Some people think that Christmas trees are evil. And one of the reasons they assert this is found in Jeremiah 10:
“1 Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. 2 Thus says the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, 3 for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. 4 They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. 5 Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.”
At a very brief first glance, this seems like a pretty damning passage because God is condemning through Jeremiah people following the practices of the nations by cutting down a tree, decorating it with silver and gold (a popular tinsel colour combination), and fastening it somewhere (presumably in the house, but possibly outside too). Oh no! It looks like those radical fun-killing pseudo-Puritan types were right…or were they?
I don’t think so, and the clues are both in this passage and in other Biblical passages. Firstly, observe that Jeremiah refers to a tree being cut down in a forest and then worked with an axe. He is referring here to how a workman would take a tree, cut it down and then work with an axe to shape it into an idol, an image of a particular deity like Molech or Asherah, or one of the other Baals. Then next he mentions that they decorated it with silver and gold.
This is not referring to putting tinsel around a tree, it is a reference to the fact that many gold and silver idols in the ancient world were simply wooden or stone carvings that were covered in silver and goal after being shaped. They were not actually made fully from silver or gold (except maybe for the very wealthy), they were simply adorned with gold to add value and presence to the statue.
These idols were then fastened into place, generally in honoured places in the home or even outside in garden shrines. These are not trees being used to decorate a house festively, they are wooden carvings of false gods made to be worshipped and consulted, “8 They are both stupid and foolish; the instruction of idols is but wood!”
But the biggest clue in the passage about what is happening here is in verse 5, “Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried for they cannot walk.” We don’t expect trees to speak to us, do we?
But idols, in the ancient world, were considered to be true representations of real gods, actual heavenly beings, with origin stories, families, and job descriptions (the god of rain, crops, fertility, love, etc.). Yet Jeremiah mocks these idols here as being unable to walk and talk. They are dumb and lame, literally in both the literal sense and metaphorical sense of those words. It is clear that Jeremiah is not talking about anything like a Christmas tree. He is talking about the Israelites fashioning dumb idols and placing them in shrines of honour in their homes.
What makes this even more clear is when we compare this passage to what Isaiah says about the fashioning of idols:
“9 All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
Isaiah explains in more detail the process of making an idol, of shaping it with carpentry tools. If it is sinful to have a Christmas tree, then surely it would be sinful to do carpentry, to have a compass and a plain and to make marks with a pencil on wood to shape anything right? Because all of these things are intricately connected to the process of making an idol. But of course not only would this logic be silly, it would make our entire society unliveable because we could not make anything if we rejected such tools. The desk I am sitting at would then be sinful because it has been cut from a tree, marked, shaped and placed in my house. Do you see how unworkable such thinking is?
Plus the crux of the condemnation is what Isaiah says here, “17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” The issue here is not that someone is shaping something with carpentry tools, or decorating their house. The issue is that they are creating an image of “God”, thereby breaking the first two commandments, and engaging in the worst of sins, idolatry.
Jeremiah also makes it very clear further on that he is talking about not simply decorating a tree to be festive, but making an actual idol,
“8 They are both stupid and foolish; the instruction of idols is but wood! 9 Beaten silver is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz. They are the work of the craftsman and of the hands of the goldsmith; their clothing is violet and purple; they are all the work of skilled men.”
Jeremiah and Isaiah are talking about the same thing, explicit idolatry. Neither of them are talking about Christmas trees. Neither of them are condemning people making decks or tables to use in their houses either, of course.
I am also aware that in the ancient world, pagans worshipped trees, often in sacred groves, and in some Nordic cultures they would bring trees into the home and decorate them and worship them during particular seasonal festivals. But I have never met a Christian who has ever intended to do this. Christians generally place a star on the top of the tree to represent the star of Bethlehem which led the Magi to the young Lord Jesus Christ. Their desire is not to worship the tree, but to decorate their home, create a festive spirit and look forward to the feast of Jesus’ birth. This is far and away from what the Nordic peoples were doing with their trees.
Observe this also, that trees are obviously not inherently sinful. We know this because God created them on the third day (Gen. 1:11-13). But we also see how they have an honoured place in the new heaven and the new earth:
“1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
Trees are not to be worshipped. They are not to be venerated or prayed to. But they can represent life as they do here in Revelation. They are also used in scripture to represent the people of God (cf. John 15:1-5, Rom. 11:17-24). Therefore, it is not correct to automatically associate them with pagan ideas and beliefs. If, however, you know someone who is bowing down and worshipping their Christmas tree, then of course have a word to them.
If in your conscience you cannot see a Christmas tree without thinking that you might be tempted to worship Odin, or Loki, or Molech, then by all means do not have one in your house. If you genuinely believe that you are dishonouring God by having one, then again do not have one in your house. You are free to not do this. But the person who has a Christmas tree, that decorates it and places a star on the top to remind themselves about their Lord being born, who does not worship the Christmas tree, but simply uses it to create a festive air in their home for Christmas, they have not sinned. Paul covers this in Romans:
“5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;…”
Be convinced in your own mind and do not seek to bind the conscience of your fellow believers on an issue of liberty such as decorating their home to celebrate our Lord. Some people think, like the Puritans of old, that Christmas is evil paganism or popery. Most of us just love that we have an entire season of the year to talk about the birth of our Lord, and we want to make it about Jesus as much as possible.
So, to tree, or not to tree? It is your liberty to choose. But whichever way you go, don’t judge each other.