The Christmas Tree is not a Christian symbol
By John D. Turner
30 Dec 2004

What is a Christian symbol? If asked this question, most people would mention the cross, the most visible symbol of Christianity world wide. A close runner-up might be the fish, a symbol used by early Christians.

The cross, of course, represents Christ’s death on the cross; the atoning sacrifice he made for all of us, that some day, we flawed humans might stand in the presence of God the Father, forgiven of all our sins.

The fish represents the charge that Christ gave Peter and Andrew in Matthew 4:19, when he told them “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”. It was used in ancient times as a secret recognition symbol between believers. It is used today, at least here in the United States, as a recognition symbol to signify that a particular person or business is either Christian, or “Christian friendly”, and is seen frequently on automobiles and in advertising on business cards or in the Yellow Pages of the phone book.

But the Christmas tree? A Christian symbol? It is, according to Rob Sherman, an atheist in Chicago.

Certainly, the Christmas tree is a symbol of Christmas. And Christmas is, symbolically, a day set aside for the celebration of the birth of Christ. But although the transitive property might hold true for equality in mathematics, the fact that the Christmas tree is symbolic of Christmas, and Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, does not mean that the Christmas tree is therefore a Christian symbol.

Nor does it mean that the celebration of Christmas as it is currently practiced in the United States and other parts of the world, is limited to followers of Christ, or that those who put up Christmas trees are celebrating the birth of Christ.

Christmas is a rather interesting holiday. Celebrations similar to what we have now have been around for over 4000 years, centered around the winter solstice. These celebrations were marked by the giving of gifts, carnivals and parades, decorations of greenery and the burning of bond fires. The most well-known of these was the Roman festival of Saturnalia, honoring the Roman god Saturn, running from 17-24 December.

Celebration of Christ’s birth dates back to around 98 A.D. Originally, it was celebrated on January 6th.

The early Christian church considered Saturnalia an abomination as a celebration of a pagan deity, and forbade its followers from participation. Since most of its converts came from this tradition, however, this proved impossible to enforce. Church leaders finally decided instead to co-opt this and other pagan celebrations, in essence, “converting” them to Christian celebrations and purposes. The 25th of December was officially declared the observance date of the birth of Christ by the Bishop of Rome in 350 A.D., and the earliest English mention of December 25th as Christmas Day dates to 1043.

There has from the first, been an uneasy coexistence between the solemn celebration of the birth of Christ, and the ostentatious displays and traditions common to the pagan roots of this holiday. Criticism has resurfaced in modern times due to the excessive commercialism that has sprung up around the celebration of Christmas, with emphasis put more on the buying and giving of presents than reverence for the birth of the Son of God. Indeed, the Christmas season is a “make or break” time for many businesses, with sales during the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas being the deciding factor in whether they will have a successful financial year. An argument could be made that the secularists are co-opting the religious holiday much as the Christians originally did from the pagans.

So how does the Christmas tree come into play here as a Christian symbol?

It all starts with a recycling program in the city of Chicago. In order to increase patronage of its Blue Bag recycling program, the City of Chicago decided to offer a year’s worth of blue bags and some mulch to anyone who turned in a used Christmas tree. This would have several beneficial effects. It would get old Christmas trees to recycling centers, where they could be turned into mulch instead of putting them into the public landfill, and it would get more people enrolled as it were into their recycling program. This seemed a win-win for all concerned.

Not so, Mr. Sherman, who complained that the program unfairly benefited Christians at the expense of atheists such as himself, and other non-Christians, who would have to pay for their blue bags.

There is no rule that states that Mr. Sherman or anyone else has to prove that they purchased the tree they bring in. The only requirement is to bring in a discarded Christmas tree. Mr. Sherman contends, however, that “atheists shouldn’t have to go begging from home to home for a Christian who will sponsor them into this kind of government program”.

Nobody is forcing Mr. Sherman to beg from Christians. He could probably pick up a used tree from just about any street corner. I doubt anyone would care, although he would probably consider this “trash picking” and also beneath the dignity of any self-respecting atheist. I wonder if he considers picking up discarded aluminum cans for recycling to be beneath his dignity as well.

Mr. Sherman’s argument also presumes that only Christians put up Christmas trees, which is of course, not true. Mr. Sherman argues that while some non-Christians may put up trees, the majority who do so are in fact Christians, and so this benefits them unfairly.

One would indeed expect this to be true, since polls show that the majority of Americans, some 80%, identify themselves as Christian. Thus, in almost any endeavor involving a cross-section of society, one would expect to see more Christians involved than non-Christians. This does not mean that non-Christians do not participate in Christmas festivities, to include the erection of a Christmas tree. The purpose of a Christmas tree is to put Christmas presents under, not to celebrate Christ’s birth. Santa Claus was not present at the blessed event, nor were his elves. The two are separate events, which happen to be performed on the same day. The Christmas tree is not a Christian symbol.

Which means that erecting a Christmas tree has nothing to do with worshiping Christ. It is not an element of Christianity, and can be performed by anyone, even an atheist, without invoking Christ in the slightest. There is no requirement that religious symbols common to Christianity, such as angels or crosses, be placed upon it. Indeed, I have witnessed many “secular” Christmas trees with no religious decorations adorning them.

The Christmas tree is not a Christian symbol, any more than are Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, or Frosty the Snowman, all of which could be argued are symbols of Christmas, at least here in America.

Mr. Sherman states that “no self-respecting atheist or Jew or Hindu puts up a Christmas tree in their homes unless they are Christian wannabes”. Well, that’s his opinion, and he is certainly entitled to it, but that doesn’t make it fact. And it shouldn’t have any effect on Chicago’s Blue Bag recycling program either.

But this is America in the 21st century, politically-correct, and ever afraid of lawsuits brought by the ACLU and others of like mind. So Chicago changed its program, the intent of which was to get unwanted Christmas trees off the street and out of the landfill. The city now will offer free blue bags to anyone who comes to one of their tree-recycling locations on January 8 and brings a large bag of recyclable material. It doesn’t say how large a bag you need to qualify, and they would still prefer trees.

Aluminum cans don’t mulch too well.

All this because of one atheist, Mr. Sherman, who thinks that Christmas trees are a Christian symbol, and who, it turns out, doesn’t even live in Chicago.

By this logic, I would have to suppose that the Easter Bunny, too, is a Christian symbol. Will the White House Easter egg hunt be the next victim of the “eradicate all things Christian” crowd?