1,500 Years Ago: In Search of the True Meaning of Christmas: A Germanic Christmas Story
As the Western Roman Empire disintegrated during the 4th and 5th centuries, AD, fierce Germanic warriors swept out of central and northern Europe and set up their own kingdoms on former Roman territory. The Kings of these various Germanic tribes were true warrior kings, being expected to ride at the head of their armies and to lead their warriors into battle and on to new victories and new conquests. These kings lived by the warrior's code, where ruthlessness, feats of valor in battle, violence, and revenge played key roles in the thinking of the ancient Germanic tribes. While more worthy values also played a role in old Germanic thinking, many of which survive and play a central role in our culture today, a distinctly 'Christian' way of thinking would have been completely alien to our ancestors.
The most powerful of these Germanic tribes were the Franks. By the latter 400's, they had already established a large kingdom comprising much of central and western Germany and northern France. In 482 AD, the warrior Chlodwig had fought his way to the leadership of the Frankish tribe. As was customary in not only the Frankish tribe, but in most other Germanic tribes of that time, Chlodwig set about securing his power. He conquered his neighboring tribes and had their kings, together with their relatives and offspring, killed. He then set about killing off his own relatives to ensure that only his sons would inherit his kingdom. By 491, he had established a large kingdom stretching from Regensburg to present day Paris, France. At about this same time, his ambassadors to the Germanic kingdom to the south, Burgundy, reported back to him of the extraordinary beauty and charm of the Burgundian princess, Chrodechilde. That Chlodwig already had a wife, presented no obstacle in those days.
And so, before long, Chrodechilde found herself married to Chlodwig. Among the things she would soon discover about her new husband was the fact that he was not a Christian, as the Burgundians had already converted to Catholicism. Though religion did not interest Chlodwig in the slightest, Chrodechilde's constant imploring finally persuaded him to convert. So, on Christmas day, 498 AD, Chlodwig was led to the baptismal font by the Bishop of Reims, Remigius, and was submerged three times as he was baptized.
After the baptism, the Bishop gave Chlodwig a quick lesson in basic Christian teaching. He related to the Germanic king the story of the suffering and death of Christ on the cross in order to forgive the sins of mankind. When the Bishop concluded his story, Chlodwig, deep in thought, finally commented, in a way that unmistakably illustrated the true nature of his deeply rooted Germanic-pagan mentality. "If I had been there then with my Franks", he told the exasperated Bishop, " I would have avenged this injustice!" The Bishop, no doubt, could only reply with a tortured smile, but was, nonetheless, satisfied. There would be time enough to instruct Chlodwig on the finer points of Christianity. More importantly, another Germanic tribe had been converted to Catholicism and that was no small success!
Over the next four centuries, the Germanic Frankish kingdom would expand to encompass all of western and central Europe. The Frankish kings would become the principle protectors and champions of Christianity, including the greatest of them all, Karl der Grosse (Charlemagne), who would be crowned as Emperor of the West by the Pope on Christmas day, 800 AD. Karl's empire would lay the foundation for our modern western civilization. Today, all of us, whether of German heritage or not, are heirs of a culture begun by a half-wild Germanic warrior king and his persistent, Christian wife.