A passage from Jeremiah 10 is frequently pointed to as evidence that the Christmas tree, a familiar fixture of the Christmas season, is actually an ancient pagan idol. The rumor goes that what is being described in this passage from Jeremiah is trees, decorated with ornaments and tinsel, being used as idols for worship, people literally bowing down and worshipping them as gods or goddesses. But the claims often go even further, concluding that those who even put up a Christmas tree are therefore committing idolatry. The counter argument which is generally used is that Christians are not "worshipping" Christmas trees and therefore there is nothing idolatrous about it. But ... is what Jeremiah is speaking of in this passage actually a Christmas tree? That is, an evergreen tree with it's branches decorated with tinsel and ornaments? There is rather extensive archaeological information about these ancient idols that Jeremiah spoke of, and even a cursory investigation into the subject can help us draw a much more informed opinion. The idol that Jeremiah 10 is speaking of are called in Scripture "Asherim." This word is the plural form of the name "Asherah," an ancient Canaanite goddess. These Asherim were frequently used throughout the ancient land of Canaan and are referred to by archaeologists and the foremost scholars on ancient Judean/Sumerian religions as "Judean Pillar Figurines," or according to the actual Hebrew text, "Asherah poles." They are mentioned commonly throughout the Old Testament books, in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, the Kings, the Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah, as they played a rather large role in the religious practices of the region. These "Asherim" are unfortunately translated in the King James Version as "groves," giving an erroneous impression of a grove or stand of trees, but the New Revised Standard Version, having now the advantage of the relatively new science of archaeology to inform and instruct us, translates them more accurately as "poles," rightly conveying the idea that these idols were in fact Mesopotamian style poles similar to the totem poles found throughout the Americas, objects carved from a solid length of tree trunk, also called a "stock," which is the word used in Jeremiah 10. They varied in length and size, depending on the type and size of the tree used, and were variously decorated depending upon the wealth and artistic ability of the manufacturer. The faces and bodies of the local deities were carved into the wood, and in the case of the ancient Canaanite lands they were carved with the image of the goddess Asherah. They were then covered with hammered plates of silver and gold, and draped with lengths of purple cloth. And where trees were scarce, they were also made of stone pillars or columns of various sizes and lengths, ergo the general archaeological category these totem poles fall under is "pillar figurines." Asherah poles made of wood have not survived, so the only knowledge we have of them is from ancient writings and archaeological artifacts. However, a carving on a stone sarcophagus depicts a pillar-figurine of the god Dionysus, shown being carried and raised up to be dropped into a stand that was fashioned to make it stand upright, exactly as described in Jeremiah.
Very often in the Old Testament Scriptures the prophets of God mocked these "gods" who had eyes but could not see, ears but could not hear, a mouth that could not speak, and feet but had to be carried everywhere they went and fastened in a stand so they could stand upright . . . proving that these were not trees decorated as the Christmas tree is used but were in fact poles with the faces of the local gods and goddesses carved into them. "The customs of the people are vain: for one cuts 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: they must needs be carried, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither can they do good." Well and truly did the prophet Jeremiah say of these gods made by artisans and "cunning workmen": "They are altogether brutish and foolish: the stock is a doctrine of vanities. Silver spread into plates is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of the workman, and of the hands of the founder: blue and purple is their clothing: they are all the work of cunning men ... thus shall ye say unto them, The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens." Jeremiah 10:8-11 To this day not one splinter remains of these "gods" which once towered above and lorded it over the heads of the people who, after fashioning them with their own hands, bowed down to worship them as gods. Hundreds of smaller replicas of these idols have been discovered in recent decades, the personal or household version of the larger images that stood near the altars in the temples dedicated to these ancient gods. These smaller household idols show clearly that these were not "trees" but were simply lengths of a tree trunk or a column of stone or in smaller versions a cylinder of wood or stone with the faces of the local deities carved into them. Below are a small sampling of the Judean Pillar Figurines discovered in the caves of Maresha in the area just south of Judaea called in New Testament times Idumea.
For more information on these ancient idols please go here: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Pillar-figurines-from-Maresha-caves-84-and-128-Face-type-1-Courtesy-of-Amos-Kloner_fig3_331320663
For the wealthy, versions were made of gold and other metals that have withstood the ravages of time. Literally hundreds have been discovered in the 19th century in the Mesopotamian region. Even in miniature form they still retain their totem-pole shape.
Throughout the Jewish history of this period these icons presented a real stumbling block to the Jews, and the Hebrew Scriptures are replete with condemnation and warnings against this practice and the inclusion of smaller versions of these icons in the homes of the Jewish people. And yet, even having seen visible proof of the reality of "I Am," the Jews at times turned from worshipping Him and took up with these man-made gods. In fact, they were so prone to it that God specifically commanded them not to make any carved images of anything . . . to point out the folly of man fashioning his own gods which he can see rather than worshipping the Creator whom he cannot see. God repeatedly warned the Jews not to take part in this idolatry, even going so far as to instruct Gideon in Judges 6 to cut down the Asherah poles that stood beside the altar of Baal and to burn them for a burnt offering.
