The Feast of Tabernacles, Hanukkah, and…Christmas? (Part 4: Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree)

There are two major directions that the argument against the use of Christmas trees takes: one is to reference Jeremiah 10:3-4; the other is to connect the Christmas tree to the pagan religions of ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  We’ll look at the Jeremiah passage first.

For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.  They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.  (Jeremiah 10:3-4)

While this is the most commonly heard argument against the use of Christmas trees, it is also the easiest to disprove.  The prophet, Jeremiah, is speaking clearly of the worship of idols, and drawing a contrast between the flagrant stupidities of idol worship versus the worship of the True Living God. While looking at the surface of the verses above, it could be interpreted that this describes a Christmas tree.  But it is important to recognize that the idea of a Christmas tree was not even in existence at the time this was written.  There is no reasonable proof from this passage or from history, that this passage is referencing a Christmas tree or anything that even resembles it.  Reading the entire context of the passage plainly describes the pagan custom of the cutting down of a tree by a craftsman, that tree being carved into an idol, plated with gold and silver, clothed with purple and blue cloth, and being carted around to be worshiped.  This is a wooden, carved idol plated with gold, in the image of whatever false deity was being worshiped.

The climax and primary focus of the passage is verse 10:

But the LORD is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king: at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his indignation.

We diminish the power of this passage when we allow ourselves to reduce it to a discussion about Christmas trees, especially when we understand that Christmas trees weren’t used until nearly 2,000 years after this Scripture was written.  By taking these two verses out of the greater context, we lose the truth that our God is living and powerful.  The point of the passage is that these idols are powerless, as stated in verse 5: “Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.” Jeremiah is making the argument that these idols are pointless.  They are simply wood and gold and silver.  There is nothing to them.  This isn’t exactly a damning condemnation of a Christmas tree as we are led by some to believe.

Context is important.  Here’s an example:

Ephraim shall say, “What have I to do any more with idols?  I have heard him, and observed him.”  I am like a green fir tree.  From me is thy fruit found. (Hosea 14:8)

In this verse, we have God, in His own words, describing Himself as a green fir tree.  Other translations even use the word “evergreen” tree.  This passage, on the surface, would indicate the opposite of what those opposed to the Christmas tree argue.  God is saying that the evergreen tree is symbolic of his very nature.

I would never use Hosea 14:8 to argue in favor of Christmas trees.  Doing so would force me to take it out of context.  The context is making the same argument as Jeremiah 10: the idols of the pagans are worthless and vain and have no ability to affect the lives of those who worship them.  Both passages are calling God’s people back to worshiping Him as the Living God.

I’ve never seen anyone treat a Christmas tree in a manner that can be perceived as worshiping it. These trees are thrown into the garbage heap after Christmas, or in the case of artificial trees, stored in a dusty attic until the season comes along the following year.  I’ve never seen anyone kneel before a Christmas tree and pray to it.  When one separates themselves from the emotion of the discussion, the absurdity of the whole notion of the Christmas tree being an idol is immense.  There’s simply no validity to it.

But what about the argument that the Christmas tree is the remnants of an ancient Babylonian myth regarding Nimrod and Semiramis and an evergreen tree and presents?  That sounds a whole lot like a Christmas tree.

This argument is found all over the internet.  It is summarized well by Herbert Armstrong, the founder of the Worldwide Church of God:

After Nimrod’s untimely death, his so-called mother-wife, Semiramis, propagated the evil doctrine of the survival of Nimrod as a spirit being. She claimed a full-grown evergreen tree sprang overnight from a dead tree stump, which symbolized the springing forth unto new life of the dead Nimrod. On each anniversary of his birth, she claimed, Nimrod would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts upon it. December 25th was the birth of Nimrod. This is the real origin of the Christmas tree.

The Plain Truth About Christmas, 1970, p. 10

If this were to be found true it would, in my opinion, be a fatal blow to the use of the Christmas tree. The idea that a false god was said to have visited an evergreen tree on December 25th each year and leave presents underneath would be devastating.  The problem is there’s no truth to this statement.

