The Holy Roots Of Christmas Trees
While Alan Crosby reflected on the Germanic origins of the Christmas tree in his article ‘The truth of a tradition’ in your December issue, he failed to mention the earlier legend of St Boniface (c675–754 AD) and the Christmas tree. This English monk would become a major player in the Christianisation of the Germanic parts of the Frankish Empire, and has since become known as the ‘Apostle of the Germans’.
Believed to have been born in Devon to a prosperous Saxon family, the young Winfrid, as he was then known, chose a religious life against his father’s wishes and later decided to become a missionary.
Pope Gregory II (669–731) gave Winfrid the name ‘Boniface’, by which he is usually known today. According to his earliest biography he opposed the pagan worship of sacred trees throughout Germania and, in particular, Donar’s Oak, which
is believed to have stood in what is now the region of Hesse in Germany. Taking an axe, Boniface began to fell the oak which split into four pieces and miraculously formed the shape of a cross when it landed on the ground. Boniface’s surviving letters to the Pope indicate that the felling took several hours, and was far less miraculous than the later legends suggest!
Another legend states that Boniface, who was then threatened with death by the pagans, spotted a small fir tree growing among the roots of the felled oak and, quoting the words of Isaiah 11:1 – “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”, used this to convince the pagans to renounce their old ways and accept the message of Christianity. Every year since, the legend continues, the Germanic people have taken fir trees into their homes to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Finally, if medieval genealogy is to believed, I am the 37x great grandson of Charles Martel, ruler of the Franks, who offered protection to Boniface. Furthermore, I now live a few miles from the site
of the Hampshire monastery which Boniface left to begin his missionary work. He may even have walked the ancient (pedestrian) highway that runs adjacent to my house and which is known to have been used by religious travellers, among others, from the medieval period onwards.
Gordon Lewis, Southampton
EDITOR REPLIES: Thank you for sharing this Gordon, I will think of St Boniface while I’m admiring my tree!