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.

  • Will

    Every year we are faced with a double bind. For those who dislike evergreens and men in red suits, they are “Christian symbols”, which we are Imposing On Everybody, proving how reprehensible is Christianity. For those who like them, they are pagan symbols which were “stolen”, proving how reprehensible is Christianity.
    I wish the two gangs would fight it out and let us know who won, so we can settle what it is that we are supposed to feel guilty about.

    • Timothy Dalrymple


  • Julia

    Actually, the definition of Tannenbaum is not Christmas Tree; it refers to the evergreen tree, probably a yew. Check it out at any on-line German to English translation site.

  • Jerry

    Your “oy” caused me to remember that when I was growing up (Jewish), many friends had Chanukah bushes. Our origin of the practice story was the trees in neighboring Christian houses. So there you are – we borrowed the tradition from you :-)

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/panmankey jason mankey

    Most scholars put the birth of Jesus in the year 4 BCE (Before Common Era).

    • Richard Ostling

      That’s correct. However Jack Finegan’s fascinating 10-page treatment in “Handbook of Biblical Chronology” (Hendrickson, revised edition, 1998) concludes that the ruler at the Nativity, Herod “the Great,” died in 1 B.C., thus Jesus was born in 2 or 3 B.C. Key data come from astronomy and texts for dating the accession of Herod Philip, one of his three sons and successors.

  • https://www.facebook.com/pages/Father-Mark-Hodges/150189694998590?ref=hl Fr Mark Hodges
  • MJBubba

    Gee whiz, Richard Ostling, I am surprised that you state “…it’s almost certain that pagan festivities explain the December 25 date borrowed by Christians in the Roman Empire.” You Do you not find the counter-argument compelling? You reported on it here: http://www.religionnewsblog.com/9755/why-is-dec-25-the-date-to-celebrate-christmas
    The Tighe article is here: http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v

  • Eric

    The issue of how December 25 became the celebration of the birth of Jesus is indeed interesting. Got an email article on the subject from the Biblical Archaeological Society’s Daily History Review this year. Took it up in class and they enjoyed it very much. It was from Andrew McGowan at an Australian university in Melbourne. He laid out two basic theories—one popular, the other found among scholars. The popular theory is that Christianity took over pagan festivals. I’ve heard this a lot. But McGowan says this theory has problems. And the main one is that no evidence for Christianity doing this can be found until after Constantine. It’s not that Christianity did not take over pagan festival feasts and celebrations as their own—they did. But not until after Constantine, and by then December 25 had already been established for the birth of Jesus.

    The other theory, much less known and found mainly among scholars, relates to the idea that it was eventually thought Jesus conception and crucifixion took place on the same day. And this from the Jewish rabbinical idea that great events occur time and time again on the same day. So according to the Roman calendar, using the 14th of Nisan from the Gospel of John, Jesus crucifixion and therefore conception would be March 25. And nine months later is December 25. And according to the Greek calendar it’s April 6, and thus January 6th in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

    Fascinating to think that the setting of the date for Jesus’ birth may well come from Jewish tradition.

  • JoFro

    Saturnalia was already over by the 21st or 23rd of December. I don’t understand how Dec 25th can be considered a pagan festival date when there were no pagan festivals celebrated on Dec 25th!