The internet and social media are seeing a growing host of articles, blogs, videos, and social media posts roundly condemning Christianity's Christmas observance as a "pagan" invention, usually ascribing the innovation to the Roman Catholic Church, the "hated source of all things pagan." One of the points of contention is the Christmas tree. A passage from Jeremiah 10 is invariably cited as evidence that the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol, denounced by God, and those who participate in the use and decoration of a Christmas tree are often ridiculed and even subjected to harassment as guilty of idolatry in defiance of God's commandments against the use of these "pagan symbols." But invariably these claims are always lacking in any actual historical or archaeological research into these idols Jeremiah and other books of the Bible refer to, and there is a wealth of information that is available to help us make a more informed and honest evaluation of these claims.
Jeremiah is speaking of an idol or image that was frequently used throughout the ancient land of Canaan and is referred to by archaeologists and the foremost scholars on ancient Judean/Sumerian religions as “Judean pillar-figurines,” or “Asherah poles,” but the specific Hebrew term used in Scripture is the plural form “Asherim.” They are mentioned in several Old Testament books, in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, the Kings, the Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah, and played a rather large role in the religious practices of the region. These "Asherim" are translated in the King James Version as “groves” giving an erroneous impression of a grove or stand of trees, but other versions translate them more accurately as "Asherah poles, "Asherim," and "wooden images" (see here for example), rightly conveying the idea that these images were in fact Mediterranean style totem poles, objects carved from a solid length of tree trunk, or a “stock," which is the word used in Jeremiah 10:8. They varied in length and size, depending on the type and size of the tree used, and were variously decorated depending upon the wealth and artistic ability of the manufacturer. They contained images carved into the wood, faces and bodies of the local deities. In the case of the ancient Canaanite lands it was the goddess Asherah, and they could be decorated with silver and gold hammered plates or sheeting that wrapped the figure, and even adorned with "fine purple clothing" indicating that they were painted. Where wood was less available and wealth more abundant, they could also be made from stone pillars of various sizes and lengths, ergo the archaeological reference to "pillar figurines."
Asherah totem poles made of wood have not survived, but there is ample evidence from ancient writings as well as archaeological artifacts to give us a clear example of what form they actually took. A carving on a stone sarcophagus from the period depicts a pillar-figurine of the god Dionysus, shown being raised up to be dropped into a stand that was fashioned to make it stand upright, exactly as described in Jeremiah.
Very often in the Old Testament Scriptures the prophets of God mocked these "gods" who had eyes but could not see, ears but could not hear, a mouth that could not speak, and feet but had to be carried everywhere they went and fastened in a stand so they could stand upright . . .
“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 nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be carried, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither can they do good.”
Well and truly did the prophet Jeremiah say of these false gods made by artisans and "cunning workmen": "They are altogether brutish and foolish: the stock is a doctrine of vanities. Silver spread into plates is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of the workman, and of the hands of the founder: blue and purple is their clothing: they are all the work of cunning men ... thus shall ye say unto them, The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens." Jeremiah 10:8-11
To this day, not one splinter remains of these "gods" which once towered above and lorded it over the heads of the people who, after fashioning them with their own hands, foolishly bowed down to worship as gods something they themselves had made. But hundreds of smaller replicas of these idols have been discovered in recent decades, the personal and household version of the larger images that stood near the altars of the various gods they represented. These smaller household versions were made of gold and, unlike their larger wooden counterparts which rotted and turned to dust, these smaller Asherim have withstood the ravages of time.
Photo from archives of Dr. Bryant Wood, Ph.D in Syro-Palestinian archaeology (curriculum vitae for Dr. Wood here)
Throughout the Jewish history of this period these images presented a real stumbling block to the Jewish people, and the Hebrew Scriptures are replete with condemnation and warnings against this practice and the inclusion of smaller versions of these icons in the homes of the people. And yet, even having seen visible proof of the reality of "I Am," the Jews at times turned from worshipping Him and took up with these man-made gods. In fact, they were so prone to it that God specifically commanded them not to make any carved images of anything . . . to point out the folly of man fashioning his own gods which he can see rather than worshipping the Creator whom he cannot see.
God repeatedly warned the Jews not to take part in this idolatry, even going so far as to instruct Gideon in Judges 6 to cut down the Asherah poles that stood beside the altar of Baal and to burn them for a burnt offering!
