On December 29, 1170, Saint Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. His cult of martyrdom started immediately and grew into one of the most spectacular shrines in Europe. Then, in 1538, Henry VIII had the tomb destroyed and the saint’s bones burnt – although it is thought that some of the choicest body parts were reserved for the king. Since that shameful happening, there has been no shrine. Instead, a candle burns brightly in the space behind the main altar.
On a recent Advent visit to the cathedral, I could see the candle had been replaced by a Christmas tree. If this had happened during Puritan times in England, more heads would have surely rolled. Christmas trees had yet to be introduced into England at that time, of course, but any Yuletide “Popeish” decorative features were banned from 1644-1659. Even before Prince Albert brought the Germanic tree over, the English had for centuries savored evergreens such as holly, ivy and mistletoe. The word Christmas was also disapproved of by the Puritans as it had associations with the Catholic “Mass.”
Not to be outdone, American Puritans of Massachusetts Bay issued a decree in 1659 forbidding “…the exchange of gifts and greetings, dressing in fine clothing, feasting and similar satanical practices.” There was no mention of evergreens in the Massachusetts edict.
It was a delight to see a lavishly illuminated Christmas tree at the heart of the Church of England’s most important cathedral. Just as exciting as the conifer was the presence of a crucifix – if you look very carefully at the photo – on the altar nearby. This symbol was banned there for very much longer than the tree.
The virtual Museum of the Cross
The Museum of the Cross is the first institution dedicated to the diversity of the most powerful and far-reaching symbol in history. If it had premises, it would definitely have a Christmas tree too. After ten years of preparation, the museum was almost ready to open; then came COVID-19. In the meantime, the virtual museum is starting an instagram account to engage with Aleteia readers and the stories of their own crucifixes: @crossXmuseum