Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part VIII

Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,, Part V, Part VI, and Part VII.

If you haven't read my last post, stop and read it now. Okay. Next question:

Question # 9. But what about all the pagan symbolism used in Christmas celebrations, especially the Christmas tree?

Answer. The pagan roots of Christmas symbolism is overrated. Unfortunately, during this season Christians regularly get warnings like this:
What could seem more harmless than the beautiful Christmas trees that light our homes during the Christmas season? But do you know why we have trees in our homes? From ancient times trees have played an important role in pagan religion, and were even worshipped. Norsemen, celts, and saxons used trees to ward off witches, evil spirits, and ghosts. In Egypt the palm tree was prominent; in Rome it was the fir. Because of this association, idols were often carefully carved from trees. Jeremiah warned the Old Testament people of God: "Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. 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 hammers, that it move not" (Jer. 10:2-4).
This is ludicrous. Jeremiah condemns gilded, carved images that are erected for idolatrous worship. There is nothing here about using trees to decorate one's home during a holiday. The prophet condemns "carved images" (pesel, 10:14). The "axe" used by the workman (10:3) on the tree refers to an instrument to carve the wood, a chisel. Literally v. 3b says that the tree is "worked by the hands of an engraver with a tool." Using this carving tool the worker makes an idol in the likeness of men and beasts, which is then "clothed with violet and purple" (10:9, 14). They cannot walk or speak and have no power to do good (10:50). Jeremiah 10 is a sarcastic indictment of pagan idolatry along the lines of Psalm 115 and Isaiah 40 and 44. The prophet says absolutely nothing about the modern practice of using cut fir trees to decorate one's home.

Well, then, do we Christians "know why we have trees in our homes"? Is it to worship them? Do they ward off witches, evil spirits, and ghosts during the Christmas holidays? I want to say, "of course not," but I suppose that there may be someone out there who brings an evergreen tree into their home in order to perform such rituals. If so, then that person is using the tree in an idolatrous manner.

But there is a difference between symbolism and idolatry. In the light of Jeremiah 10 and the danger of "carved images," it is instructive to note that God ordained all sorts of carved and embroidered images for the Tabernacle and Temple--even trees!

Around all the walls of the house he carved engraved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms (1 Kings 6:29).

Moreover, these carved trees are plated with gold!
He covered the two doors of olivewood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. He overlaid them with gold and spread gold on the cherubim and on the palm trees (1Kings 6.32).
If any Christian bows down to his Christmas tree, seeks advice from it, attempts to communicate with God or the devil through it, or worships it or God through it as a medium, then that Christian is an idolater. But using a tree for such things is a far cry from the way Christmas trees function in a faithful Christian's home. Christians decorate trees with lights and ornaments because it brings them joy and delight as they commemorate the birth of Jesus. The look at it; they don't bow down to it. They enjoy their Christmas tree; they don't venerate it. If you don't like Christmas trees, then don't buy one. You have a choice. Nobody forces it on you. But don't accuse another believer of idolatry based on the supposed pagan origin and function of Christmas trees.

I'll have a bit more to say about Christmas trees in my next post.

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