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Vol. 3 No. 5 - Feast of St. Nicholas 2008

Saint Boniface & the Christmas Tree

Approaching the season of Christ's Nativity, I am reminded of a question that puzzled me as a child: Why on earth do we celebrate the birth of the Lord by dragging a live tree into our house?

Certain sectarians reject the practice of decorating a Christmas tree, condemning it as the ultimate symbol of syncretism (i.e. mixing Christian and pagan practices). Yet no Orthodox Christian could accept such a simplistic characterization of history, and even as a child, I somehow suspected that the critics couldn't be right. Unfortunately, the sales people at the local Canadian Tire store were little help in enlightening a nine-year-old kid with weird questions; they were too busy selling trees.

Years later, several people (I think most of them Protestant seminarians) announced to me that it was Martin Luther who created the Christmas tree, envisioning it as the ideal symbol of German Christianity, a symbol of the wood of the Cross, bearing the golden apples of the New Eden. Apparently red apples were painted gold during the Reformation; who knew they had the time?

This explanation seemed to satisfy surface curiosity about the roots of the Christmas tree, but it left my conscience wondering: why would Orthodox Christians observe a custom introduced by the leader of the Protestant Reformation? The notion boggled my mind as much as my question years before in the tree lot outside the Canadian Tire.

Fortunately for me, and for several boxes of old Christmas decorations that nearly made their way to the trash bin, there soon emerged what one might call an "Orthodox answer" to the question of the Christmas tree, one which cleared my conscience enough to break out into several verses of O Tannenbaum (well, not quite). I was delighted to discover that the roots of the Christmas tree (no pun intended) are indeed as Orthodox as incense, boiled wheat, and beeswax candles. And putting aside the lighthearted approach to a curious story, the origins of the Christmas tree are in fact saintly, and in keeping with the best of Orthodox Christian missionary work.

It was Saint Boniface, an English missionary to the Germanic people, who realized the central importance that trees played in the spiritual life of the people he was attempting to evangelize. Each pagan village had its own sacred oak, often dedicated to the pagan god Thor. After a first successful attempt tearing down one such tree with the help of an unexpected and divinely-sent windstorm, Saint Boniface began a campaign across Germany, uprooting oak trees and baptizing thousands of converts as he went.

Tradition tells us that it was at Geismar that Saint Boniface discovered a fir tree growing from the base of an uprooted oak. He told the people there assembled:

"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".[1]

Although the burning of the Serbian badnjak oak on the eve of Nativity bears some resemblance to the story of Saint Boniface, the two customs are quite separate in origins. It is quite beautiful that both histories and customs honour the same image: the wood of the Cross of Christ.

That alone is enough to make the selling and decorating of Christmas trees a holy thing.

[1] Quote taken from Saint Boniface's home in Crediton, U.K., tourism website.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Feast of St. Nicholas, 2008)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2008.