Many years ago in the village of Gdynis in Poland, quite close to the Dnieper River, a mean little cottage huddled forlornly against an outbuilding, the same thatched roof covering both. The outhouse was intended for the farm stock and built close by so that the stock could be easily reached if attacked by wolves in the middle of the night, but alas! for over a year now the outbuilding had sheltered no goat nor pig. The house sheltered a mother and two children, a boy of twelve named Ignace and his younger sister Vilma.
They were very poor. Even when Father Stradka was with them it had been hard to find food and clothing. Now a year had passed since Father had been swept overboard from his little fishing vessel one stormy night and never a trace of him was ever found. Mother had taken up the burden of providing for her little family. She had obtained day work at the big house on the hill belonging to the wealthy Varcona family.
Today was bitterly cold. Ignace and Vilma had worked hard dragging dead twigs from the forest. They burned quickly in the china stove scarcely serving to take the chill from their hands. They were saving the heavier pieces to burn when Mother returned at sundown. Standing before the window peering through the frost-furred pane they watched the bend in the road for a first glimpse of their mother. Oh! how hungry they were, for this was Christmas Eve and the last of the three fast days. They had fasted because Mother said it was right and it brought luck, and besides there was so little to eat. Tonight when the first star appeared in the sky the fast period would be over.
They hoped their mother would bring from the big house some rich scraps but the Varcona family were mean and stingy even though they were quite rich. Often Mother Stradka was glad to bring the bones and skins of the fish along with the rinds of the rutabagas and the outer leaves of the cabbage which she made into quite a nice soup for her children. It had been a long time now since they had tasted milk, for their one goat had been sold when no bread could be bought. But there had been a few straws left in the outhouse and these the children had strewn upon the table which they had laid for four places: for Mother, themselves, and the young Christ Child whom they knew would come and sup with them after their three-day fast if they put a plate for him. The straws were symbolic of His little manger but Vilma and Ignace did not realize that. They only knew it was customary to place straws upon the feast table at Christmas time.
They glanced at the table from time to time and their faces expressed deep satisfaction with its appearance. The wooden plates were scoured to a perfect whiteness; the bowl sat empty waiting for whatever Mother could bring them from the Varcona table. Their little mugs would hold nothing but water, or a little weak unsweetened tea if the cook at the big house spilled a few of the precious leaves upon the table. When she did this, Mother gathered them in a little heap and wrapped them in the corner of her head turban. How the tea warmed their thin little stomachs!
The children saw that it was growing dusk and they watched the skies for the bright twinkle. There it was! Right over the water! How large and bright it was tonight. Such a large one it must have been when the watching Shepherds left their sheep and followed it, coming upon the stable where lay the newborn Babe.
A small figure now appeared around the bend in the road. "She's coming! Mother's coming!" they shouted and ran to put the largest of their twigs upon the fire. Mother plodded wearily along the snowy road but her patient face lit up when she saw the waiting children at the window. Poor babes! Row she wished she had something real good to offer them. How hungry they must be after their fast.
"My! My!" she said as she entered the low doorway. "What a lovely warm fire and how sweet and clean the table looks. Just wait until I take off my shawl and I will warm the food and . . . you will never guess so I'll tell you. The cook gave me a little ground coffee, and a lump of sugar fell upon the floor so cook said I might have it. We shall have sweetened coffee and diced beets to break fast this holy night!" The children's faces fell a trifle but their mother bustled about filling the kettle and scraping the thickened beets into a pan. The mother pretended not to see their disappointment but when they sat down she portioned the food into three plates, one for the Christ Child, one for Vilma and one for Ignace. She poured only a very little of the unsweetened and weak coffee into her mug.
"It's very good, Mother," they exclaimed after the first bite and indeed most anything would seem good after fasting. "Don't you want any, Mother?"
"My, no, I'm so full of food. I ate with the cook and how I wish I could have brought you my share."
"What did you have, Mother?" they asked with full mouths. The mother cast about in her mind quickly then said with a great show of enthusiasm: "Blinis, my dears. Good rich blinis."
"Blinis," they echoed and chewed the beets more slowly. How nice it would have been to have broken fast on blinis. Mother drank the last of her coffee and rose to look at the little fir tree the children had brought from the forest.
"It is a very pretty one," she said, "and just the right size." Even though there were no presents or pretties to hang on this tree, to have one in the house at Yuletide was considered lucky.
The children, scraping the last of the beets from their plates, looked up suddenly to see a little boy entering the door. He was a very beautiful child about Ignace 's age. He was poorly clad and his feet were bare. Mother turned and saw him, too. She rushed toward him with a cry of pity.
"Oh, my poor child! Look at your little blue feet. Are they entirely frozen?" She pulled forward an empty chair. "Sit here while I rub them." The child eyed the beets that had been piled on the Christ Child's plate. Mother noticed the hungry look. "Eat them," she urged. "They were meant for the little Christ Child but He would want a hungry lad to have them."
"Yes," the child at last said, "He would want me to be warmed and fed." He ate the beets and drank the coffee while the woman sat on the floor at his feet and rubbed them between the folds of her woolen skirt. Ignace stood at the child 's side. He thought he had never seen such bright alert eyes. "Did you run away from the orphanage?" Ignace asked him.
"No," returned the guest, "but I know the children there."
"Where are you from and whither are you going?" Vilma asked him.
