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The birth of Wynfrith:
Boniface was born in Crediton, Devon, in about AD 680. A tradition says that Boniface’s father was a Saxon thegn (lord) and his mother was British. They named their son Wynfrith, which means ‘Friend of Peace’ to show the two peoples had come together.
Boniface went to study at the Benedictine monastery at Nursling near Southampton. He eventually was offered the role of Abbot, but he felt called to be a missionary, and in 716 set sail to convert the heathen tribes in Frisia (now Friesland in The Netherlands).
Although his first mission was not a success, his subsequent work in Frisia and Hesse gained him the reputation of being an outstanding missionary and administrator. It was at this time that the Pope gave him the name of Bonifacius (Boniface) meaning ‘maker of good’.
In 722, Pope Gregory 2 made him Bishop of all Germany east of the Rhine, and Boniface embarked on thirty years of missionary work in Hesse and Thuringia. He boldly tackled superstition, including the felling of Thor’s sacred Oak at Geismar by his own hand in front of hostile tribesmen, and laid the foundation of a flourishing new Church.
In 738, he was made Archbishop, and crowned Pepin King of all the Franks at Soissons in 751 – an act which ensured the alliance between the Frankish crown and the Papacy, which was to be the foundation of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire fifty years later.
At the age of seventy, he set out again to tame the wild tribes of Frisia. On 5th June 754/5, he and his companions were surprised at dawn by a band of heathen warriors near Dokkum. Boniface was struck down by a sword which pierced the holy book he raised to shield his head. His body was taken to Fulda for burial in accordance with his wishes.
First Christmas tree?
Boniface chopped down the Oak of Thor at Geismar in a stage-managed confrontation with the old gods and the local heathen tribes. Boniface as a new symbol claimed a fir tree growing in the roots of the Oak, ‘this humble tree’s wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days; let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven; let Christ be your Comfort and your Guide’. The tree became a sign of Christ in the world for the German peoples, and nowadays it is a universal reminder of Christmas.