First, we have to uncover where Herbert Armstrong, and those who make this claim, discovered this legend.  When attempting to source this story, the link of chains always ends up with the claims of a nineteenth century Free Church of Scotland minister named Alexander Hislop.  Hislop wrote a pamphlet (which was later expanded into a book) called The Two Babylons, which claims that the “Mystery Babylon” of the Book of Revelation is actually the Roman Catholic Church.  Hislop attempts to connect all the pagan religions of the world into a common source of the Nimrod of Genesis.  But are these connections valid?

If Nimrod is such an important figure in the great, cosmic battle between the Living God and Satan, one would think that the connections between Nimrod and idol worship would be plain in Scripture. They are not.  Below, I’ve included every Biblical reference to Nimrod:

And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. (Genesis 10:8-9)

And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be mighty upon the earth. (1 Chronicles 1:10)

And they shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod in the entrances thereof: thus shall he deliver us from the Assyrian, when he cometh into our land, and when he treadeth within our borders. (Micah 5:6)

If Nimrod is the central figure in all the pagan idolatry of the world, one wouldn’t find that from a reading of the Bible.  This is a rather auspicious start to verifying Hislop’s argument.  But Hislop argues that not only is Nimrod the central figure in all idolatry, but that there is direct connection between the Christmas tree and the pagan idolatry that allegedly started with Nimrod.  I’ll address the issue of Nimrod in much greater detail in a later post, but let’s continue to look at the supposed pagan roots of the Christmas tree.  Here is the direct quote from Hislop:

The Christmas tree, now so common among us, was equally common in Pagan Rome and Pagan Egypt. In Egypt that tree was the palm tree; in Rome it was the fir; the palm-tree denoting the Pagan Messiah, as Baal-Tamar, the fir referring to him as Baal-Berith.

The Two Babylons, 1858, p. 97

So, according to Hislop, trees of various kinds have been central to the worship of pagan deities throughout history.  There may be some validity to this.  But there are some real problems with the above quote.

First, there is no evidence that the Egyptians worshiped a god called “Baal-Tamar.”  Baal-Tamar was a location in Israel, more specifically in the area given to the tribe of Benjamin.  In Hebrew, the name does mean “Lord of the Palms.”  But the Egyptians didn’t speak Hebrew.  Second, the Hebrew word Baal-Berith means “Lord of the covenant,” with no connection to a fir tree.  At least with Baal-Berith, we have Scriptural proof that there was a god worshipped under that name.  But again, this is the whole source of the argument by both Armstrong and Hislop.  That’s it.  There is no further proof given.  Essentially, Armstrong references Hislop (as does almost every resource that attempts to prove that the Christmas tree has a pagan origin), and Hislop basically says, “trust me.”  No connection is made.  No further documentation.  No historical validation.  Just an error-filled theory and conjecture based upon the imagination of a pastor who clearly is attempting to promote an agenda against Catholicism.  There is absolutely no historically verifiable evidence that the Christmas tree traces its origin to pagan worship, or that the story that Armstrong summarizes, based upon Hislop’s The Two Babylons, is anything more than conjecture and speculation, based upon a disproven theory that the Nimrod of the Bible is the source of all the pagan idolatry of the world (more on that later).

So where did this story come from?  It is simply a theory that sprung from a sketch, drawn by Hislop, of an ancient coin from Tyre, with an engraving of serpent coiled around a tree stump, with a palm tree next to it.

Still, there is significant evidence of the use of greenery in pagan worship.  But is this evidence enough to move us to reject the use of the Christmas tree?  What does God have to say about this?  Here is where we make our first link to the birth of Jesus and the connection to the use of greenery in the recognition of it.

Also in the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruit of the land, ye shall keep a feast unto the LORD seven days: on the first day shall be a Sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a Sabbath.  And we shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. (Leviticus 23:39-40)

And they found written the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month: and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.  So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim. (Nehemiah 8:14-16)

We will look at the Feast of Tabernacles in much greater detail in the second grouping of posts later to come, but two points must be made right now: first, the theme of the Feast of Tabernacles is “God dwelling among man”; second, God commands the use of greenery in the celebration associated with this feast.  A very common argument against the use of the Christmas tree is that pagan peoples worshipped idols using greenery and trees, therefore, Christians should reject this practice.  One Scripture used to make this argument is found in Deuteronomy:

When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? Even so I will do likewise.  Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD they God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:29-31)

The argument made by Christmas tree opponents, is that the worship of the pagans involved greenery and trees, and God clearly commands that His people should not adopt pagan practices and integrate them into their worship of the One True God.  Therefore, the use of Christmas trees is forbidden.  Does this argument stand up to a critical evaluation, based upon Scripture?

