Christmas trees are almost synonymous with Christmas. Whether you use a real grown tree, especially for this purpose, or go for an artificial one, your Christmas decoration will remain undone without the tree. But have you ever wondered what the tree means? If you consider the nativity scene of Christmas, you will see lambs, camels, a bed of hay for the Baby, the Baby Jesus, and her parents. Some scenes also include the wise men from the East that came to worship Jesus. One thing that is conspicuously missing from the scene is the tree – so why do we use it in our Christmas decor and what does it mean?
The Christmas tree is a symbol of the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified to take away the sins of the world. Additionally, the early church considered the triangular shape of the Christmas tree as a symbol of the Trinity.
Significance of the Christmas Tree in the Bible
Christmas is a celebration of the birthday of Jesus. It is a time of joy and celebration because the birth of Jesus signified the coming of the Messiah who would take away the sins of the world. Jesus was born so that he would die on the cross and as such, celebrating his birth without thinking about his death is meaningless. To put it in another way, his birth was significant but his death and resurrection were more important. Christians often think of the birth of Jesus independently from his death but that should not be the case. The two events are codependent and although they are commemorated on different days, they should always be looked at as connected events.
It was not just enough that Jesus was born and died – how he died also mattered. For starters, Jesus died by crucifixion. This was important because as Galatians puts it, the death of Christ on the cross was by design so that he might become the curse in our place. By so doing, He delivered us from the curse of the law. This was necessary because the law had condemned us to damnation but by paying the ultimate price, he paved the way for the entrance of the grace of God.
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) Gal. 3:13
Notably, the scripture Paul referenced (Deuteronomy 21:23) was not talking about the cross but about a tree. But since the cross was wooden, it is still accurate to state that he died on a tree. Galatians 3:13 is not the only reference to the fact. Apostle Peter also alluded to the death of Christ on a tree in the following verse:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds, you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24
By combining the two scriptures above, we can conclude that the cross was used as a symbol for a tree on which the lamb of God (Jesus Christ) would die as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world.
Another significance of the tree is seen in Isaiah’s prophecy about the messiah. Check it out:
Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root. Isiah 11:1.
In this prophecy, Isaiah used the illustration of the tree to reveal that Jesus would emerge from the tribe of Judah and specifically the lineage of David. Years later, Jesus would build on this imagery by referring to himself as the vine and to the Father as the vinedresser (John 15).
Apostle Paul also used the symbolism of the tree to refer to the church. In Romans 11, Paul was trying to explain the introduction of the Gentiles into the faith that was at the time seen as a preserve for the Jews. He explained how God planted Israel as an olive tree and then went into the wild and found a branch from a wild tree which he then engrafted into his main olive tree.
And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. Romans 11:17
All these scriptures can be seen as relevant to the story of Christmas and can be cited as the inspiration behind the popularization of the tradition of the Christmas tree.
The origins of the Christmas tree tradition
The cutting of pin trees and using them for decoration did not begin with Christmas. It was originally a pagan tradition to mark the winter solstice. While on a mission trip to Germany, St. Boniface noticed the importance of this tradition to the locals and so he decided to connect with them by embracing the practice. This decision made St. Boniface hugely successful in his missionary endeavors and his work also contributed largely to the adoption of Christmas trees as part of the Christmas tradition. So even though it began as a pagan tradition marking the beginning of winter solstice, it has evolved into a Christian practice marking the birth of Christ.
There are several theories that try to explain the adoption of the Christmas tree by the early church. One of them states that the Christmas tree was a welcome addition to the tradition of Christmas because of its triangular shape. The early church figured that the triangular shape would be a constant reminder to Christians that Christmas was not just marking the birth of Christ but also celebrating the unity of the Godhead.
It is also believed that Martin Luther became the first person to decorate a Christmas tree. However, his goal was not merely decorating the tree but using it as a symbol of the gospel. As the story goes, Martin Luther added candles to the tree and noted that the candles were a reminder of the star that led the wise man to the location of baby Jesus’s birth.
The word Christmas tree is not mentioned in the scriptures. However, the symbol of trees in relation to the Gospel is very common in the Bible. One of the most profound is where the cross is likened to the tree so that the death of Christ would meet the threshold of taking away the curse of the law. Granted, the origins of the Christmas tree were pagan but the symbolism of the tree in the Bible cannot be ignored.