Oy Tannenbaum! Are Christmas trees Christian or pagan?

Thomas (no location posted) asks:

Is it true that Christmas trees are more derived from paganism than from any specifically Christian traditions? And if so, does that mean Christians were befuddled and absorbing pagan traditions unawares, or that they were seeking to redeem elements in the culture around them?

The Guy replies:

No doubt the use of decorative evergreens had longstanding pagan roots and was adopted by Christians — perhaps unawares but more likely as a cleverly cheerful wintertime reminder of belief in everlasting life. According to Yule lore (“Yule” has pagan roots), the December trees proliferated in Germany around the time of the Protestant Reformation and gained new popularity in English-speaking countries in the 19th century. The underlying paganism seems to be reflected in the German carol “O Tannenbaum” (“O Christmas Tree”), which virtually worships the tree or nature instead of the never-mentioned Christ child.

Strict Protestants in Cromwell’s England and colonial New England forbade Christmas observances as unchristian. Yet today TV pundit Bill O’Reilly opines that  renaming into a “holiday tree” epitomizes a cultural “war on Christmas” pushed by “secular progressives.”

Whatever the tree’s origin, it’s almost certain that pagan festivities explain the December 25 date borrowed by Christians in the Roman Empire. Nobody knows for certain when Jesus was born. Some will argue it was least likely “in the bleak mid-winter,” as that tuneful carol says, since the famous Bethlehem shepherds were “out in the fields” at night with their flocks rather than herding them into cold-weather sheepfolds. On the other hand, Bible chronology experts Roger Beckwith and Jack Finegan calculate that the Nativity occurred in the mid-winter due to the schedule for Zechariah’s priestly division of Abijah serving in the temple (see Luke 1:5-9). And most likely the birth was in 2 B.C. so that Christ was born Before Christ (!) but let’s not get into all that.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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