As winter winds begin blowing, crowds of people, undaunted by the global pandemic, head to the evergreen lots. The sights, sounds, and smells of the cherished season bring people out in droves. While artificial trees have become popular, the evergreen tree is by far the most popular symbol of the season. Various customs, such as selecting the tree, setting it up and decorating it, and placing gifts and special treats under its boughs, are all part of the annual tradition that occurs on December 25—the winter solstice.
There have been newspaper articles, blogs, and podcasts about the origin of these customs, even acknowledging their pagan roots. The Roman celebration of Saturnalia, with parties and gift giving, honored the pagan god Saturn in the darkness of winter as the days once again lengthened after the winter solstice. Other nations had similar customs, but today, that’s all changed—hasn’t it? After all, doesn’t the season honor Jesus Christ now? And don’t the children love all the songs and gifts? What could possibly be wrong about such a sweet tradition, good for families and exceptionally good for business?
There is a Creator God who gives instruction on what is acceptable and what is an abomination in His eyes. God gives explicit instructions on what He approves and what He abhors, so it behooves us to ask the important question, “Should Christians participate in Christmas celebrations?” The Bible clearly shows what God thinks about us worshiping Him with pagan traditions.
Let’s start with the tree. In various books of the Hebrew Bible, the phrase “every green tree” is used eleven times—and never in a positive light. Pagan religious rites involving all kinds of sexual promiscuity and idolatry were practiced in the “high places”—hilltops and “sacred” groves. One plain example is found in Jeremiah 2:20: “For of old I have broken your yoke and burst your bonds; and you said, ‘I will not transgress,’ when on every high hill and under every green tree you lay down, playing the harlot.” Jeremiah 10:2–5 states, “Thus says the Lord: “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles [or nations]; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good.”
Earlier, God cautioned His people about the temptation to adopt the pagan practices of their neighboring countries and cultures as they settled into the Promised Land after being freed from captivity in Egypt. In Deuteronomy 12:29–32, Moses recorded God’s instructions: “When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go into dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them…. do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods…. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it: you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”
God gave His commandments, statutes, and judgments to His people. Over and over Moses instructed them, “Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us” (Deuteronomy 6:25).
“Well,” you may say, “that was for ancient Israel—it doesn’t apply to us, today.” Ancient Israel was a physical nation to whom God gave physical promises. The Church today is spiritual Israel, to whom God gives wonderful spiritual promises. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, made it plain: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).
Still, you may think, “But these are New Testament times!” True, but Jesus, quoting Isaiah, said to the religious establishment of His day, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6–7). And these words apply just as strongly to the “Christians” of our day, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
As the season known as “Christmas” approaches, remember that there is more to the tree than what you see.
Our booklet Is Christmas Christian? is an excellent study guide on this important subject. It is available, free of any charge, in both print and electronic formats.