St Boniface and the Pagan Oak

Quercus, Oak is a much-loved British tree. © Karen Andrews

The deciduous Oak may not be considered a viable Christmas tree, but are you aware that it may have played an important founding role in the tradition? The mighty Oak has long had a special place in our folklore and culture. The Pagan Germanic tribes venerated trees. They worshipped the Thunder Oak sacred to the God Thor.

St Boniface’s Outrage

St Boniface (675-754) was an English Benedictine monk sent as a missionary by the Pope to convert the Frisians and Germanic tribes to Christianity early in the 8th century. He was outraged to come across Pagans worshipping an Oak tree and about to sacrifice a child to it. He sped into action and chopped down the Oak. Thus, he demonstrated the power of his God over theirs.

The Fir Tree

It is said that he converted the Pagans then and there. There are multiple versions of what happened next in the legend. Some claim that he planted a fir tree at the site. Others suggest that a fir tree was found growing among the Oak’s roots or that one grew spontaneously there. The fir became symbolic of God. The evergreen leaves were identified with God’s everlasting love. St Boniface said that it should be called the ‘Tree of the Christ Child’.

Fact versus Legend

The legend claims that God blew over the Oak with a great gust of wind. St Boniface’s own letter on the subject to the Pope reveals that it took many hours for him to chop down the Pagan Oak. Whatever the true details, it suggests that an Oak was at the heart of the story in which we started to decorate fir trees as Christmas trees.

Thunder and Lightening Connection

The British public holds the Oak in great affection. I recently heard the sad news that an 800-year Oak was felled by Storm Arwen at Slader’s Leigh Nature Reserve in Somerset. It certainly takes a lot of strength to fell an Oak. Interestingly, an Oak is the most likely tree to be struck by lightning. Apart from usually standing out as the tallest tree, its high water content makes it more susceptible to lightning strikes. You can certainly understand how the Pagan myth about Thor the God of Thunder may have arisen.

References and Further Reading


Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

All above photos © Karen Andrews

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