The everlasting evergreen: 
The history and symbolism of the Christmas tree

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The Season of Christmas

Presents have been opened, abundant amounts of eggnog have been consumed, and laughter and Christmas joy have filled the air. The Catholic Church celebrates this blessed season from December 24 (Christmas Eve) until January 12 (the Baptism of Our Lord). It is spread out so we can fully enter into the mystery and rejoicing of Christ’s birth and hope for His second coming. 

Sadly, in the streets of many neighborhoods lie abandoned Christmas trees, doomed to their fate of being collected by the town trash men and turned into lumber or mulch. What an unfortunate and early end for the sweet-smelling and elegant tree because the Christmas season is not over, it has just begun! 

It is a bit perplexing that some people spend so much time picking out the perfect Christmas tree but then throw it out just a couple of days after Christmas day. What is the significance of the Christmas tree after all? Is it just a secular symbol and a landmark, so kids know where to go to open their presents? It may come as a surprise, but the Christmas tree has an incredibly rich Catholic tradition. It was founded by a fearless saint, is filled with Christian symbolism, and also represents the Church as a unique whole.

The Courageous Oak-Crusher

About the year 723, St. Boniface, an English monk, bishop, and martyr, was sent with some companions to evangelize Germany and convert many from worshiping false gods. On Christmas Eve night, St. Boniface and his partners approached the village in Geismar, where the community was preparing to offer an annual human sacrifice (typically a child) to their pagan thunder-god Thor (yes, that Thor!). This offering took place at the base of an impressive oak tree called the “Thunder Oak.” As the story goes, just as a young boy was about to be killed by a man, St. Boniface interfered, using his staff to block the blow of the hammer (yes, that hammer!), splitting it into two pieces. The stunned crowd was in awe that he wasn’t struck down by lightning from Thor.

St. Boniface then chopped down the “Thunder Oak” with an ax — legend says in one swing with the help of a providential gust of wind — and when it fell, a small, humble fir tree (Christmas tree) came into view behind it, miraculously not damaged by the wind. He then declared that it would be the new symbol for the recently-converted people, saying:

“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]

The Tree of Life

St. Boniface proclaimed that these meek and beautiful evergreen fir trees should be brought into the homes of the newly-converted Christians. It would be a sign of taking Christ — Who was humbly born in a manger — into their hearts, where they can adore Him and receive His infinite gifts of mercy and peace. 

He also saw the evergreen tree as a symbol for eternal life, as they stay green all year round and do not die in the winter as other trees do. Jesus, the eternal and ultimate Sacrifice, overcame death by His Resurrection and gives all believers hope for eternal life. It was from a tree that sin came into the world — through Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — and on a tree that sin was destroyed —Christ, the Tree of Life, died on a wooden cross. 

Lastly, evergreen trees, such as frankincense and myrrh trees produce resin, which is like a sap-like gum that can be made into incense. Incense is used in Mass to glorify God as a symbol of prayers rising to Heaven.

The Christmas Tree as a Symbol of the Church

The entire body of the Catholic Church, in a way, resembles a Christmas tree. Our physical churches, like the tree, are stable, beautiful, and tall, with spires pointing us to God. Traditionally, a star ornament is placed at the peak of a Christmas tree to remind us of the star of Bethlehem, which led the shepherds and the Magi to the Child Jesus. For us, the Sacraments — especially the Eucharist — are our guiding lamps towards Heaven. And inside of every Catholic Church, one’s eyes are drawn to the ever-glowing light of the candle next to the Tabernacle, where Jesus humbly lies as King, waiting to be adored. 

We, as individual members, cling to Christ, the head, like the multitude of different kinds of decorations on the Christmas tree. On their own, the ornaments are separate, but when united together, they become part of a beautiful whole. So too, the members of Christ’s Church are diverse but unified in Christ.

Lastly, all Catholics are deeply connected, like a string of lights on a Christmas tree. Anyone who has ever put lights on a tree knows that if one bulb burns out, then often the whole strand goes off. Our actions — good or bad —  affect all members of the Church, positively and negatively. 

This Christmas season, we bring Christ, the long-awaited and Eternal Evergreen, into our homes. May we remain with Jesus and live a life that reflects His love so that by our actions, we may transmit a fragrant, scent of joy. Then we will be upright and firm — like a radiant Christmas tree — in our faith, not blown down by the wind of the world or thrown to the side of the curb. 

[1]Information from: https://catholicexchange.com/st-boniface-and-the-christmas-tree and https://mtncatholic.com/2014/12/23/thor-stboniface-and-the-origin-of-the-christmas-tree/; Father William P. Saunders “The Christmas Tree,” Straight Answers article in the Arlington Catholic Herald.

Anchor columnist John Garabedian is a seminarian studying for the Diocese of Fall River, and is a big Red Sox and Patriots fan. Being a former college baseball player and graphic designer, he enjoys using athletics and art as a way to lead people to God and the Catholic faith.


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