The Christmas tree’s origins can be traced back to the 200 AD’s, when the early church father Tertullian wrote: “You are the light of the world, a tree ever green, if you have renounced the heathen temple.”
In the 5th century, St. Patrick evangelized Ireland. Continuing through the centuries, courageous Christian missionaries went from Ireland, Scotland, and England to evangelize the heathen hordes which had overrun Europe. It was during this time that the courageous St. Boniface (680-755) evangelized the heathen Germanic tribes.
Boniface, also called Wynfred, left his home in Britain, near Crediton, Devonshire, and went as a missionary, sent by Pope Gregory II, to be Apostle of the Germans.
Just like St. Nicholas confronted the pagans of Greece and Rome, and slapped Arius for starting the Arian Heresy: and just like St. Patrick confronted the Druid pagans of Ireland; St. Boniface, around 716 AD, set out to confront the pagan Germanic tribes.
He explained to the clergy in England, that he was called to:”… seek to obtain by your prayers that our God and Lord Jesus Christ, who wills that all men should be saved and should come to the knowledge of the truth, may convert the hearts of these heathen Saxons to the faith, that they may be delivered out of the snares of the devil.”
Boniface traveled through the woods and came upon pagan chieftain Gundhar, who was about to offer the little Prince Asulf as a human “bloody sacrifice” to Thor, the feared pagan god of thunder. They believed Thor lived in the huge “donar” oak tree at Geismar.
“Thor” is the namesake of Thor’s day, or “Thursday.” Since Thor was a pagan deity, Quakers did not use his name, so they referred to Thursday as “Fifth Day.” Another pagan god was “Odin” or “Woden,” for whom was named “Woden’s Day” or “Wednesday,” which Quakers called “Fourth Day.”
In 722 AD, ten years before Charles Martel stopped the Islamic invasion of France at the Battle of Tours, Boniface marched deep into the German forest and providentially interrupted their pagan ritual. He boldly took an ax and began chopping down Thor’s mighty “blood” oak. Some yelled for him to stop, but others responded that if Thor were a real god he could protect his own tree. This is similar to the Book of Judges, chapter 6, when the Lord told Gideon: “Throw down the altar of Baal … and cut down the grove that is by it … Then Gideon took ten men … and did as the LORD had said unto him …
… And when the men of the city arose early … behold, the altar of Baal was cast down, and the grove was cut down … they said one to another, Who hath done this thing? And when they enquired … they said, Gideon the son of Joash …Then the men of the city said unto Joash, Bring out thy son, that he may die: because he hath cast down the altar of Baal, and because he hath cut down the grove …And Joash said … Will ye plead for Baal? … if he be a god, let him plead for himself.”
As Boniface was chopping down Thor’s tree, by some accounts, an enormous wind swept in and helped blow it over. The heathen throng was in awe. They rejected their defeated pagan gods of Thor and Odin and converted to Christianity.
Henry Van Dyke, who was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson as Ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg, wrote The First Christmas Tree (1906), in which he gave the rendition: “The day before Christmas, in the year of our Lord 722 …Through the wide forest that rolled over the hills of central Germany … at the head of the band marched Winfried …’Courage, brothers, and forward yet a little … this Christmas eve … For this is the Yuletide, and the heathen people of the forest have gathered at the thunder-oak of Geismar to worship their god, Thor. Strange things will be seen there, and deeds which make the soul black. But we are sent to lighten their darkness; and we will teach our kinsmen to keep a Christmas with us such as the woodland has never known …”
Henry Van Dyke continued:”A great throng of people were gathered around it in a half-circle … answered Winfried, ‘… from England, beyond the sea, have I come to bring you … a message from the All-Father, whose servant I am … Worship not the false gods, for they are devils. Offer no more bloody sacrifices…”This is the word, and this is the counsel,” answered Winfried. “Not a drop of blood shall fall to-night … For this is the birth-night of … Christ, son of the All-Father, and Saviour of mankind …Since He has come to earth the bloody sacrifices must cease.The dark Thor, on whom you vainly call, is dead. Deep in the shades of Niffelheim he is lost forever. His power in the world is broken. Will you serve a helpless god? See, my brothers, you call this tree his oak. Does he dwell here? Does he protect it?’
