Everyone loves a Christmas tree! (Except, of course, the person who sweeps up the needles.) But, do you know where this Christmas tradition came from? The answer may involve a godly man who is the patron saint of an Effingham church.
The evolution of this tradition to what we have today involves much of Northern Europe. It is also another example of how we Christians have adopted the pagan rituals of those who have converted to the faith, then transformed those rituals into meaningful symbols for Christianity.
The history of the tree starts in pre-Christian Scandinavia. The pagan Norsemen in that area were very superstitious. They believed that gods, spirits from nature and demons surrounded them. They also saw the coming of winter as harboring evil, since it brought so much death and darkness.
So, they would turn to those natural things that stayed alive – such as evergreens – to ward off the evil. They would bring the evergreens and mistletoe into their homes and celebrate life on their door with wreaths. (Note to needle-sweepers everywhere: The Norsemen burned the needles as incense.)
Over time, the people in Northern Europe would counter the darkest day of the year – the Winter Solstice – by celebrating “Jul,” the Norse god. They would celebrate by cutting down a massive tree and burning it for 12 days. Jul is pronounced “yule,” and is the forerunner of our yule log today.
But back to the Christmas tree: The transition from having a tree in one’s home to celebrate life at Winter Solstice to a tree that helps one celebrate the birth of Christ stems from Christian missionaries in the 1700’s who made their way north into Scandinavia. One of those missionaries was Boniface, who brought Christianity to much of what is now Germany. Boniface was dismayed by the pagan rituals he saw among the people of Scandinavia, including human sacrifice and worship of nature.
But Boniface was smart. He knew that trying to completely replace pagan beliefs and traditions with Christian beliefs and traditions would bring about resistance and conflict. So, instead, he adopted and “repurposed” those pagan traditions to reflect Christian beliefs.
It is said that Boniface, who went on to be canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, once pointed to an evergreen tree and said, “This humble tree’s wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the center 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.”
Therefore, thanks to St. Boniface, the tradition of the tree stayed; it was just now being used to celebrate Christmas, not Norse gods or the Winter Solstice.
In the early 16th century, so the legend goes, Martin Luther became the first person to add lights to a Christmas tree. Within a short time, the tradition of a Christmas tree made its way to England, and soon thereafter to the new world.
But some in the new world were very skeptical about adopting European Christian practices. While the German immigrants celebrated with Christmas trees, many Puritans saw this ritual as pagan. Still, over time the tradition of a tree became more and more popular.
By the mid-19th century, the tree was more frequently part of a family’s Christmas celebration. This was helped, in part, by the publication of a drawing of Prince Albert’s royal family with a Christmas tree in December, 1848. Albert’s wife, Princess Victoria, was very popular, so Christmas trees became not only a reflection of life amongst death, but also a bit fashionable.
Within two years of the publication of that sketch, nearly every family in England had an evergreen tree in their home at Christmas. And the tradition continued to grow in the ever-expanding United States.
Today, Christmas trees are part of the Christian celebration of the birth of our Savior worldwide. If you enjoy them, as do I, tip your hat when you drive by St. Boniface Catholic Church in Springfield. Merry Christmas.