Have you ever wondered where the tradition of Christmas trees started? Legends and folk-tales, my friends. The greatest legend of them all tells of a man called ‘Beautiful Face’, or Boniface, to his friends. A son of Devon, Boniface was a Christian missionary, a Bishop who travelled to the forests of Bavaria - spreading the good news of Jesus, the Light of all the world.
In the darkness of the Forest, he came across a massive oak tree. From its branches were hanging terrible things….bones, and skulls, including even the skulls of infants. Boniface searched nearby, and came across a tribe of pagans, the People of the Tree. They believed that something so mighty, the biggest thing in their entire world, must contain a great and mighty power. They sacrificed themselves, and even their children to this tree-god, in the desperate hope of pleasing it...lest it should destroy them all. Fear and superstition drove them to madness.
Boniface begged the tribe to understand that the True God, would never ask of them such a thing. In fact, he explained, the True God sent his own child to die for us! He would never ask us to harm one of our children for him. But the People of the Tree were not convinced. Their fear was too great.
So, that night, while the Tribe was asleep, Boniface took a mighty axe, and felled the great oak to the ground. In the morning, the Tribe gathered around, terrified, waiting for the god of the tree to smite Boniface for his act. But nothing happened...and gradually, the light of truth dawned in the minds of the Tribe. They saw the truth of Boniface’s words, and began to worship Jesus Christ.
What we have just heard is but one re-telling of the legend of the Christmas tree. It comes from the 8th century (though I confess that most of the details were made up by me!). Nevertheless, it is one of the earliest mentions of the idea of trees and Christmas.
Some scholars have suggested that there is a connection between Christmas trees and pagan religions. The Old Norse festival of Yule is especially referenced – although any written evidence for the Yule-tree among old Viking records is pretty scant.
The Christmas Tree has a long history, therefore – and mainly a Christian one. In the story we heard just now, I suggested that lights in the branches of the tree were reminders of Christ the Light of the world. But there are many other Christian references to be explored…
For example - baubles are references to the fruit of the garden of Eden – the ‘apple’ which Eve ate, and by which disobedience towards God came into the world. But these ‘apples’ are balanced by many other symbols of light and hope. The star on the top of the tree points to the Star of Bethlehem. Or if you put a ‘fairy’ on your tree – you are actually referencing the angels who announced the birth of Christ. Presents, tied to the tree, are reminders of God’s great gift to the world – in the form of his son. The very shape of the tree is a symbol…viewed in two dimensions, the tree forms a triangle, and is a reminder of the Trinity. The fact that Christmas trees are ever-green is a reminder of the never-ending love of God (as good old St Boniface suggested in my story). The fact that the tree is a tree at all is a reminder that Jesus Christ was hung on a cross of wood, or a ‘tree’ as it is sometimes described.
In many ways, therefore, the Christmas tree is a subversive thing. It encompasses the whole story of God’s rescue of humanity. From the Fall, in the garden of Eden, to the gift of Christ and his death on the tree, to the hope that the teachings of Jesus will be light to a dying world, each tree represents God’s story. And many people don’t know it! In most homes, and in most public squares around the world, trees are brought in. A blessing from God is carried into our lives, without us even being aware that God is at work.
And isn’t that just like God? As the carol says, ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given’. It is precisely in quietness and peace, in silent but never-ending love, that God comes to us.
We find him, surprisingly, in a stable in Bethlehem. But we also find him, surprisingly in the gift of a home to a homeless family, or in the gift of welcome and sustenance to a refugee. We find him in the quiet march of scientific discovery, and in the gift of caring medicine which we’ve seen so much this year. We find him in the phone-call to the lonely person, isolated by COVID or their own frailty. We find him in the work of thousands of charities and volunteers who place the needs of others above their own. We find him in the gift of time and learning which teachers give to their students.
Just as the Christmas tree has crept into our homes, we find that God too has crept into our lives. And “where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in”.