Christmas Trees—in the Hebrew Bible?
In most Western nations, this time of year is marked by an abundance of Christmas trees. Evergreens, the real deal or fake, are brought into homes, stores and places of worship and gilded with various decorations. Wrapped presents are placed under the branches. All in the name of Christianity—marking the birth of Jesus on December 25.
But did you know that there is no mention of Christmas trees—or even the date of Jesus’s birth—in the New Testament? Even more strangely: Did you know that the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, does contain scriptures that closely match the description of Christmas trees? How could this be—many hundreds of years before Christianity?
The Hebrew Prophets on ‘Christmas Trees’
The Book of Jeremiah (written around 600 b.c.e.) states the following:
Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen …. 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. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree …. (10:1-5, King James Version)
Here we see a tradition during the time of Jeremiah of cutting down a tree out of the forest, bringing it home, fastening it upright, and covering it with various decorations. The tradition is quite clearly identified as a pagan one that should not be followed.
The Prophet Isaiah, some 150 years earlier, wrote the following:
The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains. He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree that will not rot; he seeketh unto him a cunning workman to prepare a graven image, that shall not be moved. (40:19-20, kjv)
This related account adds the detail of spreading silver chains. From these passages, we also have some clues as to the type of tree featured in these rituals: Jeremiah tells us it is a forest tree, and Isaiah describes a “tree that will not rot.”
Eleven other passages throughout the Hebrew Bible—from the Torah all the way to the last book, Chronicles (according to the original ordering)—condemn paganism relating to green trees. Since most trees are green, the inference is apparent that these are evergreen trees. (And the evergreen has long been a feature of pagan worship, given its “eternal” life.)
Ten of those biblical passages condemn idolatry under those trees. “Enflaming yourselves with idols [or, lust] under every green tree, slaying the children in the valleys …” (Isaiah 57:5; kjv). “Ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods … under every green tree” (Deuteronomy 12:2; kjv). “And they set them up images … under every green tree” (2 Kings 17:10; kjv).
Considering the accounts in the Hebrew Bible and the fact that the New Testament says nothing even remotely related to the “Christmas tree,” where did the Christmas tree come from? And given the fact that the New Testament does not give any instruction for celebrating the birth of Jesus, nor even his birth date (in fact, certain verses makes clear that Jesus could not have been born on December 25—more on that further down), the broader question is: Where did Christmas celebrations actually come from?
Encyclopedia Britannica states: “Christmas customs are an evolution from times that long antedate the Christian period—a descent from seasonal, pagan, religious and national practices, hedged about with legend and tradition” (15th edition; emphasis added throughout).
Can we trace the path of these traditions? And do they connect with the writings of the Hebrew prophets?
A Merry Saturnalia
Not only are Christmas customs “a descent from seasonal, pagan” practices, they relate specifically to the most famous of the ancient Roman pagan festivals, one that was tied toDecember 25.
Saturnalia was observed during Roman times (at least as far back as several centuries b.c.e.—the exact origin is unknown). It was a festival of feasting, music, general merry-making, role reversals, and even hedonism and gladiator combat, in honor of the Roman god Saturn. Gift-giving was one of the most important elements of this festival, and children were bestowed with toys. Saturnalia celebrants would wear a “pileus”—a brimless, conical felt hat. Evergreen wreaths decorated homes, and Roman temples were decorated with evergreen trees. It was a festival of “lights,” with the lighting of candles and various objects. Short messages containing poetry and verse were gifted alongside presents (seen to be an early equivalent to our modern greeting cards). Round decorations, known as “oscilla,” were hung from trees, doors and other objects. (As for the “role reversals” in Saturnalia—men dressing as women, servants as masters, etc.—these same practices are a traditional part of Christmas’s “Twelfth Night” celebrations.)
This festival of Saturnalia originally started earlier in the year as a harvest festival—but by the first century c.e., the Roman Emperor Domitian instituted December 25 as the key date of worship for this most famous Roman festival.
Brumalia likewise was a related early festival in honor of Saturn (as well as other select gods), celebrated around the same time of the year. Part of the fertility-centered worship included a small tree, which was supposed to have grown up overnight out of an old dead log (synonymous with the Christmas “Yule” log). Decorations included painted orbs and eggs, as well as holly wreaths and mistletoe. (Pagan superstition held mistletoe to be an aphrodisiac. To this day, “kissing under the mistletoe” is a Christmas tradition. Actually, the plant is toxic.)
Fast-forwarding in time, during the third century c.e., the Roman Emperor Aurelian declared the worship of the sun god Sol Invictus as an official Roman religion, alongside the other traditional Roman deities. December 25 became the official day of worship for this god, merging with Saturnalia and becoming known as the “birthday of the unconquerable sun god.”
The connections to Christmas and the “birth of Christ” are obvious. Based on these clear associations, Christmas was actually banned in 17th-century Britain and America as a “heathen” custom. It wasn’t until the 19th century, during the reign of Queen Victoria, that Christmas trees started to become popular once again in Britain. Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, brought the tradition into the halls of Buckingham Palace—and from there it became popularized throughout the nation.
But how did all of these customs become linked to Christianity? After all, they are not found within the New Testament.
The general answer to this question is actually quite simple: In the fourth century c.e., Christianity was adopted as the official religion of Rome. Rather than give up their wildly popular customs and traditions such as Saturnalia, they simply retained and renamed them, appropriating the name of Christ to them. (The same is true, for example, of Halloween. Rather than forcing the Celts to give up their sacred festival of the dead, Roman missionaries simply adopted it into their own worship as “All Saint’s Day,” a religious day for the souls of dead saints.) And it is from this same fourth century that we “coincidentally” see our earliest mention of Christmas celebrations.
Even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church …. Origen [a third-century c.e. Christian scholar] asserts that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday” (1911 edition). Nevertheless, the birthday of Christ was adopted as a religious festival. Encyclopedia Britannica states: “[M]ost probably the reason [for choosing December 25 as the birthday of Christ] is that early Christians wished the date to coincide with the pagan Roman festival marking the ‘birthday of the unconquered sun.’”
Christmas, then, is directly tied to Saturnalia and Sol Invictus—pagan Roman festivals, essentially changing the cast of characters. But can we trace Saturnalia—“Christmas”—back even further?
Welcome to Carthage
The Roman pantheon of gods (such as Saturn) is derivative of earlier, pagan pantheons. In fact, most pantheons are derivatives and can be traced back in time quite easily. The Roman pantheon is made up of and built upon the Greek pantheon, itself derived from other deities. Saturn’s Greek equivalent was the harvest god Kronos, who was celebrated similarly to Saturn in the Greek festival Kronia. (One of Kronos’s consorts was the goddess Rhea: She too was symbolized by the evergreen silver fir, which was decorated in her worship.) And Saturn and Kronos were derivative equivalents of the god of the Carthaginians: Baal Hamon.
Rome’s Saturnalia traditions are, in fact, believed to have come directly from Rome’s associations with Carthage during the Second Punic War (circa 218–201 b.c.e.).
Carthage, on the shores of modern-day Tunisia, was an infamous, wealthy Phoenician city-state outpost that reached its height in the third century b.c.e. It was established as a colony of the famous biblical Phoenician state of Tyre, located just north of Israel. Phoenicia appears to have included at least a significant Canaanite population—and Phoenician gods were largely synonymous with Canaanite gods (hence the familiar deity name, “Baal”).
The Carthaginian god Baal Hamon, “king of the gods,” was a weather god and a god of vegetation, agriculture and plant fertility—as with the biblical “Baal” and as with the equivalent Roman Saturn and Greek Kronos. And what the Carthaginians (as with the biblical Phoenicians) were arguably most famous for was child sacrifice.
The god Baal Hamon—later Kronos/Saturn—had a thirst for human blood. Few realize that seemingly innocuous Christmas customs derived from Saturnalia are actually directly derived from bloody Phoenician Baal worship.