For the most thorough treatment of these Asherah poles please see the important work by Raz Kletter of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the foremost archaeologist and scholar on Bronze and Iron Age archaeology: http://books.google.com/books?id=2DYqmySvBlwC&pg=PA179&lpg=PA179&dq=Raz+Kletter+between+archaeology+and+theology+the+pillar+figurines&source=bl&ots=xqD6axbqpl&sig=-oFVedq8BV9QmLpTJH93S_WC0mQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=F7q8ULq2EYuI8QTn5IGoDw&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Raz%20Kletter%20between%20archaeology%20and%20theology%20the%20pillar%20figurines&f=false The History of the Christmas Tree ~ The Asherah poles, or Judean pillar figurines have no historical connection to Christmas trees. So where did the "Christmas tree" come from? Where did it start and what was it's purpose? The farthest back the use of Christmas trees can be traced in any historical record of any people or culture is back 600 years ago, to 1400's Christian Germany. During this period throughout Europe the common people generally had no formal education and could neither read nor write, but even so they could not have read the Bible at any rate because the church, believing the common man could not understand the Scriptures and would misuse or abuse or possibly even defile them, only allowed the Bible to be recorded in Latin spoken only by the educated clergy which none of the common people spoke. Even the rites and ceremonial of the church were performed in Latin, which the common people could not understand, leaving them woefully ignorant of the Scriptures and totally dependent upon the church for teaching. However, the people were not without other avenues of information and many actually gained their knowledge of Bible stories from the entertainment media of the day ... traveling troupes of minstrels and actors who went about the countryside near and far performing plays for the entertainment of the masses.
The plays and skits performed by these troupes were almost exclusively "Morality Plays," Bible stories, and by all accounts from history, the "Paradise Play" about the creation, the fall, and salvation, performed on the feast of Adam and Eve on Christmas Eve, was one of the most popular. History has it that, traveling the countryside in donkey carts and wagons, these minstrels had to keep props to a minimum, so for this particular play an evergreen tree was cut down from the forest and used as a prop in the play to represent, in the first scene, the Tree of Knowledge, hung with the common apple, the only fruit readily available during this early winter season, which is where the idea of the forbidden fruit being an apple originated and in the centuries since has been commonly depicted in art and literature. And later, in the final act of the play, the same tree was used to represent the Tree of Life, this time hung with sweets and wafers (the host) representing the gifts of salvation. In more rural regions where these traveling troupes did not venture, and in the the years after these plays were no longer being performed, Christians began to erect their own "Paradise Tree" during the Christmas season to teach children about the fall and redemption of man. Eventually other items were added to the "Tree of Life" to further symbolize the doctrines of the faith, such as glass ornaments to replace the perishable apples, lights to represent that the birth of Jesus is a "light come into the world," and topped with either a star or an angel representing the star of Bethlehem and the angelic choir which heralded Jesus' birth. For an introduction to the history of the Paradise Play please refer to the encyclopedia entry, "Drama, Paradise Play from Medieval Germany:” (Page 294) http://books.google.com/books?id=0Sdo1gNF4D8C&pg=PA295&lpg=PA295&dq=paradise+plays+from+medieval+germany&source=bl&ots=XlNunqJJCg&sig=VeRxYb7UtuchMSOzJyYD3B1GPjs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wdK8UJ_GLYOS9QTB5ID4CQ&sqi=2&ved=0CD0Q6AEwAw#
The first historical record of the use of a "Christmas tree" is recorded in 1419 when the Honourable Guild of Bakers in Freiburg set up a decorated Christmas tree at The Hospital of The Holy Ghost for The Poor. It was decorated with honey cookies, nuts and dried fruits and was left standing until New Year's Day when the children at the hospital were allowed to eat the sweets and nuts. Then in 1509 an elder of the church, Lucas Cranach, created a copper plate print with the first picture of a Christmas tree, adorned with stars and lights.
The next record dates to 1521, when a town finance official in Selestat in the Alsace region, noted in the town's records that 4 shillings had been paid to the forest wardens to protect the town's local public forest so that the townspeople would be able to take a fir tree for their Christmas celebrations. The entry goes on to explain that the number of trees being taken from the woods had become a problem.
The first record of a public display of a Christmas tree dates to 1539 provided by the Strasburg Cathedral in Alsace, France. It was most likely this display of a Christmas tree that was mentioned by the pilgrim who had visited the village of Alsace and reported the public display to the broader Christian world. By 1600, Christmas trees could be found in private homes all over Strasburg. Within a relatively short time the popularity of the Christmas tree spread throughout Germany. The Roman Catholic Church at first objected to its use, preaching against using greenery in celebration of Christmas and even passing church law against it, but eventually Christmas trees became so popular that even the Church could not discourage it. But it wasn't until Queen Victoria and her husband, the German Prince Albert, put up the first Christmas tree in Great Britain in the 1800's that the Christmas tree's popularity spread beyond the Germanic peoples. A wood carving was produced depicting the royal family around their Christmas tree and a copy was published, the first historic instance of a Christmas "greeting" and the origins of the modern custom of exchanging Christmas Cards. This wood carving was copied in America and the reproduction was published in "Godey's Lady's Book," the "Good Housekeeping" magazine of the 1800's.
Within a few years, and with only minimal objections, Americans took to the Christmas tree with alacrity and today it has become a fixture in American culture not only among Christians, but even among those who otherwise do not celebrate the religious aspects of the holiday. Coupled with the gift giving (derived from the practice of the wise men who gave gifts to the Christ Child), carols (derived from the worship in song by the angelic choir and until the late 19th to 20th Century consisted entirely of hymns which formed part of the church's Christmas worship services) and feasting (the Biblical mode of religious celebration), the Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ has become a holiday which is celebrated around the world, even by cultures and people of other religions. From an historical perspective, the Christmas tree is of a relatively recent invention of Christians only within the past six hundred years. Prior to that time there is no reference to the use of a Christmas tree in any historical or archaeological source, and certainly no ties to any ancient pagan idols that disappeared from the earth thousands of years ago.