Christmas Tree: The Unheard Story

by Arnold De Villa
December 25, 2010

Christmas Tree: The Unheard Story
O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
Your dress wants to
teach me something.
Your hope and durability
Provide comfort and strength
at any time.
O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree.
That’s what your dress should
teach me.
-From the Original Folk Song, O Tannenbaum

They told me he was not Spanish. The old man stood by a corner window, staring at a solitary tree perched with snow. His blue eyes looked distant, unmoved by the commotion around him. Back then, as students, it was our Christmas tradition to visit retired missionaries in nursing homes owned by religious nuns. His residence was the last place we visited.

“Father, we are now about to start the show. Do you want to join us? ” While I approached him from behind, I saw what he was looking at. “Warum? Es ist gud hier.” “Huh? Sorry Father. I don’t think I understood what you said”. I told him. “Oh, I am sorry too”, the old priest answered back. “I did not know I was talking to a Chinese”. He looked at me for the first time. “Excuse me Father, but I am not Chinese”. “Never mind”, he snapped. “Forget about the show. Help me walk out from this noisy crowd. I want to sit in front of that tree just outside of this door”. Although I hesitated, I made a sign to a nearby nun to let her know that I was going out of the door with the old priest.

While I guided him with his walker, he gazed at the tree as we approached a wooden bench. Slowly, I helped him pace a couple of steps until he sat down and I sat beside him.

“O Tannenbaum, O Tannebaum…” He sang. I finally realized he was of German descent. The melody of the song he was chanting was from the music “Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree”. I was now looking at the same tree he was staring at ever since I saw him.

“Do you know the story of the Christmas Tree?” He asked. “No Father, I have no idea”. “Why not?” He asked again, reprimanding me for my ignorance. “Well, I guess I did not bother to find out”. It was lame excuse I could grab. “Really?” He replied with an irritated tone.

“You are in luck then, my son. Today you will remember the greatest story of the Christmas Tree. Listen well because I want you to share this to others someday. Next week will be my 90th birthday. All my family members and friends have gone. I will join them soon. Promise me you will not forget this story”

“Yes, Father. I promise”. Deep inside I knew that old people liked to talk. My group will be here until dinner time anyway. I guess I am stuck with an old man’s tale. Might as well listen. And so he started…
“My great, great Grand Uncle, Winfrid Frieden started this Christmas tree business. He was also a missionary. Back in Germany, where I was born, people both hated and loved him. He changed his name later, but I do not remember what it was. In my birthplace, the small town of Fritzlar in northern Hesse, Chrismas trees were not pine trees. They were actually oak, just like this Oak Tree in front of us. It was Uncle Winfrid who started the Christmas Tree business by chopping down the Oak. He challenged the pagan gods of Germany to strike him down just so to prove that the Christian God will protect him.

This was around the middle of the 7th century when Christianity was still young. While Uncle Winfrid was getting rid of the oak tree, strong winds blew the tree away from him and the pagans thought it was a miracle. They were all converted to Christianity and a chapel was built right on the spot where that Oak tree was chopped. Every year thereafter, the newly converted Christians kept the fallen tree, planted it dead, and adorned it with candles to commemorate the miracle they say. It just so happened that it was cut off at around Christmas time. Hence, they labeled it a Christmas tree, but it did not have anything to do with Christmas.”

I listened to his tales with reservations. Since I was ignorant about German history, I had no way to verify his story. I nodded my head, struggled to keep my mouth shut, and allowed him to talk, hoping to bring him back inside as soon as possible. Unfortunately, he was not done. He was merely getting warmed up. He continued…

“When my great grand uncle left his town, he went to Thuringia where he preached the Mystery of the Holy Trinity using the triangular shape of a Fir Tree. It was at this time that the pagans eventually got rid of the Oak Tree and revered the Fir Tree as God’s tree instead. In the 12the century, they used to hang this upside down. It was not until the early part of the 16th century when a Fir Tree was first decorated at Riga, in Latvia. In the early 16th century, it is said that Martin Luther also decorated a small tree with candles to show his children how the stars twinkled at night. Maybe those lights also reminded him about the great star that guided the lost shepherds”.

