It was the 3rd week of December some 20 years ago. Our son Todd, who was about nine at the time, was riding in the back seat of the car next to his friend Katie, a charming and bright young girl. She was one of the kids in his homeschooling group. He was telling her how much he liked decorating the Christmas tree. She turned and said to him, “Do you know what Christmas ornaments are? They are representatives of the Pagan God–that’s what they are!” She said it with amazing disgust and revulsion in her voice.
“I didn’t know what to say to that,” Todd was telling me later.
We got to thinking about it and figured if there’s only one God anyway, the pagan God has to be the same as her God. “You could have told her that,” I proposed.
“Yeah, Dad, but I just didn’t want to get into it with her.”
But I sure wanted to get into it. This was some interesting theology. So next time I caught up with Katie’s dad, I had to ask him about it. Katie’s dad is a self-styled fundamentalist who sees the Bible as the only source of ultimate truth.
He’s also thoughtful and fun to talk to. So I mentioned to him about what I heard his daughter had been saying and wondered who might be telling her things like that.
“It’s amazing what the kids will come up with,” he said. (I agreed.)
“However,” he said, “it does seem like people are, in some ways, worshiping their Christmas trees. They put all these gifts under them. It’s like they are teaching their children to adore all those material things like Christmas trees and presents and candy and all that junk. It seems like idol worship to me. You ought to check out what it says about Christmas trees in the Bible.”
“In the Bible?” I asked. “Christmas trees in the Bible?”
“Yeah, it’s in Jeremiah.”
Well, before long, there I was, turning back to the Bible.
And I found it! There it was–Jeremiah, chapter 10, verses 2 thru 8. “Thus saith the Lord, ‘Learn not the way of the heathen… For the customs of the people are vain…they cutteth a tree out of the forest…with the ax. They deck it with silver and with gold… this is altogether brutish and foolish. It is a doctrine of vanities.”
That’s right out of the King James version of the holy Bible! That’s why many Christian fundamentalists won’t have anything to do with Christmas trees and a lot of them won’t celebrate Christmas either.
I guess we were off the hook that year. We didn’t “cutteth our tree out of the forest with an ax.” We got a “road-kill” Christmas tree. The road crew had been trimming the road banks and they left a pile of little scrub pines lying there by the side of the road. I wired three of the little scrawny things together and made a plump bushy “tree”.
Todd found a whole string of tiny white lights in the dumpster. He plugged it in and all the bulbs worked. He was thrilled. He couldn’t believe someone would throw out perfectly good lights. We had a road-kill tree with dumpster lights that year!
I told Katie’s dad that I thought the lights on our Christmas tree represent the light of hope, peace and love shining forth from darkness. They are like the solstice bonfires that have brightened the darkness since ancient times. They are like the Kwanza lights and Hanukkah candles celebrating light shining in the darkness. (Hanukkah comes on a different date every year because it’s celebrated at the darkest time of the year, which is not always winter solstice. The winter solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night, but the longest night is not necessarily the darkest night because there could be a full moon on the solstice. Hanukkah is a lunar celebration during the dark of the moon nearest the solstice, that’s truly the darkest time of the year. That’s when we crave that reminder that the light is still there.
And our scrawny little Christmas tree, propped up there against the wall with its little trunk(s) in a bucket of water and rocks–that’s the Tree of Life, I was telling him. Our tree represents the miracle of creation. People are often looking for miracles in their lives. You want miracles? Look at a tree. A tree is a God-given miracle. Think about what trees eat. They eat light and suck dirt! They reach up and absorb the light through their leaves and while they’re reaching up, they are also sending roots down into the Earth Mother, probing her depths, absorbing nutrients and forming the very fabric of the earth. They grow and they give us fruit, flowers, lumber, shade and shelter. When they exhale they give us oxygen to breathe.
So whether we go out (like the heathens) and cutteth our tree in the forest with an axe, or buy our tree organically grown, or farmed with chemicals, or have an artificial tree that we use every year, or maybe we leave our tree standing in the forest, a tree is surely not a false idol. It’s a reminder of the great miracle of creation we are all a part of.
“Poems (and stories) are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”
~ Joyce Kilmer