THE FIRST CHRISTMAS-TREE
HE day before Christmas, in the year of our Lord 722.
Broad snow-meadows glistening white along the banks of the
river Moselle; steep hill-sides blooming with mystic
forget-me-not where the glow of the setting sun cast long
shadows down their eastern slope; an arch of clearest, deepest
gentian bending overhead; in the centre of the aerial garden
the walls of the cloister of Pfalzel, steel-blue to the east,
violet to the west; silence over all,—a gentle, eager,
conscious stillness, diffused through the air, as if earth and
sky were hushing themselves to hear the voice of the river
faintly murmuring down the valley.
In the cloister, too, there was silence at the sunset
hour. All day long there had been a strange and joyful stir
among the nuns. A breeze of curiosity and excitement had
swept along the
corri-  dors and through every quiet cell. A famous
visitor had come to the convent.
It was Winfried of England, whose name in the Roman tongue
was Boniface, and whom men called the Apostle of Germany. A
great preacher; a wonderful scholar; but, more than all, a
daring traveller, a venturesome pilgrim, a priest of romance.
He had left his home and his fair estate in Wessex; he
would not stay in the rich monastery of Nutescelle, even
though they had chosen him as the abbot; he had refused a
bishopric at the court of King Karl. Nothing would content
him but to go out into the wild woods and preach to the
Through the forests of Hesse and Thuringia, and along the
borders of Saxony, he had wandered for years, with a handful
of companions, sleeping under the trees, crossing mountains
and marshes, now here, now there, never satisfied with ease
and comfort, always in love with hardship and danger.
What a man he was! Fair and slight, but straight as a
spear and strong as an oaken staff.
 His face was still young; the
smooth skin was bronzed by wind and sun. His gray eyes, clean
and kind, flashed like fire when he spoke of his adventures, and
of the evil deeds of the false priests with whom he contended.
What tales he had told that day! Not of miracles wrought
by sacred relics; not of courts and councils and splendid
cathedrals; though he knew much of these things. But to-day
he had spoken of long journeyings by sea and land; of perils
by fire and flood; of wolves and bears, and fierce snowstorms,
and black nights in the lonely forest; of dark altars of
heathen gods, and weird, bloody sacrifices, and narrow escapes
from murderous bands of wandering savages.
The little novices had gathered around him, and their
faces had grown pale and their eyes bright as they listened
with parted lips, entranced in admiration, twining their arms
about one another's shoulders and holding closely together,
half in fear, half in delight. The older nuns had turned from
their tasks and paused, in passing by, to bear the pilgrim's
story. Too well they knew the truth of
 what he spoke. Many a
one among them had seen the smoke rising from the ruins of her
father's roof. Many a one had a brother far away in the wild
country to whom her heart went out night and day, wondering if he
were still among the living.
But now the excitements of that wonderful day were over;
the hour of the evening meal had come; the inmates of the
cloister were assembled in the refectory.
On the daïs sat the stately Abbess Addula, daughter of
King Dagobert, looking a princess indeed, in her purple tunic,
with the hood and cuffs of her long white robe trimmed with
ermine, and a snowy veil resting like a crown on her silver
hair. At her right hand was the honoured guest, and at her
left hand her grandson, the young Prince Gregor, a big, manly
boy, just returned from school.
The long, shadowy hall, with its dark-brown rafters and
beams; the double row of nuns, with their pure veils and fair
faces; the ruddy glow of the slanting sunbeams striking upward
through the tops of the windows and painting a pink glow
 high up on the walls,—it was all as beautiful as a picture,
and as silent. For this was the rule of the cloister, that at
the table all should sit in stillness for a little while, and
then one should read aloud, while the rest listened.
"It is the turn of my grandson to read to-day," said the
abbess to Winfried; "we shall see how much he has learned in
the school. Read, Gregor; the place in the book is marked."
The lad rose from his seat and turned the pages of the
manuscript. It was a copy of Jerome's version of the
Scriptures in Latin, and the marked place was in the letter of
St. Paul to the Ephesians,—the passage where he describes the
preparation of the Christian as a warrior arming for battle.
The young voice rang out clearly, rolling the sonorous words,
without slip or stumbling, to the end of the chapter.
