SIMONE STANBROOK-BYRNE takes a look at the Christmas tree tradition and its links with a Devon saint
Deep mid winter: short days, icy mornings, long dark nights; the time of year when sparkle is sought to dispel the seasonal gloom and put the dark to flight. One of our favourite traditions, the Christmas tree, does just that – and for this we have to thank Crediton’s most famous historical son, St Boniface.
Born in the town in, it is believed, 680AD, Wynfrith, as he was then called, knew from a young age that his calling was to the church. He first studied at a Benedictine monastic school in Exeter before continuing his studies in Hampshire where he was a well-regarded pupil, rising through the ranks to become a teacher, monk and then a priest and compiling the first-ever dictionary of Latin grammar. But his missionary zeal drove him to travel.
In 716AD he set off, with two other missionaries, for a thenpagan region of Europe, now part of The Netherlands, determined to bring Christianity to what he deemed to be a heathen people. This proved challenging, so he returned to England before heading to Rome to see Pope Gregory in the hope of obtaining an endorsement for his vocation.
The Pope was so impressed with Wynfrith that he gave him the name Boniface, meaning ‘good deeds’. In 722AD Boniface was made a Bishop and sent to work in Germany, where he established many centres of religion during the next 30 years, including the Abbey of Fulda. He became an Archbishop in 732AD.
In 739AD Boniface was considered instrumental in establishing a monastery in Crediton and later a Saxon Cathedral was built here. This was a wooden construction of which nothing now remains.
The bishop’s throne of Crediton Cathedral was subsequently moved to Exeter in 1050 and although Crediton became less ecclesiastically lofty its church survived, becoming Anglican after the Reformation.
It was during Boniface’s time in Germany that his association with what was to become the Christmas tree began.
During the 8th century paganism in Germany was rife. A site of particular significance was Thor’s Oak at Geismar. At this tree human sacrifice reputedly took place and Boniface, in a theatrical attempt to thwart the heathen during their mid-winter ritual, felled the oak before the crowd, a strenuous task assisted, allegedly, by the onset of a mighty wind.
Legend tells that the onlookers, astonished that the destroyer of their oak wasn’t instantly destroyed himself, were won over by Boniface’s faith and began to convert to Christianity. And, amongst the shattered debris of the fallen oak, Boniface found a tiny young fir tree springing up. This he regarded as symbolic of the new ‘evergreen’ faith he was preaching, saying: “This little tree shall be your holy tree tonight”.
The planned pagan ritual was diverted into a Christian one; the first Christmas tree was born, its triangular shape a reminder, it was considered, of the Trinity.
His early lack of success in the Netherlands weighed heavily on Boniface and he decided to return, an older and wiser man, for another attempt at converting the heathen. Now in his seventies he left Fulda, accompanied by a group of monks, and headed back to Friesland.
But there was no happy ending. Resistance to Christianity was still strong and on 5 June 754AD his group was attacked at the town of Dokkum. Boniface was killed.
His companions carried his body back to Boniface’s spiritual home at Fulda where his tomb is located in the Cathedral. He was canonised shortly after his martyrdom.
Over succeeding centuries the Christmas tree tradition grew throughout Germany and became a part of British tradition during the reign of Queen Victoria when Prince Albert introduced the idea from Germany.
Back in Crediton Boniface is well-remembered. The national shrine of the saint is in Crediton’s Catholic Church, where a modest modern exterior hides a tranquil and elegant interior. Here, amidst some beautiful works of art, Boniface is revered.
The shrine contains an authenticated relic from the martyred saint, nestled in a purpose-built viewing port. A splendid bas-relief depicts the felling of Thor’s Oak, and just inside the church door is a foundation stone, originally from Boniface’s burial place, presented by the Bishop of Fulda.
And although the wooden parish church is long gone, in its place sits the magnificent Church of the Holy Cross. Here, surrounded by some 80 gorgeous Christmas trees all radiating light and creativity, one cannot help but feel that one of the most far-reaching tributes to Boniface is this festival.
A festival repeated on different scales across the country, involving many, many people: the artistically inclined and those who just enjoy the festive fun of it; those who follow a Christian faith and those who don’t; those who have heard of St Boniface and those for whom his name means nothing.
To everyone who comes to see the Christmas trees, their spectacle is a tangible manifestation of something uplifting at this cold, dark time of year. creditonparishchurch. org.uk/services/christmas-treefestivals