On Christmas Trees

There’s a common story people tell at Christmas time, not the one on which the world turns, or the one about the chimney-diving elf, but one about how all the traditions we use to celebrate the birth of Christ are actually pagan in origin.

This varies in intensity, but these killjoys are keen to make sure they puncture at least some of our merriment. Let’s take, as an emblematic example, the Christmas tree.

A relatively recent tradition in UK, popularised by Prince Albert as it’s an older Germanic custom. It probably finds its roots around a thousand years ago in pagan traditions of bringing evergreen trees into the home around the midwinter solstice to remember that life and light survive winter.

So, in one sense it’s a pagan tradition—but so what? Here are three different ways to think about these sorts of traditions.

Appropriation

There is a venerable Christian tradition of co-opting the symbols and festivals of other religions and imbuing them with different meaning as a method of teaching the truths of the faith. This sometimes leads those who want to find a ‘gotcha’ against Christian to say that they are really Roman, or Northern European or Egyptian or whatever it might be. Ignoring that the history used is often very speculative (and actually even my opening paragraphs are a little thin on history, this might be the case but the first evidence of Christmas trees is among German Lutherans 500 years ago), it misses that this was a deliberate pedagogic strategy—Christians appropriate the stories of others and retell them with deeper truths.

Which is a principle that still makes some of us uncomfortable and needs to be adopted with some care. Retelling stories is good, but we do need to be alive to the way that the story changes the messages communicated by it.

I would imagine that someone freshly out of one of the modern versions of Nordic paganism and newly following Jesus could find a Christmas tree a complicated object that they might need to forgo. For most of us the original story has little resonance and no danger—though I suspect the Christian story they tell has little resonance for us either: they have become objects without stories.

All the Stories are Ours

Why is it that Christians feel they can take these stories and reimbue them? How is this not the ‘cultural appropriation’ that everyone is concerned by these days?

Setting aside any thoughts about whether ‘cultural appropriation’ is a helpful category of problem, the Christian conviction is that all good stories contain elements of the true story, and as such retelling those stories to expound the true story they contain is to use them as they truly should be.

In other words, it isn’t stealing because they were ours first.

This is an offensive contention, of course, but it is the Christian view of the world. Our faith is ancient, it dates back to the garden. When the Norse myths inspired practices of bringing evergreen foliage into the house to remember the light and to influence its dawning, they were drawing on a Christian conviction that after death comes life, after evening comes morning. That’s Genesis 1.

When we bring spruce trees into our homes (or those sad fake ones if you must), and the smell of pine needles daubs your walls, we are embracing these truths: it is dark, but it will not always be. There is death everywhere, but there will not always be. Light and life are coming. Resurrection is coming. There is something better than ‘heaven’ to look forward to—heaven will marry earth and the dead will be raised and we will dwell in the city of God forever.

Trees Teach

There is a long Christian tradition of using trees to teach the key stories and moments of the faith. We start with them in the garden (Genesis 2), we end with one at the end of history (Revelation 22), and history pivots on the one they nailed the God of heaven to.

We are compared to them (Psalm 1), and they are used as images to teach us (Galatians 5). As James B. Jordan has it,

“since man as God’s image and viceroy stands as mediator between God and the rest of creation, trees often represent a ladder between heaven (the leafy crown) and earth. Thus, important persons who link heaven and earth, such as Abraham, or Deborah, are pictured in connection with trees”

Trees adorn the tabernacle—the almond tree shaped lampstand (Exodus 25)—and are painted on the walls of the Temple (1 Kings 6). The tabernacle would be often pitched under a tree (Joshua 24), and God meets his people at trees (Genesis 18, Judges 4, 6, 19).

If God’s house, the Temple, and God’s house, the World, can be adorned with trees, there can be no issue with us adorning our homes with them.

Just because paganism steals symbols doesn’t mean they aren’t our symbols too. Buy a tree, dress it in lights, and remember that darkness is passing away.

Photo by Jochen van Wylick on Unsplash


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