Pick a history resource out there and you will find a history of Christmas trees that dates back to pagan traditions of the Winter Solstice. The History Channel says Christmas trees took root from ancient use of evergreens as an end-of-year ritual of hope and eternal life.
Like most history of Christmas all that is too lazy and too easy. Christmas trees are actually a complex form of celebration. And they are much, much older than merely the pagan civilizations we know about.
Christmas trees, no doubt, pre-date Christ. But is it really all about the tree being “evergreen” that makes it so symbolic of Christmas?
There is little evidence to support that idea. And yet there is more evidence to support an alternative idea: it was not the color or the type of tree that symbolized hope and eternal life: it was just the tree itself — the Tree of Life — that represented the hope of eternal life as a gift from God.
The symbol of the tree of life pervades the art and literature of every Mediterranean culture from centuries before Christ.
A number of small gold plates dating from the fifth century B.C. to the third century A.D., engraved in Greek and found in Italy, Sicily, Crete, and Macedonia abundantly support the idea.
These plates depict the dead, wandering in the world of the shades, and warn them to avoid a destructive spring on their left. They enjoin the souls to keep to the right, where they will encounter another spring beside a white cypress tree.
After pausing for refreshment and nourishment from the spring and the tree, the wanderers continue to the lake of memory, where, after responding appropriately to questions posed by the lake guardians, the travelers receive eternal memories and enter into the gods’ presence. The texts on many of the plates state that those who successfully complete the journey become gods themselves.
Tree of life symbolism permeates the Old Testament. The tree symbolizes not only eternal life but also God’s presence. For example, Adam and Eve’s exclusion from the tree was also exclusion from the presence of the Lord. Thus, whenever man regained God’s presence, a tree of life representation was used to symbolize that reunion.
When Moses went to the mountain of God, the Lord spoke to him out of a bush that burned with fire but was not consumed. (See Ex. 3:1–6.) The rod of Aaron similarly represented that God was with Moses and Aaron as it swallowed the rods-turned-serpents of the Egyptian magicians. (See Ex. 7:10–12.) The Lord later caused Aaron’s rod to blossom and bear almonds as a testimony that the Lord had selected the tribe of Levi to bear the priesthood. (See Num. 17:2–10.)
Messianic prophecies often speak of the Messiah in terms of a tree of life. For example, Isaiah prophesied that “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” (Isa. 11:1.) Then he described life much as it was in Eden, with the Messiah giving light and life to the earth.
Likewise, Zechariah saw a vision in which the Lord promised that Joshua the high priest would walk with the Branch (the Messiah). That vision was followed by another of two olive trees on either side of the menorah, or lampstand, of the Jewish tabernacle. (See Zech. 3–4.) As symbols of the tree of life, the olive trees are identified as the anointed ones of God. Even the menorah symbolized the tree of life, as one scholar suggests:
“In general it may be said that most scholars now seem to suppose that the menorah originated from a sacred tree, more specifically the Tree of Life of mythology—a primal image which can be glimpsed as early as the third millennium B.C. … and which played a decisive role in the tree cult of the ancient world.”
Jewish literature outside the Old Testament also contains tree of life references. The Books of Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and 4 Ezra are the best-known of such books. When Enoch journeyed to the Seven Sacred Mountains, he saw a sacred tree similar to a date palm but more beautiful and grand than any he had ever beheld. (See 1 Enoch 29.) His guide on the visionary journey, Michael, told Enoch that the fruit of the tree could not be eaten by mortals until they were purified after the judgment and that they would have to enter the temple of God to partake of it. (See 1 Enoch 25.)
The tree of life is prevalent in ancient Egyptian culture, ancient Greece — and even in Hinduism.
Is it any wonder that “pagans” embraced the tree during celebrations at the onset of winter solstice?
The parallels do not end there. Expand that thought to the idea of a Redeemer, one labeled the Son of God, of virgin birth and the connections only increase as you go further back in history and in seeking out ancient religious thought.
The Christmas tree is an extension of these many ancient cultures that span the world. This brief video explains more: