Christmas Tree as a Secular Symbol of Secular Christmas

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The most popular symbol of Christmas, except perhaps for Santa Claus, may also be the least Christian: the Christmas Tree. Originally derived from pagan religious celebrations in Europe, the Christmas Tree was adopted by Christianity but never entirely at home in it. Today the Christmas Tree can be a completely secular symbol of Christmas celebrations. It's curious that Christians latch on to it as if it were inherently Christian.

Pagan Origins of the Christmas Tree

It is believed that evergreens were widely used in ancient pagan cultures as a symbol of eternal and renewing life. There are Roman mosaics depicting Dionysus carrying an evergreen tree. In northern Europe, the ability of evergreen trees to stay alive through the harsh, cold winters appears to have caused them to become focal centers of religious rituals, especially among Germanic tribes. Just how direct the connection is between these religious uses and modern Christmas trees is debated.

Early Modern German Origins of the Christmas Tree

The earliest appearance of modern Christmas trees can be traced to 16th century Germany when a small evergreen in the Bremen guild was decorated with apples, nuts, paper flowers, and other objects. By the 17th century, use of Christmas trees had moved from communal institutions to private homes. At some point, it had become so popular that clerics were concerned that such rituals might distract Christians from the appropriate worship of God during the holy season.

Popularization of the Christmas Tree in Victorian England

During the 19th century, use of the Christmas tree became popular with royal households and this custom was transported to England by Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz who became the wife of King George III. Their daughter, Victoria, was the one who popularized the practice throughout England. When she took the throne in 1837, she was just 18 years old and she captured the imaginations and hearts of her subjects. Everyone wanted to be like her, so they adopted the German custom.

Secular Lighting & Decorating of Christmas Trees

There is at least as much in the way of secular Christmas tree decorations as there are Christian decorations. The lighting itself, perhaps the most obvious part of Christmas tree decoration, isn't the least bit Christian. All the balls, garlands, and so forth also lack any Christian basis. A Christmas tree with secular decorations can be treated as a secular symbol of a secularized holiday. In fact, it can be argued that Christmas trees are unchristian.

Are Christmas Trees Prohibited in the Bible?

According to Jeremiah 10:2-4: “Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen... For 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.” Perhaps there is cause for Christians to eschew Christmas trees entirely and get back to genuinely Christian, religious observances of the day.

Do Public Christmas Trees Violate Church/State Separation?

Some argue that if the government finances and supports a Christmas tree on public property, then this is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. For this to be true, the Christmas tree would have to be an automatic symbol of Christianity and for Christmas to be a necessarily religious holiday. Both are doubtful. It's easy to argue that there is nothing Christian about Christmas trees and that there is little that is very Christian anymore about Christmas.

Christmas Tree or Holiday Tree?

In order to avoid possible church/state complications, some governments that put up Christmas trees have been calling them Holiday Trees instead. This has outraged Christian Nationalists. It can be argued that these trees exist for the sake of a broad and increasingly religiously diverse holiday season. In that case, not singling out one holiday isn't unreasonable. Since the tree isn't very Christian and is even arguably against the Bible, perhaps Christians should welcome the change.

Secular Christmas Trees for a Secular Christmas

Christmas trees have become popular for purely cultural reasons. There's nothing inherently Christian about them: Christians can give them up without sacrificing anything religious while non-Christians can use them without necessarily giving in to pressure to conform to Christian practices. If Christians could adopt the use of Christmas trees without any biblical or traditional warrant, but instead on the apparent basis of ancient pagan custom, then non-Christians can also adopt them and strip them of Christian connotations.

Christians have celebrated Christmas in one form or another for centuries, but Christmas as people in modern America know it is a relatively recent development — it's made up of various elements, mostly secular, that coalesced during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because those elements are recent and fairly secular, it's not much of a stretch to suggest that they can be disentangled from Christianity and used as the basis for a secular holiday during the Christmas season.

Such a development won't proceed easily or quickly — there are simply too many factors involved. Christmas is a Christian holiday, but it's also a cultural holiday. Christmas isn't only celebrated in America, but the form which Christmas takes in America isn't entirely replicated in the rest of the world — and much of what America does gets exported to other countries. The process, however, is already well underway, and it's difficult to imagine how it could be derailed or even reversed at this point.

Christmas is becoming secularized because America is becoming both secularized and more religiously pluralistic. This, in turn, is only possible because Christmas itself is such an integral part of American culture generally rather than just Christianity in particular. You won't see Good Friday secularized to such a degree because Good Friday isn't part of American culture in a similar manner.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Christmas Tree as a Secular Symbol of Secular Christmas." Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, Cline, Austin. (2021, September 16). Christmas Tree as a Secular Symbol of Secular Christmas. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Christmas Tree as a Secular Symbol of Secular Christmas." Learn Religions. (accessed June 1, 2023).