"I came from a strange and unknown land and must return thence." His grave eyes looked at her kindly.
"Oh, but not tonight. Mother, say that he must spend the good Christmas Eve with us. It is far too cold for a little child to be abroad."
"I shall spend the night with many like you." He to leave.
"At least take my shoes," Ignace pressed him back into his chair.
"Have you others?"
"No, but that matters not. I can wrap my feet in cloths until warm weather comes." His hands were busy with his shoe laces. The child allowed Ignace to lace the shoes upon his feet. He pointed to the bare fir tree in the corner. "Before I go shall I tell you how the fir tree became a holy tree?"
"Oh, yes. Do." They moved closer to him as he began, The child's voice flowed out like liquid gold, not loud but distinct. The tiny fire in the china stove suddenly sent out a burst of warmth. It smelled as if some mysterious and fragrant wood was heaped upon it, a drowsy aroma that permeated the entire room arose. From beneath some rafter a cricket chirped in undertones that did not disturb the story. The fire flickered and flared and lit the room dimly. Through the small window the huge Christmas star could be seen.
"Twelve centuries ago," the child began, 'the good Englishman Wilfred left his English home and on Christmas Eve sought out a certain tribe of pagans who made living sacrifices to the 'blood oak tree.' Beneath this Oak of Geismas he found these pagans about to sacrifice the little Prince Asulf to the god Thor. Boldly he rushed in and after berating them for their cruelty seized an ax and felled the blood tree. With his arms around the little Prince he faced the angry tribe who were minded to kill him then and there. Suddenly in the spot where the blood oak had stood there appeared a misty fir tree. The tribesmen were awed as they watched many beautiful balls of light settle amid the fir tree branches. Here they flickered and glowed while the pagans backed away from this miracle in fear and trembling. That was the last of the blood tree and its human sacrifices, and ever since the fir tree has symbolized Christmas and that is why it is always green — year in and year out."
Mother's head was nid-nid-nodding. She jerked it up and peered through the gloom at her children. Both Ignace and Vilma sat with heads bowed upon folded arms that rested on the table but the strange little boy was gone.
The fire had died out but the room was still deliciously warm and still held that subtle, spicy fragrance that was so sweet. The mother stood up, distressed that she had slept while their guest had taken his departure without her Godspeed.
"Oh, dear. How sorry I am. He must have thought us poor hosts to sleep as he talked." Or had he told the story? - perhaps she had dreamed it. "Come now, sleepy heads! You have slept as our guest took his departure." She turned down the covers of their beds as she spoke and the children awoke yawning. They glanced through the window at the big star which was paling in the gray dawn.
"Why, Mother! we cannot go to bed for already it is dawn." They pointed to the growing light at the window.
"Why, so it is — how strange. Well then, 'tis the blessed Christmas morning. A merry Christmas to you, my lambs, and may the Christ Child shower you with blessings . . . ." Just then a soft light began to glow about the tree and many colored balls of light flickered in and out of the little fir tree branches, dying out as the children crept in awe toward it.
"Just as it happened to the fir tree in the story," breathed Vilma, and her mother nodded. Then she had not dreamed it after all. The child had really been here and had told them the legend. She went to the stove to restart the fire. The star had now entirely left the heavens and the dawn grew brighter. Suddenly the door again opened. The child again, Ignace thought, as he started toward the door. However, it was not the child who entered the door but a bearded man with a pack upon his back. What a time for strange visitors, thought Ignace.
"Are you the good Saint Nickolas?" he started to ask but was interrupted by a cry from his mother. "Beloved!" She reached the man and was folded to his bosom. The pack was dropped to the floor. It seemed a long time to the puzzled children before the two drew apart, then they saw that tears of joy were flowing down their mother's cheeks.
Children, see! do you not know your father?"
"But . . . our father is dead . . . " They crept nearer searching the bearded face for some trace of the remembered parent. The man drew children and mother to him before the china stove.
"I was as one dead for a long time. Swept unconscious upon a strange shore I was carried to a hospital and lay a long time knowing nothing, not even my name. Slowly I recovered my strength but not my memory. I worked for those who mined beneath the ground for gold. One day I myself found a large nugget of gold. It was of great value and I sold it for much money. It did not make me happy for I was still as one without a past. Several nights ago I had a dream in which a beautiful child with hair like the sun and eyes as jewels came to my bedside. He looked at me and it seemed as if a million sharp needles pierced every inch of my body and a great singing sounded in my ears. Above the uproar the child's voice came to me saying:
"'Small Ignace and his sister await thee,' and with a start I awoke and remembered my name and my home place and all the past. I have traveled night and day to reach you on this holy day. I stopped only long enough to buy gifts." He pointed to the fallen pack. The children now climbed upon their father and smothered him with embraces and kisses, for this was in truth their father who had been dead and now by the grace of God was alive again.
Later the pack was inspected and found to contain sweets and toys and coats for both children and the mother. Ignace, trying on the shoes, mused to himself that only last night he had given away his only pair of shoes and now he had two pairs, new and shining. The mother beckoned him inside, holding her little Bible. She could not read but Ignace could, and Mother knew the place where each verse could be found. She held the Bible out to Ignace. "Read here," she said, her thumb marking a verse. Ignace took the Bible and read aloud: "And whoso shall receive one such little child receiveth Me." Mother and son looked into one another's eyes.
"It was the Christ Child," they whispered in awe.