A tra­di­tion

SI­MONE STANBROOK-BYRNE takes a look at the Christ­mas tree tra­di­tion and its links with a Devon saint

Devon Life - - Promotion -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.