Kristin's Christmas Changes

During the 12 days of Christmas, news blogging will be light, but we’re posting 20th century Catholic classics. Sigrid Undset’s trilogy about Kristin Lavransdatter covers many Christmases. Here’s a Christmas at which Kristin is a somber child, and Brother Edvin cheers her up:

“Do you know who was the first one to realize that our Lord had allowed Himself to be born? It was the rooster. He saw the star and he said — and all the animals could speak Latin back then — he cried, “Christus natus est!”

Brother Edvin crowed out the last words, sounding so much like a rooster that Kristin ended up howling with laughter. And it felt so good to laugh, because all the strange things that he had just been talking about had settled upon her like a burden of solemnity.

The monk laughed, too.

“It’s true. Then when the ox heard about it, he began to bellow, ‘Ubi, ubi, ubi?’

“But the goat bleated and said, ‘Betlem, Betlem, Betlem.’

“And the sheep was so filled with longing to see Our Lady and her Son that he baa’d at once, ‘Eamus, eamus!’

“And the newborn calf lying in the straw got up and stood on his own legs. ‘Volo, volo, volo!’ he said.

“Haven’t you heard this before? No, I should have known. I realize that he’s a clever priest, that Sira Eirik who lives up there with you, and well educated, but he probably doesn’t know this because it’s not something you learn unless you journey to Paris. ...”

“Have you been to Paris, then?” asked the child.

“God bless you, little Kristin, I’ve been to Paris and traveled elsewhere in the world as well, and yet you mustn’t think me better for it, because I fear the Devil and love and desire this world like a fool.”

Brother Edvin’s call to holiness will work on Kristin for decades — she’ll be self-centered, with sobering consequences, before she embraces it. (The passage also shows Brother Edvin hinting at his own great weakness: Though he’s known as a holy man for his constant travels, he loves his itinerate lifestyle for its own sake.)

In the second book in the trilogy a changed Kristin with a self-centered child of her own tries and fails to use Brother Edvin’s trick:

“I went over to the church for a little while,” said Kristin.

“Do you dare to go out on Christmas Eve?” asked the boy. “Don’t you know that the spirits of the dead could come and seize you?”

“I don’t think it’s only the evil spirits that are out tonight,” she said. “Christmas Eve must be for all spirits. I once knew a monk who is now dead and standing before God, I think, because he was pure goodness. He told me ... Have you ever heard about the animals in the stable and how they talked to each other on Christmas Eve? They could speak Latin back then. And the rooster crowed: ‘Christus natus est!’ No, now I can’t remember the whole thing. The other animals asked ‘Where?’ and the goat bleated, ‘Betlem, Betlem,’ and the sheep said, ‘Eamus, eamus.’ ”

Orm smiled scornfully.

“Do you think I’m such a child that you can comfort me with tales? You should offer to take me on your lap and put me to your breast.”

“I told the story mostly to comfort myself, Orm,” said Kristin quietly. “I would have liked to go to mass too.”

Significantly, in the third book it’s at Christmas that a widowed Kristin finds a new vocation ...

(Undset converted to Catholicism in no small part because of her research on that trilogy, and later wrote more straight-forwardly about Christmas.)

— Tom Hoopes