The Heliand is a Gospel of Jesus Christ written in Old Saxon. It was composed by an unknown priest in the early 9th century. It was probably written during or just after the reign of Charlemagne.
But this was not just a translation of the Gospel into Old Saxon. No. This was a re-telling of the Gospel in terms familiar to the Saxons. The author transformed a Mediterranean monotheistic message of love and harmony to resonate deeply with the Germanic Saxon polytheistic warrior culture without changing Jesus' message. Genius.
Charlemagne was brutal to the Saxons. He took them as hostages then killed them when they went back to worshiping their Gods. He cut down their sacred groves, passed laws that penalized paganism with death, and generally converted them to Christianity at the point of a sword.
The author of the Heliand evidently disagreed with this approach. There are subtle digs that equate Charlemagne, the unwanted foreign overlord of the Saxons, to Cesar, the unwanted foreign overlord of the Jews. The author seemed to think that the Saxons would of course choose Christ over Odin just given a clear message that would convince them. One they understood. No swords necessary.
He seems to have succeeded. Father G. Roland Murphy, who did a fantastic job of translating The Heliand, posits that the German tradition of the Warrior for Christ came from the Heliand and the depiction of Christ's Warrior Companions therein.
But on to Christmas, the Birth of Christ.
From Father Murphy's translation:
Then there came a decree from fort Rome, from the great Octavian who had power over the whole world, an order from Caesar to his wide realm, sent to every king enthroned in his homeland and to all Caesar's army commanders governing the people of any territory. The decree said that everyone living outside their own country should return to their homeland upon receipt of the message. It stated that all the warrior heroes were to return to their assembly place, each one was to go back to the clan of which he was a family member by birth in a hillfort ... The good Joseph went also with his household, just as God, ruling mightily, willed it. He made his way to his shining home, the hillfort at Bethlehem. This was the clan assembly place for both of them, for Joseph the hero and for Mary, the holy girl. This was the place where in olden days the throne of the great and noble king David stood for as long as he reigned, enthroned on high, an earl of the Hebrews. Joseph and Mary both belonged by birth to his household, they were of good family lineage, of David's own clan.
"Notice how this part of the story replaces the reference to Quirinius, governor of Syria, with army commanders governing occupied territories exactly the situation of the defeated Saxons. And the last line is evidence that even as early as the Dark Ages, Europeans needed extra reassurance that Jesus came from noble blood."( Read more... )( As horse-herders watched their herds by night; an angel of the lord came down and glory shone around.... )