TREE OF LIFE, LOVE, PEACE
Many legends and old traditions concerning the Christmas tree date
back to very ancient times, but historical documentation of its origins
as the tree we know and decorate today only appeared in recent
There is no doubt, however, that legends and traditions show the
convergence of many customs, some born outside the Christian culture and
others strictly Christian. We will consider here some of the most
important ones that were forerunners of the Christmas tree.
Since very ancient times even primitive people would take evergreen
plants and flowers into their huts, seeing in them a magical or
religious significance. The Greeks and Romans decorated their dwellings
with ivy. The Celts and Scandinavians preferred mistletoe, but many
other evergreen plants such as holly, butcher's broom, laurel and
branches of pine or fir were considered to have magical or medicinal
powers that would ward off illness. This belief was found especially
among the inhabitants of the northern regions with cold climates and
long, dark winters; it was almost as if these plants revived thoughts of
the coming spring while everything around them lay dormant. Naturally
enough, temples were built to the "goddess Flora".
St Boniface, eighth-century Bishop
An interesting tradition, part history, part legend and very popular
in Germany, claims that the Christmas tree dates back to the eighth
century. This legend is based on a historical figure, St Boniface, and
even a historical event, the destruction of Odin's oak. St Boniface
(675-754) was the English Bishop Winfrid who went to Germany in the
eighth century, to Hesse to be precise, to preach the Christian faith as
a missionary from the Church of Rome. After a period of apparently
successful Gospel preaching, Boniface went to Rome to confer with Pope
Gregory II (715-731). After a long absence, he returned to Geismar,
Germany, for Christmas 723, and felt personally offended on discovering
that the Germans had reverted to their former idolatry of pagan
divinities and were preparing to celebrate the winter solstice by
sacrificing a young man under Odin's sacred oak tree. Fired by holy
anger, as was Moses by the golden calf, Bishop Boniface took up an axe
and dared to cut down the oak. This courageous, historically documented
act meant the triumph of Christianity in Germany over the pagan
All this is historically documented. The rest belongs to the legend
which tells how, at the first blow of the axe, a strong gust of wind
instantly brought down the tree. The astounded Germans fearfully
recognized the hand of God in this event and humbly asked Boniface how
they should celebrate Christmas. The Bishop, the legend continues,
pointed to a small fir tree that had miraculously remained upright and
intact beside the debris and broken branches of the fallen oak. Boniface
was familiar with the popular custom of taking an evergreen plant into
the house in winter and asked everyone to take home a fir tree. This
tree signifies peace, and as an evergreen it also symbolizes
immortality; with its top pointing upwards, it additionally indicates
heaven, the dwelling place of God.
Another legend is constituted by a famous hawthorn called the "Holy
Thorn" that was found at Glastonbury Abbey in England and flowers at
Christmas time. It was venerated as a "sacred relic" because a legend
claims that it derived from a sprig that came from Jesus' crown of
The legendary hawthorn survived for many centuries and was honoured
sacred relic. This flowering bush made a contribution of its own to the
idea of a tree associated with the Christmas feast day.
The choice of the date
The real date of Jesus' birth, from the historical viewpoint, lies
concealed beneath a veil of uncertainty as regards Roman history, the
imperial census of that time and research in the subsequent centuries.
The scholar Abbot Giuseppe Ricciotti, author of the voluminous Vita
Cristo (cf. Vatican Polyglot Press, 1940), after careful research on
the events of the time concludes: "We know neither the day nor the year
of Jesus' birth with absolute certainty" (p. 182).
The date of 25 December, as is well known, was chosen by the Church
of Rome in the fourth century. This date in pagan Rome was dedicated to
the Sun god, because it is from this day that the days begin gradually
to grow longer until summer.
This feast was also lively and joyful because it was combined with
the Saturnalia (17-24 December) and the calends of January (1 January)
that ushered in the new
year. Although Christianity had already been affirmed in Rome by an
Edict of Constantine, the myth of Mithras who venerated the Sun god was
still widespread, especially among soldiers. The abovementioned
festivities, centred on 25 December, were deeply rooted in popular
This gave the Church of Rome the idea of impressing a Christian
religious significance on the day by replacing the Sun god with the true
Son of Justice, Jesus Christ, choosing it as the day on which to
celebrate his birth. St John the Evangelist presents Jesus as "the true
light that enlightens every man... the light [that] shines in the
darkness" (cf. Jn
Hence, the Church of Rome established 25 December as the day of the
Nativity of Jesus. Today, only a few Eastern Orthodox Churches hold that
6 January should be celebrated as the date of Jesus' birth, but
throughout the world the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is celebrated
on 25 December.
Medieval religious plays
The most important clue to the origin of the Christmas tree as we
know it comes from the mystery and miracle plays, and in particular from
the Tree of Good and Evil in the earthly Paradise.
These plays were first performed in the late Middle Ages and their
purpose was to teach religion. It should be remembered that people in
general were illiterate. To spread and to keep the faith alive, to make
known the Sacred Scriptures, preaching was essential.
