Every year, Christians across the world celebrate in Christmas the birth of Jesus. One prominent aspect of this tradition is the Christmas tree. This tradition is known to have developed in Germany in the 16th century, but the earliest tree may be traced to the 14th century. The festive evergreen tree then started to gain popularity beyond Germany in the 2nd half of the 19th century, gradually becoming one of the symbols and expressions of Christmas everywhere in the world.
This article is adapted from my book The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources.
There have been a number of attempts to explain how the Christmas tree tradition developed, but these are mere speculations with no supportive evidence. One popular suggestion is to link the new Christian practice to ancient traditions in which evergreen trees were used as symbols for eternal life and were also worshipped. One obvious problem with this and other approaches is that they fail to explain the link of this tradition with Christmas in particular. Christians could have used this tradition for any event, but why to celebrate Jesus’ birth in particular?
The four Gospels do not suggest any link between Jesus’ birth and any tree. Mark and John do not say anything about Jesus’ birth. Matthew only states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, before moving on to talk about the “wise men” who came to visit the newborn and King Herod’s concern about what this birth could mean for his reign (Matthew 2:1-6). Luke confirms that when Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem “the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7).
But in the Qur’an’s account of the birth of Jesus a tree features prominently. I have commented elsewhere on the story of Jesus’ birth in the Qur’an, so I will only quote the relevant Qur’anic verses here:
She conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a far place. (19.22) And the pangs of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said: “I wish I had died before this and had become something totally forgotten!” (19.23) Then he called her from beneath her: “Do not grieve! Your Lord has placed a rivulet beneath you, (19.24) and shake the trunk of the palm tree toward you, and it will let fall fresh dates upon you. (19.25) So eat, drink, and be consoled. If you meet any human being, say: ‘I have vowed a fast to God, so I will not speak today to any human being.’” (19.26)
The birth took place under a palm tree which also provided Mary with food she desperately needed. This account also has noticeable similarity with the tradition of placing presents under the Christmas tree. The latter may be seen as celebrating the sending of Jesus as a present to the world.
There are two apocryphal Christian sources that are worth quoting here. Apocryphal writings are considered inauthentic and inferior to the New Testament. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew1 is claimed to have been written in Hebrew by Matthew the Evangelist and translated into Latin by Jerome. But scholars believe it was probably written as late as around the 8th-9th century. In the relevant part, this book talks about Mary sitting under a palm tree and of a spring of water but in a very different context from that of the Qur’an. On the third day of the journey of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt escaping Herod, the following happened:
While they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: “Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree.” Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast. And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: “I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm.” And Joseph said to her: “I wonder that you say this, when you see how high the palm tree is; and that you think of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle.”
Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: “O tree, bend your branches, and refresh my mother with your fruit.” And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who had commanded it to stoop.
Then Jesus said to it: “Raise yourself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from your roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from you.” And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God. (PsMatt. 20)
Another apocryphal book known as The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy or The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ,2 which is dated to the 2nd century, has this very brief mention of a tree and a Jesus’ miracle of causing a water well to appear:
They went on to a city in which were several idols which, as soon as they came near to it, was turned into hills of sand. Hence they went to that sycamore tree, which is now called Matarea. And in Matarea the Lord Jesus caused a well to spring forth, in which St. Mary washed his coat. And a balsam is produced, or grows, in that country from the sweat which ran down there from the Lord Jesus. (AraIn. 8:8-11)
These two Christian accounts have obvious similarities but differences also with the Qur’an. The historical account of Jesus’ birth under a tree had at some point been changed to what appears in these gospels. I have discussed this common phenomenon which I have called “Contextual Displacement” elsewhere. This type of textual corruption denotes the instances where a character, event, or statement appears in one context in the Qur’an and in a different context in other sources. There are many differences between the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian sources, including the Old and New Testaments, that can be convincingly explained as contextual displacements in these sources
There is no direct evidence to link the tradition of the Christmas tree to the tree under which Jesus was born, so this link remains speculative. But it is a distinct possibility that the mysterious Christmas tree tradition originally grew from the historical tree in Jesus’ story of birth, which the Qur’an has revealed.
1 The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, translated by A. Walker, in: Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to a.d. 325, Volume 8, WM. B. Eerdmans publishing company: Michigan.
2 The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, translated by W. Wake, The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden, A&B Publishers Group: New York, 1926, 38-59.