Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The pagan origins of the Christmas tree?

Probably the most recognizable Advent tradition is putting a tree in your home and decorating it for Christmas. The trees came to Britain after Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria, introduced them in 1841. It is often assumed that this is a pagan custom that was appropriated by Christians in Germany, but that is not quite the case. The Christmas tree began in Germany, but it started with a saint (an Anglican, in fact).

It was the 8th Century Benedictine monk St. Boniface from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex who first took the Gospel to the pagan Germanic tribes of Northern Europe. There, they worshipped Odin and Thor—fierce and ancient Norse gods. One of the savage aspects of Germanic Norse religious culture was human sacrifice.

Boniface knew that Christianity had subdued the wilder, more violent aspects of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture in England and believed the same could happen in Germany. So Boniface let spread word among the tribes that when the next sacrifice was planned, he would personally prevent it. He gathered his monks at an ancient oak tree, a place of sacred blood-letting.

The pagans bound a young girl to the oak tree in preparation, but before the fatal blow could be struck, Boniface grabbed the axe out of the executioner’s hands. He swung at the girl’s chains, breaking her free, and then turned his axe on the sacred oak. The pagans knelt in silence, expecting their gods to avenge this blasphemy.

Boniface broke the silence, calling them to look at the base of the oak. There, springing out of the ground from between the roots was a tender young fir tree. Boniface explained that their other gods had fallen with the oak but that Boniface’s God had given them this little tree which remains green and full of life even in the depths of winter. The fir tree’s evergreen leaves pointed upwards to heaven, reminding them that the Christian Triune God’s love for them was everlasting.

At the first Christmas after this event, Boniface brought a fir tree indoors into the church as a symbol of Christ’s everlasting love. It has been used as a Christmas reminder of God’s love ever since.

1 comment:

Tom Hightower said...

I wish we could have an article about the Christian origins of beer and wine. That would be great.

Thanks for this. It always comes up at this time.