Boniface (originally known as Winfrid) is linked by legend to the creation of the first Christmas Tree.
This story begins in England, where the very young Winfrid decided to enter a Benedictine monastery despite the objections of his parents. Winfrid yearned to leave the monastery and bring the light of Christ to the pagan Germans just as the monks had brought the Faith to England a century earlier. Winfrid heard reports that Pope Gregory II had sent missionaries to Bavaria in 716 and decided to travel to Rome to become a missionary to the Germans. Pope Gregory was delighted at the arrival of the eager Winfrid and after a period of time commissioned him to preach the Gospel in the regions of Thuringia, Bavaria, Franconia, and Hesse. In recognition of his special missionary commission the pope also changed Winfrid’s name to Boniface.
The newly named monk travelled to Hesse (central Germany) in 721 and “with his tireless activity, his gift for organization, and his adaptable, friendly, yet firm character” achieved great success.
From his missionary travels, Boniface knew that in winter the inhabitants of the village of Geismar gathered around a huge old oak tree dedicated to the god Thor. This annual event of worship centered on sacrificing a human, usually a small child, to the pagan god. Boniface desired to convert the village by destroying the oak, which the pagans had previously boasted the God of Boniface could not destroy, so he gathered a few companions and journeyed to Geismar.
Boniface and his friends arrived at the time of the sacrifice, which was interrupted by their presence. In a show of great trust in God and a desire to bring the German pagans to Christ, Boniface grabbed an axe and chopped down the oak of mighty Thor. The Germans were astounded. The holy bishop preached the Gospel to the people and used a little fir tree that was behind the now felled oak tree as a tool of evangelization. Pointing to it he said,
“This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace… It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.”
Many of the Germans were baptised.
In the centuries that followed, the tradition of using an evergreen tree to celebrate the birth of Jesus spread throughout Germany, and German immigrants in the eighteenth century brought the custom to the New World. As in the nineteenth, Prince Albert, brought the tradition back to Britain.
On this day lift before God:
- The peoples of Germany and Exeter.
- Those gifted with new ways of seeing ordinary things.
- All who are cheered and led into wonder by the sight of Christmas trees
- The people you know of friendly, yet firm character.