This Was The Christmas

A Serbian Christmas tale by Ruth Sawyer

It was midsummer when the great storm came. It swept through the cut in the mountains into the peaceful valley, ripping the roofs off, laying flat the fields of grain, swelling the river to overflowing. The men worked throughout the night to save their herds, their sheep and goats, driving them to high land. When the sickly yellow dawn broke, no life had been lost, and one had been gained. On a rock jutting over the river, a young child was found, crying pitifully.

He was a swarthy, dark-skinned child. Whatever clothes he might have worn, the storm had stripped from him. He was too young to do more than babble a few words and these were in the gypsy tongue. His looks, too, spoke of the Cigani - the gypsies.

It was Father Janovic who found him and brought him to his own cottage, where Mother Janovic was dipping the porridge into bowls for their own children. Her arms reached out to him as mother's arms will for all helpless ones. She wrapped him in a scrap of blanket. She quieted his sobbing and fed him from her own bowl.

"He is of the Cigani. We will not keep him," said Father Janovic.

"He is very little and helpless. And watch his eyes." Mother Janovic passed her hand up and down in front of his face. There was no blinking. She took a candle that still burned and passed it so close that the wick almost singed the long dark lashes. But the eyes remained wide, staring. "You see?" said Mother Janovic. "He is blind. You found him. It is the will of God that we keep him." And for that one and only time she gathered the blind boy close to her heart and held him there, crooning soft, loving words over him.

The valley dwellers of Serbia are hard-working, honest people, deeply rooted to their land. They do not love the Cigani. They point to the caravans passing through and say: "there go tricksters and thieves. There go the accursed of the earth. Let no man among us give them harborage." But for all their rascally ways the gypsies have some virtues. They can tell amazing fortunes. They have been known to prophesy the great happenings in the world. They are good farriers and potmenders. And their music is beloved by all peoples.

But in that long ago time they were accursed; and the Janovics remembered only this as the blind boy grew older. They called him Marko after their greatest hero - partly in mockery and partly because the boy, like the ancient Marko, loved all small creatures and had a strange way with them. He could call the birds from the woods and they would feed out of his hands. A wounded hare or fox would come whimpering to him for aid. He had tenderness and understanding for all living things. Marking this the Janovic set him at an early age to tend their sheep. Summers he slept with them in the pasture; winters he burrowed under the straw in the shed, holing himself in like a wild creature against the cold. He learned quickly and would have called creature and man alike his brother, had not man despised him.

Because he could not see as other human beings did, he heard what they did not. His fingers and his bare feet soon made him familiar in all the countryside, feeling their way through pasture and woods and along the riverbank. Only along the village road was he a stranger. Six years after the great storm an old shepherd from Dalmatia crossed the pasture and stopped to make himself friendly. He bore a pipe, self-made; discovering the boy's blindness he played tunes on it and gave it into the boys hands that he might feel out the fashioning of it.

That summer Marko found a young willow and made his own pipe. Before the first frost came, the boy was making music of his own, strange, wild, haunting music. It stirred the hearts of passers-by; it filled the valley dwellers with wonder. Before another summer had passed, tales, hard to believe, were being bandied about among them. Some told how on a gentle night, with the moon full overhead, they had heard the lad piping the lambs and had seen them on their hind legs dancing to the music. Others had seen him pipe the wild hares out of the copses and set them to frolicking in time to a tune as free as the wind.

Mother Janovic did not stint him in his food; but it was ladled out of the big pot, and his bowl was given him to take outside the kitchen. Summers he ate in the pastures; winters in the shed. Only in bitter weather was he bidden inside, to share the warmth of the fire. They were not unkind; only he was set apart from other children, from all humankind. The valley-dwellers made him an outcast from their home and village life.

Do you know what this means - to be cast out from all festivals, all merrymaking? To be forbidden entrance to the church? Only one he dared to ask why this should be. "You are of the Cigani, cursed by all the world. The Church, God, Christ and his blessed Mother are not for you." Mother Janovic said it without unkindness. Father Janovic said it sternly. But the children taunted him with it so that he gave up waiting for them to depart for church, in all their best clothes; but he listened secretly to the music coming from its door, wide-opened to all but him.

He became a silent boy, save for the music he made and the words he sometimes sang between the pipings. His elders marked this with approval and quoted an old Slav proverb: "He who preserves silence speaks well." In lambing time Marko watched over the ewes so well that rarely was a lamb lost. Those that came into the world too feeble to fight for themselves the first few hours, he warmed against his own body, under his tunic. For all his blindness he would have been a happy boy had the people of the valley made him a dweller with them. Yet in an odd way, they were proud of him and stood in awe of his powers to make music and to call wild things to him. they listened stealthily to his songs and pipings; and often a stranger coming into the valley would hear a farmer, ploughing behind his oxen singing:

Harvest and thresh the grain, fill the full measure- Bread for the making, Straw for the baking.
Fathers and mothers and little ones gather- Let bread be broken, let thanks be spoken.

"Tis a good song, a new one to me, From where comes it?" This a man from the north or south would ask; and the farmer would answer: "Tis only a jingle made by one of our shepherds - a blind boy and not one of us."

How often Marko heard this! Yet it tied no strings to his pipe, it hung no bitterness across his heart. But he did know sorrow. Every time he turned toward the valley when the church bell rang; everytime he listened to a gathering of dancers in the village square, with old Stefan making music on his fiddle the sorrow deepened. But it was worse at Christmas time. To have no part in all the gaiety and beauty of Christ's holy eve and Day - that brought full weight of sorrow.