The Carthiginian practice of child sacrifice before Baal Hamon is especially infamous in the ancient world. Details of the rituals are recorded in brutal detail in Greek and Roman writings, and archaeological discoveries of such have been made. Numerous early historians, such as Cleitarchus, Plutarch, Siculus and Diodorus, describe children—up to at least 4 years old—offered en masse at Carthage, placed one by one into the outstretched scalding bronze hands of the god before them. The children would be burned alive in the hands and would slip through the fingers into a cauldron below. (It was said that the lips of the child would quickly shrivel away due to the intense heat, giving the impression that the child was grinning.) The sacrificial area would be filled with the noise of drums and flutes, drowning out the screams. If devotees did not have their own children to offer, they would simply purchase children from the poor of the city. (You can read their accounts, and those of various others, here.)
This Phoenician practice was described and condemned throughout the Bible. “Enflaming yourselves with idols under every green tree, slaying the children in the valleys …” (Isaiah 57:5; kjv).
Since Saturn and Kronos were derivatives of Baal Hamon, they were respected in their various countries with derivative customs. Both were seen as cruel gods requiring human blood. According to Greek mythology, Kronos was prophesied to be overthrown by one of his sons—and thus ate them up as soon as they were born. The Roman story of Saturn is the same.
By the time of the “civilized” Roman Republic, though, citizens of Italy began to look on such sacrifices with a horrified awe. Instead of offering children, they deemed it acceptable to switch to the more “enlightened” sacrificial practice of offering gifts to one another at Saturnalia. Still, Saturn was satiated with at least some bloodshed—the highly anticipated gladiator and gladiatrix (female gladiator) combat on Saturnalia was seen as supplying the necessary human offerings.
Among the many gifts given on Saturnalia were numerous ancient pottery and wax figurines. The fifth-century c.e. Roman writer Macrobius explains that these served as replacements for genuine sacrifices. As for the oscilla, the Saturnalia “baubles” hung from trees and other objects? For the Romans, such decorations served to replace hanging “heads” of sacrificial victims.
Still, Carthaginian worship primarily occured later than our biblical references. Can we trace the Carthaginian worship back further into biblical times?
Queen of Heaven
There were two primary deities in Carthage: Baal Hamon and his consort, the goddess Tanit. In Romanized form, Tanit was known as the “Queen of Heaven.” (Beginning around the fourth century c.e., the same title “Queen of Heaven” was applied to Jesus’s mother Mary.)
Since Carthage was a Phoenician outpost, the gods of Carthage are easily traced back to the Phoenician homeland on the north of Israel. Tanit is widely known and easily identified as the Carthaginian name for the Phoenician goddess Astarte.
This goddess is named in several biblical passages as “Ashtoreth.” The Prophet Jeremiah describes her worship. Just before the Jeremiah 10 “Christmas tree” passage, the prophet condemns the Israelites for Phoenician-style child sacrifice, including worship of “the queen of heaven” (Jeremiah 7:18; see also chapter 44). Astarte was the chief goddess of the Phoenicians and Canaanites, and Solomon is condemned for bringing her worship into Israel through his many wives (1 Kings 11).
We now start to unravel a real spider’s web of parallel deities. Astarte is known, perhaps even more famously, by her earlier Babylonian name Ishtar—the Phoenician-Canaanite pantheon itself being derived from the Mesopotamian pantheon. Truly, this goddess was renowned in various forms all over the ancient world. Astarte/Ishtar was consort to the god Baal and the god Tammuz (also mentioned in the Bible—see Ezekiel 8). And the union of these gods goes back even further, ultimately deriving in origin from the Sumerian deities Inanna (Ishtar) and Dumuzi (Tammuz). In Sumerian inscriptions, Inanna refers to herself as the “Queen of Heaven,” and Dumuzi is the god of agriculture. This period (the third millennium b.c.e.) is about as far back as we can go based on inscriptions, given Sumer is considered man’s earliest civilization (fitting with the biblical “Shinar” civilization led by Nimrod; see Genesis 11:1-2).
But what does any of this have to do with a focus on trees, as in the book of Jeremiah—as in Christmas?
To the Sumerians, Dumuzi was represented by the evergreen date palm—a tree common to that region. Dumuzi was also generalized as a god of vegetation, representing the power that caused trees and crops to grow. According to the early Sumerian and Akkadian myths, Dumuzi was slain, leaving the goddess Inanna widowed. Dumuzi spent part of every year tormented in the Underworld. Inanna’s resulting yearly grief caused the winter season, before his eventual rebirth.
One particular Sumerian story that can be applied to this theme is “Inanna and the Huluppu Tree.” This Sumerian tale describes a “tree” that violence “plucked up its roots [and] tore away its crown.” The uprooted tree was brought to Inanna, who “tended” it, prophesying that it would become a “fruitful throne” and a “bed” for her. Inanna wept over the tree, and vengeance was executed on those who did violence to it.
The Huluppu tree story is associated in the myth with the underworld. The symbolic connection of the tree with Inanna’s fallen “tree”-lover, Dumuzi, is evident. The below image is an impression from a Sumerian cylinder seal, depicting the tree, topped with Inanna’s star, and a deified “king” emerging from underneath, next to the crouching Inanna. The revived tree and throne apparently represented a reborn Dumuzi following his season in the underworld, and the rebirth of plant life.
As with the celebration of “rebirth,” Inanna’s weeping for the death of Dumuzi was replicated through the ages by womenfolk of different regions and respective religions. Ezekiel 8:14 describes Israelite women some 2,000 years later, “weeping for Tammuz.” The Dumuzi-Inanna-tree custom likewise spread from Sumer through the Levant, Egypt, Greece and Rome, in the form of a mother-son-consort worship.
The union was carried on in Egypt in the form of the Isis-Osiris story—Isis representing Inanna, Osiris her slain lover, and Isis’s child, Horus, the reborn Tammuz. Osiris represented tree rebirth. Following the slaying of Osiris by the god Set, Isis set about looking for his remains, which she found in an evergreen tree. (According to a later retelling by the first-century Greek philosopher Plutarch, this evergreen was cut down and brought into the palace of a Phoenician king.) Isis cast a spell on the mutilated body part and was impregnated—thus from a tree, the god Osiris was reborn as Horus.
The story continues through into Greek mythology, via Phoenicia. In Greece, Tammuz was equivalent to the god Adonis. Adonis was god of fertility and vegetation. According to Greek legend, he was born of the goddess Myrrha, who in this story had been transformed into an evergreen myrrh tree, and below her branches gave birth to Adonis. Further, Adonis is considered to be a manifestation of the god Baal.
And while the Phoenician Baal had his own separate worship practices that extended into the Greek Kronia and Roman Saturnalia, his “reborn” Greek avatar Adonis likewise had his own observance, Adonia: a sacred day in which the “women wept” for his death.
The Greeks, Phrygians and Romans continued the myth with yet another set of parallel deities: Attis and his mother-consort, Cybele. Attis was a god of vegetation and sun god, who died and was transformed into a pine tree, associated with all the related “weeping.” His death and rebirth were a representation of the winter period, and the death and rebirth of plant life. (In 2007, a wooden throne was discovered in the Roman city Herculaneum, with a depiction of the god Attis sitting beneath a pine tree.) Also associated with the god Attis was the “Phrygian cap,” a tall, soft conical hat similar to the Roman pileus hat worn during Saturnalia. His mother-consort Cybele was worshiped by cutting down a pine tree and setting it up in her temple, decorating the branches and hanging wreaths.
One final (and somewhat gory) note: Attis was a god associated with emasculation. Coincidentally(?), he shared this emasculation/castration connection with the more widely worshiped Greco-Roman god Kronos/Saturn, as well as the Egyptian Osiris (it was this body part that Isis found in a tree, and from which impregnated herself). But perhaps this connection is not so incidental: All the way back to the ancient Sumerian literature, the tree was symbolic of the “male member”—and the names for both were pronounced the same way. Thus, the traditions of a “tree cut down” and a seed of “rebirth” …
And on it goes. From roots in the “first civilization” in Sumer and Babylon, the family tree of gods continued to grow. Some interchangeable, some derivative, some myths built upon, some gods split into separate deities yet with related worship, some blended together—but all sharing a common core. With the Roman adoption of Christianity, then, the “birth” traditions of the respective deities were fitted to the birth of Christ; the death and “weeping,” fitted to the crucifixion. Plus all of the related (and sometimes gory) general observances, specific to gods to which Jesus was equated.
Back to Jeremiah
Back to our passage in Jeremiah. At the start of this article, a critical part was left out (italicized below):
Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. 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. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not … (Jeremiah 10:1-5; kjv).
This tree practice was done in relation to the signs of heaven and “dismay.” This fits perfectly with the religious practices through time—thousands of years before Jeremiah and thousands of years after—surrounding the winter period, the death of vegetation, the “dismay” at the death of the god of agriculture, vegetation, plant life, and the sun—and all the related symbolism and superstition wrapped up in the cut down evergreen.
It is no coincidence, then, that December 25—the date on the Julian calendar, upon which “Christmas” was established—was the date of the winter solstice, the dead of winter. There is no mention of this date anywhere in the New Testament. In fact, based on the New Testament account, Jesus could not have been born anywhere near this date. The shepherds were still out in the fields all night with their flocks (Luke 2:8). The taxation of the Jews (verse 4) would not have taken place at this time of year. The date does not fit with the starting time frame for the Abiah temple priestly rotation (Luke 1:5-9; 1 Chronicles 24)—to name a few examples.
Further, there is no command or even suggestion anywhere in the New Testament to celebrate Jesus’s birth (what is repeatedly commanded is the commemoration of his death). To quote again from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the church …. [The early Christian scholar Origen] asserts that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday” (1911 edition). Indeed, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote that “the law does not permit us to make festivals at the birth of our children” (Against Apion). Isn’t it ironic, then, that the single most widely celebrated religious festival in the world is the “birth of Christ”—Christmas?
The pagan, pre-Christian origins of Christmas are abundantly clear (and even widely recognized today). So it is no surprise to find Christmas-tree related practices, in worship of related pagan gods, decried centuries before Christianity in the Hebrew Bible. Even in the New Testament, the Apostle John highlighted the roots of a counterfeiting “mystery religion” during his day, as stemming from origins in ancient Babylon:
I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast …. And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth … Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. … [F]or she saith in her heart, I sit a queen …. [F]or by thy sorceries were all nations deceived. (Revelation 17:3, 5; 18:4, 7, 23)
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that in the fourth century c.e.—when Christmas observance began—the book of Revelation was removed from the general reading list of the established Christian church.
But the verse is much the same as the one written 700 years earlier by Jeremiah. The following, from the New English Translation:
The Lord says, “Do not start following pagan religious practices. Do not be in awe of signs that occur in the sky even though the nations hold them in awe. For the religion of these people is worthless. … And they do not have any power to help you. (Jeremiah 10:2-3, 5)
The Truth About Christmas
Tree-related paganism has been around as long as humans have existed—in a manner of speaking, right back to the two trees in the Garden of Eden. Evergreen trees have unsurprisingly played a crucial role in such worship. The early Egyptians and Sumerians venerated the evergreen palm trees and date palms; the Greeks, the myrtle, myrrh tree and pine; the Romans, the fir and pine. Various other nations venerated whatever was most common or available. Today, it is anything from fir, pine or spruce to plastic. For the ancient Phoenicians, Canaanites and Israelites—“every green tree.”
We have only scratched the surface of the origins of Christmas as transmitted by way of Carthage and Rome. There is much more detail, particularly when following the continuing “tree” journey through the religious practices of the Celtic druids (themselves a priestly class directly linked to ancient Israel). It is with the Celts that the traditional Christmas tree custom really developed in Europe, to where it stands today—with even more similarities than we have already witnessed.
For a more detailed study, read our free booklet The Truth About Christmas here. It details this continuing “journey” of Christmas. It also looks back right at the foundations, with Ishtar and Tammuz in Babylon—how they relate to a certain personality actually named in the book of Genesis, and fitting with the pagan myths and traditions—the one who started it all.