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Saint Boniface and the Origin of the Christmas Tree

The history of your favorite holiday decoration goes back 1400 years

St. Boniface (Image:


Today is the first Sunday of Advent (be sure to get your Advent wreaths), and for the next four Sundays of this Christmas season, my weekly “Three Minutes With the Saints” article will have a Christmas theme. We start things off with the origin of everyone’s favorite Christmas decoration, the Christmas tree, and its connection to a saint who lived 1400 years ago.

St. Boniface is known today as the Apostle of Germany because of his missionary work among the pagan Germanic tribes in the 8th century. But he was actually born in Anglo-Saxon England around the year 675, and his early years in the priesthood were spent there as a Benedictine monk. Then, in 719, he was appointed missionary bishop to Germany by Pope Gregory II and sent on his first missionary journey to the region.

Around the year 723, Boniface and a small group of monks were travelling in the region of Lower Hesse (part of modern-day Germany) when Boniface learned of a winter ritual held by a tribe at Geismar. This tribe worshiped the Norse god Thor (yes, the one the Marvel character is based on) and as part of their winter ritual they would sacrifice a child under an oak tree, known as the Thunder Oak, which was dedicated to Thor, god of Thunder.

Boniface and his party arrived at the oak just before the sacrifice took place, and he proceeded to chop down the oak tree. The pagan tribesmen were stunned, first that the tree could be felled at all, and then that Thor did not strike Boniface dead for his insolence. Boniface then preached the gospel message to them; having seen the power that backed up his words, many converted to Christianity.

What Boniface did next is the basis for one of our most cherished and widespread Christmas traditions. Past the now-fallen oak tree stood a small fir tree. Boniface pointed to the tree and said this:

“This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace. 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.”[1]

In the centuries that followed, the Catholic tradition of using an evergreen tree to celebrate the birth of Christ spread first across Germany and later across all of Europe. It was brought to the United States by German immigrants. So when you gather around your tree this Christmas, thank St. Boniface for giving us such a wonderful symbol with which to commemorate the arrival of the Christ Child.


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