Winfried listened smiling. "That was bravely read, my
son," said he, as the reader paused. "Understandest thou what
"Surely, father," answered the boy; "it was taught me by
the masters at Treves; and we have
 read this epistle from
beginning to end, so that I almost know it by heart."
Then he began to repeat the passage, turning away from the
page as if to show his skill.
But Winfried stopped him with a friendly lifting of the
"Not so, my son; that was not my meaning. When we pray,
we speak to God. When we read, God speaks to us. I ask
whether thou hast heard what He has said to thee in the common
speech. Come, give us again the message of the warrior and
his armour and his battle, in the mother-tongue, so that all
can understand it."
The boy hesitated, blushed, stammered; then he came around
to Winfried's seat, bringing the book. "Take the book, my
father," he cried, "and read it for me. I cannot see the
meaning plain, though I love the sound of the words. Religion
I know, and the doctrines of our faith, and the life of
priests and nuns in the cloister, for which my grandmother
designs me, though it likes me little. And fighting I know,
and the life of warriors and heroes, for I have read of it in
Virgil and the
an-  cients, and heard a bit from the soldiers at
Treves; and I would fain taste more of it, for it likes me much.
But how the two lives fit together, or what need there is of
armour for a clerk in holy orders, I can never see. Tell me the
meaning, for if there is a man in all the world that knows it,
I am sure it is thou."
So Winfried took the book and closed it, clasping the
boy's hand with his own.
"Let us first dismiss the others to their vespers said he,
"lest they should be weary."
A sign from the abbess; a chanted benediction; a murmuring
of sweet voices and a soft rustling of many feet over the
rushes on the floor; the gentle tide of noise flowed out
through the doors and ebbed away down the corridors; the three
at the head of the table were left alone in the darkening
Then Winfried began to translate the parable of the
soldier into the realities of life.
At every turn he knew how to flash a new light into the
picture out of his own experience. He spoke of the combat
with self, and of the
 wrestling with dark spirits in solitude.
He spoke of the demons that men had worshipped for centuries in
the wilderness, and whose malice they invoked against the
stranger who ventured into the gloomy forest. Gods, they called
them, and told weird tales of their dwelling among the
impenetrable branches of the oldest trees and in the caverns of
the shaggy hills; of their riding on the wind-horses and hurling
spears of lightning against their foes. Gods they were not, but
foul spirits of the air, rulers of the darkness. Was there not
glory and honour in fighting them, in daring their anger under
the shield of faith, in putting them to flight with the sword
of truth? What better adventure could a brave man ask than to
go forth against them, and wrestle with them, and conquer
"Look you, my friends," said Winfried, "how sweet and
peaceful is this convent to-night! It is a garden full of
flowers in the heart of winter; a nest among the branches of
a great tree shaken by the winds; a still haven on the edge of
a tempestuous sea. And this is what religion means for
 those who are chosen and called to quietude and prayer and
"But out yonder in the wide forest, who knows what storms
are raving to-night in the hearts of men, though all the woods
are still? who knows what haunts of wrath and cruelty are
closed tonight against the advent of the Prince of Peace? And
shall I tell you what religion means to those who are called
and chosen to dare, and to fight, and to conquer the world for
Christ? It means to go against the strongholds of the
adversary. It means to struggle to win an entrance for the
Master everywhere. What helmet is strong enough for this
strife save the helmet of salvation? What breastplate can
guard a man against these fiery darts but the breastplate of
righteousness? What shoes can stand the wear of these
journeys but the preparation of the gospel of peace?"
"Shoes?" he cried again, and laughed as if a sudden
thought had struck him. He thrust out his foot, covered with
a heavy cowhide boot, laced high about his leg with thongs of
"Look here,—how a fighting man of the cross is
 shod! I have seen the boots of the Bishop of Tours,—white
kid, broidered with silk; a day in the bogs would tear them to
shreds. I have seen the sandals that the monks use on the
highroads,—yes, and worn them; ten pair of them have I worn
out and thrown away in a single journey. Now I shoe my feet
with the toughest hides, hard as iron; no rock can cut them,
no branches can tear them. Yet more than one pair of these
have I outworn, and many more shall I outwear ere my journeys
are ended. And I think, if God is gracious to me, that I
shall die wearing them. Better so than in a soft bed with
silken coverings. The boots of a warrior, a hunter, a
woodsman,—these are my preparation of the gospel of peace.
