Sometimes we have narrow escapes we don’t even know about. For fifth grade, I transferred to Saint Boniface, a parochial school in downtown Anaheim. My friends stayed at the local public school. Having to explain why our school was named the alien “Boniface” while theirs was named the sturdily American “John Marshall” was tough enough. Had I known he was born in England and christened Winfrid, I might have realized how lucky I was. At age 11, “Boniface” was tough; “Winfrid” would have been unlivable.
It was called St. Boniface because Anaheim had originally been a German town and St. Boniface was the patron saint of Germany. (He is also the patron saint of brewers, tailors and file cutters, only one of which clearly relates to Germany.) In 718, when Pope Gregory II sent him off to convert the pagan Germans, he renamed Winfrid Boniface, meaning the maker or doer of good.
So the do-gooder went off to Germany where he discovered that the Germans worshipped, of all things, trees. Boniface followed the tried and true tradition of the Church: he attacked their beliefs and hijacked their traditions.
According to legend, at least, Boniface heard there was a famous oak, consecrated to the god Thor, at Geismar. Boniface announced he was going to challenge this false god on such-and-such a date, thereby assuring a good crowd. On the appointed day, Boniface declared that if Thor was really a god and if this was his tree, Boniface would clearly be struck down by one of Thor’s thunderbolts if he harmed the tree. He then proceeded to cut down the oak and, not being struck down, made lots of converts to Christianity. (One would think that would practically guarantee his becoming the patron saint of lumberjacks and foresters, but he isn’t. That is St. Giles. For reasons I am unable to explain, St. Giles is also the patron of cripples and blacksmiths. And he is invoked against insanity, epilepsy, and sterility in women. Christianity can be very odd.)
Next, the good Boniface coopted the whole pagan tree thing by using the fir tree’s shape as a symbol for the trinity. (Being an evergreen, it is also a convenient symbol for eternal life.) This, you see, allowed the good pagan converts to be Christian while retaining their special feelings about trees. They knew why the churches were really decorated with fir boughs, especially around the winter solstice. The evergreens might celebrate the Christ Child and his gift of eternal life, but they also gave the old pagan promise that spring’s life would follow winter.
Absorbing the pagan symbols and holidays into the Christian church certainly eased the way for the new converts. But it did more than that. It allowed many pagan beliefs to reside more or less happily side by side with the new Christian ideas. And no one knows how many unregenerate pagans attended the services, ignoring the Christian portions entirely, directing all their devotion to their ancient icons.
Perhaps some of those covert pagans survived in Germany. And perhaps they cherished the desire to return the favor of their own conversion. At any rate, when the Stuart line finally died out and the British summoned the Hanoverian Georges to be kings, the Germans came bearing their Christmas evergreen tree along with them. (By this time it had become a full-fledged Christmas tree, decorated with silver tinsel, candles, and strings of beads.)
This first pagan re-invasion failed. The problem was not necessarily in the message; it was certainly in the messengers. The British found the royal Hanoverians to be fat, rude, arrogant, and hardly given to domestic virtues. Therefore they refused to let them set the fashion in much of anything, and certainly not in anything as central as a religious holiday.
However, the pagans were nothing if not persistent. A century and a half later they staged a second re-invasion of Britain…and with a more attractive messenger. Finding themselves being reigned over by a dangerously flighty young Hanoverian girl, the British imported a German princeling named Franz Albrecht August Karl Emanuel, Prinz von Saxe-Coburg und Gotha to marry her and bring a little gravity into the court.
They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The young prince, whom we know as Prince Albert, was so earnest, virtuous, and moral and he so revamped his wife that it is hard to remember that anyone ever considered his wife, Queen Victoria, as “flighty.”
True, where the British aristocracy had found the Hanoverian monarchs to be fat, rude, and arrogant, they saw Albert as slim, rude, and arrogant. (While this is hardly fair to Albert, it is certainly a fact that he was consciously virtuous and a bit of a prig.) The biggest difference in Albert was that, although most of the Hanoverians were marital catastrophes, Victoria and Albert were the very image of domestic bliss. If the aristocracy declined to model themselves after Victoria and Albert, the new middle class saw them as the ideal married couple.
Soon the British popular press was full of lithographs of the happy couple, usually surrounded with the evidence of their domestic happiness: their ever-growing brood of children. At Christmas, they regularly showed the royal family surrounding a strange new import, a heavily decorated evergreen tree. It was reported that Albert had brought it as a reminder of the Christmases of his childhood.
This time, the pagan re-invasion was a howling success. It is hard to imagine that the most rabid heathen could have dreamed that soon every good middle-class home would have its own handsomely decorated shrine to the old gods. Still less is it likely that they could have imagined that the new tradition would jump right across the Atlantic.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the American colonies had gotten over their resentment about all those injuries that led to the Revolution. In its place, they had adopted a rigidly snobbish belief that their society of the Common Man was inherently superior to the Old World, burdened as it was with its useless aristocracy. While showing a certain slavish awe to the actual visiting aristocrats, they steadfastly refused to make them their models for social behavior.
Until, that is, they encountered Victoria and Albert.
This new royal couple might have been designed to appeal to America. Firmly domestic, sober, religious and given to understated modesty in their dress, the royal couple appealed to the whole of Puritan-influenced American society as much as it did to the British middle class. Lithographs of the royal couple appeared in American newspapers. Articles reported their comings and goings and never failed to mention the arrival of the latest addition to the royal family.
So when those lithographs of the family happily gathered around their Christmas tree appeared in Britain, they also appeared in America. Soon there was a growing demand among the city-dwellers of America for their own fir trees to decorate with candles. Soon, too, there was a demand for silver tinsel and candy decorations to put on the trees. (As part of the package, America also adopted the new fashion for exchanging Sir Henry Cole’s invention of the Christmas card.)
Now I certainly don’t want anyone to think that I actually believe that our Christmas Tree is really some atavistic revival of German paganism. How on earth could something as primitive as the worship of vegetation possibly survive for thousands of years? The very idea is just ridiculous.
Still, it would do a lot to explain all those tree huggers…