The Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree is more than a much-loved and glittering centrepiece of festive decorations and celebrations. In the home, it is a unifying symbol the family can gather around, strengthening familial ties and a place of fun and cheer. When placed in the local community it becomes a rallying point for people to sing carols, meet, and strengthen social bonds. However, its exact origin is debated, and there are different ideas of how its importance to the festival evolved. Presented here is a retelling of how Saint Boniface introduced the fir tree into traditions and celebrations of the birth of Jesus. This tells how Saint Boniface cut down a sacred oak tree that was a prominent place of pagan worship in a place now called Hesse in Germany. Saint Boniface, also known as Winfrid or Winfred, was born c. 675 in Wessex, England and died June 5, 754, in Dokkum, Frisia, now part of the Neverlands. He was an English Benedictine monk working to establish Christianity in Germany and the Frankish empire. At that time, in that place, people worshipped pagan gods under a sacred tree growing singularly or in groves. The tree in this legend was called the Thunder Oak and is sometimes known as the Donar Oak, Jove’s Oak, the Oak of Jupiter, and other similar terms in other myths and legends.
Legend Of The Thunder Oak
The story begins in a time long before the establishment of Christianity in the Germanic lands where a massive oak grew. It was a true giant of trees so tall its topmost branches were hidden by clouds. Its ancient body was broad and twisted from which a profusion of long, gnarled, stretching limbs spread, creating a vast overarching canopy of darkness centre around the tree. To the people of these lands, the great tree was sacred and venerated as the Thunder Oak of their great god Thor and one of the most important shrines of his cult. Yet, under the darkness of its great canopy, human victims died under the bloodied knife of the priests of Thor, their blood soaking into the ground to feed the ravenous roots of the ancient oak.
Even in the dead of winter, bare of leaves and acorns, the space under its vast spreading branches, clumped with mistletoe, was a place of continuous and gloomy darkness. In this dread place, an atmosphere of quiet but overwhelming fear pervaded under the great smothering branches. Animals avoided the tree, making wide detours around it, while birds would not fly near or over it or perch in its branches. Even the buzzing flies and creeping insects kept well out of the dread darkness under its canopy.
And it came to pass, one cold, white Christmas Eve, as Christians were preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, the priests of Thor gathered under their sacred tree. They had not come to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ or Christmas. Instead, they had come to pay homage to their god of war and thunder and witness the human sacrifice whose blood would nourish and strengthen the great tree and feed its darkness. They were joined by a great throng of their people to worship their own god, as was their tradition at this time of year.
Over the great tree rose a bright moon. The high priest chanted and made magical signs over the altar while the victim lay shivering in the cold, awaiting the stab of pain from the deadly knife that would end their life. As the high priest spread his arms out towards the Thunder Oak, his eyes adoring the sacred tree, his hand raised to strike, the air became still, all sound in the forest stopped, and silence fell. The bright moon rose to its zenith, sending her rays to find and illuminate the helpless man spread-eagled on the altar slab awaiting the stab of pain that would end their life. It never came. Instead, something extraordinary happened. As the pure rays of the brilliant moon lit the altar, the forest’s silence was broken. From the depths of the woods came the sound of Christian hymns sung by a throng of people growing louder as they drew nearer. They were led by Saint Boniface, who had come to bring Christianity and establish the church of Jesus Christ.
As the illuminating moon banished the darkness under the great Thunder Tree of Thor, Saint Boniface strode forward, wielding a shining axe. The High Priest, dagger in his hands, his raised arms poised to strike, froze. His followers parted to allow the saint to march directly up to the Thunder Oak unchallenged. Then, gathering his strength in his arms, he struck a blow that caused a great gash in the tree’s trunk with his axe. The shocked High Priest and his followers looked on in fear as he struck the oak repeatedly, causing an ever-widening gash in the its body.
Suddenly, a mighty wind swept over the forest roof, hitting the great oak with force. With an awful groan, the tree toppled backwards, crashing into the ground with such force it caused its great trunk to split into four equal portions. Behind the wreckage of the oak, a young fir tree stood, its green spire pointing the way to heaven. Dropping his axe and turning to his people, the saint pointed at the young verdant tree and joyfully cried,
“See there, the young scion of the forest, the tree of peace! See how it is shaped like a church steeple pointing to heaven. We build our houses from it to shelter us; its foliage remains evergreen. Let this tree be known as the tree of the Christ child. Let us bring it into our homes where it will encourage our loving deeds and acts of kindness and bring the peace of Jesus Christ into our hearts as we shun the wildness of the wood!”
In obedience to the saint, they took the sapling fir into their great communal meeting hall where all could see it. They abandoned the cult of Thor and the Thunder Oak and practised Christianity, and every year celebrated Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ with a young evergreen fir tree at the centre of their home, family, and community.
© 12/12/2022 zteve t evans
References, Attributions And Further Reading
Copyright December 12th, 2022 zteve t evans
- Donar’s Oak – Wikipedia
- Saint Boniface – Wikipedia
- File:Julemotiv tegnet av Jenny Nystrøm (24207687988).jpg – Wikimedia Commons – National Library of Norway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Bernhard Rode, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – File:Bonifatius Donareiche.jpg – Wikimedia Commons