Thursday 21 December 2017

Saint Columbanus and The First Christmas Tree

Henry van Dyke, The First Christmas Tree (1897)

I was somewhat amused to find the following article from a 1913 Australian newspaper attributing the origins of the Christmas tree to our own Saint Columbanus and his missionary labours among the Germanic peoples of early seventh-century Europe. Now I have certainly heard that the Christmas tree was introduced to these islands from Germany, but in the nineteenth century by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The writer below, however, confidently asserts that 'careful research' disproves a Germanic origin for the Christmas tree and that its origin is traced to an Irishman - Saint Columbanus. That may come as news to the English who claim that their own great missionary saint among the Germanic tribes, Saint Boniface, holds the honours. I have to admit that it comes as news to me too,  I doubt very much that any individual can claim to be the originator of the Christmas tree or that its origins can be traced in an unbroken line back to pre-Christian practices. I suspect Saint Columbanus might just say 'Bah, humbug!'.



Familiar us is the Christmas tree to us, and as dearly-beloved as it is to the people of the civilised world, it is surprising how very few there are who know of its origin, or its introduction into the celebration of the most beautiful and impressive festival of the year, legends there are in plenty, but few of them seem founded upon a basis of fact. Most of them, have been handed down - with the customary "warping from the original story"- from generation to generation. The use of the fir tree in the celebration of Christmas is usually believed to have originated in Germany. Careful research proves this to have been a fallacy. As are so many of the ancient customs and institutions, its origin as a Christmas adjunct is traced to an Irishman.

It was Saint Columbanus, who engaged in converting the pagans of Germany and Switzerland to Christianity, found them so firmly impressed with the sacredness of trees -especially the fir- that he conceived the idea of endowing them with an illustrative Christian meaning. To these people, the tree was an object of worship from which no amount of reasoning would convert them, and because of this, Saint Columbanus and his fellow missionaries found it an especially favourable symbol for their use.

As far back as the seventh century the fir tree, because of its evergreen verdure, was known in Christmas [Christian?] writings and pictures as a symbol of eternal life, while a legend, dating from the same period, represents an old man bearing a lighted tree, who entered every home at Christmas time and granted a single wish to each of the inmates.  The evolution of this beneficent old personage with his beautiful fir into our own Santa Claus and his gift-laden tree is easily traced.

THE CHRISTMAS TREE. (1913, December 24). Northern Star (Lismore, NSW: 1876 - 1954), p. 10. Retrieved December 20, 2017, from

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