Saint Boniface, an English missionary and often called the “Apostle of Germany,” in the year 722, came upon a group of men who were about to cut down a huge oak tree. The purpose of the men cutting down the tree was to create a stake in which a human sacrifice could be offered to a pagan god. As the story goes, Saint Boniface felled the massive tree with one single blow and as the tree split, a beautiful young fir tree springs from the centre, its branches pointing upward to Heaven.
Boniface told the people that this tree was indeed a holy tree, the tree of the Christ Child and a symbol of Christ’s promise of eternal life. He then instructed the people to carry the evergreen from the forest into their homes and to surround the tree with gifts that symbolized love and kindness. Boniface, a priest, was martyred at the age of 75 but his gift of the Christmas tree continues today. As the years passed the fir trees were decorated with apples and small white wafers that represented the Holy Eucharist. These wafers were later replaced by small pieces of pastry that were cut into the shapes of stars, angels, hearts, flowers and bells. Eventually other cookies were introduces bearing the shapes of men, birds and other animals.
During the Middle Ages around the 11th century, religious theatre was born and one of the most popular plays was the German mystery play that dealt with the fall from grace of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise. In the play, the tree represented the Garden of Eden and was adorned with apples. The dual nature of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Discernment of Good and Evil were represented as both of them were present in Paradise. The play ended with the prophecy of the coming of Jesus and for this reason, the play was often enacted during the season of Advent.
The main part of the scenery, the “Paradeisbaum” of the Paradise Tree became a popular object and was often set up in churches and eventually found its way into private homes. It became a symbol of the Saviour and since it represented not only Paradise and our fall from grace, but also the promise of eternal salvation, it was hung not only with apples but also with bread or wafers (symbolizing the Holy Eucharist) and sweets (symbolizing the sweetness of redemption). In sections of Bavaria today, fir branches and little trees that are decorated with lights, tinsel and apples are still called “Paradeis.”
The German and English immigrants brought the Paradise Tree or Christmas Tree to Canada, the United States and South and Central America. Fruits, nuts, flowers and lighted candles adorned the early Christmas trees but will all of the decorations many of the trees sagged and drooped due to the weight of the decorations. Ingenuity prevailed as German glassblowers began to produce lightweight glass balls and decorations to replace the heavier natural decorations. The lights and the decorations were symbols of the joy and the light of Christmas and at the top of the tree was placed a star that was symbolic of the “Star in the East” that led the Wise Men to the manager. Another legend surrounds the use of the Pine Tree as the Christmas tree. When the Holy Family was pursued by the soldiers of Herod, many plants offered them shelter. When Mary was too weary to travel any longer the family stopped at the edge of the forest to rest. A gnarled and withered old pine tree that had grown hollow from it s years invited the family to rest within its trunk. When the Holy Family did so, the branches closed around them and hid them from the soldiers who sought their presence. When the soldiers had passed the Holy Family left and when they did the Christ Child blessed the pine tree and the imprint of the Infant Jesus’ hand was left forever in the fruit of the tree, the pine cone. If a pine cone is cut lengthwise, the little hand of Jesus can still be seen.
When you and your families place and decorate your tree this year you might want to thank God for the gift of Boniface and all the martyrs as well as thanking God for the true meaning of the Christmas tree: eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.