top of page
  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

St. Boniface and the Christmas Tree

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

The Christmas tree, a beloved symbol of the holiday season, has a rich and diverse history that stretches back centuries. Its origins can be traced to ancient pagan traditions, with roots intertwined in mythology, religious practices, and cultural celebrations. One fascinating aspect of the Christmas tree's history lies in its connection to Norse mythology and the influence of St. Boniface.

The pagan origins of the Christmas tree can be traced back to pre-Christian times when various cultures celebrated winter solstice festivals. In Northern Europe, particularly in what is now Germany, people observed the winter solstice with various rituals and customs. One such tradition involved decorating evergreen trees, symbolizing the resilience of life in the midst of the harsh winter.

The ancient Norse people, who inhabited regions such as Scandinavia, had a deity named Thor, the god of thunder. According to Norse mythology, Thor's sacred tree was the mighty oak. However, the evergreen tree held special significance as well, representing life and fertility. As a result, during the winter solstice celebrations, Norse communities would bring evergreen trees into their homes and decorate them with symbols of prosperity and fertility.

With the spread of Christianity in Europe, many pagan traditions were gradually absorbed and transformed to align with Christian beliefs. The Christmas tree is a prime example of this assimilation. As Christianity gained prominence, the evergreen tree took on new symbolism, representing the eternal life offered through faith in Jesus Christ.

One of the most intriguing tales in the history of the Christmas tree involves St. Boniface, an English missionary who lived in the 8th century. St. Boniface, originally named Winfrid, played a crucial role in the Christianization of Germanic tribes. The story goes that St. Boniface encountered a group of pagans gathered around a massive oak tree dedicated to Thor, preparing to sacrifice a child as part of their winter solstice rituals.

Appalled by the scene, St. Boniface intervened, declaring that the oak tree was not sacred and that the true God could demonstrate his power by preventing the sacrifice. According to the tradition, a strong wind suddenly arose, toppling the mighty oak, sparing the child, and convincing the pagans of the Christian God's supremacy.

In the place of the fallen oak, St. Boniface is said to have noticed a small fir tree growing. Seeing this as a symbol of Christianity's victory over pagan beliefs, he declared the fir tree the "Tree of the Christ Child." St. Boniface encouraged the newly converted Christians to take these trees into their homes and adorn them with candles, symbolizing Christ as the light of the world. The story of St. Boniface and the Christmas tree highlights the merging of pagan traditions with Christian beliefs and the eventual transformation of the evergreen tree into a symbol of Christmas. Even the shape of the fir tree is meant to point our minds towards God. Its triangular shape reminds us of the Blessed Trinity: Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

As centuries passed, the tradition of decorating Christmas trees continued to evolve. In medieval Europe, the Paradise tree, an evergreen adorned with apples, was used in "mystery plays" depicting the story of Adam and Eve. The apples symbolized the forbidden fruit of which Adam and Eve partook. They were expelled from Paradise for their disobedience, but by the blood of Christ, the New Adam, we can enter Paradise once more. Now the red apples (or the balls which are used commonly today) symbolize the blood of Christ which has redeemed mankind from sin and death.

By the 16th century, the custom of decorating Christmas trees had become widespread in Germany. People adorned their trees with nuts and fruits to remind us of the fruitfulness of our faith in God. Candles lit the trees to recall how the Light of the World, Jesus Christ, came to enlighten our darkness.

The Christmas tree made its way to America through the influence of German immigrants. The tradition gained popularity in the 19th century, particularly after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, who was of German descent. The royal couple's Christmas tree, depicted in a popular illustration in the Illustrated London News in 1848, sparked a trend that quickly crossed the Atlantic.

In the United States, the Christmas tree became a widespread and beloved tradition. Families began to decorate trees with an array of ornaments, lights, and garlands, creating a festive centerpiece for their holiday celebrations. Over time, the practice of selecting and cutting down a fresh Christmas tree from a tree farm became a cherished annual tradition for many families.

Today, the Christmas tree stands as an enduring symbol of the holiday season, bringing joy and warmth to homes around the world. Its history, rooted in pagan customs and Christian adaptations, reflects the cultural and religious diversity that has shaped the celebration of Christmas over the centuries. Whether adorned with traditional ornaments, sparkling lights, or sentimental decorations, the Christmas tree continues to be a focal point of festive celebrations, connecting generations and cultures in the spirit of joy.


bottom of page