My son was growing up. As we decorated the Christmas tree our conversation had turned to understanding Christmas traditions. Carl had asked me about the nativity, candy canes, presents, and a long list of other traditions. Question by question, I carefully told him how each tradition began and how it adds to our celebration of Christ's birth.
Then he asked, “Dad, how did Christmas trees get started? Do you know when the first tree was used?”
“Ah! This one might come as a surprise.” I smiled as he placed a shimmering ornament on the tree. “Have you learned anything about the mythological god Thor?”
“Thor, the god of Thunder?” Carl had a look of shock on his face. “He is a comic book hero.”
“Yes, that's the Thor I'm talking about.”
“I know,” I said, “you only want to know the truth.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “Thor really is the reason we have Christmas trees. Just listen and I'll explain.”
In the year 703 A.D., the area we now call Germany was beginning to learn about Jesus from brave missionaries. One of those missionaries was a fireball of a man named Winfred. His problem in converting the locals was that they worshiped the Scandinavian god, Thor. For more years than they could remember they had gathered around a huge oak tree outside of the town of Geismar. The tree was known as The Oak of Mighty Thor, or, more simply, Thor's Oak. To the people the tree was holy and fiercely protected by Thor and his magical hammer.
Winfred knew he would never reach these people for Jesus as long as they feared Thor, so he did a very brave thing. He called the villagers to gather at Thor's Oak to witness the truth. Once the people were gathered, the missionary cried out a challenge to their god.
“Thor, you are not the god I serve. You have no power over me, nor does your horrible 'holy' oak tree.” He picked up an ax and began chopping at the base of Thor's Oak. “I challenge you, Thor. Use your mighty hammer to strike me dead if you are real.”
Each blow of the ax blade brought terrified screams from the villagers, but all of them stayed, expecting to watch the missionary die at the hands of their god.
Thor did nothing to stop Winfred, though, because, of course, Thor was nothing but a myth. The mighty Oak of Thor finally came crashing to the ground and the people were convinced that the God of Winfred was stronger than their own god. They would accept being Christians.
One problem remained for Winfred. Since their forefathers, villagers had gathered at Thor’s Oak to do their praying. How would they be able to pray to their new God with the holy tree cut down? Winfred, though, had a solution. At the base of Thor's Oak was another tree, a sapling fir.
“Don't worship the Oak. God has given this fir, with its green branches lifted toward heaven, to be the oak’s replacement.”
“And that,” I concluded, “is how we began using the fir tree to help celebrate the birth of Jesus. Over the years, Winfred's idea about the fir tree began to gain popularity. People began to decorate the fir for each holy day, like Easter, Passover, and, yes... Christmas. Eventually the practice was narrowed down to just Christmas, and thus, the Christmas Tree.”
“Wow.” Carl looked at our tree, ornament in hand and ready to place but not advancing toward a branch. “Is that true?”
“Yes, Carl. It's true.”
“Then the Christmas tree is a replacement for a pagan idol?”
“Dad, can I ask another question?”
“Of course you can, Son.”
Carl still had the same ornament in his hand. My story had been received in a way I had not expected and now I almost regretted telling him the history so accurately.
“If cutting down Thor's Oak and replacing it with an evergreen is really how the Christmas tree got its start,” Carl put his ornament down and then asked, “Why do we decorate the tree, knowing it's tied to the worship of Thor and not a true part of remembering Christ's birthday?”
I thought a long time before finally answering my son. Carl deserved the truth just as much now as with every other question he had asked. The only truth I could give him, though, was...
“Son, I don't know.”
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