About the year 650, among the servants in the ancient Abbey of Streonschall, there was a cowherd whose name was Caedmon. The habits of the people of that age were simple and rude; their houses were comfortless huts, their dress was made from the skins of their flocks, or from animals taken in the chase; they had no books, and their literature was limited to the Latin manuscripts of the Church, which few of the monks even were learned enough to read, and fewer still to translate. Amid such influences, the life of a cowherd could scarcely be lifted above that of the beasts he cared for; if his hunger and thirst were satisfied, he would ask no more than a pleasant, daisied meadow in summer, and a warm nook in the winter. But Caedmon had a sensitive nature, that craved something nobler. When the minstrels struck their harps, and sung the wild traditions and fierce conflicts of their tribes and the guests followed with boisterous jest in their uncouth ballads, Caedmon sat silent and gloomy.
One evening, as the harp, passing from one to another, drew nearer him, dreading the oft-repeated taunts of his fellows, he crept away in the shadows, and went to his only bed,—a truss of straw.
After a while he slept, and in his sleep some one of lofty stature, and with kindly-beaming eyes, stood beside him, and commanded him to sing. "I cannot," replied Caedmon, despondingly.
"Sing!" was the uncompromising answer.
"What shall I sing?"
"The origin of all things."
Immediately before his quickened sense swept a vision of Creation, and to his glad surprise he described it all in song. The next morning he remembered, and repeated it; and the monks, hearing of it, took him into the monastery, and taught him scenes and sentences from the Bible, which he rendered into verse, and so became the first of the long line of sacred poets.
It was Christmas Eve, and the great hall of the Abbey was decked with the Druids' sacred mistletoe with its pearly fruitage, the bright green of the ivy, and branches of holly, with scarlet, shining berries. Great logs were heaped on the broad stones in the middle of the hall, and jets of flame leaped up to brighten the low, smoke-stained ceiling, and restless shadows flitted along the wall, while the smoke escaped through the opening in the roof, for chimneys were then, and for many centuries after, unknown. The unglazed windows were closed at nightfall by wooden shutters, and rude comfort cheered the inmates. A robin, who had fluttered in at dusk, and found Christmas cheer on the holly boughs and warmth for his numbed little feet, trilled a song of gratitude that winter had made such speed to be gone.
Two nights before, a company of pilgrims from the convents of Palestine, had come to the monastery. They had been many months on their way, eagerly welcomed wherever they stopped, for journeying was both difficult and dangerous, and travellers from such a remote region were rarely met. Their dark complexions, hair and beards; their bright, mobile expression; their manners toned by the graces of Eastern civilization, were a strange contrast to the shaggy, elfish, ruddy-faced throng about them. This Christmas Eve they were telling the monks wonderful stories of the Holy Land; its beautiful, vine-clad hills; its tropical, luscious fruits; its towering, plumy palms and hoary cedars; the long lines of caravans that wound over the silent, pathless deserts to bring to its cities the riches of Oriental commerce; the palaces and heathen temples of those cities, and the traditional glory of the^nbsp; Temple, with its magnificence of gold, and precious stones, and woods and ivory. On the table were huge platters of smoking meats, and serving men brought in flagons and tankards of ale, and feasting, stories and minstrelsy held the hours till the midnight bell called to the first mass and ushered in Christmas Day. Caedmon, coming back from the frosty chapel, saw the stars shining in the brilliance of winter skies. His heart was suffused with all he had heard the pilgrims repeat; for the first time it entered his mind that the same stars that he saw twinkling, held their course at that glad time when "the morning-stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy,"—a prelude to this other song of "the great multitude of the heavenly host." He entered the hall, and when the company reassembled, he took his harp, and sang with power and pathos of the slumbering flocks on Judea's upland pastures; the faithful, watching shepherds; the loneliness and silence of the night; the sudden, startling brightness that shone about them, and enveloped their angel visitant, who kindly soothed their alarm with "Fear not;" and the outburst of angelic song, unheard by the ears dulled with sleep, but overpowering these astonished men. "O happy shepherds! who alone among men, were ever privileged to hear the songs of heaven."
His audience was thrilled. Never had the monks heard Caedmon, or any other minstrel, sing with such fire; the intervening centuries fled before his song. They, too, went to the lowly manger, and saw the Divine Infant hushed on the happy breast of his young Mother and felt Mary's awe when the shepherds told her what they that night had seen and heard. While Caedmon sang they saw the caravan winding over an unmarked way and the wise men of the Orient following ever the strange star, till, after weeks of travel, it stood over the place where the young Child lay. They saw, too, the aged, bearded Melchior, Gaspar, young and fresh, and Balthazar the Moor, descend from their kneeling camels with their kingly offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh and prostrate themselves in reverence before the Holy Babe.
" 'Twas ages, ages long ago," and Caedmon and his hymns are nigh forgotten, but with each returning Christmas-tide may be heard again, as Caedmon heard of yore, the angels' song of joy: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."