This edited article about Saint Boniface first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.
There is no doubt that many of the customs which we observe around Christmas time belong to religions that are much older than Christianity. In the bleak northern lands, from which so many of our ancestors came, Midwinter’s Day, which falls in the same week as our Christmas, was always a time of strange rites and festivities. Some say that it is from the old Norse legends that the popular figure of Father Christmas comes, for he is really a memory of the old god Woton (who we also remember in “Wednesday” – Woton’s day) driving across the winter storm clouds in his sleigh! The decoration of the house with evergreens, the lighting of candles, the burning of the yule log, are all signs of the promise of the returning Spring, and the hope of longer days of sunshine.
All this has since been linked up with our Christmas festivity, and is as harmless and enjoyable today as it was long ago. But these old pagan religions had a darker side which, happily, we have long since abandoned. In very ancient times people had the idea that the gods and goddesses who controlled such vital things as the sun and rain, thunder and lightning, or a successful harvest, were often jealous and angry. They had to be soothed and coaxed, and even fed with delicacies, and the best way of doing this was by offering them sacrifices. Of the offerings made to the gods, the most terrible of all was that of living people, for there were some who believed that only the death of a human person was enough to win the favour of these terrible forces. Many a family must have gone in terror of losing one of its members in this way, through the mistaken demands of their priests and rulers.
Human sacrifice lasted far longer in Northern Europe than it did in the lands to which Christianity had spread. Not much more than a thousand years ago it was still being practised in parts of Scandinavia and Germany. These were still wild, uncivilised lands, which neither the law of the Roman empire nor the influence of the Christian religion had yet reached.
It was no wonder that the bravest of men hesitated when they were asked to go to such places and preach the Christian message of peace and love. It was left in the end to an Englishman from Devon to make the “breakthrough.” Born at Crediton in about 680 A.D., his original name was Wynfrith. “Boniface” was a nickname, and had nothing to do with his appearance; it is the Latin for “doer of good.”
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