“When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and knew that they had been with Jesus.”
— Acts of the Apostles, IV:13
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Christmas Eve, 724 A.D. Yule to the German tribes gathered at Geismar to offer winter sacrifices. A group of cold and weary Pilgrims, wrapped to the eyes in fur, their legs and feet bound with skins, come trudging out of the Hessian forest. At their head strides Winfrith (a.k.a. Boniface), far-traveled native of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex.
Staff in hand, he leads his brother peregrini through the knee-deep snow into a wide clearing tinted red by the leaping flames of a vast bonfire. Black against the ruddy glare stand several hundred Thuringian Saxons, their backs to the open glade and the advancing travelers. Above their heads, the shadows of its bare branches twisting weirdly in the lurid and smoky light, the massive Donar Oak towers into the night sky.
“Friends!” cries Winfrith in the Saxon tongue, elbowing his way to the front of the murmuring crowd. “A kinsman claims your hospitality.”
Instantly every eye is upon him. With a single glance he takes in the forbidding scene: the great tree; the leaping fire; before the flames a large black stone; upon the stone a fair-haired youth; above the youth a black-robed priest; in the priest’s hand a knife of polished stone.
“What kinsman?” demands the priest. “Who dares interrupt these solemnities?”
“A kinsman bearing good news,” Winfrith replies. “News of redemption and release!”
At this word the youth upon the stone raises his head and fixes his eyes upon the speaker. But Winfrith does not return his gaze. Instead, nodding to his followers, he deftly draws a broad-axe from his belt. Bright blades gleam from beneath the cloaks of his two foremost companions. German cries ring out in response to the stranger’s apparent challenge. German swords fly singing from their scabbards.
But Winfrith and his men have not come to fight the Saxons. Their eyes are upon the Oak. Grim and unspeaking, they make a mad dash for the tree. Their axe-helves are up, their broad blades are swinging, bright in the coppery light. Chips fly and swords clatter as hundreds of angry Saxons descend upon them with shouts.
“Sacrilege!” cries the frenzied priest. “Thor, take vengeance! The tree is sacred to Thor!”
“Kill the blasphemers!” cry the frantic tribesmen as the sacrificial victim disappears into the wood. A bearded chieftain aims a powerful blow at Winfrith’s head, but he ducks beneath the blade and leaps to the far side of the Oak. A moment later the Pilgrims are entirely surrounded.
Suddenly the din of conflict is swallowed up in a sound like that of mighty rushing waters. A wind like a wave of the sea sweeps over the surrounding forest. It catches in the branches of the Donar Oak. The tree trembles and groans; and then, as Thuringians and Englishmen alike strive to leap clear of its shuddering bulk, the great trunk splits with a loud crack and crashes to the ground.
Stunned, the Saxons stand bewildered and mute. The black-robed priest falls fainting across the stone. Once more all eyes are trained upon the Pilgrim. But they regard him now with looks of fear and wonder instead of vengeful hate.
“Fear not!” shouts Winfrith, leaping to the top of the stone and pointing at the shards of the shattered Oak. “Look! See what grows among the splinters!”
Everyone looks. Something small, green, and fragile stands trembling amidst the wreckage of the fallen giant: a tiny fir tree, no taller than a child of six winters.
“A green shoot from the dead stump!” cries the Englishman. “Just as the prophet foretold, Christ the Seed has become Christ the Branch! My friends, I charge you now! Take this little fir tree into your homes! Deck it with candles in commemoration of the Haeland’s birth! Sing, dance, and rejoice! For the darkness is past and the light is dawning!”
And strange to say, instead of taking Winfrith’s head, the Saxons do exactly as he proposes.*
* Based on “The First Christmas Tree,” by Henry Van Dyke.