How the Christmas tree came to be is the stuff of legend, and while there is usually some truth in legends the details often vary. Therefore, without vouching for its historical accuracy, I give you the following, along with my own take on the symbolism of the Christmas tree:
St. Boniface was born in 672 A.D. in England, became a priest and ultimately a missionary to what is today Germany. The people living in that region were pagans, worshipping a fake-god named Thor. One of their most sacred sites was an ancient oak tree dedicated to Thor.
In 723 A.D., in an attempt to prove Thor was no god, Boniface called on Thor to strike him dead if he cut the tree. Boniface gave the tree one mighty blow and, as he did, a great wind blew and the tree was felled. When Thor didn’t kill Boniface, the people there converted to Christianity.
After felling the tree, Boniface noticed a fir tree had begun growing in the roots of the old oak tree. Seeing this as a symbol of the growth of Christianity in that region, Boniface encouraged the new believers to take the evergreen from the forest into their homes.
Now fast foward 800 years. Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer is said to have been walking home one Christmas eve observing the beauty of the stars twinkling between the branches of the snow-covered trees. He cut down one of the trees, took it home and decorated it with candles to recreate for his children the beauty he had observed on his walk home.
Later, in the 1840s the tradition made its way from Germany to the Royal Family, via Prince Albert. The decorated tree of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was publicized in Great Britain and the tradition spread. The Christmas tree then found its way to the United States through German immigrants.
There are as many explanations for the symbolism of the tree as for its origin. Rather than recite for you those various and conflicting explanations, I offer you mine.
The tree is a symbol of the cross (Gal. 3:13) and by its branches the inevitable growth of the kingdom of God on earth. (Matt. 13:31-32). The ornaments we hang are symbolic of the fullfilled promise that the kingdom of God will fill the earth such that every person, place and thing will nest in its branches or rest in its shade. (Matt. 13:31-32). The lights with which decorate the tree are symbolic of Truth. (John 3:19). And, whether topped with an angel heralding the birth of Christ (Luke 2:8-11), or a star marking for the magi the place of birth of the King of kings (Matt. 2:1-11), the Christmas tree is a Christian symbol through and through.
Even if it’s not historical, that’s the way I choose to see it. And since Christian symbols are supposed to point us to Christ, and I can remember this one, I’m sticking with it. GS