For many people the world over there will be a new addition to their homes in the coming days and weeks, if that addition has not already arrived. As homes are decorated for the season a large number of families will haul an evergreen tree inside, continuing the tradition of the Christmas tree. But what is the origin and meaning of this grand holiday tradition?
There are many people who will try to tell you that the tree goes all the way back to early pagan cultures, or to the ancient Druids, or to the Roman seasonal celebration known as Saturnalia. But in actuality the Christmas tree dates back to the early years of the 8th century and the life mission of a man born as Winfred in the year 672, but who has become known in history as Saint Boniface.
Winfred was born into a wealthy family, and had to overcome the protestations of his family when he received a calling and entered the Benedictine monastery in late 7th century England. In 802, he became an ordained priest and took the name Boniface, becoming a teacher. Years later, and after previous attempts, he undertook a mission to convert the people of Frisia, an early Germanic tribe that lived along the North Sea.
The Frisians had an ancient symbol known as Thor’s Oak which was dedicated to a pagan god. The location of this tree was the main point of veneration for the early Germanic people. In the year 723, Boniface approached this tree and stated his intention to chop it down, an attempt which the tribes believed would cause his death at Thor’s hands.
Boniface began to chop at the tree, calling on Thor to strike him down if the tree actually held any power or symbolism. As Boniface chopped a great wind came along and helped topple the massive tree. When the tree fell and no harm came to Boniface, the Germanic people began to believe him and thus began their conversion to Christianity.
There was a fir tree growing in the roots of the former oak, and legend has it that Boniface claimed this as a new symbol saying “This humble tree’s wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your Comfort and Guide.”
Subsequently the earliest actual references to a specific seasonal tree trace their roots to the Germanic people. Church records from the year 1539 at the Cathedral of Strasbourg mention the erection of a Christmas tree. Also during this time many guilds, or union houses, maintained a custom of preparing Christmas trees in front of their guild houses by decorating them with apples, dates, nuts, and paper flowers.
After hundreds of years as a custom in the Germanic towns, the Christmas tree slowly began to spread as a tradition into the more rural areas, ultimately moving into the aristocracy and spreading east into Russia, Austria, and into France by the mid-19th century. The British royal family also began to help celebrate the holiday season with a Christmas tree during this 19th century period.
During the 1850’s, a popular ladies journal in America known as ‘Godeys Ladies Book’ published a picture of a family gathered around a Christmas tree with presents laid underneath. By the end of the decade the picture and its popularity had caused the tradition to begin and spread in the United States. By the 1870’s, putting up a Christmas tree had become the norm here in America.
In its original tradition, the Christmas tree was brought into the home and setup with decorations on Christmas Eve, not to be taken down until after the traditional ’12th day’ on January 6th, which was the eve of the Epiphany, the day celebrating the ‘Magi’ or ‘Three Wise Men’ adoring the Christ child. It was the commercialization of the Christmas season that resulted ultimately in trees being erected at earlier points.
In celebrating the final Christmas of his life in 2004, Pope John Paul II spoke of the true meaning and purpose of the Christmas tree calling it “an ancient custom that exalts the value of life.” He pointed out that the evergreen remains unchanged throughout the harshness of winter, and further stated that it represents “the tree of life, a figure of Christ, God’s greatest gift to all men.”
In past years it had become a tradition in our own family that my family would get together with my brother Mike’s family and a few others. We would travel to the area around New Hope, Pennsylvania to a tree farm where we would select and cut down the tree for our respective families. We would then stop for a nice lunch or dinner on the ride home. We abandoned this long ride and tradition when our kids got older, but it remains a nice shared Christmas memory for our family.
My wife and I took part in this now wide-spread tradition in the way that has become customary in our home when we took a drive out yesterday and went to find our home Christmas tree. After making our selection with one of the many tree sales locations that spring up this time of year, we brought our tree home. We will put it up in it’s stand today in our living room, let it ‘settle’ for a day, and then begin to decorate it tomorrow night.
As we decorate we will play Christmas music, enveloping our living room in the Christmas season. And as we do so we will look on the beauty of its lights and decorations and ornaments and we will be reminded of the light and joy that was brought into our world with the birth of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. As you put up and admire your own Christmas tree this season, remember to consider that light of Christ, the true meaning of the tree and of Christmas itself.