Ellen White and the Christmas tree

Articles Studies Research

This Holiday, we want to present to our audience a gift, a gift of understanding. Understanding what? Well, some of our critics have grabbed a couple of quotes by Mrs. White and have used them to show that she supported the Christmas tree only as an opportunity to make money for herself. They say that she spoke in one place against pagan symbols, but in another place she commanded to place Christmas trees, a pagan symbol, in the church simply to make money. With this Ellen White and the Adventists are accused of such things as being greedy and money hungry. So… we decided that our audience deserve to read the accounts for themselves and see what she really meant by her use of the Christmas tree. We have two quotes in mind brought to us by critic Dirk Anderson at his web page called, “Is God “Pleased” by Christmas Trees?” Here are the two quotes:

“God would be well pleased if on Christmas, each church would have a Christmas tree on which shall be hung offerings, great and small, for these houses of worship.” –RH, Dec. 11, 1879. The Holidays.

“Let the several churches present to God Christmas trees in every church; and then let them hang thereon the fruits of beneficence and gratitude,–offerings coming from willing hearts and hands, fruits that God will accept as an expression of our faith and our great love to him for the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. Let the evergreen be laden with fruit, rich, and pure, and holy, acceptable to God. Shall we not have such a Christmas as Heaven can approve?” –RH, Dec. 9, 1884. Christmas is coming.

Examining the first quote

Let us take another look at the quote in question. Notice the part we underlined:

“God would be well pleased if on Christmas, each church would have a Christmas tree on which shall be hung offerings, great and small, for these houses of worship.” –RH, Dec. 11, 1879. The Holidays. Click here for the entire periodical.

The question, of course, is “What houses of worship?” Before answering this, let us move back a bit towards the beginning of this periodical. When read from the beginning, we realize that Ellen White has but one thing in mind: benefiting humanity with the right gifts. Gifts like books and periodicals which will teach the children and adults about Christ and his truth. Notice this quote close to the beginning of this periodical:

“If we would indulge less in feasting and merriment upon these occasions, and instead make them the means of benefiting humanity, we should better meet the mind of God. It is a pleasure and gratification to exchange gifts with our friends; but are there not nobler and more glorious objects for which we may give our means, and thus do good by shedding light upon the pathway of others?”

Of course, by “shedding light” is meant spreading the truth. If we would invest our means in things that will further the truth, we would reap a better holiday season then that of the worlds. Notice the next quote:

“There are many who have not books and publications upon present truth. Here is a large field where money can be safely invested. There are large numbers of little ones who should be supplied with reading. The Sunshine Series, Golden Grains Series, Poems, Sabbath Readings, etc., are all precious books, and may be introduced safely into every family. The many trifles usually spent in candies and useless toys, may be treasured up with which to buy these volumes.”

We are saddened that our critics feel Mrs. White was being selfish and money hungry by asking to take advantage of the Christmas season to bless others with studies of God’s word. Take note at the above quote. Was she encouraging people to buy useless toys and candles? The secular world places such things as these under the Christmas tree. The tree is decorated with useless ornaments that indeed have pagan symbolic meanings, such as the round crystal balls hung upon them. Was it this she was encouraging to invest our moneys on? Her concern, as seen, is on helping those less fortunate. Now in context, who did she have in mind to specifically help in through that holiday season? Remember the first quote our critics use… how it mentions towards the end the “houses of worship?” Notice closely that she said, “these” houses of worship. Which houses of worship were those?

Our houses of worship in Oakland and Battle Creek are under the pressure of debt. The Dime Tabernacle belongs to us all; we should all have a special interest in it. In order to accommodate the students at the College, the patients at the Sanitarium, the laborers at the Office, and the large number of worshipers constantly coming in from abroad, the erection of this spacious house of worship was a positive necessity. Great responsibilities rest upon those at Battle Creek, and also upon those whose arms should be reached out to sustain these interests at the great heart of the work.”

Mrs. White speaks how in general the holiday season should be taken advantage of as an opportunity to “benefit humanity.” Yet, towards the end of this periodical, she has a concern for something specific… the helping of those “houses of worship in Oakland and Battle Creek” who are in great dept. Was it wrong for Ellen White to take advantage of the Christmas season to collect offerings of gifts to aid those in great dept? Notice her next statement:

There is here a continual necessity of devising ways and means for the advancement of truth and the conversion of souls. Our people are not half awake to the demands of the times. The voice of Providence is calling upon all who have the love of God in their hearts to arouse to this great emergency.”

