Thor’s Oak

21 Dec

The custom of the Christmas tree as we know it today has its origins in 15-16th century Germanic culture, although it has far more ancient precedents. The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common in pagan Europe, even surviving the conversion of much of the continent to Christianity, for example in the form of Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Yuletide. The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day can be traced to festive celebrations in Renaissance-era guilds in Northern Germany, and they grew only more popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the early 19th century, the custom had become popular among the nobility across Europe and had spread to royal courts as far as Russia. The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen famously published a fairy-tale called The Fir-Tree in 1844, recounting the fate of a fir-tree being used as a Christmas tree. In Britain the Christmas tree became fashionable (like most things during the Victorian era) due to its popularity with the royal house of Hanover, and it has been with us ever since. This is a far cry indeed from the Christmas tree’s origins in antiquity, which are symbolized by evergreen trees in pre-Christian winter rites, in particular through the story of Donar’s Oak (though the oak tree is obviously not an evergreen) and the popularized story of Saint Boniface and the conversion of the German pagans.

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The dramatic (and Christmassy) landscape of Scandinavia, with its electric skies, icy wastes and seething springs, was heavily peopled with nature spirits. Such spirits roamed the mountains and snow slopes as fearsome frost, storm and fire giants, personifying the mysterious and menacing forces of nature. So great were the terrors of crushing ice and searing fire that the giants loomed large in the Norse myths as evil and ominous forces. Yet other less dramatic but no less important spirits were the invisible landvaettir, or land spirits, who imbued the land and guarded its welfare. Thus there are Norse tales of giants and nature spirits, monsters and heroes; but perhaps the most interesting of all are the legends of the gods who used to be worshipped in Scandinavia before the coming of Christianity. Thor was the best loved of the Norse pantheon. A mighty figure with colossal strength, a bushy red beard and glowering eyes, he strode about the heavens, fighting trolls and giants. He was the protector of gods and men and many wore hammers as pendants as representations of his sacred weapon, the mighty hammer Mjolnir. Just as this was an early pagan equivalent of the miniature cross worn by Christians, so, ultimately was the Christmas tree partly inspired by Thor’s Oak.

Sacred trees and sacred groves were widely venerated by the Germanic peoples. For this reason scholars have sometimes linked the tale of Thor’s Oak to the world tree in Norse mythology, Yggdrasil. Thor’s Oak, so the story goes, was a sacred tree of the Germanic pagans located in an unclear location around what is now the region of Hesse, Germany. As sacred groves and trees were venerated by the Germanic pagans they were often targeted for destruction by Christian missionaries during the conversion of the early Germanic peoples. The Anglo-Saxon missionary Saint Boniface and his retinue cut down the sacred oak and wood from this tree was then reportedly used to build a church at the site dedicated to Saint Peter. Similar tales told about the destruction of other sacred trees in other parts of Northern Europe, such as the Irminsul (also felled by Christian missionaries in the 8th century), and the tree at Uppsala (described by Adam of Bremenin the 11th century) suggest that this may be an apocryphal story, perhaps representing the symbolic overtaking of the pagan religion by the Christian faith. For this reason, the presence in our living rooms today of an evergreen Christmas tree can be seen as dually symbolic – a reminder of the past and a confirmation of the present.

The popularity of the Christmas tree in Georgian (and later Victorian) England partly explains its later ubiquity across the pond. The tradition was introduced to Canada in the winter of 1781 by Brunswick soldiers stationed in the Province of Quebec. Several cities in the United States with German connections lay claim to that country’s first Christmas tree: Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House, while the “First Christmas Tree in America” title is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers purportedly erected a Christmas tree in 1816. In his diary, Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recorded the use of a Christmas tree in 1821, leading him to also lay claim to the first Christmas tree in America. Across the world it has become common since the early 20th century in many cities, towns, and department stores to put up public Christmas trees outdoors, such as the Macy’s Great Tree in Atlanta, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City, and the large Christmas tree at Victoria Square in Adelaide, Australia. ‘Globalized’ Christmas trees appear in Hong Kong malls, ‘Secular’ trees are seen in Afghanistan and we even have aluminium trees these days in some parts of the world! It may all seem a long way from Thor’s Oak but, in all its essentials, this is one tradition that really hasn’t changed all that much since it started all those centuries ago in pagan times.

Merry Christmas from Fabulous Realms!

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2 Responses to “Thor’s Oak”

  1. Nathan December 21, 2013 at 3:24 am #

    I’ve generally seen Yggdrasil referred to as an ash tree, but I’m sure it varied, so it’s not surprising it would be linked to a sacred oak.

  2. Yesterday Unhinged December 21, 2013 at 5:13 am #

    So much Christian ‘history’ going around the blogosphere at this time of the year. It’s good to see the day return to its roots.

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