Every Christmas we all take a tree that otherwise doesn’t die and we kill it. Then we place it inside our homes and cover it with a bunch of chintzy nonsense. As Jim Gaffigan says, this sounds like the actions of a drunk man.
In his Christmas tree bit, a wife wonders why there’s a pine tree in the living room, and Jim answers with slurred speech saying that they’re gonna decorate it, for Jesus. Indeed, that is exactly why we have Christmas trees: Not drunk people, but Jesus the Messiah.
The Christmas tree is a perfect symbol of Christian theology. It depicts the complete good news of Christ. But to see this we need to understand what the tree means and where it comes from. Let’s look at the tree’s origins. That begins with Norse mythology.
The Tree Upon Which the World Hangs
Norse mythology centers upon a tree. This is not exactly novel. Trees are sacred in almost every culture and religion to varying degrees. This makes sense for several reasons: trees represent immortality because they can live for thousands upon thousands of years. They also are often a source of life either by their fruit or the shade they provide, or because humans have learned how to craft almost anything from their flesh.
But the tree at the center of Norse mythology is unique. It is called Yggdrasil. Modern people tend to think of and depict it as a gigantic ash tree where the nine realms of gods, elves, dwarfs, etc. sit in the branches and roots. Ancient Norse people would’ve probably seen these renditions and known what was meant, but to them the tree didn’t actually exist in that way at all. Yggdrasil was existence itself. The world itself was the tree.
By world, I don’t mean earth. Earth was a realm—Midgard, or, as J.R.R. Tolkien called it, middle earth. Our realm of Midgard was small within the world of this cosmic tree.
The cosmic tree was most clearly seen and understood only after the sun went down. Then the universe is laid bare before man’s eyes. In a world without city lights, the naked eye can see the universe of stars that surrounds us in shocking detail. Billions of stars explode across the night sky like a Jackson Pollock painting.
In the middle of all that splendor was the Bifrost, what we call the Milky Way. We’ve discovered this white path through the night sky is actually an arm of our spiral galaxy. But to the Norse the Bifrost was a bridge between Asgard and Midgard. Asgard was the home of the Aesir, the greatest Norse gods, Odin of course being their chief.
So what does Yggdrasil mean? It is often translated as “Odin’s horse.” But that is actually a theological interpretation of the true meaning of the word. The word literally means “The Awesome One’s Gallows.” To say it is Odin’s horse is therefore not false.
‘I Hung on a Windy Tree’
Odin was the Zeus of the north men. He was the awesome one, the highest of the high ones. Now what about this business of horse and gallows? This, as Bill the Bard would say, is the rub.
Odin is a strange god by ancient standards. Tolkien’s Gandalf is explicitly patterned after him. The only real difference is that Odin carries a spear and is missing an eye. Aside from that, he looks like Gandalf, from the top of his grey wide-brimmed hat to the bottom of his dirty boots. This visage that could pass for a homeless man disguised the awesome one as he wandered about the earth.
In contrast to other ancient gods, Odin benefited humanity both metaphysically and ethically. He was generally not depicted as a god requiring elaborate propitiation. In ethical terms, he modeled the humility and cost of gaining wisdom. This is seen through the story of how he sacrificed his eye to gain wisdom, but even more significant is his search for the runes. The Poetic Edda recounts it like this:
I know that I hung on a windy Tree
nine long nights,
Wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
Myself to myself,
On that tree of which no man knows
From where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor drink from a horn,
Downwards I peered;
I took up the Runes, screaming I took them,
Then I fell back from there.
To us this seems bizarre and esoteric, but to the north men the finding and the giving of the runes to humanity was equivalent to being made in God’s image. Odin wins the runes through his sacrifice of himself, then gives them to humanity.
The ability to speak and communicate is one of the primary things that separates humans from animals. It is our most powerful faculty, enabling thought, communication, politics, etc. Scholar G. Ronald Murphy explains the runes’ relevance to Jesus:
Woden gave the powerful Runes, Christ gave powerful words, and is himself, in John’s Gospel the Logos, the divine word of creation. If we take the ninth-century Heliand as indicative of a Germanic appreciation of the story of Christ and words, the poet is amazed primarily at the power of the “light words” used by Christ in speaking.
The North men saw the obvious parallels between Jesus on the cross and Odin on the tree. And that tree was Yggdrasil: the awesome one’s gallows, the place where God was hung. Yggdrasil is the cross.
Overcoming the End of the World
Before they came to know Jesus, the north men celebrated a holiday called Yule. This was connected to the winter solstice for the same reason that Jesus’ birth is: symbolism. But the symbolism of the sun’s retreat ending is far more striking in the cold north lands, because there winter means more than hardship. In a world without electricity, snow and ice mean death.
So they celebrated Yule by honoring “the mothers” with an all-night vigil on December 25. The mothers were almost certainly the three wise “hags” known as the Norns, who continually refresh the cosmic tree Yggdrasil with the waters from the well of Urd.
One part of the Yule celebration was to bring evergreen trees into homes and halls. The evergreen tree thus came to symbolize Yggdrasil as much as the ash tree does. In fact it’s a far more appropriate symbol because the evergreen trees were reminders of two things: first, that winter could be defeated, as evergreens do it every year; and second, that one day Yggdrasil would defeat Ragnarok, the Norse end of the world.
In Norse eschatology, the sign of the end is three harsh winters in a row. Then the gods are defeated and everything is destroyed in water—except for Yggdrasil, who suffers the horrors of Ragnarok but survives the cataclysm. Then the great tree opens itself, revealing two children who will repopulate a new earth.
Because of these beliefs, the north men saw in Jesus their own worldview completed. He hung upon the cross, like Odin, for the sake of humanity. By clinging to the cross we can all escape God’s wrath in Ragnarok, just like the children hid within Yggdrasil. So the churches of the north are explicitly patterned upon evergreen trees because their union with Christ places them inside Yggdrasil’s protection.
And the cross became to them Yggdrasil: the awesome one’s gallows, the place where god was sacrificed for us. Just look at the stave churches, especially: they are Christmas trees. You can actually go inside these Christmas trees, and there with the body of Christ find salvation from sin and death. Within Yggdrasil you can escape Ragnarok.
‘The Gallows We Shall Never Know’
After learning of all this I was moved to write this poem about Christmas, called “Yggdrasil: The Winter Soldier.”
The cold bites
Then soul fights
The seasons come and go
The pain of loss
Then falling dross
The seasons come and go
The sun shines
Then ties unbind
The seasons come and go
All other leaves fall
Yet the gallows stand tall
Regardless of season or snow
Evils still smolder
And slowly grow bolder
But the one the gallows know
Burns much colder
This winter soldier
The one the gallows know
Has crossed the bifrost
To pay our cost
Now the gallows we shall never know.
In this poem, I realized that for the first time God had spoken to me as he did on Pentecost, “each one heard them speaking in his own native language.” My heart speaks the language of Yggdrasil, and Jesus learned that language too so he might speak with me as he did my European ancestors, and as he does to all the nations of the earth.
Sociology has been pointing out our decreasing religiosity for decades. But as long as we bring trees into our homes every December, the gospel is being scandalously preached to he or she who has an ear to hear their sermon.