"Come, Gregor," he said, laying his brown hand on the
youth's shoulder, "come, wear the forester's boots with me.
This is the life to which we are called. Be strong in the
Lord, a hunter of the demons, a subduer of the wilderness, a
woodsman of the faith. Come."
The boy's eyes sparkled. He turned to his grandmother.
She shook her head vigorously.
 "Nay, father," she said, "draw not the lad away from my
side with these wild words. I need him to help me with my
labours, to cheer my old age."
"Do you need him more than the Master does?" asked
Winfried; "and will you take the wood that is fit for a bow to
make a distaff?"
"But I fear for the child. Thy life is too hard for him.
He will perish with hunger in the woods."
"Once," said Winfried, smiling, "we were camped on the
bank of the river Ohru. The table was set for the morning
meal, but my comrades cried that it was empty; the provisions
were exhausted; we must go without breakfast, and perhaps
starve before we could escape from the wilderness. While they
complained, a fish-hawk flew up from the river with flapping
wings, and let fall a great pike in the midst of the camp.
There was food enough and to spare! Never have I seen the
righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread."
"But the fierce pagans of the forest," cried the
abbess,—"they may pierce the boy with their arrows, or dash
out his brains with their axes. He is
 but a child, too young for
the danger and the strife."
"A child in years," replied Winfried, "but a man in
spirit. And if the hero fall early in the battle, he wears
the brighter crown, not a leaf withered, not a flower fallen."
The aged princess trembled a little. She drew Gregor
close to her side, and laid her hand gently on his brown hair.
"I am not sure that he wants to leave me yet. Besides,
there is no horse in the stable to give him, now, and he
cannot go as befits the grandson of a king."
Gregor looked straight into her eyes.
"Grandmother," said he, "dear grandmother, if thou wilt
not give me a horse to ride with this man of God, I will go
with him afoot."
TWO years had passed since that Christmas-eve in the cloister
of Pfalzel. A little company of pilgrims, less than a score
of men, were travelling
 slowly northward through the wide forest
that rolled over the hills of central Germany.
At the head of the band marched Winfried, clad in a tunic
of fur, with his long black robe girt high above his waist, so
that it might not hinder his stride. His hunter's boots were
crusted with snow. Drops of ice sparkled like jewels along
the thongs that bound his legs. There were no other ornaments
of his dress except the bishop's cross hanging on his breast,
and the silver clasp that fastened his cloak about his neck.
He carried a strong, tall staff in his hand, fashioned at the
top into the form of a cross.
Close beside him, keeping step like a familiar comrade,
was the young Prince Gregor. Long marches through the
wilderness had stretched his legs and broadened his back, and
made a man of him in stature as well as in spirit. His
jacket and cap were of wolf-skin, and on his shoulder he
carried an axe, with broad, shining blade. He was a mighty
woodsman now, and could make a spray of chips fly around him
as he hewed his way through the trunk of a pine-tree.
 Behind these leaders followed a pair of teamsters, guiding
a rude sledge, loaded with food and the equipage of the camp,
and drawn by two big, shaggy horses, blowing thick clouds of
steam from their frosty nostrils. Tiny icicles hung from the
hairs on their lips. Their flanks were smoking. They sank
above the fetlocks at every step in the soft snow.
Last of all came the rear guard, armed with bows and
javelins. It was no child's play, in those days, to cross
The weird woodland, sombre and illimitable, covered hill
and vale, table-land and mountain-peak. There were wide moors
where the wolves hunted in packs as if the devil drove them,
and tangled thickets where the lynx and the boar made their
lairs. Fierce bears lurked among the rocky passes, and had
not yet learned to fear the face of man. The gloomy recesses
of the forest gave shelter to inhabitants who were still more
cruel and dangerous than beasts of prey,—outlaws and sturdy
robbers and mad were-wolves and bands of wandering pillagers.
 The pilgrim who would pass from the mouth of the Tiber to
the mouth of the Rhine must trust in God and keep his arrows
loose in the quiver.
