This post is about how we got our Christmas trees. For the record, I would probably still have a Christmas tree in the house even if it they were pagan in origin. (I’ll explain why in a different post, drawing on G.K. Chesterton.) But Christmas trees aren’t pagan. At least, not entirely.
My Barbarian Ancestors
Yes, I had barbarian ancestors, in Ireland, England, Friesland, and probably among the other Germanic tribes as well. Some of them were headhunters, if you go back far enough. (For example, pre-Roman Celts were.) All of us had barbarian ancestors, right? And we love them.
St. Boniface was a missionary during the 700s to pagan Germanic tribes such as the Hessians. At that time, oak trees were an important part of pagan worship all across Europe. You can trace this among the Greeks, for example, and, on the other side of the continent, among the Druids. These trees were felt to be mystical, were sacred to the more important local gods, whichever those were, and were the site of animal and in some cases human sacrifice.
God versus the false gods
St. Boniface famously cut down a huge oak tree on Mt. Gudenberg, which the Hessians held as sacred to Thor.
Now, I would like to note that marching in and destroying a culture’s most sacred symbol is not commonly accepted as good missionary practice. It is not generally the way to win hearts and minds, you might say.
The more preferred method is the one Paul took in the Areopagus, where he noticed that the Athenians had an altar “to an unknown god,” and began to talk to them about this unknown god as someone he could make known, even quoting their own poets to them (Acts 17:16 – 34). In other words, he understood the culture, knew how to speak to people in their own terms, and in these terms was able to explain the Gospel. In fact, a city clerk was able to testify, “These men have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess” (Acts 19:37). Later (for example, in Ephesus) we see pagan Greeks voluntarily burning their own spellbooks and magic charms when they convert to Christ (Acts 19:17 – 20). This is, in general, a much better way. (Although note that later in the chapter, it causes pushback from those who were losing money in the charm-and-idol trade.)
However, occasionally it is appropriate for a representative of the living God to challenge a local god directly. This is called a power encounter. Elijah, a prophet of ancient Israel, staged a power encounter when he challenged 450 priests of the pagan god Baal to get Baal to bring down fire on an animal sacrifice that had been prepared for him. When no fire came after they had chanted, prayed, and cut themselves all day, Elijah prayed to the God of Israel, who immediately sent fire that burned up not only the sacrifice that had been prepared for Him, but also the stones of the altar (I Kings chapter 18). So, there are times when a power encounter is called for.
A wise missionary who had traveled and talked to Christians all over the world once told me, during a class on the subject, that power encounters tend to be successful in the sense of winning people’s hearts only when they arise naturally. If an outsider comes in and tries to force a power encounter, “It usually just damages relationships.” But people are ready when, say, there had been disagreement in the village or nation about which god to follow, and someone in authority says, “O.K. We are going to settle this once and for all.”
That appears to be the kind of power encounter that Elijah had. Israel was ostensibly supposed to be serving their God, but the king, Ahab, had married a pagan princess and was serving her gods as well. In fact, Ahab had been waffling for years. There had been a drought (which Ahab knew that Elijah — read God — was causing). Everyone was sick of the starvation and the uncertainty. Before calling down the fire, Elijah prays, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (I Kings 18:37)
Similar circumstances appear to have been behind Boniface’s decision to cut down the great oak tree. In one of the sources I cite below, Boniface is surrounded by a crowd of bearded, long-haired Hessian chiefs and warriors, who are watching him cut down the oak and waiting for Thor to strike him down. When he is able successfully to cut down the oak, they are shaken. “If our gods are powerless to protect their own holy places, then they are nothing” (Hannula p. 62). Clearly, Boniface had been among them for some time, and the Hessians were already beginning to have doubts and questions, before the oak was felled.
Also note that, just as with Elijah, Boniface was not a colonizer coming in with superior technological power to bulldoze the Hessians’ culture. They could have killed him, just as Ahab could have had Elijah killed. A colonizer coming in with gunboats to destroy a sacred site is not a good look, and it’s not really a power encounter either, because what is being brought to bear in such a case is man’s power and not God’s.
And, Voila! a Christmas Tree
In some versions of this story, Boniface “gives” the Hessians a fir tree to replace the oak he cut down. (In some versions, it miraculously sprouts from the spot.) Instead of celebrating Winter Solstice at the oak tree, they would now celebrate Christ-mass (during Winter Solstice, because everyone needs a holiday around that time) at the fir tree. So, yes, it’s a Christian symbol.
Now, every holiday tradition, laden with symbols and accretions, draws from all kinds of streams. So let me hasten to say that St. Boniface was not the only contributor to the Christmas tree. People have been using trees as objects of decoration, celebration, and well-placed or mis-placed worship, all through history. Some of our Christmas traditions, such as decorating our houses with evergreen and holly boughs, giving gifts, and even pointed red caps, come from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This is what holidays are like. This is what symbols are like. This is what it is like to be human.
Still, I’d like to say thanks to St. Boniface for getting some of my ancestors started on the tradition of the Christmas tree.
BBC, “Devon Myths and Legends,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/content/articles/2005/12/05/st_boniface_christmas_tree_feature
Foster, Genevieve, Augustus Caesar’s World: 44 BC to AD 14, Beautiful Feet Books, 1947, 1975, Saturnalia on p. 56 ff.
Hannula, Richard, Trial and Triumph: Stories from church history, Canon Press, 1999. Boniface in chapter 9, pp. 61 – 64.
Puiu, Tibi, “The origin and history of the Christmas tree: from paganism to modern ubiquity,” ZME Science, https://www.zmescience.com/science/history-science/origin-christmas-tree-pagan/