It’s only a Christmas tree, or it is?

When is a Christmas tree not a Christmas tree? 
Just a modern Christmas tree? (photo: Reuters)
Just a modern Christmas tree? (photo: Reuters)

Now that Christmas is almost upon us, it had to happen sooner or later. It’s that time when councils and politicians grapple with the demands of ‘keeping happy’ or ‘not offending’ the multiple religious groups and the secular contingent of society. It can’t be easy sharing glad tiding with all men, women and children after all. Especially when many of these potentially glad men, woman and children don’t actually believe in these particular Christmas glad tidings. But come on, its Christmas, at least pretend to be glad 🙂

It’s a time when debates rage about whether to replace Christmas with Wintermas or simply the ‘Holiday Season’. There was controversy here in the UK a few years back when one council decided all their festive Christmas cards would simply use phrases like ‘season’s greetings’ or ‘may this time be filled with joy’. The expressed purpose being to remove all Christian references like ‘Jesus’, ‘God’, ‘Angels’, ‘Wise Men’ and even ‘Manger’. As with the prevailing spirit of the age, the idea is not to offend anyone by citing Christian references. That is, not to offend anyone except of course, by default, Christians. It’s a well known fallacy of the ‘don’t offend anyone’ argument, that by not offending anyone, you do, inevitably, end up offending someone.

In Belgium, where the traditional winter fair is in full flow, such a debate has started over a Christmas tree in Brussels city centre. BBC News reports that thousands (now around 25,000) have signed a petition against what has been termed “an abstract light installation replacing the traditional Christmas tree”. A Facebook protest page has also been created (you can tell its serious when a Facebook page is created).  Belgium has a traditionally Christian leaning culture and some have seen replacing the traditional 65 foot pine tree with an 84 foot electronic abstract art design as being politically correct, and possibly intended to pacify some Muslims (who now make up 22% of the population) and secularists. Bianca Debaets, Christian Democrat and Flemish Party councillor, argued, “…the Socialist-run municipality was pandering to the sensitivities of non-Christians by scrapping the traditional tree.”

You might argue that the tree (if you can call a design made up of television screens and monitors a tree) itself is almost an innocent bystander while debates rage around it! By day you can apparently climb this structure to see the city, something you couldn’t do with a traditional tree (unless you’re Spiderman!). At night the tree, with its television screens, turns into a light show collecting compliments from curious passers by, though not, presumably, by signatories to the petition. The council argue that tradition is being maintained with the continued presence of smaller traditional trees surrounding it, as well as a Nativity Scene.

Nonetheless a petition of 25,000 people is a substantial one, voicing a collective discontent. The question should be asked though, are Christian sensibilities a bit too, well, sensitive? There is plenty of evidence of the gradual ‘disappearing act’ of Christian symbols from public and corporate life in the West in general but sometimes this can lead to something akin to Christian paranoia. As with most things, a balance is helpful. It’s not always an anti-Christian policy…but sometimes you do wonder.

Reports don’t suggest anything overtly non-Christian about the Belgian tree, and even a Muslim spokesman, Semsettin Ugurlu, of the Belgian Muslim Executive, indicated no Muslim offence over a traditional Christmas tree, with some Muslims even having them in their homes. On the other hand, two Muslims have been elected to Brussels city council, both supporting Sharia Law. This at least indicates splits within the Muslim community itself and could give substance to accusations, if you wanted to go down that road, of council bias. But sometimes it’s very easy to blame Muslim influence when decisions are taken that aren’t popular. Christians should know this feeling well! Of course, if there is blame to be laid, then evidence is also needed.

'Proper' Christmas Tree
‘Proper’ Christmas Tree


Perhaps the problem is a more generally perceived feeling that, once more, Christian symbolism is being removed from the public arena. Perhaps the issue is more a reaction against an apparent erasing of the Christian tradition. One Brussels resident told BBC News, “A tree is for Christmas and Christians but now there are a lot of Muslims here in Brussels. So to avoid discussions they have just replaced a tree with a couple of cubes! I am more traditional, I prefer the usual tree. That’s better for the Belgian people.”

But Christians should be careful not to confuse Christian tradition with general and even pagan tradition. Indeed some, Christians among them, argue that there is actually nothing inherently Christian about a Christmas tree. While some confer religious imagery on their tree by placing a star or angel on top, its origins have little to do with Christian tradition. Its ‘modern’ presence can be traced to 15th and 16th  century Renaissance and early Germany. But its origins can be traced back to pre-Christian paganism, tree worship and ‘winter rites’. In fact some stricter Christians would not even allow a Christmas tree in their homes because of its pagan association and what they saw as Biblical teaching against its use as an act of idolatry. Jeremiah 10:1-5:

“This is what the LORD says: Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified of signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them. For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammers and nails so that it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm, nor can they do any good.” (emphasis mine)

But this is a warning from God against idolatry, rather than a teaching against having a Christmas tree which is simply used as a colourful decoration with no divine attributes either good or evil. It’s certainly not a teaching against having a Christmas tree with sparkly lights, snaking tinsel and a few presents hastily wrapped at its foot. Nobody is worshipping it.  A trip to the local superstore will reveal a whole host of trees with varying festive designs, many of which are abstract and bear no resemblance to a traditional tree at all. Admittedly these are for largely private home display and the Belgian tree, in Brussels city centre, is making more of a public statement, but the message may be more one of “blending the modern and the traditional” than any overtly religious-political statement.

It is difficult to draw a firm conclusion. Either the Belgian authorities are doing nothing more than simply incorporating the abstract Christmas tree into their Christmas decorations; or they are involved in some kind of  politically correct, non offensive subterfuge, using the idea of ‘abstract light’ to cover for a policy of not offending. While this could be indicative of a secularizing, anti-Christian policy in public office, the continued presence of traditional trees and the retention of a Nativity Scene (which is more than some councils allow) surrounding the modern abstract tree, show more tolerant signs, or certainly of splits within any anti-Christian agenda. In fact, Christians should probably be more concerned if and when a decision is taken to remove the Nativity Scene, rather than a debate over what form the Christmas tree should take. The Nativity Scene is, after all, a much more blatant symbol of the baby Jesus, the reason for the season.

It is left to the reader to decide whether this is much ado about nothing…or something?

You can watch a short video clip of the Belgian tree on the BBC News website.

Merry Christmas everyone 🙂


Be nice, be contrary, but don't be rude :-)

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