Christmas tree festivals in Somerset (and the history behind the tradition)

St Giles' Church, Leigh-on-Mendip (c) Phil Streather

St Giles' Church, Leigh-on-Mendip (c) Phil Streather - Credit: Archant

Simone Stanbrooke-Byrne gets to the root of the Christmas tree tradition and digs up a selection of festivals taking place across the county

St Johns Church in Glastonbury

St Johns Church in Glastonbury - Credit: Archant

Deep December. Ghostly, bone-chilling winter mists hang in the valleys; hedgerows are magical with hoar frost. It is the raw end of the year.

But in the heart of some of Somerset’s towns and villages lies a warmth and sparkle that puts to flight the chill of outdoors. Many of our churches host Christmas tree festivals, celebrating a tradition that was brought to England in Victorian times by Prince Albert from his homeland of Germany.

However the concept of an evergreen Christmas tree actually started more than 1,000 years earlier and it is believed by many to have started with one remarkable man: St Boniface.

Born ‘across the border’ in Devon around 680AD, Wynfrith, as Boniface was then called, knew from a very young age that his vocation lay with the church. He studied hard, was an exemplary scholar and became a teacher, monk and priest.

Ilminster Christmas Tree Festival

Ilminster Christmas Tree Festival - Credit: Archant

In 716AD Wynfrith left England, taking his missionary zeal to a then-pagan region of Europe now known as The Netherlands. The work was challenging and he eventually headed to Rome to seek the approbation and assistance of the Pope.

Pope Gregory liked him. He gave Wynfrith the name ‘Boniface’, meaning ‘good deeds’, and in 722AD he became a bishop. He was sent by the Pope to take his mission to central Germany, where he spent the next 30 years establishing abbeys and monasteries. He rose to the position of archbishop, helping shape European Christianity.

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It was during his time in Germany that Boniface’s association with what was to develop into the Christmas tree tradition began.

During the 8th century paganism in Germany was strong. A site of special significance was at Geismar where stood a revered oak, known variously as the Donar Oak, Jove’s Oak or Thor’s Oak. At this tree human sacrifice took place and Boniface, in a theatrical attempt to thwart the heathen during their mid-winter ritual, felled the oak before the assembled crowd, a strenuous task aided, it was said, by the onset of a mighty wind.

St Giles' Church, Leigh-on-Mendip (c) Phil Streather

St Giles' Church, Leigh-on-Mendip (c) Phil Streather - Credit: Archant

Legend tells that the onlookers, astonished that the perpetrator of this deed wasn’t instantly struck down by Thor, were won over by Boniface’s faith and began to convert to Christianity. And, amongst the shattered debris of the fallen oak, Boniface found a tiny young fir tree springing up. This he regarded as symbolic of the new ‘evergreen’ faith he was preaching, saying: “This little tree shall be your holy tree tonight”. The planned pagan ritual was diverted into a Christian one; the first Christmas tree was born.

Whatever the exact truth behind the tale, Boniface’s work earned him a following and eventually he returned to the region of the Netherlands where, as a younger man, he had met with such resistance. Little had changed. On 5 June 754AD he and his fellow-missionaries were attacked at the town of Dokkum. Boniface was killed.

His body was returned to Fulda, where he had founded an abbey in 744AD. His tomb is still in the cathedral there. Over the following centuries the tradition of the Christmas tree grew throughout Germany, later becoming a part of British culture.

Standing in a delightful church, surrounded by gorgeous Christmas trees, one cannot help but feel that one of the most far-reaching tributes to Boniface are these Christmas tree festivals, repeated on different scales in different churches far and wide, involving people of all faiths and none. To everyone who comes to see the Christmas trees, their spectacle is a tangible manifestation of something uplifting at this gloomy time of year. Stepping outside, away from their brilliance and back into the winter gloom, it is impossible not to take the cheer of their glowing warmth with you.

Here are some Christmas tree festivals, and for later additions go to:

St Giles’ Church, Leigh-on-Mendip

11am-4pm, December 8 and 9

Free entry

Come and see the Christmas trees in this beautiful medieval church. All proceeds to Friends of Leigh Church to support the repair, conservation and community use of St Giles’. Light lunches and refreshments are available all day.

St John’s Church, High Street, Glastonbury

Sunday, December 9 until Christmas Day. 10am-4pm (to be confirmed)

Free entry

On December 9 the trees are lit as part of the Sunday morning service. There are between 40-50 trees decorated by local companies, churches and organisations. Additionally there are two trees in a side chapel for anyone to hang a memorial message on tags provided. Refreshments available.

St Andrew’s Church, Victoria Street, Burnham-on-Sea

The trees will be blessed at a short service at 6pm on Sunday, December 9. The church will then be open daily, 9am-4pm until January 6

Cost - tbc

This year St Andrew’s hopes to have 35 trees, ‘sponsored’ by local firms and groups. This festival began in 2009 following the financial crash at that time. It was intended to “lift the spirits and put a smile on people’s faces”, said the vicar, the Rev Graham Witts. The Christmas tree festival accompanies a life size crib in the church which raises funds for the Children’s Society.

Minehead Methodist Church, The Avenue, Minehead

Thursday, December 6 to Wednesday, December 12

On December 6 at the opening service at 6.30pm the trees are lit by the figure of St Lucia. December 7-8: 10am-4pm, with music in the church and refreshments and stalls in the church hall. December 9-12: church open to view the trees. Free entry.

This is the 16th joint festival that Save the Children and Minehead Methodist Church have organised; it overlaps with the famous Dunster by Candlelight event. This year’s theme is Celebrating the Seasons. Approximately 40 illuminated trees are provided and decorated by local organisations.

St Mary’s Church, Court Barton, Ilminster

Monday, December 3 to Saturday, December 8

Times: tbc - check the website

A festival of many lovely Christmas trees from various local organisations, businesses and charities, all decorated differently and raising money for the individual charities that each decorator supports. Come along to see a great display and help raise much needed funds.