First published Christmas 2009; newly updated for Quivering Daughters.
I think I finally figured out what Christmas trees are really about.
A while ago I found a blog article on the subject of our friend Mr. Tannenbaum. Apparently (the author observed) some folks believe that Christmas trees are pagan symbols that the church has adopted in sinful syncretism. They appeal to Scriptures such as Jeremiah 10 to support the idea: the passage describes trees being chopped down, decorated with precious metals, and worshiped by pagans (“A-ha!” chorus the neo-Scrooges).
Knowing a bit about interpreting Scripture in context, I smelled an opportunity to cry “Humbug!” True, Jeremiah describes pagans chopping down trees for idolatrous worship. But it also mentions the trees being “shaped by chisels” into images of false gods like these. Those don’t look much like Christmas trees to me. Anyone for some eisegesis?
The underlying logic is even more significant. Follow it through: Idolaters once used decorative trees to worship false gods. Therefore, anyone else who uses a tree for decoration ever again must only be pagan.
I explained in another article in more detail exactly why this genre of anti-Christmas rhetoric is so absurd. Pagans didn’t make trees; God did. So even if pine trees were once misused in pagan worship, it hardly follows that they must always and for all time be unacceptable to people who believe that “only God can make a tree.”
But when a few outspoken commenters started chiming in to quarrel in favor of that phony interpretation of the Bible, my Spiritual-Abuse-Survivor Sense started tingling. Some people seem inordinately concerned with proving that the majority of Christians are sinful pagan syncretists. Not that I’m in favor of bringing paganism into the church, but somehow that obsession struck me as suspiciously like a warning sign of Spiritual Abuse.
Next time you hear one of these Scrooges, pay close attention to the subtext:
- Everyone who doesn't believe precisely what we believe is unbiblical and pagan! (Exclusivity, dogmatism, spiritual pride.)
- The vast majority of Christians are evil pagans, so you had better stick with us if you want to please God! (Legalism, elitism, manipulation.)
- We have standards that you have to follow if you want to be holy, and if you don't follow them you're an ungodly pagan! (Superiority, shame.)
- Your external actions and displays–whether or not you put up a Christmas tree–are very important. (No mention of the grace of Christ.)
I could go on, but if you know about Spiritual Abuse, you've heard all this stuff before. It's the classic, archetypal sign of abuse, and they're taking the occasion of the birth of Christ to pull it out on us. Forget "Happy Holidays"; here's the real war on Christmas.
But, spiritual abuse awareness aside, what these sorts of people say about the poor pine tree turns out to show the real message of the Gospel better than they know….
The pagans used trees to sinfully honor their false gods instead of the Creator. The devil influenced me to sinfully honor myself above my Creator.
The spiritual abusers say that, since the trees were used sinfully, they can only ever be regarded as sinful. They said that about me too.
God says, "It may have been used sinfully, but I made it in the first place. Don't you go calling anything I made unclean (Acts 10). If I made it good in the first place, that means I can make it good again."
At one time the pagans chopped down a tree, cut it into pieces, and hung it with metal to worship their false gods.
But another time some pagans chopped down a tree, cut it into pieces, and with metal, hung something on it that redeemed our souls.
Jesus came into the world at Christmas to be hung on a tree.
Jesus was hung on a tree for the sins of the world, including idolatry.
Because of what happened with that chopped-down, metal-adorned tree, we are free from the rules that say we can only ever be sinful.
Because of what happened with that chopped-down, metal-adorned tree, nobody can ever say that God is about anything other than grace and forgiveness.
Because of what happened with that chopped-down, metal-adorned tree, anyone who looks at a tree now can see not a symbol of idolatry, but an outward and visible sign of the infinite grace of God.
Because of what happened with that chopped-down, metal-adorned tree, anyone who looks at you now can see not a sinner, but someone who has been cleansed and made new by the infinite grace of God.
The devil intended to use that tree for evil. The spiritual abusers say it could only ever be evil. But God used that tree for the greatest good that has ever happened.
The devil intended to use you for evil. The spiritual abusers say you can only ever be evil. But God intends to use you for a greater good than you can imagine.
The Christmas tree reminds us that everything God created is good.
The Christmas tree shows us that everything God does is gracious.
The Christmas tree tells us that you don't have to accept the label that you're only a sinner.
And as for me, anything that makes legalists and abusers that upset is something I'm glad to decorate my house with. The other reason Jesus came into the world, of course, was to annoy the heck out of legalists.