… A troubled voice of assent rose from the throng. The people stirred uneasily. Women covered their eyes. Hunrad lifted his head and muttered hoarsely, “Thor! take vengeance! Thor!”Winfried beckoned to Gregor. “Bring the axes, thine and one for me. Now, young woodsman, show thy craft! The king-tree of the forest must fall, and swiftly, or all is lost!”The two men took their places facing each other, one on each side of the oak. Their cloaks were flung aside … they grasped the axe-helves and swung the shining blades …The axe-heads glittered in their rhythmic flight, like fierce eagles circling about their quarry. The broad flakes of wood flew from the deepening gashes in the sides of the oak. The huge trunk quivered …Then the great wonder … out of the stillness of the winter night, a mighty rushing noise sounded overhead …A strong, whirling wind passed over the tree-tops. It gripped the oak by its branches and tore it from its roots. Backward it fell, like a ruined tower, groaning and crashing as it split asunder …Winfried let his axe drop, and bowed his head for a moment in the presence of Almighty Power.
… Then he turned to the people, ‘Here is the timber … on this spot shall rise a chapel to the true God’ …‘And here.’ said he, as his eyes fell on a young fir-tree, standing straight and green, with its top pointing towards the stars, amid the divided ruins of the fallen oak, ‘here is the living tree, with no stain of blood upon it, that shall be the sign of your new faith. See how it points to the heavens. Let us call it the tree of the Christ-child …You shall go no more into the shadows of the forest to keep your feasts with secret rites of shame. You shall keep them at home, with laughter and song and acts of kindness.
… The thunder-oak has fallen … the day is coming when there shall not be a home in all Germany where the children are not gathered around the green fir-tree to rejoice in the birth-night of Christ” …Then Winfried stood beside the chair of Gundhar … and told the story of Bethlehem; of the babe in the manger, of the shepherds on the hills, of the host of angels and their midnight song. All the people listened, charmed into stillness.”
The cedar fir tree is mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel 17:22-24:”Thus says the Lord God: ‘I will take also one of the highest branches of the high cedar … and will plant it on a high and prominent mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it; and it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a majestic cedar.
… Under it will dwell birds of every sort; in the shadow of its branches they will dwell. And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the Lord, have brought down the high tree and exalted the low tree.”
The evergreen, cedar fir tree became important to Germans as a remembrance of the defeat of the pagan god Thor by St. Boniface – the Apostle to the Germans. It stood as a symbol of the German population converting to Christianity.
The shape of the Christmas tree also convened a spiritual meaning. Similar to St. Nicholas defending the doctrine of the Trinity during the Arian Heresy, and St. Patrick using the three-leaf clover to teach the Trinity, St. Boniface used the triangular shape of the evergreen tree to explain the Trinity. Symbols were helpful in teaching illiterate people groups the concepts of Christian doctrine.
For centuries, Germans hung the triangular-shaped evergreen tree from the ceilings of their humble homes as a Christian symbol of the Trinity — “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)An article in Christianity Today (August 2008) comments: “Legend has it that he used the triangular shape of the Fir Tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The converted people began to revere the fir tree as God’s Tree … By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity.”
Of note, St. Boniface is the name of the largest French-speaking community in all of Western Canada. It is located in Winnipeg, the city for which author Alan Alexander Milne, in 1926, named his character Winnie-the-Pooh, who made friends wandering in a deep 100 acre forest.
LIGHTS ON THE TREE
Martin Luther (1483-1546) is credited with popularizing the tradition of putting of lights on the tree.
In 1520, Martin Luther was walking home on Christmas Eve under the cold December sky and noticed the countless stars illuminating the night.
Luther returned home, and to the delight of his wife and children, set up an evergreen tree placing a great number of small candles on its branches.
He set up a nativity creche scene under the tree so that the lights would appear as the stars above Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth.
An inspiration for the candles may have also come from the nearly 17 centuries of Jewish families placing Hanukkah candles in their homes at this time of year.
KRIS KRINGLEMartin Luther said that all gifts come from the Christ Child, which in old German was pronounced “Kris Kindl”(Christkindl), later pronounced “Kris Kringle.”
POINSETTIAAnother addition to Christmas decorations occurred in the early 1800s.In 1829, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico was Joel R. Poinsett.
He brought back a plant called “Flower of the Holy Night”(Flores de Nochebuena) which supposedly sprang up as a poor boy knelt to worship Jesus on Christmas Eve. Joel Poinsett planted it on his land in South Carolina where it began to be called “Poinsettia.”
OFFICIAL CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY
In 1836, State of Alabama became the first state to officially recognize Christmas Day as a holiday. Eventually, every state recognized Christmas Day as an official legal holiday.
CHRISTMAS TREE IN WINDSOR CASTLE
The German tradition came to England in 1848, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert published an engraving of the Royal Family in Windsor Castle, celebrating around a Christmas Tree.
FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE IN WHITE HOUSE
In 1856, President Franklin Pierce put up the first Christmas Tree in the White House.
DURING THE CIVIL WAR
In 1862, President and Mrs. Lincoln visited soldiers in Washington, D.C., hospitals on Christmas Day. On December 26, 1864, Lincoln gave a Christmas reception at the White House.
President Jimmy Carter, in a speech seeking U.N. sanctions against Iran, December 21, 1979, commented on Christmas during the Civil War: “Henry Longfellow wrote a Christmas carol in a time of crisis, the War Between the States, in 1864. Two verses of that carol (‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’) particularly express my thoughts and prayers and, I’m sure, those of our Nation in this time of challenge … I would like to quote from that poem:
‘And in despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.
Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor does he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.'”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow not only wrote popular books and carols, but he was also a professor at Harvard, where he taught a student named Phillips Brooks.
Phillips Brooks, born December 13, 1835, was the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts.
While on a trip to the Holy Land in 1865, Phillips Brooks wrote:”After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem …It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens.
… It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine …Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star.
… It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds …As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.'”
Phillips Brooks returned to Massachusetts in September of 1866 and wrote the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “O little town of Bethlehem! How still we see thee lie; Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, The everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years, Are met in thee tonight.”
In 1867, Mark Twain visited the Holy Land, as recorded in his book, Innocents Abroad, 1869:”In the starlight, Galilee has no boundaries but the broad compass of the heavens, and is a theatre meet for great events; meet for the birth of a religion able to save the world.”
Famous Negro Spiritual
Another famous Christmas carol is “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” one of the most popular Negro Spirituals. It was first published in 1865, after the Civil War ended slavery, in a collection complied by John Wesley Work, Jr. The song was recorded by notable singers, including Mahalia Jackson, who once stated: “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free … It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.”
“Go, tell it on the mountain, Over the hills and everywhere; Go, tell it on the mountain, That Jesus Christ is born. While shepherds kept their watching o’er silent flocks by night, Behold, throughout the heavens There shone a holy light.
Go, tell it on the mountain, Over the hills and everywhere; Go, tell it on the mountain, That Jesus Christ is born. The shepherds feared and trembled, When lo! above the earth, Rang out the angels chorus That hailed our Savior’s birth.
Go, tell it on the mountain, Over the hills and everywhere; Go, tell it on the mountain, That Jesus Christ is born. Down in a lowly manger The humble Christ was born And God sent us salvation That blessed Christmas morn.”
On Christmas Day, 1868, President Andrew Johnson proclaimed full pardon and amnesty for all who had participated in secession, without reserve or exception.
In addition to the states, in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a Bill making Christmas Day a National Federal Holiday.
In 1865, William Chtterton Dix wrote the Christmas carol, “What Child Is This”: What child is this, who, laid to rest On Mary’s lap, is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, While shepherds watch are keeping? (Chorus)
This, this is Christ the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing: Haste, haste to bring him laud, The Babe, the Son of Mary! Why lies he in such mean estate Where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian, fear for sinners here, The silent Word is pleading. (Chorus)
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh, Come peasant king to own Him, The King of kings, salvation brings, Let loving hearts enthrone Him. Raise, raise the song on high, The Virgin sings her lullaby: Joy, joy, for Christ is born, The Babe, the Son of Mary!
In 1885, “Away in a Manger” was published in a Lutheran Sunday school book. It was edited in 1892 by Charles H. Gabriel and set to music in 1895 by William J. Kirkpatrick:
Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky
Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay
The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes
I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
And stay by my side,
‘Til morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there.”
In 1880, Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, strung electric Christmas lights on his Menlo Park Laboratory.
In 1882, Edward Johnson, Edison’s partner in the Edison Illumination Company, assembled the first “string” of electric Christmas tree lights.
As of 1893, Christmas Day was recognized as an official holiday in every one of the U.S. States, and in all U.S. Territories.
In 1895, President Grover Cleveland placed the first “electrically- lit” Christmas tree in the White House.
NATIONAL CHRISTMAS TREE
In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge turned on the 3,000 electric lights on the first “National Christmas Tree,” located outside the White House on the ellipse of the south lawn.
Lighting the National Christmas Tree, December 24, 1952, President Harry S Truman stated:” Shepherds, in a field, heard angels singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’ …We turn to the old, old story of how ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ …
… Let us remember always to try to act … in the spirit of the Prince of Peace. He bore in His heart no hate and no malice – nothing but love for all mankind. We should … follow His example … Let us also pray for our enemies … Through Jesus Christ the world will yet be a better and a fairer place.”