“The Origins of the Christmas Holiday” series: (post #4)
This will be the last post in our series on the origins of our Christmastime traditions. With this one, however, I don’t want to deal with any more origins of any more traditions. Instead, I want to focus upon rightly applying what we’ve learned.
There are some who staunchly believe that Christians should have nothing to do with the Christmas holiday. They say, “The holiday has its roots in paganism, and Christians should avoid it altogether.” This was the mindset of the early Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, and Calvinists who played such major roles in the settling of America.
If you ever meet someone who does oppose the holiday, that person will probably refer you to Jeremiah 10:2-5, which says:
Thus says the Lord: Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good. (N.K.J.V.)
Some people read that passage and say, “You see? Right there the Bible tells us that we shouldn’t have Christmas trees.” But are these people right? That’s what we need to figure out.
Several years ago, I came face to face with this issue in my life. I had learned the information that I’ve passed along in this series, and I had to figure out how to apply it to my family’s life. Since the whole subject was pretty overwhelming to me, all I knew to do was pray about it. I poured out my heart to God and said, “Lord, You show me what You want me to do about the Christmas holiday, and I’ll do it.”
I prayed that and I meant it! I was open to never again having a Christmas tree. I was open to never again having Santa Claus mentioned around my house. I was open to ending the practice of buying presents and getting presents.
You say, “Oh, Russell, that kind of thinking is just going to a wrong extreme.” Well, maybe it is, but tell me, have you ever seriously prayed about the issue of the pagan taint that Christmas has upon it? I dare say that most people go their entire lives and never commit the matter to prayer. Say what you will, but I did that.
And what answer did God bring me back to time and time again? Well, if you go into my house at Christmastime, you will find a Christmas tree sitting in my living room. It is beautifully decorated and, depending on what day you go, it might even have a few presents under it. You’ll also find stockings for Ryan and Royce hung on our windowsill. You get the idea. God gave me a peace about our Christmas traditions, and He taught me that it all comes under the heading of Christian liberty.
Not surprisingly, I’ve since learned that I’m not the only Christian whom God has led to this conclusion. Years ago, in Jerry Falwell’s publication The National Liberty Journal, he had a word to say about Christians and Christmas. It was so in line with how God had answered my prayers that I cut it out and kept it. Falwell wrote:
I usually get some critical mail from friends who object to trees, Santa Claus, gifts, and the entire celebration. They remind me that we do not know the exact date of the birth of Christ; that the Christmas tree and Santa have pagan origins; that commercialism dominates the scene; and that Christians should ignore the whole season. Of course, I respectfully disagree. I have never met a person who was damaged emotionally for life because of believing in Santa as a child, or believing in the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, or Mother Goose rhymes. Rather, I have met many who were sadly robbed of their childhood by strict legalistic parents who thought they were doing God a service by denying their children all harmless fun and innocent fantasy.
(By the way, Jerry Falwell was hardly classified as a liberal!)
Let me give you another quote that I like. This one comes from James Dobson’s Focus On The Family magazine. In answering a question about Santa, Dobson wrote, “…if I had to do it over, I would still let my children thrill to the excitement of Santa’s arrival down the chimney on Christmas Eve.”
So, does Christmas really have its roots in paganism? Yes. There’s no denying that. In this series, I didn’t even take the time to explain the pagan origins of mistletoe, the Yule log, decking the halls with boughs of holly, the Christmas goose, and many, many other Christmas traditions. I assure you that these customs didn’t come from the Bible. But does that mean that God would have us to boycott Christmas? No, it doesn’t.
Let me tell you something: Unless you move to a cave on top of a mountain, you can’t really boycott it anyway. A man says, “My family isn’t going to celebrate Christmas in any way.” Then he sends his five-year-old off to kindergarten and the boy comes home and says, “We are having a Christmas party at school on Friday and I’m supposed to bring the cupcakes.” A woman says, “I’m not even going to acknowledge that there is a Christmas. I just won’t let it into my house.” Then she goes to her mailbox and finds that her neighbor has sent her a Christmas card. Do you see what I mean?