For the most thorough archaeological research on these Asherah poles, please see the important work by Raz Kletter of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the foremost archaeologist and scholar on Bronze and Iron Age archaeology here (excerpt from published work).
The Christmas Tree
The Asherah poles, or Judean pillar-figurines, have no historical connection to Christmas trees. The first record of the use of a tree of any kind by Christians during the Christmas season only dates back 400 years from our time, in late 1600's Germany, well over 2200 years after the worship of Asherah and her Asherah poles had returned to the dust and were lost and forgotten.
The Origins of the Christmas Tree
During the Medieval period throughout Europe the common people generally had no formal education and could neither read nor write. But they could not have read the Bible in any event because the church, believing the common man could not understand the Scriptures and would misuse or abuse the sacred texts, only allowed the Bible to be recorded in Latin while the native tongue spoken by the people was German and English. Even the rites and ceremonial of the church were all performed in Latin leaving the people woefully ignorant of the Scriptures. So many of the common people actually gained their knowledge of Bible stories from the entertainment media of the day, the traveling troupes of minstrels and actors who traversed the countryside near and far performing plays and skits.
Many of the plays and skits they performed were Bible stories and by all accounts from history, the most popular of them all was the "Paradise Play" about the creation and the fall, and the subsequent Gospel of redemption, performed at the Christmas season. According to the history of these plays, traveling the countryside in donkey carts these minstrels had to keep props to a minimum, so for this particular play an evergreen tree was cut down and used as a prop in the play. In the first scene the tree represented the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden, and it's branches were hung with apples which were readily available at this time of year. This is where the idea of the apple being the "forbidden fruit" comes from as well as the association between apples and scholarly pursuits. And later, in the final scene in which the Passion was acted out, the same tree represented the Tree of Life and was hung with wafers and sweets representing the gifts of salvation. In the years that followed, Christians began to erect their own “Paradise Tree” during the Christmas season to teach children about the fall and redemption of man. Eventually other items were added to the tree to further symbolize the doctrines of the faith, such as lights to represent that the birth of Jesus is a "light come into the world," and topped with either a star or an angel representing the star of Bethlehem and the angelic choir which heralded Jesus' birth.
For a thorough treatment on the history of the Paradise Play please refer to "Medieval Germany: An Encyclopedia (Routeledge Encyclopedias of the Middle Ages) by John M. Jeep available here .Or see the Wiki article here for general information about these Medieval plays. The History of the Christmas Tree
The first historical record of the mention of a “Christmas tree” (as the Paradise Tree came to be called) comes from the 1419 records of the Freiburg Fraternity Baker's Apprentices of the Germany city of Alsace who set up a Christmas tree in the local hospital and decorated it with sweets which they allowed the village children to eat on Christmas day. Then from 1605 we have a letter that was written by a resident of Strasbourg who describes the established custom: "At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlors at Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweet." In a short time the Christmas tree had rapidly spread throughout Germany and beyond. In the Colonia era, German migrants brought the custom to America.
But it wasn't until Queen Victoria and her husband, the German Prince Albert, put up a Christmas tree in
Great Britain in 1841 that the Christmas tree's popularity became a fixture of the Christmas season. A wood carving was produced depicting the royal family around their Christmas tree and a copy was published, the first historic instance of a Christmas "greeting" and the origins of the modern custom of exchanging Christmas Cards. This wood carving was copied in America and the reproduction was published in "Godey’s Lady’s Book," the “Good Housekeeping” magazine of the 1800’s.
Within a few years, and with only minimal objections, Americans took to the Christmas tree with alacrity and today it has become a prominent feature of the Christmas season in American culture not only among Christians, but even among those who otherwise do not celebrate the religious aspects of the holiday. Coupled with the gift giving (derived from the practice of the wise men who gave gifts to the Christ Child), carols (derived from the worship in song by the angelic choir and until the late 19th to 20th Century consisted entirely of hymns which formed part of the church's Christmas worship services) and feasting (the Biblical mode of religious celebration), Christmas has become a holiday which is celebrated around the world, even by cultures and people of other religions.
From an historical perspective, the Christmas tree is a modern invention of Christians only within the past six hundred years. Prior to that time there is no mention of the use of tree in this manner in any historical or archaeological source, not in the annals of Christianity or any other religion, and no links or ties in any historical sources to any pagan idols of the ancient past.