An oak tree for Christmas?

An English saint started a German custom that spread to the world

Have you ever thought of using an oak tree for your Christmas tree?

If it hadn’t been for one English saint, you might not be using an evergreen tree for the holidays. Instead, it could have been an oak.

Our modern Christmas trees only date to the 19th century and come to us largely due to Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria of England. Prince Albert’s 1834 Christmas tree displayed in Windsor Castle was the impetus for worldwide interest in such trees.

The prince was of German descent and it was the Germans who started the Christmas evergreen tree tradition.

Martin Luther

While many people think Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century, Luther only gets the credit for the indoor Christmas tree, lit with candles. He is said to have wanted to replicate, for his family, the fir trees adorned with sparkling fresh snow that he had seen one winter evening.

Making evergreens central to Christmas goes back to St. Boniface in the 8th century.

Boniface — who was born in England — was first named Winfrid. He was a child of the nobility, but, very early, decided that he wanted to enter religious life. Despite his father’s objections, Winfrid soon joined the Benedictines and was later ordained.

Winfrid desired to become a missionary and longed to bring the Gospel to the land of his Saxon ancestors in what is now Germany. He made some independent attempts at this, but eventually decided to seek papal approval and support. In 719, Pope Gregory II officially sent him to teach the Saxon and Germanic tribes and, eventually, named him as regional bishop of the areas of Thuringia and Hessia.

New name

Sources say that this was when Winfrid became known as “Boniface,” perhaps given this named by the pope himself. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the name “Boniface” seems to means “good order” in Latin (bonum facere).

Around this time, Boniface found himself spending one Christmas Eve in a region ruled by a Germanic tribe that practiced the old traditions of the Celts and/or the Druids.

As recorded by Boniface’s biographer, St. Willibald, the tribe had gathered around a large oak tree that had long been sacred to the Norse god, Thor. (Yes, this is the same god of the hammer and the master of thunder.) Christmas Eve coincided with pagan celebrations of the death of Thor’s friend and brother, the sun god, Baldr the Beautiful.

Boniface and several companions came upon a pagan priest preparing to sacrifice — with a hammer — the son of a local chieftain at the roots of Thor’s oak tree. Boniface seems to have “played along” with the ritual until he could get close enough to push aside the falling hammer with his crosier.

Get an ax

Here the story varies. Sometimes the oak is immediately destroyed. In other accounts, like Willibald’s, everyone is so astonished at Boniface’s audacity that he has time to grab an ax and start chopping down the oak. He gets no further than a blow or two, when the tree is ripped apart by a sudden wind.

Whatever story you choose, the oak tree ends up utterly ruined.

Here is how St. Willibald tells it: “Suddenly, the oak’s vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall.”

Boniface ordered the people to use the wood of the fallen oak tree to build a church dedicated to St. Peter. While oak trees were long dedicated to Thor, this particular oak tree was also known as “Donar’s Oak.” Donar is the old Germanic name for “Thor.”

Romans’ Jove

However, long before Boniface, the oak tree was also sacred to the Romans and to their god Jupiter (Jove). Jupiter was the god of lightning and oak trees have a tendency to be struck by lightning.

Now, Willibald doesn’t say anything about an evergreen tree, but various later legends do. According to these, Boniface spotted a small fir tree growing up behind the fallen oak. Since the local people were used to honoring trees, he suggested that they honor this “child of the forest” as a reminder of the Trinity (because its triangular shape points to heaven) and of the true God’s eternal love (since it is evergreen).

Boniface continued his missionary work and was later appointed an archbishop. He eventually became “Primate of Germany” and today is known as the “Apostle of Germany.”

Boniface remained a missionary for the rest of his life. In 754, he and 52 companions were martyred near Dokkum in what was then known as Frisia along the North Sea. The area is now part of the Netherlands.

The tradition of Boniface and the oak tree continued to be told in Germany and that is how the Christmas tree first came to the United States. Some descendants of those Germanic tribes first converted by St. Boniface were known as Hessians. Centuries later, Hessian mercenaries were recruited to serve in the American Revolution. These soldiers brought their custom of Christmas Eve evergreens to this new country. Due to the Puritans, who opposed Christmas celebrations in general, the Christmas tree tradition developed slowly here — until the time of Prince Albert.

 

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; “The History of the Christmas Tree;” catholic.com; mtncatholic.com; catholicstraightanswers.com; and The Arlington Catholic at catholicherald.com