The travellers were surrounded by an ocean of trees, so
vast, so full of endless billows, that it seemed to be
pressing on every side to overwhelm them. Gnarled oaks, with
branches twisted and knotted as if in rage, rose in groves
like tidal waves. Smooth forests of beech-trees, round and
gray, swept over the knolls and slopes of land in a mighty
ground-swell. But most of all, the multitude of pines and
firs, innumerable and monotonous, with straight, stark trunks,
and branches woven together in an unbroken flood of darkest
green, crowded through the valleys and over the hills, rising
on the highest ridges into ragged crests, like the foaming
edge of breakers.
Through this sea of shadows ran a narrow stream of shining
whiteness,—an ancient Roman road, covered with snow. It was
as if some great ship had ploughed through the green ocean
long ago, and left behind it a thick, smooth wake of foam.
Along this open track the travellers held
 their way,—heavily,
for the drifts were deep; warily, for the hard winter had driven
many packs of wolves down from the moors.
The steps of the pilgrims were noiseless; but the sledges
creaked over the dry snow, and the panting of the horses
throbbed through the still air. The pale-blue shadows on the
western side of the road grew longer. The sun, declining
through its shallow arch, dropped behind the tree-tops.
Darkness followed swiftly, as if it had been a bird of prey
waiting for this sign to swoop down upon the world.
"Father," said Gregor to the leader, "surely this day's
march is done. It is time to rest, and eat, and sleep. If we
press onward now, we cannot see our steps; and will not that
be against the word of the psalmist David, who bids us not to
put confidence in the legs of a man?"
Winfried laughed. "Nay, my son Gregor," said he, "thou
hast tripped, even now, upon thy text. For David said only,
'I take no pleasure in the legs of a man.' And so say I, for
I am not minded to spare thy legs or mine, until we come farther
 on our way, and do what must be done this night. Draw thy
belt tighter, my son, and hew me out this tree that is fallen
across the road, for our campground is not here."
The youth obeyed; two of the foresters sprang to help him;
and while the soft fir-wood yielded to the stroke of the axes,
and the snow flew from the bending branches, Winfried turned
and spoke to his followers in a cheerful voice, that refreshed
them like wine.
"Courage, brothers, and forward yet a little! The moon
will light us presently, and the path is plain. Well know I
that the journey is weary; and my own heart wearies also for
the home in England, where those I love are keeping feast this
Christmas-eve. But we have work to do before we feast
to-night. For this is the Yuletide, and the heathen people of
the forest are gathered at the thunder-oak of Geismar to
worship their god, Thor. Strange things will be seen there,
and deeds which make the soul black. But we are sent to
lighten their darkness; and we will teach our kinsmen to keep
a Christmas with us such as
 the woodland has never known.
Forward, then, and stiffen up the feeble knees!"
A murmur of assent came from the men. Even the horses
seemed to take fresh heart. They flattened their backs to
draw the heavy loads, and blew the frost from their nostrils
as they pushed ahead.
The night grew broader and less oppressive. A gate of
brightness was opened secretly somewhere in the sky. Higher
and higher swelled the clear moon-flood, until it poured over
the eastern wall of forest into the road. A drove of wolves
howled faintly in the distance, but they were receding, and
the sound soon died away. The stars sparkled merrily through
the stringent air; the small, round moon shone like silver;
little breaths of dreaming wind wandered across the pointed
fir-tops, as the pilgrims toiled bravely onward, following
their clew of light through a labyrinth of darkness.
After a while the road began to open out a little. There
were spaces of meadow-land, fringed with alders, behind which
a boisterous river ran clashing through spears of ice.
Rude houses of hewn logs appeared in the
open-  ings, each one
casting a patch of inky shadow upon the snow. Then the travellers
passed a larger group of dwellings, all silent and unlighted; and
beyond, they saw a great house, with many outbuildings and
inclosed courtyards, from which the hounds bayed furiously, and a
noise of stamping horses came from the stalls. But there was no
other sound of life. The fields around lay naked to the moon.
They saw no man, except that once, on a path that skirted the
farther edge of a meadow, three dark figures passed them, running
Then the road plunged again into a dense thicket,
traversed it, and climbing to the left, emerged suddenly upon
a glade, round and level except at the northern side, where a
hillock was crowned with a huge oak-tree. It towered above
the heath, a giant with contorted arms, beckoning to the host
of lesser trees. "Here," cried Winfried, as his eyes flashed
and his hand lifted his heavy staff, "here is the Thunder-oak;
and here the cross of Christ shall break the hammer of the
false god Thor."
 WITHERED leaves still clung to the branches of the oak: torn
and faded banners of the departed summer. The bright crimson
of autumn had long since disappeared, bleached away by the
storms and the cold. But to-night these tattered remnants of
glory were red again: ancient bloodstains against the
dark-blue sky. For an immense fire had been kindled in front
of the tree. Tongues of ruddy flame, fountains of ruby
sparks, ascended through the spreading limbs and flung a
fierce illumination upward and around. The pale, pure
moonlight that bathed the surrounding forests was quenched and
eclipsed here. Not a beam of it sifted through the branches
of the oak. It stood like a pillar of cloud between the still
light of heaven and the crackling, flashing fire of earth.
But the fire itself was invisible to Winfried and his
companions. A great throng of people were gathered around it
in a half-circle, their backs to the open glade, their faces
toward the oak. Seen
 against that glowing background, it was but
the silhouette of a crowd, vague, black, formless, mysterious.
The travellers paused for a moment at the edge of the
thicket, and took counsel together.
"It is the assembly of the tribe," said one of the
foresters, "the great night of the council. I heard of it
three days ago, as we passed through one of the villages. All
who swear by the old gods have been summoned. They will
sacrifice a steed to the god of war, and drink blood, and eat
horse-flesh to make them strong. It will be at the peril of
our lives if we approach them. At least we must hide the
cross, if we would escape death."
"Hide me no cross," cried Winfried, lifting his staff,
"for I have come to show it, and to make these blind folk see
its power. There is more to be done here to-night than the
slaying of a steed, and a greater evil to be stayed than the
shameful eating of meat sacrificed to idols. I have seen it
in a dream. Here the cross must stand and be our rede."
At his command the sledge was left in the border
 of the wood, with two of the men to guard it, and the rest of
the company moved forward across the open ground. They
approached unnoticed, for all the multitude were looking
intently toward the fire at the foot of the oak.
Then Winfried's voice rang out, "Hail, ye sons of the
forest! A stranger claims the warmth of your fire in the
Swiftly, and as with a single motion, a thousand eyes were
bent upon the speaker. The semicircle opened silently in the
middle; Winfried entered with his followers; it closed again
Then, as they looked round the curving ranks, they saw
that the hue of the assemblage was not black, but
white,—dazzling, radiant, solemn. White, the robes of the
women clustered together at the points of the wide crescent;
white, the glittering byrnies of the warriors standing in
close ranks; white, the fur mantles of the aged men who held
the central palace in the circle; white, with the shimmer of
silver ornaments and the purity of lamb's-wool, the raiment of
a little group of
chil-  dren who stood close by the fire; white,
with awe and fear, the faces of all who looked at them; and over
all the flickering, dancing radiance of the flames played and
glimmered like a faint, vanishing tinge of blood on snow.
The only figure untouched by the glow was the old priest,
Hunrad, with his long, spectral robe, flowing hair and beard,
and dead-pale face, who stood with his back to the fire and
advanced slowly to meet the strangers.
"Who are you? Whence come you, and what seek you here?"
"Your kinsman am I, of the German brotherhood," answered
Winfried, "and from England, beyond the sea, have I come to
bring you a greeting from that land, and a message from the
All-Father, whose servant I am."
"Welcome, then," said Hunrad, "welcome, kinsman, and be
silent; for what passes here is too high to wait, and must be
done before the moon crosses the middle heaven, unless,
indeed, thou hast some sign or token from the gods. Canst
thou work miracles?"
 The question came sharply, as if a sudden gleam of hope
had flashed through the tangle of the old priest's mind. But
Winfried's voice sank lower and a cloud of disappointment
passed over his face as he replied: "Nay, miracles have I
never wrought, though I have heard of many; but the All-Father
has given no power to my hands save such as belongs to common
"Stand still, then, thou common man," said Hunrad,
scornfully, "and behold what the gods have called us hither to
do. This night is the death-night of the sun-god, Baldur the
Beautiful, beloved of gods and men. This night is the hour of
darkness and the power of winter, of sacrifice and mighty
fear. This night the great Thor, the god of thunder and war,
to whom this oak is sacred, is grieved for the death of
Baldur, and angry with this people because they have forsaken
his worship. Long is it since an offering has been laid upon
his altar, long since the roots of his holy tree have been fed
with blood. Therefore its leaves have withered before the
time, and its boughs are heavy with death. Therefore the
 and the Wends have beaten us in battle. Therefore the
harvests have failed, and the wolf-hordes have ravaged the
folds, and the strength has departed from the bow, and the
wood of the spear has broken, and the wild boar has slain the
huntsman. Therefore the plague has fallen on our dwellings,
and the dead are more than the living in all our villages.
Answer me, ye people, are not these things true? "
A hoarse sound of approval ran through the circle. A
chant, in which the voices of the men and women blended, like
the shrill wind in the pinetrees above the rumbling thunder of
a waterfall, rose and fell in rude cadences.
O Thor, the Thunderer
Mighty and merciless,
Spare us from smiting!
Heave not thy hammer,
Angry, aginst us;
Plague not thy people.
Take from our treasure
Richest Of ransom.
Silver we send thee,
Jewels and javelins,
All our possessions,
Priceless, we proffer.
Sheep will we slaughter,
Steeds will we sacrifice;
Bright blood shall bathe
O tree of Thunder,
Life-floods shall lave thee,
Strong wood of wonder.
Mighty, have mercy,
Smile as no more,
Spare us and save us,
Spare us, Thor! Thor!
With two great shouts the song ended, and stillness
followed so intense that the crackling of the fire was heard
distinctly. The old priest stood silent for a moment. His
shaggy brows swept down ever his eyes like ashes quenching
flame. Then he lifted his face and spoke.
"None of these things will please the god. More costly is
the offering that shall cleanse your sin, more precious the
crimson dew that shall send
 new life into this holy tree of
blood. Thor claims your dearest and your noblest gift."
Hunrad moved nearer to the group of children who stood
watching the fire and the swarms of spark-serpents darting
upward. They had heeded none of the priest's words, and did
not notice now that he approached them, so eager were they to
see which fiery snake would go highest among the oak branches.
Foremost among them, and most intent on the pretty game, was
a boy like a sunbeam, slender and quick, with blithe brown
eyes and laughing lips. The priest's hand was laid upon his
shoulder. The boy turned and looked up in his face.
"Here," said the old man, with his voice vibrating as when
a thick rope is strained by a ship swinging from her moorings,
"here is the chosen one, the eldest son of the Chief, the
darling of the people. Hearken, Bernhard, wilt thou go to
Valhalla, where the heroes dwell with the gods, to bear a
message to Thor?"
The boy answered, swift and clear:
"Yes, priest, I will go if my father bids me. Is
 it far away? Shall I run quickly? Must I take my bow and
arrows for the wolves?"
The boy's father, the Chieftain Gundhar, standing among
his bearded warriors, drew his breath deep, and leaned so
heavily on the handle of his spear that the wood cracked. And
his wife, Irma, bending forward from the ranks of women,
pushed the golden hair from her forehead with one hand. The
other dragged at the silver chain about her neck until the
rough links pierced her flesh, and the red drops fell unheeded
on her breast.
A sigh passed through the crowd, like the murmur of the
forest before the storm breaks. Yet no one spoke save Hunrad:
"Yes, my Prince, both bow and spear shalt thou have, for
the way is long, and thou art a brave huntsman. But in
darkness thou must journey for a little space, and with eyes
blindfolded. Fearest thou?"
"Naught fear I," said the boy, "neither darkness, nor the
great bear, nor the were-wolf. For I am Gundhar's son, and the
defender of my folk."
 Then the priest led the child in his raiment of
lamb's-wool to a broad stone in front of the fire. He gave
him his little bow tipped with silver, and his spear with
shining head of steel. He bound the child's eyes with a white
cloth, and bade him kneel beside the stone with his face to
the cast. Unconsciously the wide arc of spectators drew
inward toward the centre, as the ends of the bow draw together
when the cord is stretched. Winfried moved noiselessly until
he stood close behind the priest.
The old man stooped to lift a black hammer of stone from
the ground,—the sacred hammer of the god Thor. Summoning all
the strength of his withered arms, he swung it high in the
air. It poised for an instant above the child's fair
head—then turned to fall.
