Where do Christmas decorations come from? How important are they?
Mistletoe, Holly, Evergreen Trees
Many Christmas decorations have pagan origins. For example, pagans gathered mistletoe on Midsummer Day (the summer solstice) and December 25 (the winter solstice). The mistletoe, a parasitic plant, was made into a “diving rod” as it was believed to have power to reveal treasures in the earth. It was also seen as the sacred oak’s "seat of life" and as something that came directly from the fire of the sun. The white sticky berries were believed to be droplets of semen from the sun god.
Kissing under the mistletoe was a tradition that took place among the sexual licentiousness of the festival Saturnalia (held between December 17 to 25). This festival was held in honour of Saturn the god of agriculture and harvest; a god who, like the pagan god Molech in the Bible, is said to have required child sacrifice. In the Middle Ages, people hung branches of mistletoe in ceilings to ward off evil spirits and on the doorways of houses and stables to keep out witches. While other decorations have now been given Christian meanings, this does not appear to be one of them.
Red holly berries, like the white mistletoe berries, were also seen to symbolise fertility. The red holly berries have been said to symbolize the menstrual fluid of the goddess and are also seen as symbolic of the sacrifice required by a god. The holly with its red berries has been given a new meaning by those who focus on the birth of Christ at Christmas. The sharp edged of the leaves are a reminder of the crown of thorns that Jesus wore and the red berries represent the blood he shed. While Christmas focuses on Christ's birth, this cannot be separated from the reason he came, to die for sinners that he might bring forgiveness and eternal life to those who repent and believe the good news of what he (through his death and resurrection) has done.
Evergreen trees (which pagans would prefer were not cut down and brought inside but honoured outside in their natural environment) represent life. A yule custom that is still followed today is to decorate an evergreen tree and make offerings. The top of the tree was often used as a phallic symbol in much the same way as the ancient obelisk, which is still around to day.
In the words of a former witch writes 'The obelisk is a long pointed four sided shaft, the uppermost portion of which forms a pyramid. The word 'obelisk' literally means 'Baal's shaft' or Baal's organ of reproduction' (Page 341 Masonic and occult symbols illustrated. Dr. Cathy Burns).
Christians however see the evergreen tree as a symbol not of life, but of ETERNAL life because it is always green. Note, it is not an object of worship but a symbol that points to God, the creator of the tree and the only true and worthy object of worship. In the very first book of the Bible, we read of the tree of life (Genesis 3:9). In the last book of the Bible we also read of the tree of life (Revelation 22:2). Jesus refers to himself as a tree, the grape vine (John 15:5) and even of people as trees that can produce good or bad fruit (Matthew 7:17). The olive tree is symbolic of Israel (Rom. 11:15-25) and the cedar tree of the temple of God in Jerusalem. The point is that trees are used in the Bible as symbols that point to God or the work of God.
But what about that passage in Jeremiah 10:3-4 which some claim is speaking of a Christmas tree. The claim from this passage is that decorating a tree is a vain pagan custom and when you collect a present from under the tree that you are bowing down to the tree. Here is the passage in question...
"For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. 4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not."
The context of this verse however shows that Jeremiah was speaking against idol worship and the breaking of the second of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:3-5): specifically, bowing down to and worshipping an idol that has been made by hand (cut from a tree and covered with silver and gold). This is very different to when a Christian decorates a tree, not for the purpose of bowing down to it, praying to or worshipping it, but to remind him in some way of the one true God and creator whom he/she worships and bows to.
The most famous king in the Bible whom the Bible itself describes as a man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22), said this, "purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean" (Psalm 51:7). Did king David seriously think that the hyssop plant would cleanse him of his sins against God. No! But hyssop was symbolic of cleansing, and this is the way in which David was was praying - TO GOD! Nowhere in the Bible is a tree seen as necessary for worshiping but they are a legitimate symbol that may be used to point to God whom we should worship.
The most powerful tree image in the Bible is that of a tree that Jesus was crucified on, cut in the shape of a cross. The cross was itself a symbol of being cursed (Galatians 3:13). However, when Jesus died on that cross over 2,000 years ago, he removed the curse of sin by taking that curse on himself and suffering the full wrath of God against sinful humanity. To all who humble themselves before God, repent and believe the good news of Jesus death for them, and his glorious resurrection, the Bible promises that they will be forgiven of their sin and receive ETERNAL life (Romans 6:23). Christians don't bow to a cross, but the cross is powerfully symbolic of the one they bow to. To find out more about this, visit our Naughty or Nice page.
The wreath was a sign of victory in ancient Rome and sometimes worn by athletes after winning a competition. Pre-Christian Germanic people used to gather evergreen wreaths and light fires during the cold December months as a sign of hope in a coming spring with renewed light. Catholics and Protestants of the 16th century used these symbols to celebrate their Advent hope in Christ, the everlasting Light. For the Advent wreath used in Churches across the world, four candles are lit in the weeks leading up to Christmas day. The stand for the love, joy, peace and hope found in Christ. On Christmas day, a fifth candle is lit called the Christ candle. Consider the following quote, originally written to Christians in the first century...
