The Christmas Garden by Carolyn Sherwin Balley

Story type: Literature

None of the children in the village would play with Christopher because he was the child of Beggar Mother of the Goeinge Forest.

The Forest was deep, full of brown, leafless oaks and green fir trees, with the wind singing shrill tunes in their branches. In the darkest part was a thick mountain wall, and in the wall there was an old door made of rough boards. The village children, gathering cones in the Forest, had peeped through this door when Christopher had left it open a crack.

“Christopher’s home is nothing but a cave with stones for the floor!” the children whispered.

“Beggar Mother stirs a pot that hangs over a fire of logs!” they said.

“Christopher and his little brothers and sisters wear skins for clothing. They sleep, like wolves, on beds of pine and moss!” they said, too, and then they ran away when they saw Christopher coming out.

He was as roughly dressed as one of the baby bears whom he knew in the Goeinge Forest and for whom he gathered wild honey; or as shy as one of the little red foxes that had no home save a hollow tree. All his life he had been hungry, and starved, and scorned. But Christopher was known by all of the Forest as loving and gentle and unselfish.

Beggar Mother neither baked nor brewed, but when she went her way down to the village from door to door with all her little ones clinging to her skirts, the villagers would sometimes give her six brown loaves, one for each of her children.

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Then Christopher would creep out of the cave and break his bread to give some crumbs to the starlings, the finches, and the baby squirrels. He knew where the wild strawberries grew, and he gathered them for his mother. He pulled grass and leaves for the wild hares. He had once lifted Mother Fox from her trap and sent her back to her babies. He brought spring water from the rocks for the flowers, and never frightened the owls or caught the butterflies.

But the Goeinge Forest was cold and asleep now, for it was Christmas time.

Christopher knew that it was now Christmas Eve for he had been to the village and looked in the doors. Lighted candles were being set in the windows. Great pieces of bread and meat were being placed on the tables, and bunches of grain thick with seeds were hung in the gardens to be a Christmas feast for the birds.

But when the villagers saw Christopher from the cave in the Forest looking in their doors, they slammed them shut, for they knew him only as the child of Beggar Mother. They had no room for him on Christmas Eve.

So Christopher walked alone and he came, through the snow, to the little church on the edge of the Goeinge Forest. Brother Anselmo tended the church. He had arranged the little creche, which was like the stable where the Holy Child lay on the first Christmas Eve. There was the manger, the gilt star suspended over it, and the toy cattle that Brother Anselmo had carved from wood with his own hands. He had trimmed the church with greens. Now, Brother Anselmo was ready to ring the bell, but he had not the strength. He was a very old man and the bell was heavy. The rope was stiff with ice, and snow blinded him in the belfry.

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Christopher knew Brother Anselmo very well. In the summer he helped him tend his garden of herbs, and in the winter he brought him fagots. With his bare feet Christopher climbed up to the belfry. With his little hands he pulled with all his might at the frozen bell rope. Then the bell rang out more sweetly than ever before to tell the village and the Forest that it was Christmas Eve.

But a strange thing happened. As Christopher rang the Christmas bell once, the trees in the Forest covered themselves with green leaves, and the ground was no longer bare, but bright with flowers. A flock of starlings flew to the top of a fir tree and stopped there, singing. Their feathers glittered with gold and red like jewels, for they were Paradise starlings.

Christopher rang the bell a second time, and the baby squirrels began playing among the mosses. There was the smell of newly plowed fields. The tinkle of sheep and cow bells could be heard, and the pine and spruce trees covered themselves with red cones, like kings in crimson mantles.

When Christopher rang the bell a third time, the wild strawberries began covering the ground, red and ripe. Butterflies as large as lilies flew through the air, and a bee-hive in a hollow oak dripped with golden honey. A light like that of noon time in summer streamed down. The air was soft and warm, and white doves flew through the Forest singing.

The villagers saw the wonder and they came, running, to the Forest. The Christmas bell was ringing, but winter was gone. The Forest had blossomed more beautifully than they had ever known it to in summer.

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“What has brought this wonder?” they asked. Then they saw Christopher coming home. Wherever he walked the ground glowed with more flowers, and the birds and butterflies lighted on his shoulders, and hands, and there seemed to be music coming down from the sky.

The whole Goeinge Forest was a Christmas garden for Christopher whom they had turned away from their doors. They understood that, now, because the next morning the Forest was again white with snow and asleep for the winter.

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