The Pagan Origins of Christmas Trees

The Pagan Origins of Christmas Trees

Nativity or Advent is a season for many wonderful things, but it’s also an opportunity for the world to try and attack the traditions of 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.

G. V. Martini

About G. V. Martini

G. V. Martini works as a senior product manager for a software company and is a subdeacon in the Orthodox Church. He and his family attends St. Innocent Antiochian Orthodox Church in Everson, Washington.

Feast DaysProtestantism

4 comments:

  1. It is also popular on the internet to trace the “pagan origins” of many other elements in Christianity. They appeal to astrology, Mithraism, Sol Invictus, etc.

    All of these arguments have one response- Christ did not come to destroy what came before, but to fulfill. If the life and teachings of Christ manage to act as a convergence point for so many various streams of human thought, then this in and of itself is miraculous.

    Many things existed before the incarnation and were subsequently “baptized” into the Church. Theologians drew from Greek philosophy. Architects copied the Roman Basilicas. Scripture was translated into different languages, thus using pre-existing categories of meaning. The word “God” itself has been purified by its contact with Christ…this word used to refer to Odin (“Godan” in Ostrogothic).

    It doesn’t really matter what things used to mean. All that matters now is what things mean when they are in Christ and the Holy Spirit. The idea of Transfiguration applies not only to humans, but to the whole world.

    1. Ted:
      In general, I agree with your comment. However, I think this point is factually incorrect:

      “The word “God” itself has been purified by its contact with Christ…this word used to refer to Odin (“Godan” in Ostrogothic).”

      The English word “god” did originally refer to pagan gods before being adapted to Christian usage (as with the Greek, Latin, Slavonic, etc. words for God), so the basic point being made is still valid. However, I am pretty sure it didn’t refer specifically to Odin, and it certainly isn’t etymologically the same as the name Odin; in Old English, the word for “god” began with “g”, and the word for “Odin” began with “w” (still preserved at the beginning of our week name “Wednesday”). These sounds reflect different prehistoric Germanic sounds, so the two words must have been distinct even in the original Proto-Germanic language.

      Wikipedia says that the theory that the word “God” is related to the name “Odin” is no longer academically accepted: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_%28word%29

  2. It would help to remember that the Lord, er, made the pagans, too.
    The Lamb was slain before the foundations of the world….
    Ancient pagan rituals did not “come before” Jesus did, you know….He was there… in Plato’s cave, among other places….don’t let history bind you

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