December 17, 2004
Are Christmas trees religious symbols?

As some outpost in Pasco County, Florida is currently banning Christmas trees from public buildings in an effort to rid themselves of religious connotations, there is a more fundamental question to be answered: since there is no mention of Christmas trees in the Bible; are they Christian symbols? (or are they religious symbols at all?)

Previously, the county barred religious symbols from its buildings but allowed Christmas trees. But the county attorney reconsidered that stance, and decided the trees were also religious symbols, after a man tried to display a Jewish menorah in a public building, [Dan Johnson, assistant county administrator for public services] said.

As usual, Wikipedia has information to share:

The tree is a Christianization of the ancient pagan idea that the evergreen tree represents a celebration of the renewal of life. In Roman mosaics from what is today Tunisia, showing the mythic triumphant return from India of the Greek god of wine and male fertility, Dionysus (dubbed by some modern scholars as a life-death-rebirth deity), the god carries a tapering coniferous tree. Medieval legends, nevertheless, tended to concentrate more on the miraculous "flowering" of trees at Christmastime. A branch of flowering Glastonbury thorn is still sent annually for the Queen's Christmas table in Britain.

Among early Germanic tribes the Yule tradition was celebrated by sacrificing male animals, and slaves, by suspending them on the branches of trees. In Scandinavia the Viking Kings sacrificed nine males of each species at the sacred groves, while poorer people hung apples and buns and other small sacrifices on branches. It is likely that the Christmas tree is a continuation of this tradition.

The tradition is most widely observed in the more northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere (north of about 45N latitude), at the winter solstice when daylight hours are very short, and temperatures often below freezing with snow covering the ground. In northern Europe such a promise of renewal was essential at a time of death, darkness and cold.

Like many other Christmas traditions, the universally-popular Christmas tree is derived from a fusion of Christian ideas with the older pagan traditions. The custom originated in Germany. According to one legend, Saint Boniface attempted to introduce the idea of trinity to the pagan tribes using the cone-shaped evergreen trees because of their triangular appearance. The tradition of hanging decorations (representing fruit or gifts) on the trees is very old, with some early reports coming from the Alsace-Lorraine upper Rhine region, but the tradition of attaching candles is attributed to Martin Luther. A related tradition was hanging evergreen branches throughout the home. With time, these evergreen branches gave way to garlands, vines and wreaths.

Though houses were dressed at Christmas with evergreen boughs, in northern Europe, the Christmas tree was not customary in the English-speaking world. In Britain, it was introduced by King George III's German Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but did not spread much beyond the royal family until the royal family Christmas centered round Prince Albert at Osborne House was illustrated in English magazines, and copied in the United States at Christmas 1850. Such patriotic prints of the British royal family at Christmas celebrations helped popularise the Christmas tree in Britain and among the anglophile American upper class.

Wikipedia: Christmas Tree

The American Center for Law and Justice (and the US Supreme Court) goes even further, stating in a press release that the Christmas tree used to be a religious symbol:
In its letter, the ACLJ said the Supreme Court has clearly indicated that governmental bodies are free to celebrate the holiday season with symbols of the season. In a 1989 decision, the high court said: "The Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not itself a religious symbol. Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas." Furthermore, the Supreme Court and numerous lower courts have held that nativity scenes and menorahs may be displayed on government property without violating the constitution.

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In fact, the early Christian leaders scheduled the observance of Jesus' birth to coincide with the Saturnalia festival, to make it easier for the pagans to adopt Christianity. Apparently evergreen trees, along with gift giving, carolling, garlands, and other icons we now associate with Christmas were a common symbol for that too.

Posted by: valerief on December 17, 2004 02:28 PM

The star in the tree's top is an obvious reference to Jesu birth.

But the evergreen itself is a symbol of winter survival.

Posted by: Jan Egil Kristiansen, Hoyvk on December 17, 2004 03:53 PM

just consider the origin of christmas trees (a bit too north on Earth) and you'll see it is directly correlated to this funny big bearded guy in red trousers supplemented with its reindeers all coming from the north (apart the red color coming from atlanta), and not to the Jordan river.

Posted by: abram on December 17, 2004 04:20 PM

"Christmas is the one time of year when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ."
-- Bart Simpson

Posted by: A on December 17, 2004 06:16 PM

It actually says in the bible somewhere that you aren't to decorate trees or something. Not sure where, but if anyone wants to look that up you can go to and so a word search. I think it all comes down to your motivation for having a Christmas tree. People get way to worked up about that stuff.

Posted by: Ryan / digitalcamreview on December 20, 2004 02:08 AM

The star in the tree's top is an obvious reference to Jesu birth.

But the evergreen itself is a symbol of winter survival.

Posted by: 下载 on January 26, 2005 06:07 PM
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