that the old pagan ways had died and had renewed in the Christian faith. While this tradition could be true, the practice of placing evergreens inside one’s home did not come until later.
One tradition points the Christian practice of placing trees in one’s home to the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, which may explain why later Catholics saw the practice as a Protestant tradition. It is said that Luther saw the evergreen tree as it pointed to heaven. He believed it served as a symbol of God’s eternal grace as it pointed to heaven. It is said that Luther brought the tree inside his home and placed lights around the tree symbolizing the light of Christ (O’Neal & LaRochelle 2001, 22).
The practice continued to develop in Germany before being transferred over to England. Neil Armstrong in the writing German History quotes the Illustrated London News as saying that “As Christmas eve always falls on the evening of Adam and Eve’s day, an orthodox Christmas-Tree will have the figures of our first parents at its foot, and the serpent twining himself round its stem. By a bold stretch of theological fancy, the Tree, with its branches and tapers, is … understood to typify the genealogy of our Lord” (Armstrong 2008, 495).
Therefore, the Christmas tree finds itself a home among a rich history of Christian tradition. But, how can one decide whether the Christmas tree is a symbol of the Christian faith or a symbol of paganism as it holds a place both traditions?
Symbols and the Christmas Tree
It must be remembered that symbols hold no power in and of themselves. Symbols are a medium for communicating a particular truth. Often, the church has taken symbols that had pagan roots and transformed them in order to use them to present a Christian message. Such a practice does not mean that the church adopted pagan practices. It simply means that the church contextualized the gospel message so that the message would make sense to those who had not concept of Christ, God, or salvation. I would have to agree with O. Z. Soltes in that “symbolic imagery can transform visual particulars while preserving the underlying meaning and message across time and space” (Soltes 2009, 144). Jesus used agrarian symbols in his parables to bring forth a particular message. John used the logos principle, which had a deep history in both Jewish and Greek philosophy (even moreso with the latter), as part of his didactic to teach that Jesus was divinely incarnated. Paul addresses the people of Athens using the phrase “to the unknown God” (Acts 17:23) on a pagan place of worship in order to teach them that this unknown God was the true God of all creation.
There is nothing wrong for a Christian to own a Christmas tree. While the evergreen has some history in pagan religions, the evergreen holds an even deeper history in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Symbols are not good and evil in and of themselves. Symbols are what we communicate them to be as they are a medium of communication. The letters I use for this article are in fact symbols used to communicate a particular message. So, rest easy. Allow the rich history of the evergreen (representing God’s eternal grace) and the lights (representing the light of Christ) to deepen your Christmas traditions as you turn your lives inward and upward to God this Christmas season.
In the end, we must all remember that Jesus is the reason why we have a Christmas season!
© November 30, 2015. Brian Chilton.
“Christmas Tree.” Encyclopaedia Britannica (2012). Accessed November 30, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/plant/Christmas-tree.
Galli, Mark, and Ted Olsen, “Introduction,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
Illustrated London News (23 Dec. 1854). In Neil Armstrong. “England and German Christmas Festlichkeit c.1800–1914.” German History 26, 4 (2008): 486-503. Accessed November 30, 2015. doi:10.1093/gerhis/ghn047.
Mintz, Zoe. “Winter Solstice 2014: 3 Things to Know about Pagan Yule Celebrations.” International Business Times (December 19, 2014). Accessed November 30, 2015. http://www.ibtimes.com/winter-solstice-2014-3-things-know-about-pagan-yule-celebrations-1763756.
O’Neal, Debbie Trafton, David LaRochelle. Before and After Christmas. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001. p. 22.
Soltes, O. Z. “Symbols of Faith Within the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Traditions. Religions (2009):140-159. Accessed November 30, 2015. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/898917750?accountid=12085
 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).