Let’s circle back around to what I mentioned in a previous post is the “heart of the matter.”  Scripture is clear that God will use whatever He can to reveal His character to His people.  In fact, He even has a history of using pagan religious symbols to communicate eternal truths.  Two powerful examples can be seen in the life of Abraham.

There is significant historical evidence proving that the practice of circumcision was commonplace in the worship of pagan deities in the Ancient Near East, prior to the initiation of the covenant of circumcision with Abraham in Genesis 17.  Why did God use circumcision to seal His covenant with Abraham?  He used circumcision because Abraham could relate to it.  Abraham understood the power of that ritual.  That is why we never read of him questioning why God commands this.  Ancient Egyptian circumcision is believed to have been used as symbol of fertility.  In Genesis 17 Abraham is being reminded, for the second time in Scripture, that God will provide him a son in his old age (at the time of Genesis 17, Abraham is 99 years old).   God uses this pagan practice to communicate to Abraham – in a way that Abraham can comprehend – that God would make Abraham fertile, and that he would have a son, in spite of his age.  This is a perfect example of God using what Abraham could understand to communicate His promise.

The second example is child sacrifice.  During the time of Abraham, child sacrifice was a part of the religious culture of the Ancient Near East.  The idea of child sacrifice was such a common part of religious observance that we see Abraham accepting God’s request without question.  Yes, Abraham’s faith is seen in his belief that God would raise Isaac from the dead, but his willingness to sacrifice Isaac suggests that he found nothing unusual in this request.  So God used a religious practice that he would later call deplorable – child sacrifice – in order to effectively reveal a powerful eternal principle.  Abraham’s willingness to submit to God’s command allowed God to reveal the ram as a substitute for Isaac – a foreshadowing of God Himself sacrificing His only Son as a the “…Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

In both of these examples, we see God using a pagan religious observance to communicate a powerful truth to Abraham in a way that Abraham can understand.

The use of greenery is no different.  Greenery was used in pagan worship, and converted to a symbol within the worship of the One True God to communicate a powerful truth which we will, later in this study, see more fully revealed.

So where did the Christmas tree come from?

Not until the Renaissance are there clear records of trees being used as a symbol of Christmas—beginning in Latvia in 1510 and Strasbourg in 1521. Legend credits the Protestant reformer Martin Luther with inventing the Christmas tree, but the story has little historical basis.

The most likely theory is that Christmas trees started with medieval plays. Dramas depicting biblical themes began as part of the church’s worship, but by the late Middle Ages, they had become rowdy, imaginative performances dominated by laypeople and taking place in the open air. The plays celebrating the Nativity were linked to the story of creation—in part because Christmas Eve was also considered the feast day of Adam and Eve. Thus, as part of the play for that day, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a “paradise tree” hung with fruit.

These plays were banned in many places in the 16th century, and people perhaps began to set up “paradise trees” in their homes to compensate for the public celebration they could no longer enjoy. The earliest Christmas trees (or evergreen branches) used in homes were referred to as “paradises.” They were often hung with round pastry wafers symbolizing the Eucharist, which developed into the cookie ornaments decorating German Christmas trees today.

(http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/thepastinthepresent/storybehind/whychristmastrees.html)

So the most credible, verifiable evidence points to the Christmas tree originating out of a Christian play that celebrated “Paradise”, or “Eden”, where God walked in the cool of the evening with Adam and Eve in a perfect world.  Now, if we recall that the Feast of Tabernacles – which commands the use of greenery as part of the symbolism – is a celebration focused squarely on God dwelling among man, then we see another connection to the Christmas tree.  I don’t have a problem with having that in my home.

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