One of those ways devised to advance the truth and help those houses of worship, was to use the Christmas tree to collect aid for them. We ask our readers… is there a particular sin in the Christmas tree, or does the sin lie in what the tree is used for? There are two reasons why the Christmas tree was and is used by the world:

Reason #1: Used in ancient days as a symbol of worship. The Pagans literally worshiped the tree (Jer. 10:1-5). They decorated it with shiny ornaments that did not benefit anyone, a custom that Ellen White did not encourage.

Reason #2: Used today to place gifts under. The problem with this custom is not necessarily in the giving of the gifts, but in what is produced by the giving. Children, by begging their parents for useless gifts, learn greed and intemperance. And when their expectations are not met, they get angry and upset. Ellen White puts it best, “By the world the holidays are spent in frivolity and extravagance, gluttony and display. It is the prevailing custom at this time to make and receive presents. And it is no small burden upon the mind to know how to distribute these gifts among friends so that none will feel slighted. It is a fact that much envy and jealousy are often created by this custom of making presents. -RH, December 11, 1879 par. 1.

Ellen White did not endorse the use of the tree as the world uses it. She did not establish the use of the Christmas tree in the churches as a continual celebration of the Christmas day of which she herself knew was not the actual birth of the messiah. She did not advice the use of the Christmas tree for mere “amusement” as the worlds does. Rather she advised to use it in this particular occasion for the helping of those “houses of worship” at Oakland and Battle Creek who were in great dept. It is in this context that we should read her statement on the Christmas tree. We will now quote her statement again, only we will quote it all the way up to the end to get some more context:

“God would be well pleased if on Christmas, each church would have a Christmas tree on which shall be hung offerings, great and small, for these houses of worship. Letters of inquiry have come to us asking, Shall we have a Christmas tree? will it not be like the world? We answer, You can make it like the world if you have a disposition to do so, or you can make it as unlike the world as possible. There is no particular sin in selecting a fragrant evergreen, and placing it in our churches; but the sin lies in the motive which prompts to action, and the use which is made of the gifts placed upon the tree.
The tree may be as tall and its branches as wide as shall best suit the occasion; but let its boughs be laden with the golden and silver fruit of your beneficence, and present this to Him as your Christmas gift. Let your donations be sanctified by prayer, and let the fruit upon this consecrated tree be applied toward removing the debts from our houses of worship at Battle Creek, Mich., and Oakland, Cal.” -RH, December 11, 1879 par. 15.

Apparently, the sin is not in having the Christmas tree, but in what you are having it for. Will you place it in your church for the same reasons the worlds does it? How about for the reason the ancient pagans did it for? Or will you use it to benefit those in need?

Bible Examples
Our critic Dirk Anderson presents to us the following verse:

2Corinthians 6:14-17
(14) Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?
(15) And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?
(16) And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
(17) Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you,

We want you to notice that, in context, Paul is speaking about being unequally mixed with “unbelievers.” Those unbelievers come with their idols and worldly customs. We are to separate ourselves “from among them” and be separate. Does this however mean that we can never, if God calls us to, use things of the world for our praise toward God, or for the advancing of his kingdom? We present now the following passages to be compared with Paul’s words:

A Pagan Image
John 3:14
(14) And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.
The story is found in Numbers 21:4-9. The Isrealites had just finished winning a battle against the Canaanites, and on their way towards the land of Edom, they complained and murmered against the Lord. So God punished them with serpants. As soon as they repented of their sins, and inquired of Moses to pray for them, God heard Moses prayer, and told to do the following:
Numbers 21:8-9
(8) And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
(9) And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.
The serpant is an animal with a bad reputation, yet because of its cunningness, swiftness and beauty, it was worshiped by the surrounding pagan nations. God tells Moses to make an image of a serpant and set it on a pole so that if someone among the Israelites was bitten by a snake, that person could look towards this snake and be healed.
This symbolizes Jesus Christ. As the Israelites were to look towards that lifted serpant for healing of their poisens, so we are to look towards the heavens to a risen savior for the healing and cleansing of our poisen called sin. God took a risk, for although he did not purpose it, later on the Israelites went so far as to actually worship the image of that serpant (2 Kings 18:4). God could have simply told them to look up towards heaven. But he didn’t. He chose this, an image of a fiery serpent, knowing full well that the surrounding nations worshiped images of snakes. He did this, however, for a very good reason. Our critic argues with a deceased women… but would he argue with God?

