A Christian Perspective
Nature writers tend to be big on the Winter Solstice – follow many of them on Twitter today and you’ll find it to be so. This one isn’t. All the big names are championing the day – Robert Mcfarlane says it’s more important for him than Christmas and New Year, but if, like me, you are not intending to celebrate this festival, perhaps you’ll connect better with my own reflection.
December 21st then, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere and the beginning of winter, according to the astronomical calendar. We’re locked into winter now until March 20th or 21st, following this definition, which might sound bleak. Yet there’s a reassurance in the continuity, and not least in the barrenness of a cold December day. Trees take on a new beauty when bereft of their leaves – from the stark and distant silhouettes of bare trees against a sunlit horizon, to familiar trees in our streets and gardens which, free of their canopies, mean it’s easier to spot the birds and identify them. Trees in winter are like friends we get to see on their off days, dressed down and adornment free; we know them better, and there’s an acceptance and a growing love for them, as they are around no matter what.
Yet there is, being brutally honest with myself, less to appreciate in nature this month. Quite frankly there’s not much to see on many a daytime walk. Perhaps that’s why we’re back to night-walking again under skies spilled from bottled ink, the cold air intensifying the experience, apparently sharpening the brightness of the stars, the aliveness of it, the shock, the wonder of it all.
You might say it’s because the village is lit for Christmas that we’re drawn out. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t true, but those beckoning lights do take our thoughts further, as of course they should. Christmas killjoys will point at our shining Christmas trees and ask, ‘What has that got to do with your message? You’ve stolen that idea from the pagans.’ Others would say we have repurposed rituals from the Winter Solstice, with our Christmas trees and bringing in of holly, ivy and mistletoe. Perhaps they are right. But from the Christian perspective even a belief system that rejects Jesus can be found revering what he has made, though worshipping the creation rather than letting it point back to the creator. And besides, evergreens symbolize endurance and eternal life, which is what we celebrate, after all.
Aside from the repurposing debate, there is actually good reason why Christians deck the trees and more. Sweep aside thoughts of Prince Albert’s introduction of German traditions to England, for it extends back much further than that. In fact, you can take your pick. One very old legend concerns St. Boniface; this is my favourite, and, I think, the most reliable. Tom Holland, in his Sunday Times bestseller Dominion, writes of Boniface that in 722 ‘he had been consecrated a bishop by the pope in Rome, and given a formal commission to convert the pagans east of the Rhine. Arriving in central Germany, he had headed for the furthermost limits of the Christian world. At Geisner, where Thuringia joined with the lands of the pagan Saxons, there stood a great oak, sacred to Thunor, a particularly mighty and fearsome god, whose hammer-blows could split mountains, and whose goat-drawn chariot made the whole earth shake.’ Holland tells us ‘Bonifice chopped it down. Then, with its timbers, he built a church.’ The legend goes, from other sources, that ‘a fir tree grew spontaneously in the oak’s place’ and many converted to Christianity; the following year ‘they hung decorations from the tree to celebrate what they now called Christmas rather than Winter Solstice.’ While these latter details aren’t found in Holland’s account, he does point to how mass conversion followed; the supposedly fearsome god Thunor didn’t obliterate Bonifice – “It’s just a tree, guys,” I imagine the people saying to each other. Holland states, ‘That he had not been struck by lightning, nor slain for his temerity by outraged locals, was widely noted. The bare stump of the oak served as proof of what the missionary had been claiming. Christ had triumped over Thunor. Pilgrims still travelled to Geisner; but now, when they did so, it was to worship in an oratory made from freshly sawn oaken planks.’
Another legend dates back to 1536, with Martin Luther strolling through a pine forest. It is said he glanced upwards and saw a multitude of stars between the branches, which left him awestruck. History Today writes, ‘This wondrous sight inspired him to set up a candle-lit fir tree in his house that Christmas to remind his children of the starry heavens from whence their Saviour came.’ This approach caught on, with ‘pyramids of wood’, ‘decorated…with evergreens and candles’ sometimes instead of trees.
Finally, in Scandinavia, St. Lucia’s Day is observed at the Winter Solstice. It celebrates the legend that St. Lucy would bring food to the persecuted Christians who were hiding in the Roman catacombs. It’s said she wore candles on her head so she could carry the food through the unlit tunnels.
We will probably never get to the bottom of these Christian legends, but the sustaining hope in a love that never sheds, withers or fails, will carry me through many a winter, both physical or metaphorical. If there are whispers of hope in what I see around me, I shall continue to take courage from them and to champion them, and I will not be put off just because someone else got there first. I’m reminded of a childhood squabble, when my brother came down to find my parents recording me sing nursery rhymes: ‘No, that’s my song! You can’t sing that!’ he spouted – he was outraged, but he had no more claim to that rhyme than me.
So let’s enjoy our Christmas traditions, find cheer in the lit trees, and perhaps ponder their origins. The skies still speak with lucidity as the stars shine in that untouchable canvas, causing us to wonder as generations have done at the brilliance behind them, and how once, a star shone far bigger and brighter than all the rest. I love, too, the boldness of Bonifice, and now I have learned of his actions, I will always remember him when we bring in our Christmas tree.
 Holland, Tom. Pp.188 – 190. Holland’s own sources include Willibald: The Life of Boniface and Boniface’s letters.