Christmas: A Candid History

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Christmas: A Candid History

by Forbes, pp 45-6.


One of several competing legends about the origin of the Christmas tree centers on Boniface, an English Benedictine monk who was a missionary to Germany. As the story goes, in 723 Saint Boniface encountered winter sacrifices being conducted in front of a mighty oak tree dedicated to Thor, near Geismar, in what is now Germany. In anger, Boniface seized an axe and felled Thor’s oak in one mighty blow. The gathering of local citizens expected Thor to strike Boniface with a bolt of lightning, and when the lightning failed to appear, Boniface proclaimed it a sign of the superiority of the Christian god. He pointed to a young fir tree growing at the roots of the fallen oak, with its branches pointing to heaven, and said that it was a holy tree, the tree of the Christ child who brought eternal life. Other versions say that the fir tree sprang miraculously from the center of the fallen oak, or that Boniface planted the tree. Also, it is said that Boniface explained the triangular shape of the fir tree as an illustration of the Trinity. Boniface used the oak’s wood to build a chapel, and an oak tree and an axe became two traditional emblems to represent the saint. That, the legend says, was the beginning of the Christmas tree.

I am fascinated by the story because I think it symbolizes the way Christianity, and Christmas celebrations, spread from the Mediterranean region into Europe and beyond. Christian missionaries usually saw the process as a battle with rival religions that they called pagan or heathen, and they viewed Boniface’s encounter as another triumphant victory. Yet what strikes me is that Boniface replaced one tree with another. In light of the fact that pre-Christian European religions were closely related to nature, somewhat akin to the nature relatedness of traditional Native American (Indian) spiritualities, the fir tree seems to be as much an accommodation to the preceding religion as a victory over it. The Boniface legend illustrates the manner in which Christianity and Christmas moved through Europe picking up traditions or adapting to them, not just conquering or replacing them. And it happened over and over.


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