In the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire, when the foundations of medieval Europe were being laid, the Irish had something to contribute that was new and lasting.had something to contribute that was new and lasting. Medieval Europe grew out of the final phase of Late Antiquity, in the critical years around 400, during which Christianity came to Ireland from her Celtic neighbours. The integration of Christianity into Irish society resulted in a national culture which was as extraordinary as it was unique. Early Christian Ireland, in turn, was for centuries an unrivalled spiritual power in continental Europe.

All over Western Christendom the traces of Irish monks and scholars bear witness to Ireland's historic civilizing mission. The last ten years have seen a revolution in our understanding of the early Church in Celtic lands. The scholarship of that decade has opened up new perspectives on the origins and growth of Celtic Christianity. The distinctive features of that Christianity are now being seen in a new light, and the role of the churches in Ireland and in the neighbouring countries is now in the process of re-evaluation. It is this Christianity in Ireland and in other Celtic countries, and the role of Celtic missionaries on the continent..

The early years of the eighth century - the years when the invasions of the Avars and the Lombards had been followed by the conquests of the Arabs, were indeed the darkest age of Europe. Outside the mutilated empire of Byzantium, European civilization had by then shrunk to its smallest cell. It was the cell created by Benedict in the days of Theodoric, the Gothic king of Italy...

By the year 700 European learning had fled to the bogs of Ireland or the wild coasts of Northumbria. It was in the monasteries of Ireland that fugitive scholars preserved a knowledge of the Latin and even of the Greek classics...And it was from the monasteries of Ireland and England, in the eighth and ninth centuries, that English and Irish fugitives would return to a devastated Europe; men like the Englishmen St. Boniface, who would convert the Germans to Christianity...Some of these fugitives had fled from England and Ireland before the advance of yet another race of mobile nomads who were now descending on the helpless relics of the Western Empire: the Viking sea-nomads who, from the end of the eighth century, came every year to burn and loot the monasteries on the seashore or up the rivers. From Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Rise of Christian Europe, 89-90.

Medieval Sourcebook: St. Boniface and the Conversion of Germany
The conversion of Germany to Christianity took place in a number of stages. Some of the later ones, in which Charlemagne forcibly baptized whole peoples were violent. Earlier, however, Anglo-Saxon monks, working in close association with the papacy, spread Christianity. Among them was St. Boniface (ca. 680-755), from Devon, who played a major part in the conversion of Germany. These documents illustrate aspects of the both the work of conversion and activism of the popes.

Willibald: Life of Boniface
Miracles were an important aid in converting people from pagan gods. Many of the people of Hesse were converted [by Boniface] to the Catholic faith and confirmed by the grace of the spirit: and they received the laying on of hands. But some there were, not yet strong of soul, who refused to accept wholly the teachings of the true faith. Some men sacrificed secretly, some even openly, to trees and springs. Some secretly practiced divining, soothsaying, and incantations, and some openly. But others, who were of sounder mind, cast aside all heathen profanation and did none of these things, and it was with the advice and consent of these men that Boniface sought to fell a tree of great size, at Geismar, and called, in the ancient language of the region, the oak of Thor.

The man of God was surrounded by the servants of God. When he would cut down the tree, behold a great throng of pagans who were there cursed him bitterly among themselves because he was the enemy of their gods. And when he had cut into the trunk a little way, a breeze sent by God stirred overhead, and suddenly the branchtop of the tree was broken off, and the oak in all its huge bulk fell to the ground. And it was broken into four huge sections without any effort of the brethren who stood by. When the pagans who had cursed did see this, they left off cursing and, believing, blessed God. Then the most holy priest took counsel with the brethren: and he built from the wood of the tree an oratory, and dedicated it to the holy apostle Peter.

From James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History: Vol. I: (Boston:: Ginn and co., 1904): "Letter of Gregory II and Oath of Boniface," 105-106, "Willibald's Life of Boniface," pp. 106-107.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. (c) Paul Halsall Feb 1996

he custom of a Christmas tree, undecorated, is believed to have begun in Germany, in the first half of the 700s. The earliest story relates how British monk and missionary St. Boniface (born Winfrid in A.D. 680) was preaching a sermon on the Nativity to a tribe of Germanic druids outside the town of Geismar. To convince the idolaters that the oak tree was not sacred and inviolable, the "Apostle of Germany" felled one on the spot. Toppling, it crushed every shrub in its path except for a small fir sapling.

A chance event can lend itself to numerous interpretations, and legend has it that Boniface, attempting to win converts, interpreted the fir’s survival as a miracle, concluding, "Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child." Subsequent Christmases in Germany were celebrated by planting fir saplings.

We do know with greater authority that by the sixteenth century, fir trees, indoors and out, were decorated to commemorate Christmas in Germany. A forest ordinance from Ammerschweier, Alsace, dated 1561, states that "no burgher shall have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoes’ length." The decorations hung on a tree in that time, the earliest we have evidence of, were "roses cut of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gilt, sugar."

It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

By the 1700s, the Christbaum, or "Christ tree," was a firmly established tradition. From Germany the custom spread to other parts of Western Europe. It was popularized in England only in the nineteenth century, by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German consort. Son of the duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (a duchy in central Germany), Albert had grown up decorating Christmas trees, and when he married Victoria, in 1840, he requested that she adopt the German tradition.

The claim of the Pennsylvania Germans to have initiated the Christmas tree custom in America is undisputed today. And it’s in the diary of Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, under the date December 20, 1821, that the Christmas tree and its myriad decorations received their first mention in the New World.

It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The Pilgrims’ second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event."

In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the nineteenth century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy. In 1856, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow commented: "We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so." In that year, Christmas was made a legal holiday in Massachusetts, the last state to uphold Cromwell’s philosophy.

From Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati: Harper & Row.


  • So who was St. Boniface? From
  • Excellent collection of resources about St. Boniface and also about the First Xmas Trees
  • St.Boniface: entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia.
  • Lives of Sts. Robert (Rupert) and Erendruda (Erentraud): Missionaries to Austria


    Long before Bonifatius (aka "Apostel der Deutschen"), Bavarians, Burgundians, Franks, and even earlier Goths, had adopted the alien religion called Christianity. Ignoring the Goths and the first Germanic literary monument, Ulfilas' Bible translation of 383, his invention of a special alphabet, and Gothic Christians, here are some interesting dates:

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