As part of her collection “Christ Legends” Selma Lagerlöf wrote the story “The Holy Night,” a Christmas-themed tale first published sometime in the early 1900s but before her death in 1940. It tells the story of the author at five years old who experienced a great sadness when her grandmother passed which made her recall a story the old woman used to tell about the Holy Night.
When I was five years old I had such a great sorrow! I hardly know if I have had a greater since then.
It was then that my grandmother died. Up to that time, she used to sit every day on the corner sofa in her room, and tell stories.
I remember grandmother told story after story from morning till night, and we children sat beside her, quite still, and listened. It was a glorious life! No other children had such happy times as we did.
It isn’t much that I recollect about my grandmother. I remember that she had very beautiful snow-white hair, and stooped when she walked, and that she always sat and knitted a stocking.
And I even remember that when she had finished a story, she used to lay her hand on my head and say: “All this is as true, as true as that I see you and you see me.”
I also remember that she could sing songs, but this she did not do every day. One of the songs was about a knight and a sea-troll, and had this refrain: “It blows cold, cold weather at sea.”
Then I remember a little prayer she taught me, and a verse of a hymn.
Of all the stories she told me, I have but a dim and imperfect recollection. Only one of them do I remember so well that I should be able to repeat it. It is a little story about Jesus’ birth.
Well, this is nearly all that I can recall about my grandmother, except the thing which I remember best; and that is, the great loneliness when she was gone.
I remember the morning when the corner sofa stood empty and when it was impossible to understand how the days would ever come to an end. That I remember. That I shall never forget!
And I recollect that we children were brought forward to kiss the hand of the dead and that we were afraid to do it. But then some one said to us that it would be the last time we could thank grandmother for all the pleasure she had given us.
And I remember how the stories and songs were driven from the homestead, shut up in a long black casket, and how they never came back again.
I remember that something was gone from our lives. It seemed as if the door to a whole beautiful, enchanted world—where before we had been free to go in and out—had been closed. And now there was no one who knew how to open that door.
And I remember that, little by little, we children learned to play with dolls and toys, and to live like other children. And then it seemed as though we no longer missed our grandmother, or remembered her.
But even today—after forty years—as I sit here and gather together the legends about Christ, which I heard out there in the Orient, there awakes within me the little legend of Jesus’ birth that my grandmother used to tell, and I feel impelled to tell it once again, and to let it also be included in my collection.
It was a Christmas Day and all the folks had driven to church except grandmother and I. I believe we were all alone in the house. We had not been permitted to go along, because one of us was too old and the other was too young. And we were sad, both of us, because we had not been taken to early mass to hear the singing and to see the Christmas candles.
But as we sat there in our loneliness, grandmother began to tell a story.
There was a man who went out in the dark night to borrow live coals to kindle a fire. He went from hut to hut and knocked. “Dear friends, help me!” said he. “My wife has just given birth to a child, and I must make a fire to warm her and the little one.”
But it was way in the night, and all the people were asleep. No one replied.
The man walked and walked. At last, he saw the gleam of a fire a long way off. Then he went in that direction and saw that the fire was burning in the open. A lot of sheep were sleeping around the fire, and an old shepherd sat and watched over the flock.
When the man who wanted to borrow fire came up to the sheep, he saw that three big dogs lay asleep at the shepherd’s feet. All three awoke when the man approached and opened their great jaws, as though they wanted to bark; but not a sound was heard. The man noticed that the hair on their backs stood up and that their sharp, white teeth glistened in the firelight. They dashed toward him.
He felt that one of them bit at his leg and one at this hand and that one clung to this throat.
But their jaws and teeth wouldn’t obey them, and the man didn’t suffer the least harm.
Now the man wished to go farther, to get what he needed. But the sheep lay back to back and so close to one another that he couldn’t pass them. Then the man stepped upon their backs and walked over them and up to the fire. And not one of the animals awoke or moved.
When the man had almost reached the fire, the shepherd looked up. He was a surly old man, who was unfriendly and harsh toward human beings. And when he saw the strange man coming, he seized the long, spiked staff, which he always held in his hand when he tended his flock, and threw it at him. The staff came right toward the man, but, before it reached him, it turned off to one side and whizzed past him, far out in the meadow.
Now the man came up to the shepherd and said to him: “Good man, help me, and lend me 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 rather have said no, but when he pondered that the dogs couldn’t hurt the man, and the sheep had not run from him and that the staff had not wished to strike him, he was a little afraid, and dared not deny the man that which he asked.
“Take as much as you need!” he said to the man.
But then the fire was nearly burnt out. There were no logs or branches left, only a big heap of live coals, and the stranger had neither spade nor shovel wherein he could carry the red-hot coals.
When the shepherd saw this, he said again: “Take as much as you need!” And he was glad that the man wouldn’t be able to take away any coals.
But the man stopped and picked coals from the ashes with his bare hands, and laid them in his mantle. And he didn’t burn his hands when he touched them, nor did the coals scorch his mantle; but he carried them away as if they had been nuts or apples.
And when the shepherd, who was such a cruel and hardhearted man, saw all this, he began to wonder to himself. What kind of a night is this, when the dogs do not bite, the sheep are not scared, the staff does not kill, or the fire scorch? He called the stranger back and said to him: “What kind of a night is this? And how does it happen that all things show you compassion?”
Then said the man: “I cannot tell you if you yourself do not see it.” And he wished to go his way, that he might soon make a fire and warm his wife and child.
But the shepherd did not wish to lose sight of the man before he had found out what all this might portend. He got up and followed the man till they came to the place where he lived.
Then the shepherd saw the man didn’t have so much as a hut to dwell in, but that his wife and babe were lying in a mountain grotto, where there was nothing except the cold and naked stone walls.
But the shepherd thought that perhaps the poor innocent child might freeze to death there in the grotto; and, although he was a hard man, he was touched, and thought he would like to help it. And he loosened the knapsack from his shoulder, took from it a soft white sheepskin, gave it to the strange man, and said that he should let the child sleep on it.
But just as soon as he showed that he, too, could be merciful, his eyes were opened, and he saw what he had not been able to see before, and heard what he could not have heard before.
He saw that all around him stood a ring of little silver-winged angels, and each held a stringed instrument, and all sang in loud tones that tonight the Saviour was born who should redeem the world from its sins.
Then he understood how all things were so happy this night that they didn’t want to do anything wrong.
And it was not only around the shepherd that there were angels, but he saw them everywhere. They sat inside the grotto, they sat outside on the mountain, and they flew under the heavens. They came marching in great companies, and, as they passed, they paused and cast a glance at the child.
There was such jubilation and such gladness and songs and play! And all this he saw in the dark night whereas before he could not have made out anything. He was so happy because his eyes had been opened that he fell upon his knees and thanked God.
What that shepherd saw, we might also see, for the angels fly down from heaven every Christmas Eve, if we could only see them.
You must remember this, for it is as true, as true as that I see you and you see me. It is not revealed by the light of lamps or candles, and it does not depend upon sun and moon, but that which is needful is that we have such eyes as can see God’s glory.