One keen cry shrilled out from where the women stood:
"Me! take me! not Bernhard!"
The flight of the mother toward her child was swift as the
falcon's swoop. But swifter still was the hand of the
Winfried's heavy staff thrust mightily against
 the hammer's
handle as it fell. Sideways it glanced from the old man's grasp,
and the black stone, striking on the altar's edge, split in
twain. A shout of awe and joy rolled along the living circle.
The branches of the oak shivered. The flames leaped higher. As
the shout died away the people saw the lady Irma, with her arms
clasped round her child, and above them, on the altar-stone,
Winfried, his face shining like the face of an angel.
A SWIFT mountain-flood rolling down its channel; a huge rock
tumbling from the hill-side and falling in mid-stream: the
baffled waters broken and confused, pausing in their flow,
dash high against the rock, foaming and murmuring, with
divided impulse, uncertain whether to turn to the right or the
Even so Winfried's bold deed fell into the midst of the
thoughts and passions of the council. They were at a
standstill. Anger and wonder, reverence and joy and confusion
surged through the crowd.
 They knew not which way to move: to
resent the intrusion of the stranger as an insult to their gods,
or to welcome him as the rescuer of their prince.
The old priest crouched by the altar, silent. Conflicting
counsels troubled the air. Let the sacrifice go forward; the
gods must be appeased. Nay, the boy must not die; bring the
chieftain's best horse and slay it in his stead; it will be
enough; the holy tree loves the blood of horses. Not so,
there is a better counsel yet; seize the stranger whom the
gods have led hither as a victim and make his life pay the
forfeit of his daring.
The withered leaves on the oak rustled and whispered
overhead. The fire flared and sank again. The angry voices
clashed against each other and fell like opposing waves. Then
the chieftain Gundhar struck the earth with his spear and gave
"All have spoken, but none are agreed. There is no voice
of the council. Keep silence now, and let the stranger speak.
His words shall give us judgment, whether he is to live or to
 Winfried lifted himself high upon the altar, drew a roll
of parchment from his bosom, and began to read.
"A letter from the great Bishop of Rome, who sits on a
golden throne, to the people of the forest, Hessians and
Thuringians, Franks and Saxons. In nomine Domini, sanctae et
individuae Trinitatis, amen!"
A murmur of awe ran through the crowd. "It is the sacred
tongue of the Romans; the tongue that is heard and understood
by the wise men of every land. There is magic in it.
Winfried went on to read the letter, translating it into
the speech of the people.
"We have sent unto you our Brother Boniface, and appointed
him your bishop, that he may teach you the only true faith,
and baptise you, and lead you back from the ways of error to
the path of salvation. Hearken to him in all things like a
father. Bow your hearts to his teaching. He comes not for
earthly gain, but for the gain of your souls. Depart from
evil works. Worship
 not the false gods, for they are devils.
Offer no more bloody sacrifices, nor eat the flesh of horses, but
do as our Brother Boniface commands you. Build a house for him
that he may dwell among you, and a church where you may offer
your prayers to the only living God, the Almighty King of
It was a splendid message: proud, strong, peaceful,
loving. The dignity of the words imposed mightily upon the
hearts of the people. They were quieted as men who have
listened to a lofty strain of music.
"Tell us, then," said Gundhar, "what is the word that thou
bringest to us from the Almighty? What is thy counsel for the
tribes of the woodland on this night of sacrifice?"
"This is the word, and this is the counsel," answered
Winfried. "Not a drop of blood shall fall to-night, save that
which pity has drawn from the breast of your princess, in love
for her child. Not a life shall be blotted out in the
darkness to-night; but the great shadow of the tree which
hides you from the light of heaven shall be swept away. For
 this is the birth-night of the white Christ, son of the
All-Father, and Saviour of mankind. Fairer is He than Baldur
the Beautiful, greater than Odin the Wise, kinder than Freya
the Good. Since He has come to earth the bloody sacrifice
must cease. The dark Thor, on whom you vainly call, is dead.
Deep in the shades of Niffelheim he is lost forever. His
power in the world is broken. Will you serve a helpless god?
See, my brothers, you call this tree his oak. Does he dwell
here? Does he protect it?"
