Christians opposed to Christmas have often argued that Jeremiah condemns Christmas trees. They believe that Jeremiah 10:2-4 is quite plain — Christmas trees are sinful. But are these Christmas critics correct? Does Jeremiah 10:2-4 actually condemn the setting up of Christmas trees?
The King James Version reads: “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.” On the surface it does seem that Jeremiah is describing Christmas trees. But let’s look deeper.
An important key to understanding any passage is to pay careful attention to its context. Verses 2 through 4 of Jeremiah 10 are part of a larger context. That larger context is verses 1 through 16. In these verses Jeremiah proclaims the Lord as the only God. “No one is like you, O Lord; you are great, and your name is mighty in power. Who should not revere you, O King of the nations? This is your due…. The Lord is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King…. God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding” (verses 6-7, 10, 12, NIV).
The gods that pagans worship are nothing compared to the Lord. “These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens” (verse 11). They are mere images made by mortals. “Every goldsmith is shamed by his idols. His images are a fraud; they have no breath in them. They are worthless, the objects of mockery” (verses 14-15).
Gold is not the only substance used to make idols. Verses 8 and 9 speak of “worthless wooden idols” on which workmen place hammered silver and gold, and rich apparel. When we consider that these verses condemn idolatry, we can understand what Jeremiah meant when he said “the customs of the peoples are worthless” (verse 3). No wonder he tells us not to “learn the way of the nations” (verse 2).
Turning to translations other than the King James also helps our understanding. Where the King James reads “one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe” (verse 3), the New International Version says “they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.” The tool referred to in the passage is not a woodsman’s tool, but that of a wood carver. Most modern English translations agree with the NIV.
Jeremiah is not condemning Christmas trees. He is condemning idolatry. The trees in Jeremiah 10 are cut down to carve them into worthless idols that will later be decorated with gold and silver. Jeremiah says nothing about Christmas trees. That custom originated in northern Europe, not in ancient Canaan.