It is that time of year when the puritans among us feel the need to raise their prophetic voices in protest against the great evils of our times: Christmas trees, wreathes, and even creches. I know the routine well from the days when I myself was a flaming heretic outside of the Catholic Church and “abstained’ from Christmas for about eight years. As the allegations go, evergreens were used in ancient pagan religious rites, and are, therefore, forever and inextricably associated with them. To place a Christmas tree in church or home is to worship a false deity, and possibly even the devil.
There may be some truth to the fact that evergreens were used in some capacity in pagan religions. When it was my interest, I examined this claim and found that there was little certainty about it. Theories abounded as to exactly how the evergreen was used, and by what religions, so that one was free to choose the most sensational theory, the one that would best serve the puritanical charge.
The denunciation of Christmas trees and wreathes is founded on the presumption that something once used for evil ends cannot ever be used for good ends. If the pagans once used it, then Christians cannot. We must be totally unlike them in every way; otherwise, we are not worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24). But of course, ancient pagans used books that they called inspired scriptures, didn’t they? And they sang hymns and heard sermons as well, didn’t they? So this notion of denouncing everything that pagans ever used is quite ridiculous and even impossible to follow. But it’s far worse than that. For several reasons, the puritans among us had better hope that they don’t ever get what they’re asking for, because, for reasons easy to understand and not requiring any historical investigations, a number of unseemly groups desire the very same end – the elimination of Christmas trees, wreathes, and creches.
First, the Christian symbolism. The evergreen, because it remains green throughout the year, is a symbol of eternal life. Of course, this is not entirely accurate, since evergreen needles and leaves die and fall off yearly. But they are replaced by other needles or leaves. Notice the reddish color of pine trees in the autumn; the needles die and fall to the ground, making the ground reddish as well, but there are other healthy needles to maintain the trees’ green color. But the point is, the evergreen is ever green, and so it does work as a symbol of eternal life.
An evergreen tree decorated with lights also has Christian symbolic meaning. The lights represent Christ, the Light of the world, entering our pagan darkness of sin and error through His Incarnation. This is why it’s especially appropriate to postpone the turning on of Christmas lights until Christmas Eve has arrived.
The star at the top of the tree represents the star of Bethlehem, by which the Magi were guided to the place of our Lord’s birth. An angel placed at the top of the tree, or several angels hung from its limbs, represent those heaven-sent preternatural beings who sang before the shepherds,
“Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will”(Lk. 2:14)!
The symbolism found in Christmas trees and wreathes is not arbitrary or meaningless. If there’s any doubt about this, just observe how adamantly many public schools and state and federal buildings now forbid them. Apparently, they are quite symbolic of the Christian religion and silently proclaim the truth that the Word became flesh. And that is my first point. Godless secular America is racing to eliminate from the public square and public forum all traces of the Christian religion, including these very religious symbols of the Advent and Christmas seasons. This is the result of two forces that make for strange symbiotic bedfellows: militant atheism, and now militant Islam as well. Both are rapidly rising as the primary opponents of the Gospel. By denouncing the external symbols of Advent and Christmas, Bible Christians are actually taking part in the same wicked agenda as that of the fiercest foes of Christianity. And if the atheists and Muslims have their way and thoroughly forbid all traditional symbols of Christmas, will these puritanical Christians finally be content? God forbid that this unholy alliance should ever succeed.
In addition, the notion that, by simply placing and decorating an evergreen in one’s home, one is necessarily performing an act of pagan worship – this is just absurd. Do our puritanical brethren actually believe that the Catholic on his or her way to Ray’s vegetable stand to buy a Christmas tree is thinking within themselves, “Now here I go to offer Baal an act of homage”? Sorry, but the Catholic has no such thought, no such intention, but is thinking only of the wholesome use of the Christmas tree in the domestic celebration of Christmas – of Christ Mass. Besides, we Catholics are often told by such persons what we already believe – that prayer must be offered from the heart, rather than merely as a mindless external act. It’s absolutely true. All the more in this case, then, since all that matters is what a person intends in their heart as they arrange their Christmas tree. And if they have no pagan intentions, then they offer no pagan worship.
Now, who made the evergreem? Who made the universe? Was it Thor or Zeus? Was it some other false god? But false gods do not exist, and demons do not have the power to create. It was the one true living God Who made the universe, and therefore, the evergreen as well. To claim that the connection between the evergreen and paganism can never be broken is to give paganism and its false deities too much credit. It is to consider evil stronger and more enduring than good, as if good could not break its hold.
Jesus Christ has utterly defeated the devil and his angels. He has redeemed the human race, and the fullness of His salvific work extends even to the physical universe. An evergreen is His evergreen, and it can therefore be used to symbolize the life and light He brings to us. In fact, it should be used; it should be rededicated to the one true God in the yearly commemoration of the universe-changing Incarnation of His divine Son.
In the eighth chapter of First Corinthians, Saint Paul confronted a similar problem: the issue of Christians buying and eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. If Saint Paul had shared the scrupulous consciences of many modern Christians, he would have simply concluded, “Christians who eat food sacrificed to idols are taking part in pagan worship”. On the contrary, Saint Paul reasoned that idols and false gods are nothing.
“Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’”
This was not to belittle the actual dangers of false religion and occult activity, but it served the case at hand – and it serves our case as well. Saint Paul concluded that there was nothing wrong with Christians eating such foods. As long as one gave thanks to the true God for all such things, all was clean. There was only one exception: Christians who had weak faith. If a brother lacked a mature conscience and sufficient religious knowledge, then, for his sake, one might not eat food offered to idols, lest the weaker brother be scandalized by it. Saint Paul concluded,
“Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.”
I would apply the same reasoning to the case of those Christians who object to Christmas trees and wreathes. It really is their problem, their confused faith, that is at issue. The pagan worship that evergreens may once have been associated with is now utterly broken by Christ, and specifically, in the case of Christmas. To insist that this is not the case is to imply that evil is stronger than good, that false religions are stronger than the true religion, and that a false non-existent god is stronger than the one true living God worshipped at Christmas. And those puritans among us who persist with their condemnations of the symbols of the season – alongside the atheists and Islamists – should be kindly reminded that,
“God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).