Are Christmas trees an insult to God?
LIKE much of the Bible, the passage has many and varied interpretations.
But, on the surface, it seems quite clear: Christmas trees are bad.
Jeremiah 10: 1-5
10 Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
2 Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
3 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.
4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.
It certainly sounds problematic.
Cutting a tree from the forest. Pruning it. Adorning it with shiny stuff. Fixing it to the ground.
Certainly it's a dictum from the bronze-age, heavily influenced by its own clash of cultures and politics.
But does this biblical passage apply even now?
It may help to look at the history of the Christmas tree, and Christmas itself.
PROMISE OF ETERNAL LIFE
During the dead of a snow-laden Northern Hemisphere winter, the ancient European tribes felt there was something special about the varieties of trees that stayed green. The rest had their leaves turn orange and fall, and for all intents and purposes appeared dead.
Those that stoically remained alive held a promise that the dark, cold days would eventually end - and that the Sun would brighten again to ripen the fruits of the Earth for the picking.
It was something to celebrate when midwinter appeared so bleak.
Evergreen branches were hung over doors and windows. It was thought their eternal life would scare away the spirits of the underworld and those under their dark influences.
Druids of the Celtic cultures also were often associated with sacred glades and magical trees. Their buildings reportedly often featured evergreen boughs as symbols of eternal life.
Further north, the frosty Vikings believed evergreen trees to be the personal property of their version of the Sun god - Baldr.
The Romans even adopted the idea, using evergreens to decorate temples during the festivals of Saturnalia and their Sun god, Sol Invictus.
A LATE BLOOMER
The whole baby in a manger thing probably didn't happen in December. The details of the described scene don't match the season.
Instead, December 25 is a date requisitioned from pagan religions that didn't begin to be associated with the birth of Jesus until several hundred years after the event.
And just as December 25 was originally the Roman midwinter festival for the Sun god Sol Invictus (he even came with a halo), Christmas trees were later 'borrowed' from Germanic pagan traditions - in much the same way as Easter eggs.
Tradition has it the appeal of Christmas trees didn't really catch on until the 16th Century.
Protestant reformer Martin Luther is credited with being the first to add candles to such a tree as decoration. He was said to have been awe-struck by the scene - on a crisp, clear winter's night walk - of bright stars twinkling through evergreen branches. He wanted to recreate the moment for his family.
As for the United States, the Christmas tree legend began little more than 160 years ago.
As recently as the 1840s, German settlers in New England were being openly decried by Puritans declaring such 'heathen symbols' demeaned the sacred holiday.
But, in 1846, everything changed.
AN INSTANT TRADITION
The world was just as obsessed with every move Britain's royalty made in the 19th century as they are in the 21st.
And in December 1846, the highly respected Illustrated London News published a sketch of Queen Victoria standing with Prince Albert and their children around a decorated Christmas tree. Prince Albert was German. He'd brought the long standing family tradition to Windsor Castle with him.
Fashion conscious society on both sides of the Atlantic immediately seized upon the idea.
The Christmas tree as we know it had arrived.
The idea spread far and wide, fast - largely through businesses competing to present ever bigger and better adorned trees to entice customers into their stores.
In the US, homeowners began to buy their own from about the 1850s. Soon the tree's troubled past was forgotten, and was embraced as a time-honoured tradition.
TO TREE, OR NOT TO TREE?
So is the Christmas tree an insult to Christianity?
It is possible the passages in the book of Jeremiah refer to the practices of the diverse Celtic tribes which were known to have roamed across Europe and into the Eurasian Steppe.
But this is by no means certain.
Many theologians defend the Christmas tree, arguing the Old Testament passage specifically applies to the practice of pagan idolatry - the worship of wooden statues as living gods.
Jeremiah's passage is presented as a direct quote from God.
It's certainly set in the context of condemning the worship of false idols. But the passages appear to single out the practice of bringing decorated trees into the home.
Differing biblical translations add to the confusion. Some use the word chisel, implying such trees had been shaped into something else. But others simply call it an axe, indicating the passage was talking about the tree itself.
Which interpretation applies comes down to the theologians within the 30,000 or so individual Christian denominations worldwide.
Or the kids.