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The Holy Night

The Holy Night by Selma Lagerlöf
Wall hanging made in 1806 by the Småland artist Anders Eriksson depicting the birth of Christ. Photo: Birgit Brånvall / Nordic Museum (CC BY-NC-ND)

This Christmas story by Selma Lagerlöf is taken from the short story collection Christ Legend first published in 1904.

When I was five years old, I had such a great sadness. I don't know if I've had a bigger one since.

It was then that my grandmother died. Every day until then she had sat on the corner sofa in her room and told stories.

I can't remember anything else, except that grandma sat and told and told from morning to night and that we children sat quietly next to her and listened. It was a wonderful life. No other children had it like us.

I don't remember much about my grandmother. I remember that she had beautiful, chalky white hair and that she walked very crooked and that she was always knitting on a sock.

I also remember that when she had told me a story, she used to put her hand on my head, and she would say: "And all that is so true, like I see you and you see me."

I also remember that she could sing songs, but she didn't do that every day. One of those songs was about a knight and a sea oar, and it had the refrain, "Blowing cold, cold weather over the sea."

Then I remember a little prayer she taught me and a hymn verse.

Of all the tales she told me, I have only a vague and faulty memory. There is only one of them that I remember so well that I could tell it. It is a little story about the birth of Jesus.

See, that's almost all I remember about my grandmother, except for the one thing I remember most, and that's the great missing when she was gone.

I remember that morning, when the corner sofa was empty and it was impossible to comprehend how the hours of the day would come to an end. I remember that. I'll never forget it.

And I remember that we children were brought forward to kiss the hand of the dead. And we were afraid to do so, but then someone told us that it was the last time we could thank grandmother for all the joy she had given us.

And I remember how the fairy tales and songs were driven away from the farm, packed in a long, black coffin, and how they never came back.

I remember that it was something out of life. It was as if the door to a whole beautiful, enchanted world, where we used to be able to go in and out freely, had been closed. And now there was no one who knew how to open that door.

And I remember that we children eventually learned to play with dolls and toys and live like other children, and then it could look as if we no longer missed our grandmother or remembered her.

But to this day, after forty years, as I sit collecting the legends about Christ that I have heard in the East, the little story of Jesus' birth that my grandmother used to tell comes to life within me. And I feel like talking about it again and adding it to my collection.

The Holy Night

It was Christmas Day, when everyone had gone to church except Grandma and me. I think we were alone in the whole house. We hadn't been taken because one was too young and the other too old. And we were both sad that we hadn't been able to go to the carol singing and see the Christmas lights.

But as we sat there in our solitude, Grandma began to tell us.

- It was a man, she said, who went out into the dark night to borrow a fire. He went from cottage to cottage, knocking. "Dear, help me!" he said. "My wife has just given birth to a child, and I must make a fire to keep her and the little one warm."

But it was deep night, so that all the people were asleep. No one answered him.

The man walked and walked. At last he saw a fire glowing in the distance. He walked in that direction and saw that the fire was burning out in the open. A number of white sheep were sleeping around the fire, and an old shepherd was watching over the flock.

When the man who wanted to borrow a fire came to the sheep, he saw three large dogs sleeping at the shepherd's feet. They all three awoke when he came, and opened their wide mouths, as if to bark, but not a sound was heard. The man saw the hairs stand up on their backs, he saw their sharp teeth gleaming white in the firelight, and they rushed at him. He felt one of them bite his leg and one his hand and one hanging on his throat. But the jaws and teeth with which the dogs were to bite would not obey them, and the man suffered not the slightest injury.

Now the man wanted to move on to get what he needed. But the sheep were so close together, back to back, that he could not get through. So the man got on the backs of the animals and walked on them to the fire. And none of the animals woke up or moved.

So far, Grandma had been able to tell me undisturbed, but now I couldn't help interrupting her.

- Why didn't they, Grandma? I asked.

- You'll find out in a moment," said Grandma, continuing her story.

- When the man was near enough to the fire, the shepherd looked up. He was an old, angry man, who was unkind and harsh to all men. And when he saw a stranger coming, he drew a long, pointed staff, which he used to hold in his hand when he was shepherding his flock, and threw it at him. And the staff went waving towards the man, but before it struck him, it swung aside and whizzed past him far out into the field.

When Grandma had got that far, I interrupted her again.

- Grandma, why didn't the cane want to hit the man? But Grandma didn't bother to answer me, she continued with her story.

- Now the man came to the shepherd and said to him: "Dear, help me and let me borrow a little fire! My wife has just given birth to a child, and I must make a fire to warm her and the little one."

The shepherd would have preferred to say no, but thinking that the dogs could not have hurt the man, that the sheep would not have run for him, and that his staff would not have wanted to trap him, he became a little afraid and dared not refuse him what he asked.

"Take as much as you need!" he said to the man.

But the fire was almost burnt out. There were no logs or twigs left, but only a great heap of embers, and the stranger had neither shovel nor scoop in which to carry the red coals.

When the shepherd saw this, he said again, "Take as much as you need!" and he was glad that the man would not be able to carry any fire with him.

But the man bent down, picked the coals out of the ashes with his bare hands and put them in his cloak. And the coals did not scorch his hands when he touched them, nor did they scorch his cloak, but the man carried them away as if they had been nuts or apples.

But here the storyteller was interrupted for the third time.

- Grandma, why didn't the coal want to burn the man?

- You shall hear, said grandmother, and so she went on.

- When that shepherd, who was such a wicked and angry man, saw all this, he began to wonder to himself: "What kind of a night can this be, since the dogs do not bite, the sheep do not scare, the spear does not kill, and the fire does not burn?" He called the stranger back and said to him: "What night is this? And whence is it that all things show thee mercy?"

The man said, "I cannot tell you unless you see for yourself." And he would go away, that he might soon light a fire to warm his wife and child.

But then the shepherd thought that he didn't want to lose sight of the man before he had found out what all this could mean. And he arose and went after him, till he found his home.

Then the shepherd saw that the man had not so much as a hut to live in, but he had his wife and child lying in a rock cave, where there was nothing but bare, cold stone walls.

But the shepherd thought that the poor innocent child might freeze to death there in the cave, and though he was a hard man, he was moved and thought he would help the child. And he untied his knapsack from his shoulder, and from it he took out a soft white sheepskin, and gave it to the strange man, and said that he would let the child sleep on it.

But as he showed that he also could be merciful, his eyes were opened, and he saw what he could not see before, and heard what he could not hear before.

He saw that around him stood a dense ring of little silver-winged angels. And every one of them held a stringed instrument in his hand, and they all sang with a loud voice that tonight the Saviour was born, who would save the world from its sins.

Then he knew that all things were so happy this night, that they would do no harm.

And it was not only around the shepherd that there were angels, but he saw them everywhere. They sat inside the cave, and they sat outside on the mountain, and they flew under the sky. They came walking along the road in great flocks, and as they passed by, they stopped and glanced at the child.

There was such rejoicing and such joy and singing and playing, and all this he saw in the dark night, where before he could not have foreseen anything. He was so glad that his eyes had been opened that he fell on his knees and thanked God.

But when Grandma had come this far, she sighed and said:

- But what that shepherd saw, we could also see, for the angels fly under the sky every Christmas night, if only we were able to discern them.

And then Grandma put her hand on my head and said:

- Remember this, for it is as true as I see you and you see me. It is not light and lamps that matter, nor moon and sun, but the necessary thing is that we have eyes to see the glory of God.

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