"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord." - From 1 Corinthians 15:55-58 in the Bible.
By the grace of the crown of thorns placed mockingly on Jesus head was turned into a victory wreath (metaphorically speaking).
While Christendom has adopted pagan symbols and given them Christian meaning (even the colours red stand for the blood of Christ shed for sinners, white stands for cleansing through repentance and faith in Christ, green stands for new life and growth as a follower of Christ), it also has it's own unique symbols such as the nativity (with the manger, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus), shepherds, magi (wise men), angels and a star.
Is a Stone Evil or Good?
If it was first used as a weapon to kill someone, could a stone then be used to build something good like a home? If it was first used symbolically as a pagan symbol to bow down to and worship, could it later be used as a Christian symbol? According to the Bible, the answer to both questions is, yes. No matter how a stone may be used literally or symbolically for evil, it can also be used literally and symbolically for good.
While stones have been used down through the ages to kill people (stones killed the first Christian martyr - Stephen), the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone of the temple God is building; a temple made up of living stones which are the people of God – those who repent of sin and put their personal faith in Jesus Christ to save them from God’s wrath on the day of judgement.
So a stone itself is not evil. It can be used literally or symbolically for good or evil; just like the human hand or the mind.
If something is used for evil or to represent something evil, godless or false, there appears no reason why it cannot be used for good. Just think of the cross. The empty cross which was originally the sign of death and a curse is a sign of life and blessing through faith in the crucified Christ.
Some Christian traditions (including decorations and symbols) and celebrations were adopted from what was originally a pagan religion. At times, this put the church on a moral slippery slope as it ended up condoning in the pagan practices the Bible speaks against. But does the fact that the church messed up badly in the past mean that it should never use any symbols that have a pagan origin, for Christian use?
In answering that question, we invite you to think about this.… before we (Christians) were adopted into God’s family, we were once pagan ourselves…. Now we want to serve God! Can God not use us for good because we were once pagan? Of course he can! That’s what salvation is all about!!!
Do we need ANY symbol to remind us of the birth of Christ?
The answer is, No! The birth of Christ as testified to in the Bible stands on its own.
In the sacrament of the “Lord’s Supper”, Christians ARE given the symbols of bread and wine which are set aside in this special meal to remember the body and blood of Jesus shed for the sins of the world. And while many ancient pagan practices involved animal sacrifice and even human sacrifice, the Bible presents Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world. The world belongs to God and he is free to use whatever he wishes in his world as a sign or symbol pointing to his saving work in Jesus Christ.
The absolutely incredible thing about this is that while pagan gods demanded sacrifices to appease them, in complete contrast to this, in the person of Jesus Christ (the incarnation of the one true living God) God himself became the sacrifice! God loved the world so much that in order to satisfy his holy and perfect justice, he himself provided the sacrifice (for sin) through Jesus Christ - God incarnate!
It is interesting though that nowhere in the Bible are Christians given a sacrament or symbol by which to remember Christ’s birth. Maybe this because God wants his people to focus more on the reason for the birth of Christ: to die for sinners. However, while there is no command to celebrate Christ’s birth, either with or without symbols (and there is no command NOT to celebrate the birth of Christ), there are two things that are worth noting…
First, the birth of Christ is something worth celebrating. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, special attention is given to the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Saviour. We read of genealogies tracing the lineage of the Messiah, we have accounts of angelic appearances announcing the Good News to Mary, Joseph and some unnamed shepherds. Then we have shepherds and magi (wise men) celebrating the birth of the Christ. It doesn’t stop there: Mary’s song and the words of Simeon and Anna also show that the birth of Jesus Christ is worth celebrating.
Secondly, it needs to be made clear that while Christians have freedom to give special significance to a particular day as a religious festival (and we can perhaps imply, to an object as a symbol) Christians need to have taken the time to think about why they are doing this (Romans 14:5). They are also to be sure that, as with whatever else they do in life, they do it in the name of Jesus and for his glory (Colossians 3:17, 23). This means taking care not to give more importance to the symbol or festival than to what they point towards… in this case, the birth of Christ, and more specifically, Christ himself.
Remember that the things God created, like fir trees, holly, ivy, mistletoe… are no more evil than a stone is. They can be used literally or symbolically for evil or good.
It is worth remembering that there would be no symbols pointing to the birth of a Saviour if we did not first have the message in God’s Word, the Bible, that a Saviour was born. With that in mind, it might be good to ask, where does the Bible figure in your Christmas? More importantly, where does it figure in your life? Does it have a place of visible prominence in your home at Christmas only or at other times of the year? And is it only there as a symbol, gathering dust or does it get read regularly, in private and to all members of the household at once. Is the Bible treated in your home as the living Word of God, or does it just come out on special occasions like a Christmas decoration?
If you are putting up decorations this Christmas that are symbolic of the birth of Christ, consider where the Bible and maybe a nativity scene (depicting the actual story of Christ’s birth) fits into this. Consider also the place of the cross which reminds us why Jesus was born.