A troubled voice of assent rose from the throng. The
people stirred uneasily. Women covered their eyes. Hunrad
lifted his head and muttered hoarsely, "Thor! take vengeance!
Winfried beckoned to Gregor. "Bring the axes, thine and
one for me. Now, young woodsman, show thy craft! The
king-tree of the forest must fall, and swiftly, or all is
The two men took their places facing each other, one on
each side of the oak. Their cloaks were flung aside, their
heads bare. Carefully they felt the ground with their feet,
seeking a firm grip of the
 earth. Firmly they grasped the
axe-helves and swung the shining blades.
"Tree-god!" cried Winfried, "art thou angry? Thus we
"Tree-god!" answered Gregor, "art thou mighty? Thus we
Clang! clang! the alternate strokes beat time upon the
hard, ringing wood. The axe-heads glittered in their rhythmic
flight, like fierce eagles circling about their quarry.
The broad flakes of wood flew from the deepening gashes in
the sides of the oak. The huge trunk quivered. There was a
shuddering in the branches. Then the great wonder of
Winfried's life came to pass.
Out of the stillness of the winter night, a mighty rushing
noise sounded overhead.
Was it the ancient gods on their white battlesteeds, with
their black hounds of wrath and their arrows of lightning,
sweeping through the air to destroy their foes?
A strong, whirling wind passed over the treetops. It
gripped the oak by its branches and tore
 it from the roots.
Backward it fell, like a ruined tower, groaning and crashing as
it split asunder in four great pieces.
Winfried let his axe drop, and bowed his head for a moment
in the presence of almighty power.
Then he turned to the people, "Here is the timber," he
cried, "already felled and split for your new building. On
this spot shall rise a chapel to the true God and his servant
"And here," said he, as his eyes fell on a young fir-tree,
standing straight and green, with its top pointing toward the
stars, amid the divided ruins of the fallen oak, "here is the
living tree, with no stain of blood upon it, that shall be the
sign of your new worship. See how it points to the sky. Call
it the tree of the Christ-child. Take it up and carry it to
the chieftain's hall. You shall go no more into the shadows
of the forest to keep your feasts with secret rites of shame.
You shall keep them at home, with laughter and songs and rites
of love. The thunder-oak has fallen, and I think the day is
coming when there shall not be a home
 in all Germany where the
children are not gathered around the green fir-tree to rejoice in
the birth-night of Christ."
So they took the little fir from its place, and carried it
in joyous procession to the edge of the glade, and laid it on
the sledge. The horses tossed their heads and drew their load
bravely, as if the new burden had made it lighter.
When they came to the house of Gundhar, he bade them throw
open the doors of the hall and set the tree in the midst of
it. They kindled lights among the branches until it seemed to
be tangled full of fire-flies. The children encircled it,
wondering, and the sweet odour of the balsam filled the house.
Then Winfried stood beside the chair of Gundhar, on the
dais at the end of the hall, and told the story of Bethlehem;
of the babe in the manger, of the shepherds on the hills, of
the host of angels and their midnight song. All the people
listened, charmed into stillness.
But the boy Bernhard, on Irma's knee, folded in her soft
arms, grew restless as the story
length-  ened, and began to prattle
softly at his mother's ear.
"Mother," whispered the child, "why did you cry out so
loud, when the priest was going to send me to Valhalla?"
"Oh, hush, my child," answered the mother, and pressed him
closer to her side.
"Mother," whispered the boy again, laying his finger on
the stains upon her breast, "see, your dress is red! What are
these stains? Did some one hurt you?"
The mother closed his mouth with a kiss. "Dear, be still,
The boy obeyed. His eyes were heavy with sleep. But he
heard the last words of Winfried as he spoke of the angelic
messengers, flying over the hills of Judea and singing as they
flew. The child wondered and dreamed and listened. Suddenly
his face grew bright. He put his lips close to Irma's cheek
"Oh, mother!" he whispered very low, "do not speak. Do
you hear them? Those angels have come back again. They are
singing now behind the tree."
 And some say that it was true; but others say that it was
only Gregor and his companions at the lower end of the hall,
chanting their Christmas hymn:
All glory be to God on high,
And on the earth be peace!
Good-will, henceforth, from heaven to man,
Begin and never cease.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics