No Christmas Trees in Church

[This is a repost, though slightly altered, of a post of similar name from a year ago. Since I don't seem to have won the argument, I figured I'd try again.] 

It’s a wonderful tradition in my house: putting on Christmas music, lugging the tote full of Christmas decorations up from the basement, making hot chocolate, getting the blasted tree straight enough, and placing the ornaments procured over many years onto the bare tree. Afterwards, color fills the house and the fresh evergreen scent welcomes all. If only we had a fireplace to complete the scene.

Churches often have their own Christmas (or, really, Advent) decorating traditions. I’ve happily participated in several, and I was sad not to this year. So, though I’ve been known to be a scrooge, know that I am not anti Christmas decorations. I am, however, firmly against Christmas trees in sanctuaries.

In many Christian churches, the symbols associated with worship are prominently displayed: communion table, baptismal font, pulpit/Bible, and often a cross. Each of these symbols has a deep meaning and clear connection to the faith.

Christmas trees, in the current-day United States at least, do not have a clear connection to the Christian faith. So why put them in the sanctuary with the other symbols?

Yes, I’ve heard many try to connect Christmas trees to Christian faith. Yes, there is plenty of history there — Norwegian, German, French, you name it — but it’s confused and from many divergent traditions. For me, the issue is less that there’s no historical precedence for cut evergreen trees sometimes having Christian significance, and more that any remnants of significance are lost today on the vast majority of Christians.

Christmas trees adorn Times Square, my local bank office, mall atriums, and the White House — 54 this year! That’s fine and dandy. They are lovely to look at with their pretty colors and shiny lights. But those trees, certainly, are not Christian symbols. So why insist on stretching to make Christian symbols out of something that’s almost exclusively understood on par with elves and red hats?

Many years ago, Christians co-opted the Roman December 25th celebration of the sun god to be the time they would celebrate Christ’s birth. (Or, maybe, as historian William Tighe has argued, it was the other way around.) In any case, I’m willing to give up the fight of putting Christ in or out of our culture’s secularization of Christmas. And I don’t want to try to reclaim the Christmas tree as a Christian symbol — too much work, too little payoff.

So, enjoy your tree at home. But, if you have any say in the matter, why not refrain from putting one up at church, or at least keeping it well away from the symbols of worship. Consider it an early Christmas present yours truly.

image by Graham Soult

Comments

  1. “For me, the issue is less that there’s no historical precedence for cut evergreen trees sometimes having Christian significance, and more that any remnants of significance are lost today on the vast majority of Christians.”

    I would argue, Adam, that the “remnants of significance” of the communion table, baptismal font, and even the cross are also “lost today on the vast majority of Christians.” So why single out the Christmas tree?

    Also, Christianity cannot claim to have “invented” the communion table (see ancient tables of sacrifice, etc.), baptismal fonts (see Jewish mikvahs), or even the cross (see Roman execution methods). So to single out the Christmas tree as somehow historically suspect seems both subjectively random and absurdly selective.

    Christoph

    • Thanks, Christoph. I guess I’d rather spend my time claiming (or, perhaps, reclaiming as you argue) the symbolism of font and table, rather than the Christmas tree. I’m a huge fan of the Revelation tree of life, though, which I’d love to see artistically supported in worship spaces — separate, however, from Christmas tree baggage.

  2. p.s. I really don’t care if sanctuaries have Christmas trees in them or not. I do like the symbolic tie-in, however, with the trees in Genesis, on Calvary, and in Revelation, even if this tie-in is my projection alone.

  3. Adam, I’m not sure I agree with you on this — on the basis of your argument. I think having a Christmas tree in the church — and in the sanctuary is the one place where we can make a statement about Christmas — that it’s not about a tree, red hats, elves, etc. it is about the manger, the font, the table and, ultimately, the cross. If those who wish want to cling to the tree, fine, but we need tosuggest/urge that they think about the other symbols. Our leaders — clergy and elders — could do more to bring the true symbols into Christmas — rather than fight a fight we would lose.

    If I could, I would upload a photo of a figureine of Santa kneeling in worship at the manger. This figureine was placed on the communion table, by an elder, at a church I briefly served as a Commissioned Ruling Elder. All hell broke out when I asked about it. But not as much hell, as when the Worship Committee came forward with a proposal to offer communion (for the first time ever) at the Christmas Eve service. Session agreed, but this particular elder, said that that her Christmas was spoiled forever — because I asked about the figure and that communion would be served. Fortunately, she was a minority of one!

    • Thanks for the comments, Anne. I guess I would say: if it’s about the manger, the font, the table, and the cross, great — use those! Put a manger front and center below the cross. But don’t messy it up with a tree.

      I also can’t imagine why you’d want to mess up Christmas gift opening and parties with a longer worship service celebrating the Lord’s Supper. What travesty! ;)

  4. Mary Vance says:

    I totally agree with you Adam. There is no question that the font, the table and the pulpit are particularly Christian symbols of particularly Christian theological significance. True, there are many Christians today who have no grasp of that theological significance but that does not speak in favor of removing the symbols, it speaks in favor of reclaiming them. I know some pastors make a point of making theological connections between the greenery and the divine, and, for the sake of defending having a tree in the sanctuary, there are folks in the pews who can recite those sermon lessons better than most lessons that actually have some basis in a Biblical passage. These sermons alwasy sounded to me somewhat definsive. In any event, you are right that neither the churched nor the unchurched today really consider Christmas trees to be Christian symbols. And think about what it says to and does for children in worship. They are wondering “where are the presents” and thinking about all the presents under their tree.

    We have a huge, beautiful artificial tree that used to be in the sanctuary which, in its original setting could accomodate it. By the time I came here, the tree space had been crowded by the aquisition of the grand piano and praise band instruments, so they had been placing it in a way that blocked access to one of two exits in the event a fire started at the back of the church. So, it was fairly easy (though not without some push back) for me to insist that it go up in the fellowship hall instead. I suppose I missed a teaching moment.

  5. I don’t know, I have mixed feelings about this. There are LOTS of things front and center in church that aren’t necessarily DIRECT ties to our faith but invoke an emotional response in worship (a pastor in robes, a “welcome” pineapple over a door frame, etc). If a tree lends an air of seasonal advent (or maybe just Christmas Eve) energy to worship, I don’t hate it.

    That being said, our church does NOT have a tree up front, save the one night every December when we have a service where the children decorate one and put gifts under it to bring to a nursing home, which is a lovely little worship tradition in our congregation. It’s gone before Sunday morning worship, but it is decorated with shepherds’ crooks and angels and mangers and chi rho ornaments — sacred symbols of faith — so I fear it would still make you cringe. :)

  6. Hmm…coming late to the game on this one, but I am still not grasping why, in the case of something that is more or less an issue of personal preference/discernment, that there would need to be such a level of decisiveness about it as to be called “firm.” It’s one thing to think it might be a distraction to people and so you may choose to leave it out, but to take a “firm” stance and create a blog around it…to encourage others not to use it…?

    Would having one away from the worship elements be ok? can you have a tree in the lobby or the fellowship hall? (If there are strong arguments where its ok or not ok, we need to be careful that we’re not toying with the border of legalism, then.)

    Do you feel the same way about churches that have the American and Christian flag on their platforms, as many do?

    I mean all of this respectfully and in the spirit of conversation, and in no means am trying to bring senseless arguments for the sake of a good blog conflict :)

    Blessings,]
    melissa

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