Someone says, “But what about that passage from Jeremiah chapter 10?” I’ll tell you about it. It has absolutely nothing to do with a Christmas tree! What the passage condemns is cutting down a tree and fashioning a wooden idol out of it. If you don’t believe me, sit down and read it for yourself. The key to rightly understanding the passage is to read the entire chapter. Don’t just stop at verse 5. Keep going on through the chapter. When you do that, you will see that the reference is to the making of a wooden idol. It doesn’t have one thing to do with Christmas trees or Christmas.
Listen, Jesus knows that He wasn’t born on December 25th, and He knows about Saturnalia and all the other winter-solstice festivals that other cultures used to celebrate. But He also knows what it is to live in a fallen world. And, knowing that, what He asks from us each Christmas (as well as every other time of the year) is that we live all out for Him.
Parent, I firmly believe that Jesus wants you to let your kids have their fun at Christmas, but He also wants you to teach them the difference between myth and reality. What He especially wants is for you to teach them how to live for Him out there in the real world, a real world that makes a big deal out of Christmas. That’s why I would encourage you to pour out your heart to the Lord about all the issues of Christmas and let Him show you the guidelines and boundaries. He did that for me, and He will do it for you if you are sincere in wanting to know His will. To you, Christmas can simply be a wonderful time of family, tradition, and, of course, the heartfelt celebration of the birth of Jesus.
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Wow, thanks for that Jaylan! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
Great point of view! After all, God created us with an imagination. I love the picture of Santa Claus kneeling down and bowing to baby Jesus! I don’t care if it’s St. Nick, Santa or a guy in a red suit! He’s acknowledging that Jesus Is the reason for the season! Jesus knows our hearts 🙂
I have a possible chance to work for a tourist excursion passenger train that does include “Santa Events” on board. At first, I didn’t give it much thought, but now am not so sure, given that at the very least, invasion technical sense, these type of events do lie to children who participate in them. Still, I also get the sense that I may be being too legalistic. I am just not sure. Any insights?
Robert, the question you raise is a good one and I commend you for asking it. I wish that more people would slow down for even a split second and think about the possible damage that lying to kids about Santa Claus can do. I’m not saying that we should all go extremist and bust every child’s bubble today. (Tonya and I did allow our two sons to have a few early years of believing in Santa). But I am saying that Santa is a long ways out of his box and needs to be reigned in a lot. He has overshadowed Jesus at Christmastime for far too long now.
I would encourage you to spend some time studying: Romans 14:5, Romans 14:23, 1 Corinthians 6:12, 1 Corinthians 8:13, 1 Corinthians 10:31, and Colossians 3:15. These passages all touch upon the area of Christian liberty and what is allowable and what isn’t. In them you will find that you shouldn’t do anything that you don’t have a genuine peace about. Therefore, you having a God-granted peace or lack of it about accepting the job should be your final factor in making your decision.
Then, once you have studied these passages, take the matter to God in prayer just as James 1:5-8 advises. In your praying, tell God that if it is His will for you to take the job then He needs to give you a peace about it, a peace that you don’t currently have. There have been several times in my life when I have said to God, “Lord, if you want me to do this you are going to have to give me a peace about it because right now I don’t have it.” Sometimes He has given me that peace. Other times He hasn’t. I don’t know how things will turn out with you and this job.
I will say that I wouldn’t be so legalistic as to dismiss the opportunity out of hand simply because some kids might be exposed to Santa. I can assure you that they’ll be exposed to him one way or the other no matter what you decide. To me, the key word to keeping all the trappings of Christmas in proper perspective is “balance.” That’s what you are after. If you can strike some kind of God-sanctioned balance about working the job, then I would go ahead and take it. That’s just one man’s opinion.
Dear Russell, I loved the article but Jeremiah 10 does seem to describe a Christmas Tree. I mean, isn’t the workman the one who cuts a tree from the forest? In other words, isn’t a cut tree, the result of a workman using an axe? I’ve been told that modern translations “water down” the real meaning of Jeremiah 10:3-4. If it is talking about the making of gods, then why does the Geneva Bible/Douay Rheims make it sound as though it is a mere tree that is cut down? Just asking. I’m not trying to criticize you. Are older translations more reliable than modern translations of the Bible?
