We received a most interesting Christmas card from a family friend recently. (Our family friend doesn’t yet know about our religious affiliation…) The card had a lovely picture of a family bringing home a tree in a sleigh, and inside the card was a remarkable story about the origin of the Christmas tree:
“Today, the Christmas tree is a center of our festivities. Topped with a star, and glittering with lights and ornaments, it is a part of the beauty and meaning of the Christmas season.
“How did the Christmas tree come to play such an important part in the observance of Christmas?
“There is a legend that comes down to us from the early days of Christianity in England. One of those helping to spread Christianity among the Druids was a monk named Wilfred (later Saint Wilfred). One day, surrounded by a group of his converts, he struck down a huge Oak tree, which, in the Druid religion, was an object of worship.
“As the Oak tree fell to the earth, it split into four pieces, and from its center there grew a young Fir tree, pointing a green spire toward the sky. The crowd gazed in amazement.
“Wilfred let his axe drop, and turned to speak. ‘This little tree shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the Fir. It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are evergreen. See how it points towards the heavens.
“‘Let this be called the tree of the Christ child. Gather about it, not in the wilderness, but in your homes. There it will be surrounded with loving gifts and rites of kindness.’
“And to this day…” Blah, blah, blah.
This contains a number of errors of fact.
Now, let me make a couple of things clear:
- I do NOT blame Christianity for this atrocity against truth. Christianity, in its best form, is a religion of tolerance and love that anyone should be proud to be a part of.
- I do NOT blame our family friends for not checking up on the facts on their Christmas cards. Goodness knows there’s plenty of more pressing things to worry about this time of year.
But it’s a fact that narratives that conform to expectations, or serve to bolster preconceived notions, frequently win out over facts. This is such a case.
Saint Wilfred lived in the late 600’s AD, at which time England had been solidly Christian for hundreds of years. There was, in his time, a certain amount of tension between “Roman” Christianity and “Celtic” Christianity, but there was no question about the “Christian” part. It is doubtful that good Wilfred ever was fortunate enough to meet a Druid.
Evergreen plants such as pine and mistletoe were, in fact, prized by the Druids for precisely the reason that Wilfred states: they represent rebirth and eternal life, which was part of the Druidic teaching of reincarnation.
Oak trees, which are indeed sacred to Druids, do just as good a job pointing to the heavens as fir trees do. They also stand considerably taller, and have a strong connection with the heavens, as they are known for their ability to be struck multiple times by lightning and survive.
The Christmas tree was, in fact, first introduced to England in the early 19th century by the royal family, who brought it over from Germany. (The tree had been growing in popularity there since at least the late 16th century.)
There is one correct thing in the little tale, however. Christian missionaries were, indeed, known for wontonly felling innocent trees. Saint Boniface was particularly notorious for that, and it is probably from him that this story is derived. The Wikipedia article on him states unequivocally that it was he who started the custom of Christmas trees, but since there is no evidence of Christmas trees in Germany until nearly one thousand years later, and the part of the Wikipedia article which states this has rather poor grammar, I am disinclined to believe it.