You won’t find a single Christmas tree mentioned anywhere in the New Testament accounts of the first Advent (Matt 1:18–2:18; Luke 1:26–2:21). But decorating trees, even among Christians, is a mainstay of Christmas holiday tradition. What does it have to do with Advent? Henry van Dyke’s short story, “The First Christmas Tree” (1897), is a wonderful yet fictional account of how Christians might begin to think about their Christmas trees. However, this story is not completely fictional. Van Dyke based it on a historical account of the missionary activity of a non-fictional monk. We’ll return to van Dyke’s story in a bit, but first let’s get introduced to the real-life, historical character of Boniface.
Boniface (680–754) was born with the name Wynfrid to a prominent Anglo-Saxon family in early England. He became a Benedictine monk at a young age and soon became part of Christian missionary efforts to the northern European continent. After some early work there, he eventually returned in 718 where he would spend the rest of his life working as a missionary, bishop, and papal envoy until his martyrdom in 754. He is still considered the patron saint of Germany today, largely due to his helping to establish Christianity among the Germanic peoples on the Continent. The Latinized name Boniface was given to him by Pope Gregory II (715–731) upon his being commissioned for his missionary task.
The earliest historical record we have of Boniface’s life, The Life of St. Boniface, comes to us by the pen of a priest named Willibald written in 768, not all that long after the death of Boniface. The most famous event within this account is Boniface’s felling of a tree that seemed to have operated as a pagan focus of worship. Willibald recounts:
Some continued secretly, others openly, to offer sacrifices to trees and springs, to inspect the entrails of victims; some practiced divination, legerdemain, and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries, auspices, and other sacrificial rites; while others, of a more reasonable character, forsook all the profane practices of the Gentiles [i.e., pagans] and committed none of these crimes. With the counsel and advice of the latter persons, Boniface in their presence attempted to cut down, at a place called Gaesmere, a certain oak of extraordinary size called in the old tongue of the pagans the Oak of Jupiter. Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagans stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch. But when he had made a superficial cut, suddenly, the oak’s vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall. As if by the express will of God (for the brethren present had done nothing to cause it) the oak burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length. At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord. Thereupon the holy bishop took counsel with the brethren, built an oratory from the timber of the oak and dedicated it to Saint Peter the Apostle.
As should be clear, The Life of St. Boniface is probably more than a simple historical retelling. The work is fairly typical of medieval hagiographical writings in that it more than likely takes certain liberties, or “poetic license,” in presenting its subject matter in a fairly dramatic way. Nevertheless, the above account is probably based upon an actual historical event that Boniface did indeed perform.
This brings us to Henry van Dyke’s wonderful fictional account, “The First Christmas Tree.” Van Dyke’s story retells the above account, ingeniously and romantically, by making the pagans followers of the Norse gods, and setting the account on Christmas Eve night. On the way to the pagan tree, Van Dyke has Boniface tells his band of fellow Christian missionaries:
“Courage, brothers, and forward yet a little! The moon will light us presently, and the path is plain. Well know I that the journey is weary; and my own heart wearies also for the home in England, where those I love are keeping feast this Christmas-eve. But we have work to do before we feast tonight. For this is the Yuletide, and the heathen people of the forest are gathered at the thunder-oak of Geismer to worship their god, Thor. Strange things will be seen there, and deeds which make the soul black. But we are sent to lighten their darkness; and we will teach our kinsmen to keep a Christmas with such as the woodland has never known. Forward, then, and stiffen the feeble knees!”
The felling of the pagan tree by Boniface follows, more or less, Willibald’s account. But afterward, with the whole tribe having seemingly converted to Christ en masse, van Dyke adds the following, having Boniface take note of a small tree near the felled one:
“And here,” said he, as his eyes fell on a young fir-tree, standing straight and green, with its top pointing toward the stars, amid the divided ruins of the fallen oak, “here is the living tree, with no stain of blood upon it, that shall be the sign of your new worship. See how it points to the sky. Call it the tree of the Christ-child. Take it up and carry it to the chieftain’s hall. You shall go no more into the shadows of the forest to keep your feasts with secret rights of shame. You shall keep them at home, with laughter and songs and rites of love. The thunder-oak has fallen, and I think the day is coming when there shall not be a home in all Germany where the children are not gathered around the green fir-tree to rejoice in the birth-night of Christ.”
Boniface more than likely did fell a tree of heathen worship among pagans in the land that would eventually become Germany. And historians also believe that the tradition of decorating trees around Christmas came from Germany as well. But beyond those two facts, van Dyke’s story is just a creative and fictional retelling. But I do think van Dyke’s story is suggestive for Christians.
What connection can be made between Christmas trees and the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus into the world? I grew up in a Christian home that primarily decorated Christmas trees simply out of nostalgia and simple tradition. Nothing wrong with that. But I like the idea of seeing the Christmas tree in my house now as, van Dyke wrote, a “sign of [my] new worship. See how it points to the sky. Call it the tree of the Christ-child.” But we don’t need van Dyke’s story to help us make that connection for there once was a tree that was felled in order to make a cross for our Lord. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal 3:13 [referencing Deut. 21:23]).
Thus, regardless of the origin of the tradition, may our Christmas trees remind us of the primary purpose of Advent: that our Lord came to deliver us, from our sin, by dying on a tree.
James McGlothlin, PhD
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology
- Pray that we would each keep our hearts centered on Christ this Christmas.
- Pray that God would refresh our students, faculty, and staff during the Christmas break.
- Pray for Serious Joy: The 34th Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, which we will be relaunching in February 2022. Our theme is Gravity and Gladness in a Groaning World. Pray for both our preparation and the pastors who will be joining us.
- Pray whether God might be calling you to begin, reactivate, or increase your support of the Serious Joy Scholarships which allow our students to graduate and launch immediately into life and ministry without a burden of student loan debt.
 For further details of Boniface’s life, see Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 167–171; Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 179; and Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400–1000 (New York: Penguin, 2009), 175–186.
 From The Life of Saint Bonifae by Willibald, translated by George Washington Robinson (Cambridge, 1916), quoted here from URL = <https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/willibald-boniface.asp> on December 22, 2021.
 From “The First Christmas Tree” by Henry van Dyke (1897), quoted here from URL = < http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/FirstXmasTree.html> on December 22, 2021.
 A brief, popular account of the history of Christmas trees can be found at the following: URL = <https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees>. Cited on December 22, 2021.
 Besides being an author, Henry van Dyke (1852–1933) was a Presbyterian minister, a friend of Helen Keller, officiated the funeral of Mark Twain, and was once appointed to a public office by his friend and former classmate President Woodrow Wilson.