A Pagan Temple
2Kings 5:17-19
(17) And Naaman said, Shall there not then, I pray thee, be given to thy servant two mules’ burden of earth? for thy servant will henceforth offer neither burnt offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto the LORD.
(18) In this thing the LORD pardon thy servant, that when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon: when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon thy servant in this thing.

(19) And he said unto him, Go in peace. So he departed from him a little way.

Naaman, acknowledging that there is but one God, the God of Israel, returned to his home land and worshipped the Lord in a pagan temple… but before he went, he asked ahead for forgiveness. Did he not know that, if the true God really resides in Israel (verse 15) that there would be temples there to worship him? Yet, even the prophet of God, Elisha, sends him away in peace, giving evidence that his worship was accepted by God and his prophet. What counted here? Was it where Naaman worshipped? Or was it where his heart truly was? He asked for forgiveness before he went, he believed in the true God and accepted him in his heart… was his worship not accepted because he worshiped God in a pagan temple? What counted in this case was the intention of his heart. God can, even through his people like newely-converted Naaman, use anything he’d like for his perfect will.

We read of another thing God used for his purpose:
An Evil Spirit
1Samuel 16:14
(14) But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.
God’s sending this evil spirit to trouble Saul provided a way for his servants to give Saul the idea to look for someone in the kingdom that can play the harp well enough to relieve Saul from the influence of this evil spirit (verse 16). Note carefully verse 23:
1Samuel 16:23
(23) And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.
The use of this “evil spirit” ended up bringing David into contact with Saul, which would eventually result in David becoming king of Israel. Could God have used another, possibly better-tasting means to bring David to the throne? Yes… but he used an evil spirit.
It should always be remembered that… “all things,” not just good things, but “all” things, both good or bad… “work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” -Romans 8:28.
The Second Quote
The case in Ellen Whites writings can be seen the same way. The Christmas tree she said to put up was to be set up with the intention of helping others in need, not to celebrate a holiday that finds its origin in pagan worship. We are not to abide with unbelievers, or with their objects or places of worship. But if the case is to help others and to further move the work of God, it is permitted, because in such a case our hearts will be in the right place. The same context is found in the second quote… notice her objective a few sentences before it:

“Let the gifts you have usually bestowed upon one another be placed in the Lord’s treasury. I present before you, my brethren and sisters, an object, the European mission. In every church let your smaller offerings be placed upon your Christmas tree. Let the precious emblem, “ever green,” suggest the holy work of God and his beneficence to us; and the loving heart-work will be to save other souls who are in darkness. Let your works be in accordance with your faith. I heard Eld. Butler read a touching letter a few days since from Eld. Whitney, of Europe. The good work is going forward there, but it ought to have been done six years ago. Let not this work be hindered. Let it advance. If all, both old and young, will forego giving presents to one another, and forego the selfish outlay of means in these coming holidays, there would be in heaven a most precious record of self-denial for Christ’s sake. -RH, December 9, 1884 par. 9.

We find the same purpose here, to help others by using the tree to collect love offerings, only this time to help those in the “European mission.”

Mr. Anderson says, “Mrs. White established a practice in the late 1870s of having a Christmas tree placed in every Adventist church…” Yet this hardly seems a practice she established to continue on. The above examination showed she did this these specific times to increase help for those in need at Oakland, Battle Creek and in the European Mission. These Christians were people who wanted to simply spread the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ through literature and training. Schools were erected, mission trips were taken… but with all this, money is needed. There concern, along with Mrs. Whites, was in reaching out to a dieing world with the Love and truth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet with all this, our critic says…

“It seems as if the early Adventists were willing to sacrifice their high ideals about pagan symbology when they realized the tree could be used as a money-making device.”

We pray that our critic, along with all others, realize that the Lord God can use what ever he’d like to bring glory to himself and to spread the gospel, be it a simple Christmas tree, or a pagan temple.


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About The Author

Edwin Cotto

With over 13 years of experience in apologetics, evangelism and youth directing, Edwin has worked with various ministries both in English and Spanish. Having had the opportunity to travel to various states in the USA, and also to Venezuela and Mexico, he has enjoyed the privilege of conducting evangelistic meetings and apologetics seminars. His education includes training in the Medical Field, Adult Education at Valencia College, Biblical Hebrew with the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, and Evangelism with Amazing Facts Center of Evangelism. He is furthering his academic studies in theology while also working as a bible worker for the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Ordained as an elder, Edwin's passion for ministry begins first at home with his wife and kids.

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