Truth about Christmas trees

Father David Epps's picture

As strange as it seems now, there was a time when I wouldn't allow a Christmas tree in our house. Well-meaning Christians taught me that the symbol was pagan and had no place in a Christian home. Yet, the story of the Christmas tree is part of the story of the life of St. Boniface (born 680 AD in Devonshire, England).

At the time of Boniface, much of northern and central Europe still had not been evangelized. Boniface decided he wanted to be a missionary to these people and sought the official approval of Pope St. Gregory II who charged him with preaching the Gospel to the German people. In 722, the pope consecrated St. Boniface as a bishop with jurisdiction over all of Germany. He knew that his greatest challenge was to eradicate pagan superstitions, which hindered the acceptance of the Gospel and the conversion of the people. Known as "the Apostle to Germany," he would continue to preach the gospel until he was martyred in 754.

With his band of faithful followers, Boniface was traveling through the woods along an old Roman road one Christmas Eve. Snow covered the ground and their breath could be seen in the crisp, cold air. Although several suggested that they camp for the night, Boniface encouraged them to push forward, saying, "Courage, brothers ... I know that you are weary; and my own heart wearies also for the home in England, where those I love so dearly are keeping feast this Christmas Eve ... But we have work to do before we feast tonight. For this is the Yule-tide, and the heathen people of the forest have gathered at the Oak of Geismar to worship their god, Thor; and strange things will be seen there, and deeds which make the soul black. But ... we will teach our kinsmen to keep a Christmas with us such as the woodland has never known. Forward, then, in God's name!"

After a while, the road opened to a clearing. The missionaries could see houses, but dark and seemingly vacant. No human was in sight. Continuing on, they came to a glade in the forest, and there appeared the sacred Thunder Oak of Geismar. "Here," Boniface proclaimed, "is the Thunder-oak; and here the cross of Christ shall break the hammer of the false god Thor."

In front of the tree was a huge bonfire and the townspeople surrounded the fire facing the sacred oak. Boniface interrupted their meeting, "Hail, sons of the forest! A stranger claims the warmth of your fire in the winter night ... Your kinsman am I, of the German brotherhood and from Wessex, beyond the sea, have I come to bring you a greeting from that land, and a message from the All-Father, whose servant I am."

Hunrad, the old priest of Thor, welcomed Boniface and said to them, "Stand still, common man, and behold what the gods have called us hither to do! This night is the death-night of the sun-god, Baldur the Beautiful, beloved of gods and men. This night is the hour of darkness and the power of winter, of sacrifice and mighty fear. This night the great Thor, the god of thunder and war, to whom this oak is sacred, is grieved for the death of Baldur, and angry with this people because they have forsaken his worship. The old priest announced that many misfortunes had come to the people and that a price must be paid to Thor. The people sounded their approval and then began a chant of praise to Thor.

When the last sounds faded, Hunrad pronounced, "None of these things will please the god. More costly is the offering that shall cleanse your sin, more precious the crimson dew that shall send new life into this holy tree of blood. Thor claims your dearest and your noblest gift."

With that, Hunrad approached the children, grouped together around the fire. He selected the fairest boy, Asulf, the son of Duke Alvold and his wife, Thekla, and declared that he would be sacrificed to travel to Valhalla and bear the people's message to Thor. Asulf's parents were deeply shaken yet no one spoke.

Hunrad led the boy to a large stone altar between the oak and the fire. He blindfolded the child, and had him kneel down placing his head on the stone altar. The people moved closer, and Boniface positioned himself near the priest. Hunrad then lifted his sacred black-stone hammer of the god Thor high into the air, ready to have it crush little Asulf's skull. As the hammer fell, Boniface thrust his bishop's crosier against the hammer, and it fell from Hunrad's hand, splitting in two against the stone altar. Sounds of awe and joy filled the air. Thekla ran to her child spared of this bloody sacrifice and embraced him tightly.

Boniface then spoke to the people. "Hearken, sons of the forest! No blood shall flow this night save that which pity has drawn from a mother's breast. For this is the birth-night of the white Christ, the son of the All-Father, the Savior of mankind. Fairer is He than Baldur the Beautiful, greater than Odin the Wise, kinder than Freya the Good. Since He has come sacrifice is ended. The dark, Thor, on whom you have vainly called, is dead. Deep in the shades of Niffelheim he is lost forever. And now on this Christ-night you shall begin to live. This blood-tree shall darken your land no more. In the name of the Lord, I will destroy it." Boniface then took his broad ax and began striking the tree. A mighty wind suddenly arose and the tree fell, wrenching its roots from the earth, and it split into four pieces.

Behind the mighty oak stood a young fir tree, pointing like a cathedral spire toward heaven. Boniface again spoke to the people, "This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the fir. 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."

So they took the fir tree and carried it to the village where they placed candles on its branches. Then Boniface, with Hunrad sitting at his feet, told the story of Bethlehem, the Baby Jesus in the manger, the shepherds, and the angels as all listened intently.

As we gather with friends and family this year, may we give thanks for the gift of our Faith, hold the story of the Savior's birth in our hearts, and enjoy the lighted tree that points to the heavens.

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