Yes, the passage does describe a workman cutting a mere tree from the forest. No one is disputing that. The issue is, what does the workman do with the cut tree? Does he decorate it and stand it in a corner, making it some kind of ancient “Christmas tree”? Or does he cut it and then see it fashioned into some kind of idol? By reading the entire chapter we learn that the latter is the answer. As proof of this, consider the following verses from the chapter (all from the classic King James translation):
-Verse 5: “They (the cut trees) are upright as the palm tree, but speak not.” Seriously now, no one has ever questioned whether or not a “Christmas tree” can speak. On the other hand, the Bible does use such a question in reference to idols in multiple places.
-Verse 5: “Be not afraid of them (the cut trees); for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.” Again, there’s no chance of believing that a “Christmas tree” has the power to do evil or good, but that chance certainly does exist if we are talking about a tree being fashioned into an idol.
-Verse 9 refers to how the idol is made. Silver is brought from Tarshish and spread into plates. Gold is brought from Uphaz. The work of fashioning the idol is all done by “cunning” (K.J.V.) men. The word “cunning” refers to “skillful” in the area of craftsmanship. You see, if this is all about decorating a “Christmas tree,” it’s a very, very expensive and elaborate tree. But using imported silver and gold in creating an idol? That was common practice.
-Verse 14: “Every man is brutish in his knowledge: every founder (the metal worker who creates the idol) is confounded by the graven image; for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them.” Again, I don’t think anyone has ever accused a Christmas tree of having breath.
And now let me answer your question about older translations being more reliable than modern ones. First, let me say, no, they aren’t more reliable. Language experts learn more and more all the time about the languages they study and this creates an ever-growing body of knowledge and expertise concerning any language. So to suggest that a Hebrew scholar from the year 1600 knows more about Hebrew than one from the year 2000 is simply wrong. But then second, let me also say that the reason I prefer modern translations is because they put the Bible into the language of today and, thus, make it more understandable.
Thanks for that but aren’t wooden idols made in such a way that it could be steadied on its own?
No, not necessarily. Jeremiah isn’t describing massive, large-scale figures sitting in elaborate temples. He is describing much smaller idols, something along the lines of household gods. In The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Charles Dyer writes this: “A person would chop down a tree, give the wood to a craftsman who fashioned it into a desired shape. This ‘god’ was then covered with silver and gold and fastened to a base so that it would not totter. Once the god was made by man it had to be carried to its destination.”
Likewise, the noted scholar Merrill F. Unger wrote: “Their vaunted god was but wood chopped out of the forest (Isaiah 44:9-20), graven by the artisan’s hand, and decked with silver and gold (Isaiah 40:19; Jeremiah 10:14). It was such an impotent nonentity that he (Jeremiah) noted with biting irony that it had to be fastened with nails so that it would not move (totter and fall over; Isaiah 40:20; 41:7).”
Finally, in his commentary notes on the passage, J. Vernon McGee sums up the matter as follows: “There are some folks who interpret Jeremiah’s denunciation of idolatry to be a condemnation of the modern Christmas tree. That is utterly preposterous and ridiculous. Jeremiah is not talking about Christmas trees-nobody in his day had a Christmas tree! He is talking about people worshiping idols.”
I think if you will read Isaiah 40:18-20 and 44:9-20 it will clear up the issue for you.
I’m really sorry but I really do think that Jeremiah 10:3-4 is about a Christmas tree. Verse 5 has nothing to do with verses 3 and 4. I have seen so many websites that say that Jer 10:3 is not about carving an image but rather it is ONLY about tree chopping. One particular website, ChristmasIsALie that holds verse 3 to be only about tree cutting. I have read John Calvin’s commentaries about Jeremiah 10:3 being about the construction of gods for worship but I’m convinced that verse 3 only talks of cutting a tree. I am convinced that the NIV translation deceives people in Jeremiah 10:3. In the original hebrew text, there is no chisel. Why does verse 4 say IT while verse 5 says THEY? Doesn’t the use of different pronouns imply a change in topic? Meaning that verses 3 and 4 independently talk of a decorated tree while verse 5 describes the idols. Therefore verses 3 and 4 are independent and have no bearing on verse 5. In essence, this is how I interpret verse 3:
“For one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the chopped tree by the woodsman with the tree cutting instrument.”
