Originally published December 21, 2012, on Livejournal, for Terrible Minds’ weekly flash fiction challenge, where the prompt was “The War on Christmas.” Here I am imagining an alternate history where the German states never became Christian. Small corrections made in reposting it here.
In the Year of Our Lord 1844, as every schoolchild knows, Prince Albert wrought peace between England and the German states.
This is how it was accomplished.
It was an accident of his campaign in Hesse that Prince Albert found himself camped outside the city of Geismar on the eve of Christ’s-Mass, which the heathens called Yule. It was snowing, and this did not escape the notice of the two middle-aged men gathered inside the Prince’s command tent.
“It is inadvisable,” said the Duke of Normandy, Laurence Martel, “to march up the hill in snow towards…” He raised and lowered his hand, demonstrating, with wordless frustration, their goal. Then he brightened and added, “Perhaps a flanking action –”
“There’s no time,” Prince Ernest of Thuringia snapped. “Nor can we split our forces like that.”
Despair returned to the Duke’s face. “Then… perhaps if we can hope for superior firepower. They haven’t got rifles, have they?”
Ernest barked a laugh. “We aren’t savages, you know.”
Prince Albert listened to his companions for some time longer, but eventually he rose and walked out of the tent. Later he would note the silence of this moment — so still he believed he could hear the breath of the sky. If he noted how uncanny that was, it is not mentioned in his memoirs; nor, it seems, did he reflect on his odd place in this war, as the husband of a Christian ruler and the child of a pagan land.
Prince Ernest and the Duke soon followed him out. They found him staring to the south, at the hill city of Geismar, alight with lamp-light, rising out of the plain like an island rising out of the sea. Less than a mile distant, it might as well have been impenetrable.
Prince Albert looked to the west instead. Against the setting sun, he could see outlined a tree. It took him some time, he records, to realize it must have been truly of epic proportions to block out part of the horizon like it did. “Brother,” he said, in German, “What is that tree?”
“Donar’s Oak,” the Prince of Thuringia replied. “The local people equate it with Yggdrasil, the World Tree.” He gave a disdainful shrug. This was an unorthodox belief, even for a heathen.
“Will it be defended?”
“I can’t imagine it’s a strategic target.” After a moment’s reflection, he added, “Though I expect there are some few priests of Donar there, and they’ll defend it with their lives.”
Prince Albert considered for a long time — so long that the sun sank in the west, leaving them in full darkness. The breeze continued to whisper possibilities. Eventually, he cleared his throat, and spoke. “Normandy, be prepared to march at dawn.” Turning to Ernest, he said, “I would like an axe.”
The battle at Donar’s Oak was accomplished without fanfare. There were some dozen priests tending the tree, and they resisted with passion and abandon, but they were overwhelmed by the strength of the infantry. Preferring death to indignity, few of the priests had allowed themselves to be captured.
The surviving priests stood guarded by a circle of infantry in the shadow of the leafless giant. When the sun was high, Prince Albert emerged from the milling soldiers and stepped up to the mounded dirt around the base of the tree, where heathen idols had been scattered. He was wearing a dress uniform and he carried an axe. He looked to either side of him as if awaiting a cue.
The gathered people — heathens and soldiers both — seemed to be holding their breaths. The impact of the axe hitting wood was a great exhalation.
Prince Albert was a fit man, but the tree was fitter, and His Highness was soon sweating and panting. He removed first the uniform jacket, then his shirt. By the time he began making the lower notch, his hair was wild and he looked like nothing so much as a common laborer.
Lightning then broke from the clear sky, its only warning a ripple of electricity through the air. It struck the crown of the tree, and the force of the impact drove a wedge between the main limbs of the tree. With a tremendous creak-crack, the vast trunk of the tree was split.
When it landed, the tree was in three smoldering sections. Sap sizzled beneath its bark.
Prince Albert seemed a little uncertain at this moment, and summoned forth his brother to converse in whispers. The Prince of Thuringia only made a gesture of confusion.
The symbols must have seemed clear enough for His Highness to continue. “The Most High provides,” he said, taking on the air of the orator. “See how he has split this oak into three parts, representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?” He made the sign of the cross as he said this.
The priests of Donar were murmuring in their little circle. Prince Albert looked at their captors and said, “Deliver them to the gates of Geismar, and then free them.” While the soldiers frowned at their orders, His Highness addessed himself to the captives in German. “Clearly the hammer of Donar has sundered his monument tree into three parts. I leave to your wisdom the interpretation.” As he said this, he approached one of the smoldering limbs and broke off a branch, still decorated with dry, rattling leaves. With its woody end, he scratched in the dirt three interlocking triangles.
Prince Albert had taken Geismar within the week, and the rest of Hesse within the next year. But perhaps what is most remembered from that day is how Prince Albert bore with him the branch of the sundered tree, and carried it with him back to England.
And this is why today we celebrate Christ’s-Mass with garlands of oak leaves.