I jotted down, not wanting to miss anything so that I could check them out later when we get back to our dormitory. There was no Wikipedia or Google during the latter part of the 80’s. I had to do this the old fashion way. When he finished, I wrote down his last words, kept my notes back in my pocket and prepared to bring him back inside. “Where are you going?” He asked while I stood up. “I am not done yet. Sit down”. And so I did.

“You see, all these historians are all wrong. Although I am proud of it, my great Grand Uncle really did not start this Christmas Tree thing. When I was working as a missionary in Yi Deng, a small town of Mongolia, I met this very old Chinese guy who said he was a direct descendant of Adam and Eve. Everyone labeled him as the town jester. His weird and outrageous stories were like urban legends, but just the same I sat down with him like you are down with me now. I am almost sure that you are telling yourself what I thought of him before. I told him that my great grand uncle started the Christmas Tree and he responded that I was wrong. He said that his great great grandfather, Cain, a crop farmer started the Christmas Tree. He said that it all began in the Garden of Eden when his parents were kicked out. The real Christmas Tree, according to him was a seed from the forbidden fruit that caused Adam and Eve their condemnation. When Adam and Eve were banished, God commanded them to till the earth and labor for its fruits. He gave them the seeds of the forbidden fruit to remind them of their wrong doing and one day be saved from their sin. Cain was a farmer. He continued planting the seeds. He was the first murderer. As a punishment for his sins, he was also deported from Yi Deng, the town where he lived with his family. This old Chinese guy said that his town is actually the Garden of Eden. He claims that Adam and Eve were not really banished. It was the earth that changed. Cain roamed around the earth until he and his family settled in Gethsemane. His descendants became tree planters. This old Chinese man claims convincingly that the wood which eventually became the Crucifix was commissioned to the descendants of Cain’s children, the wood that came from the seeds of the Garden of Eden.

Before I left him, he made me promise also to tell the world about his alleged story. And now, I want you to promise me the same thing. We probably will not see each other again, so do not forget what I told you.”

I nodded without saying a yes or a no. “It is time to come in, Father”. I helped him stand up from the bench to get back inside. We were invited to share with their Christmas Dinner. For the rest of the evening, this old priest was quiet, gazing at the window where the solitary tree stood still.

Last night, while I was taking out Christmas stocking decorations from our basement, I decided to take out a box filled up with old diaries and journals. I schemed and scanned until I browsed on a date like today seventeen years ago.

December 21st 1983, Madrid, Spain
Today, I attended Fr. Wilfred Friedan’s funeral, a German missionary who ended up in Spain. It was just four days ago when I met him. He was also a missionary in China, somewhat the same place where I will soon be sent. He was in Mongolia and then worked in Beijing. I will be in Hong Kong and then will work in Taiwan. I also hope to meet people like he met and tell stories like the ones he told me. He made me promise to share his stories. He started singing “O Christmas Tree” in German before he shared a long story about Christmas Tree Theories. He said……”

I closed and kept my diary, went on-line, and hunted for stories I hope I could use for my article this week. I could not find anything intriguing, exciting or fun. What followed were goose pimples, disbelief and a thickened hair follicle. I wondered why I had to look and read a page of an old diary entered on the exact date more than ten years ago.

Winfrid was actually the real name of St. Boniface, the German Bishop who was attributed to be the unifier of Christian Europe. He was born in 672 and is considered the Patron Saint of Germany. He was also attributed with the act of chopping down an Oak Tree, popularly called the Donar Oak to defy the pagans of his time. Thuringia is a real town historically claimed to have commenced the first Christmas Tree business. And the town of Yi Deng, that place where the German missionary met and talked with the old Chinese guy, I asked Google to translate it for me. It is actually a transliteration of Eden. There are allegations that the Garden of Eden is somewhere in Mongolia or in India.

I broke my promise for so many years. For some weird reason, it seems that Fr. Wilfred Friedan came back for an unannounced visit. Why in the world would I tinker with an old diary? It is perhaps time that I keep my promise. Please help spread the story around. I kept quiet and did not relate his story to anyone because in the latter portion of that journal entry, I found out that Fr. Wilfred was actually suffering from dementia. Everyone else laughed at me and asked how I endured listening to a fisherman’s tale.

“Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story (Desiderata)”. Was it really dementia? Or was it a hidden secret?
Merry Christmas! And may all the tales of Christmas be kept alive in your hearts!

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