Look at it again:
“For one cutteth a tree out of the forest” <——- Clearly a tree is being cut
"The work of the hands" <——- the chopped tree
"Of the workman" <——- The woodsman
"With the axe" <——- With a tree cutting instrument
Verse 3 talks ONLY about tree cutting NOT wood chiselling. It would take a miracle for me to believe that Jer 10:3 talks of making a god from wood. I really do hope you understand where I'm coming from. As for adopting traditions from paganism, God forbids us from adopting pagan traditions, wreaths included, into His worship. Deut 12:29-31 and 2 Cor 6:14 speak against adopting pagan religious customs. Decorating trees is a pagan religious act, therefore no Christian should do the same. Worship is an action, not a thought. Please give some thought to my questions. Thank you.
Hey Dale, sorry to be so late getting back to you but your comment showed up on the blog during my long “down period.” What I mean is, on March 18, 2013, one year before you posted your comment, I had stopped writing new posts and had basically signed off on the blog. I went for many months without even checking in on it. Finally, some three-and-a-half years later, on October 3rd of this year, I started posting again and replying to comments. Unfortunately for your comment, I had forgotten about it until I happened to be checking over this old Christmas post for typos, punctuation errors, misspelled words, and such and happened to notice that I hadn’t responded to you. So, for what it’s worth at this late date, here goes.
In the post, I cited Jeremiah 10:2-5 from the New King James translation not the N.I.V. However, in the interest of fairness to the translation team of the N.I.V., I will mention that both the Holman Christian Standard and the Darby Bible Translation also use the word “chisel” in verse 3. Along the same lines, the N.R.S.V. renders the end of the verse, “…and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan.” Likewise, the E.S.V. goes with, “…worked with an ax by the hands of a craftsman.” The N.A.S.V. follows suit by putting it: “…The work of the hands of a craftsman with a cunning tool.” So, you see, even though the N.I.V. and the Darby Bible Translation are the only two translations that literally use the word “chisel,” all of these other translations bring in the idea of an artisan or a craftsman. Even the classic K.J.V. talks about, “…the work of the hands of the workman…” in wielding the ax. All this clearly indicates something more than just doing the grunt work of taking an ax, hacking down a tree from the forest, and hauling it back home to serve as a Christmas tree. No, some type of skillful artistry or craftsmanship is involved.
The Amplified Bible is a translation that brackets in extra English words to the literal translation of the Bible’s Hebrew and Greek words to bring out the fullest meaning of the words. It does an excellent job of conveying what verse 3 is saying by rendering the verse as follows: “For the customs and ordinances of the peoples are false, empty, and futile; it is but a tree which one cuts out of the forest [to make for himself a god], the work of the hands of the craftsman with the ax or other tool.”
The heart of the issue in all of these variations in translations is the Hebrew word that gets translated as “ax” (or “axe”) in verse 3. According to Strong’s Concordance, that Hebrew word is “ma’atsad,” a word that comes from an unused root that means “to hew.” And since “to hew” means “to cut by blows” or “to chop” the translation of “ax” is understandable. But wait a minute, things are that simple. I say this because in Isaiah 44:12 the K.J.V. translators translate this exact same Hebrew word as “tongs” and use it in reference to a blacksmith using his tongs to work with coals and fashion something with hammers. And guess what that something is: a graven image. You see, Isaiah 44:9-20 is a parallel passage to Jeremiah 10:2-5. Isaiah 44:14 in the K.J.V. even says of the idol maker, “He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the cypress and the oak…”
As for your point about the passage’s transition from talking about “it” in verses 3 and 4 to talking about “they” in verse 5, the transition is perfectly logical. I mentioned in one of my previous replies that the type of idol being described is not a large-scale graven image sitting in an elaborate temple. It is, instead, a smaller scale image, basically a household god. This means that there were hundreds if not thousands of these things in Israel. So, verses 3 and 4 talk about the process of making a single small idol and then verse 5 uses plural language to describe the vast multitude of idols that had been made. If, as you suggest, verses 3 and 4 talk about a Christmas tree and then verse 5 completely shifts gears and changes the subject to idols, that makes for a very abrupt and random transition.
Lastly, if God is beginning a whole new subject in verse 5 why doesn’t He get specific by telling us what “They” He is referring to? Obviously, the fact that He didn’t feel the need to do this proves positively that He was continuing on with the same subject He had previously begun. No one talks about one subject and then transitions to a different subject by starting out with “They.” That makes no sense.