When studying the Bible, one should never take one or a few verses out of context and make a doctrinal point out of the particular verse or verses. If not understood in the context of the issue and surrounding passages, we often obtain a false reading of the particular scripture. Jeremiah 10:3-4 is a passage often taken out of context to show that Christmas trees are idolatrous. Here is the passage:
Jer 10:3-4 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.
Many people understand this passage to be about the Christmas tree. After all isn’t a Christmas tree cut down and decorated with ornaments, garland, and icicles of silver and gold? Don’t we fasten a tree to a tree stand with screws to immobilize it? In the past, our Christmas trees were nailed to a wooden X stand so that the tree would not move. These things lead many people to believe that a Christmas tree is being described here and that it is idolatry to have a Christmas tree in the home. Search the Internet. You will find many articles condemning the Christmas tree.
But is this really true? Are we practicing idolatry when we have Christmas trees in our homes and public places at Christmas time?
If we take the passage in the context of the entire passage in which it resides, we may have an entirely different take on the verses. The context of the entire chapter of Jeremiah is worshipping idols instead of God. For example, in verse 2 we are told by the prophet that we should not act like the heathen who practice astrology. They trust in the stars for their guidance instead of trusting God. They are worshipping astrology instead of God. That is idolatry. In verse three, we see that the tree is cut down and then a craftsman (workman) carves (the axe) it into an idol. According to The Complete Word Study Dictionary the word for axe, מֲעָצד (matsad), can refer to a carving or wood working tool sometimes used to carve idols. This is backed up by the HALOT (The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament) and Holladay (A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament edited by WL Holladay) lexicons.
What we see in this passage is the making of a carved idol out of the tree cut down in the forest. The workman cut it and shaped it in to an idol. He then decorated it with silver and gold to enhance its appearance and make it more palatable. The tree could also be shaped into an Asherah pole, which is a phallic symbol of the fertility goddess Asherah. A maypole is the modern equivalent of the pagan celebration of Asherah. May Day festivities (dancing around the maypole that is decorated with colored streamers that the participants hold on to as they dance around the pole) resemble the idolatry in this passage. Mayday celebrants bring in the maypole from the woods with rejoicing and merrymaking. Prior to that, someone cuts the tree down and fashions it into a maypole with cutting tools, then it is decorated with gaily colored streamers or garlands of wild flowers. Mayday is far closer to the passage in Jeremiah than Christmas trees are.
The problem with the cutting down of the trees in our Bible passage is that the specific purpose of the tree and its shaping and decorations was the actual worship of the processed, decorated tree as an idol instead of worshipping God.
In Jeremiah’s day there was no Christmas and there were no Christmas trees. Christmas trees began to appear in the 16th Century and, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica,
The modern Christmas tree . . . originated in western Germany. The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a fir tree hung with apples (paradise tree) representing the Garden of Eden. The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition, the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, too, were often added as the symbol of Christ. In the same room, during the Christmas season, was the Christmas pyramid, a triangular construction of wood, with shelves to hold Christmas figurines, decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century, the Christmas pyramid and paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree. (Encyclopædia Britannica 2003 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. Copyright © 1994-2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. May 30, 2002)
So, as you can see, the Christmas Tree represents the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and the ornaments on it represent the fruit of that tree. The Bible tells us in Rev 22:2, “In the midst of the street of [heaven], and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.“
The Christmas tree also represents Christ, as does the Tree of Life. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:26). We see in Genesis 3:22, that the Tree of Life provides eternal life. Who provides eternal life for us? Christ; He is the Tree of Life. He is also the Light of the World. Hence the lights on the tree also represent Christ.
The point of this treatise is to show you that the tree in the passage in Jeremiah was not a Christmas tree; it was cut down and fashioned into an idol that the people worshipped. The Christmas tree is no such thing. It is not worshipped, nor is it fashioned into an idol. Instead it is a representation of Christ, the Tree of Life. We do not worship it. Just as we do not worship the cross, which is simply a symbol of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. We do not worship the cross, it points us to Christ. The Christmas tree is exactly like that. It represents the life we receive through our belief in Christ and it points us to Him.