The Mythical Legend of Boniface and the Christmas Tree

In the U.S., my favorite holiday (Thanksgiving) is behind us. Now, the madness of the hyper-commercialized Christmas season is upon us. I confess, the overabundance of hype and secular slant that now dominates, make it difficult for me to enjoy Christmas. I’m most assuredly not joyless but mythical legends like that of St. Boniface and the Christmas tree don’t help.

Unfortunately, madness isn’t confined to secular myths about jolly overweight men in red suits and unbounded commercialism. In recent years, this false legend concerning the origin of the Christmas tree has been widely circulated. The internet era quickens and intensifies the production and repetition of manmade history, both in secular and religious spheres.

The Vatican first displayed a Christmas tree in 1982, a mere 40 years ago and within my own lifetime. I do not oppose Christmas trees. My family recently put our tree up and I’m glad the Vatican does so. This is one Christmas tradition I enjoy. What I am against is false legends that get unknowingly and uncritically consumed by the masses, especially when they are propagated by those who should know better, in support of their exclusivist religious tradition.

How pervasive is this myth?

It appears here on what is probably the most popular Catholic apologetics website (and one that has an over $10 million annual budget, as it seems, donors are paying to be entertained)…

It is believed and repeated by learned men, as can be seen in this short (1:30) video…

It is being taught to children as you can see here

It has even found it’s way into multiple Christian traditions, as can be seen here

What is the origin of this myth?

Like many tales, this legend has elements of historical truth (likely, anyway). The false legend is traced by Roger Pearse (here) to it’s origin in a short story: Henry van Dyke, “The Oak of Geismar”, published in Scribner’s Magazine, vol. 10, July-December (1891), p.681-7. A book of the apparently well-received story was subsequently published under the title: The First Christmas Tree: A Story of the Forest (1897). It is easily located on Google books and archive.org, as well.

How do these legends spread?

Clearly the internet easily facilitates the reproduction of stories like this. This is to be expected. Unfortunately, there is at least one article whose author is obviously aware of one of the fictional sources, yet still believes the core of the story is true. Of the story by Henry van Dyke, he says it has been “dramatized for story-telling.” Of course, there is at least one other site that uses that article as a source, omitting the mention of the story by van Dyke. I hate to think how many times these have been shared on social media. Is this an example of “Sacred Tradition” that has been preserved orally as part of God’s original deposit of faith?

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