It was thought that acting out Bible and Gospel episodes for the humbler
classes would facilitate this task. As a rule, these religious plays
were enacted for the celebration of an episode or of the saint whom they
featured, and they became popular throughout Europe. A famous play was
the performance put on for holy Christmas, celebrated on 25 December.
On Christmas Eve, 24 December, Adam and Eve would be commemorated
with the highly popular episode of the Tree of the earthly Paradise;
they would tower on the stage together with the devil, disguised as a
serpent, Eve picking an apple and Adam eating it. Original sin, expiated
by Jesus born on the 25th, was symbolized on the night of 24 December.
The tree ought to have been an apple tree, but since an apple tree would
have been inappropriate in winter, a fir tree was set on the stage and
some apples put on its branches or, to symbolize the future coming of
Redemption, wafers prepared with crushed biscuits in special moulds that
were symbols of the Eucharistic presence of Jesus, as well as sweets and
gifts for children.
Even when the religious tableaux were abandoned, the Tree of Paradise
continued to be associated with Christmas in many people's minds.
Between history and literature
According to Prof. Fabio Fabiani, a learned scholar as well as an
excellent doctor, in his little book La storia dell'albero di Natale
(The Story of the Christmas Tree), "it was only after the 18th century
that the Christmas tree was featured in literature". These are his most
significant citations: "The first important author to mention the
Christmas tree was Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) in his famous
Die Leiden des jungen Werther, published in 1774. Towards the end of
his novel, his heroine, Lotte, is wrapping presents for the little ones
on 20 December. It is the Sunday before Christmas and Werther, who pays
her a visit, speaks '...of the happy time when the unexpected opening of
a door, revealing the tree decorated all over with candles, sweetmeats
and apples, can still enfold a person in joyful ecstasy'". Johann
Christoph Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) also speaks in his works of a
There is no doubt that in this period fir trees decorated with lights
must have been widely used throughout Germany, or at least in the big
cities, and in 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the great English poet who
wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, having spent Christmas in
Germany, described in a letter to a friend in England the enchanting
beauty of many candlelit trees that he had seen in houses. In 1848,
Fedor Dostoyevsky published in the September issue of Otécestvennye
Zapiski his tale "The Christmas Tree". In 1850, Charles Dickens
wrote in a magazine of the marvels of the "pretty German toy",
brilliantly illuminated by myriads of tiny candles.
To the works of these famous writers, Prof. Fabiani also adds The
Grandmother by Bozena Nemcova, published in Paris in 1855, in which
the Christmas tree in Czechoslovakia is mentioned, as well as Hans
Christian Andersen's The Fir Tree and The Little Match Girl.
The birth of the Christmas tree
The most widespread opinion among scholars is that the Christmas tree
as we know it today, decorated and lit with lights, derived from the
tree in the earthly Paradise. As its birth place, the left bank of the
Rhine is indicated, and especially Alsace. One of the earliest
testimonies of this are the registers of the town of Schlettstadt
(1521), in which special protection was prescribed for forests on the
days prior to Christmas; forest rangers were responsible for punishing
anyone who cut down a tree to decorate his house.
Another document informs us that in Strasbourg, the capital of
Alsace, fir trees were sold in the market, to be taken home and
From Alsace, the tradition of the Christmas tree spread across
Germany and the whole of Europe, and soon even arrived in North America.
Italy was one of the last countries to accept the Christmas tree,
partly because of a rather widespread rumour that the use of Christmas
trees was a Protestant practice and should thus be replaced by the crib.
However, in Catholic Austria this rumour
declared to be unfounded even by the well-known Protestant theologian,
Oscar Cullmann, in one of his writings on the Christmas tree
was not accepted, since Trent and the Venetian regions were influenced
by Austrian customs as well as the availability of fir trees.
The tree in St Peter's Square
Pope Paul VI, of venerable memory, began the tradition of setting up
a massive Christmas tree beside the grand crib in St Peter's Square, a
gift each year from a different nation.
Referring to St Boniface's words, we can conclude that the great tree
lit by numerous tiny lights can symbolize many Christian values.
In the days of yore, the primitive people used the wood of fir trees
to build their huts in which they lived peacefully. Today, The Christmas
tree can be the symbol of the peace that Jesus brought, that must be
re-established between God and human beings. Because it is evergreen, it
is the symbol of that immortality which Jesus said he possessed and
would bring to us: "I am the life; those who believe in me even if they
die will live". The tree lit by little lights is the symbol of the light
that Jesus brought to the world with his birth: "He was the light that
shines in the darkness... and enlightens every man..." (cf. Jn 1:4-14).
And finally, the fir tree, with its tip pointing to heaven, indicates
God's presence to us and the place where we are all awaited.
All this endows the Christmas tree, in harmony with the crib, with
the religious and Christian significance of salvation that the Son of
God brought to the whole world by his humble birth.