1717) Christmas Traditions (part two of three)

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Iraqi Christians and Christmas tree

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     (…continued)  One of the most universal of Christmas traditions is the Christmas tree.  Putting up a Christmas tree in a public area is much safer than putting up a nativity scene; but even the tree has in many places become controversial.  To make sure no one is offended, many have taken to calling them simply ‘holiday tree,’ but even that is now offensive to the hyper-sensitive.  Actually, the history of the Christmas tree indicates that it may have had its beginning in a similar controversy between Christian belief and opponents of that belief.

     The first reliable historical evidence of the use of Christmas trees can be found in Germany in the 1500’s.  In the early part of that century there is some informal mention in letters and personal papers of the use of a live tree as an indoor Christmas decoration.  In the year 1539 there is the first official record of a Christmas tree being set up in a church for Christmas worship. By late 1500’s, there are Christmas songs appearing that sing of the tree as a part of the traditional celebration.  

     In the first half of that century Martin Luther was alive and changing the world.  This has led to speculation that Luther was the one who invented the Christmas tree.  One story is that on a clear winter night Luther was walking outside and he saw the bright stars in the sky shining through the branches if an evergreen tree.  It was so beautiful that it gave him the idea to bring a tree into the house, and put some candles on it.  This makes for a nice story, but scholars, who have for centuries been going over Martin Luther’s life and writings with a fine tooth comb, have never found anything to indicate this legend is true.  But the rest of the story about the Christmas tree originating is Germany in the 1500’s is a matter of historical record.

     To go back any farther, however, we have to read between the lines of history a bit, along with getting the help of a few old legends which may not be reliable.  First, you have to know a little bit about St. Boniface.  Just as St. Patrick is the patron saint of Irish Christianity, St. Boniface is the patron saint of German Christianity.  Both Patrick and Boniface were born in England, and both left England to spend their lives as missionaries among the pagan barbarians; Patrick in Ireland and Boniface among the German peoples.  Boniface served in what is now Germany for forty years.  In his late 70’s he was still pushing the frontier, entering new areas to proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Christ Jesus.  Though the church was by then well established in some areas, he was still unknown, or, known and opposed, in many places.  In his 80th year, during a confirmation service, Boniface and everyone with him were massacred by a mob from a hostile tribe.

     Boniface had originally gained the respect of the German people by fearlessly tackling their heathen superstitions head-on.  The most famous story from his life was when he met with hostile tribesman at their most holy site, the Sacred Oak Tree of Thor.  Thor was their God, after whom our day Thursday was named.  Boniface threatened to cut down that sacred tree.  The tribesmen said they would kill him if he did.  Boniface said that if Thor was any kind of God he should be able to protect himself and his tree.  Boniface also told them that he trusted in the true God, and did not fear Thor, and was not afraid to cut the tree down.  The people could then watch and see whose God was greater.  Admiring his courageous willingness to take on who they believed to be God; and, quite sure that Thor himself would strike Boniface dead on the spot, the tribesman allowed the test to continue.  Boniface cut the tree down, and the people saw that Thor did not intervene.  Boniface then used the wood from that tree to build a chapel.  Having won their respect and admiration, the Germans were willing to hear him preach about his obviously more powerful God, and Boniface was off to a very good start.

     The basic outline of that story is pretty well established, but the details are told in differing ways in different accounts.  There is not much of a written record, and there is probably a bit of a blend of history and legend in the story as it is now told.

     The next part, the Christmas tree part of the story, has but the flimsiest historical evidence.   Legend has it that on the spot where Boniface cut down the Sacred Oak of Thor, an evergreen tree began to grow.  In his preaching, Boniface would point to that new tree, referring to the triangular shape of the tree as an illustration of the three persons of the Holy Trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One would not want to stake too much on the historical accuracy of that story, but even as an old legend, it may have influenced someone somewhere along the line to get the idea of using a tree to celebrate Christ’s birth.  Wherever the idea of the Christmas tree came from, it certainly did catch on.  (continued…)

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A challenge similar to the one made by St. Boniface:

I Kings 18:21-24  —  Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”  But the people said nothing.  Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.  Get two bulls for us.  Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord.  The god who answers by fire—he is God.”  Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

For the rest of the story, read all of I Kings 18 (spoiler alert: Elijah wins).

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BLESSING OF A CHRISTMAS TREE:

Dear God, two thousand years ago, you brought your son, Jesus into this world to teach us the power of love and sacrifice.  As we raise this tree, we remember his birth and the meaning of his life for us.  Bless this tree as a symbol of our celebration of Jesus’ birth and our gratitude for his sacrifice.  May the joy this tree brings and the gifts we place under it remind us of the many gifts you have given us.  We ask your blessings upon our loved ones, this day and always.  Amen.

–From Catholic On-line at: http://www.catholic.org