Does Jeremiah 10 forbid Christmas trees?

by Luke Wayne
11/14/16

"Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move" (Jeremiah 10:2-4, ESV).

Many have used this passage to argue that the Bible condemns the use of Christmas trees. Even if one ignores that these words were written some 2,000 years before the invention of the Christmas tree, the context of the chapter makes it abundantly clear that Jeremiah was condemning the practice of carving idols to worship, not festively decorating trees. The very next verse reads:

"Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they, And they cannot speak; They must be carried, Because they cannot walk! Do not fear them, For they can do no harm, Nor can they do any good” (Jeremiah 10:5).

Jeremiah is pointing out that idols are lifeless carvings and are not truly gods at all. He goes on to further explain:

"But they are altogether stupid and foolish in their discipline of delusion—their idol is wood! Beaten silver is brought from Tarshish, And gold from Uphaz, The work of a craftsman and of the hands of a goldsmith; Violet and purple are their clothing; They are all the work of skilled men. But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth quakes, And the nations cannot endure His indignation" (Jeremiah 10:8-10)

The wood, gold, and silver are all plainly discussed here in the context of making lifeless idols in contrast to the True and Living God. The point is not that it is inherently evil to decorate trees. The point is that it is foolish for men to fashion their own gods. Other Old Testament prophets make the same argument. Isaiah, for example, writes:

"Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an oak and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, 'Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.' But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god (Isaiah 44:14-17).

The Apostle Paul likewise says to the idol worshipers in Athens:

"We ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man" (Acts 17:29).

And even the earliest Christians after the New Testament era utilized these arguments in reasoning with their pagan Roman neighbors:

"Come and contemplate, not only with your eyes but with your understanding, the substance and the form of those whom you declare and deem to be gods. Is not one of them a stone similar to that on which we tread? Is not a second brass, in no way superior to those vessels which are made for our ordinary use? Is not a third wood, and that already rotten? Is not a fourth silver, which needs a man to watch it, lest it be stolen? Is not a fifth iron, consumed by rust? Is not a sixth earthenware, in no degree more valuable than that which is formed for the humblest purposes? Are not all these of corruptible matter? Are they not fabricated by means of iron and fire? Did not the sculptor fashion one of them, the brazier a second, the silversmith a third, and the potter a fourth? Was not every one of them, before they were formed by the arts of these [men] into the shape of these [gods], each in its own way subject to change? Would not those things which are now vessels, formed of the same materials, become like to such, if they met with the same artificers? Might not these, which are now worshiped by you, again be made by men vessels similar to others? Are they not all deaf? Are they not blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all corruptible? These things you call gods; these you serve; these you worship; and you become altogether like to them. For this reason, you hate the Christians, because they do not deem these to be gods" (Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 2).

If people were praying to their Christmas trees or worshiping them as deities, these passages would certainly apply. But that is not, nor has it ever been, how Christmas trees are used. Christmas trees were never appealed to for blessings nor incorporated into religious rituals or acts of worship. While the exact origin of Christmas trees is unknown and highly disputed, the tradition seems to have come into existence as late as the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation in Germany. There is no evidence that Christians ever used them as anything other than home decorations for the holidays. There is nothing in this tradition that is innately idolatrous or in any way contrary to the biblical prohibitions against carving trees into false gods.