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Sri Lanka's top Catholic told priests on Wednesday not to put up Christmas trees in their churches, saying they had no religious significance and had instead become the festive symbol of parties and shopping centres.

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Speaking to the BBC, Reverend Ignatius Varnakulasingam, a priest in Colombo, said the Church was not against the Christmas tree entirely - which he acknowledged was "fun" - but simply its installation in places of worship.

"The Christmas tree is not a liturgical symbol," he said.

"(It) cannot be put in the sanctuary of the Church." While the Vatican has a Christmas tree, it is not installed in St Peter's Basilica but outside, in the Square, the priest noted.

• Watch: Vatican Christmas tree lights turned on Are you proud of your Christmas tree?

He also rounded on Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, saying the Church would like to return to his more religious predecessor, Saint Nicolas, but acknowledged that it would be difficult because "all the shops, they all have Santa Claus".

In general, the concept of Christmas was being degraded, the priest concluded. From the golden beaches that encircle the island to the multitude of flourishing National Parks, ancient ruins and colourful temples scattered throughout its jungle interior – it seemingly has it all.If so, show it off here The origins of the Christmas tree are somewhat disputed.Historians say trees first began to appear in homes as part of the pagan tradition, with evergreen boughs put above windows and doors to ward off evil spirits and illness, or as a symbol of everlasting life.The Christmas tree as it is now known is generally traced to Germany, where Christians began bringing them into their homes in the 16th century.Some say the Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to do so; others say it first began to be used in nativity plays as a symbol of the Garden of Eden. Varnakulasingam said the Christmas tree originated in Europe, particularly in Germany, where people suffered from a lack of greenery in the winter so put evergreen foliage in their homes "so that they would see the green colour".