To lie in the cold and dark of the holy Eve, just before the midnight service and to hear Mother Janovic waking the rest of the children: "Come Vuk. Come Ivo. Come Draga; we have haste to make." But never "Come Marko." To hear the bustling, the calling of one to another in the cottage; and know he was the outcast, forbidden to have a part in that Christ service; and later to hear the hurrying of feet along the road. That made sorrow a load almost too much to bear. Once, he followed, feeling his way across the barnyard to the road, following the sound of the ringing bell. If he could not enter, he could stand at the door and listen; and coming home he could whisper the part he was forbidden to sing in the carols.

But his feet knew not the valley-road. There were no familiar stones, rises, or hollows to guide him. All was confusion, until, having stumbled off and on again many times, fear came. He turned and somehow stumbled back to the shed. There he lay, shaking with the cold and the fright.

The priest, a kindly man, tried to teach him something of the church, of God and the birth of Christ, so he would not live and die in absolute ignorance. He would stop often when the boy was tending sheep and sit with him for an hour or so, letting the boy ask questions.

"This God - he is the Big King?"
"You may call him that, lad."
"And the Christ, who is the baby in the manger, he is the Small King, Yes?"
"Even so"
"And Mary? She was the Small King's mother - and very holy? Are they in the church yonder?"
"They are in Heaven. Their images only are in the church."
"But if I entered I could feel their faces? I could feel each line until I knew them as I know my sheep."

The Old priest sighed. "It is the law of the Church. We cannot break it. The people of the valley would not permit it. They have consecrated the church with their vows - even as a bishop of long ago consecrated it with holy water. No Cigani may enter." "And my entering would defile it?"
"So they think. When God bade Joseph, Mary and the Child flee to Eygpt, the Cigani- the Eygptians- denied them shelter, food and care. It is a long tale. Sometime I will tell you it."
"For this we are cursed?"
"And shall we never have a part of Christmas?"
"Short of a miracle, never, my son, never. It is the mark you bear, the mark of the outcast."

Marko drew in his breath; slowly he let it out with the words: "take my hand. Put it on the place where my body bears the mark, and I will cut it out." "It lies not upon your body, my son, but on your soul."
There followed a long silence; at last the boy asked his final question: "Why do you call me 'my son'?"
The Old priest sighed again: "Truely, I know not. I am but a simple man." On Christmas day, early, it was the custom for the other boys to gather wood for the great village fire, where sucking pigs would roast all day, turning on their spits. Some one chosen boy would go from house to house and greet each household: "The Christ is born!" and the mother scattering a handful of wheat to bring plenty into the house, would answer: "In truth, He is born!" The the boy would beat the Christ long on the hearth until a great streaming of sparks mounted and he would wish: "May the Holy Christmas bring as many sheep and goats, pigs and cattle and bees as there are sparks mounting the chimney."

Marko wished he might have been that boy just once, to wish plenty on the valley. He wished he might have taken his place, just once, for the feast and had his share of the sucking pigs. But never for him! Had not the priest said it would take a miracle, nothing short of that would lift the curse? Yet, if he could not share the Christmas, worship in church on the Holy Eve, sing the carols, he could make a carol of his own and worship in the shed. That would not be so different from the place the Bethlehem shepherds had come to, to worship the Small King in his manger.

It happened in that year when he was twelve. Father Janovic had marked the years since the great storm in notches with his scythe against an upright of the shed; and Marko, with his fingers checked his age. He had been two or there-abouts when rescued, and there were ten notches. That Holy Eve, a ewe-lamb became tangled in a thorntree, and being frightened she jumped about so frantically that her leg was broken. Marko tore his tunic to strips, and taking wood bound the leg. Kneeling he lifted her across his shoulders, and holding her fast by her good legs, he bore her to the shed and laid her down in his corner of straw. Then, stretched beside her he talked to her softly, as if she had been kin and human: "This is the night that Christ was born. We will keep the Christmas, thou and I. Thou shalt hear my carol, made through the long days of ripening wheat. Thou shalt worship with me, here, when stroke of bell rings out from that church we may not enter."

The ewe lay quietly beside the boy, each warming the other. They slep a little, I think, awoke, and slept again. Then, through the cold of approaching midnight came the voice of Mother Janovic calling her children: "Come, Vuk. Come Ivo. Come, Draga, we must make haste." If only she might call one more name, call it joyously: "Come, Marko."

But that would never be, short of a miracle. And when had a miracle taken place in the valley here? The blind boy's hand felt for the lamb; his fingers worked in and out of the thick fleece. His other hand held his pipe close. "Thou knowest it not, small one, but when a human stands in dire need of help - when calamity comes and he needs a friend, a protector, one to be to him as might a brother be, he can ask for such help and it cannot be denied him. That is a law among the Serbian people. Dost thou think that, if I should pray this night - in my great need - that holy ears in Heaven would hear?"

There came the sound of many feet, brisk and eager feet, young and old. The slow ringing of the bell began, calling all within the valley to come and worship the newborn king.

Marko rose to his knees. Again he spoke to the lamb: "Small one, I have heard it said that on Christ eve all dumb creatures kneel upon the hour the Christ was born. Canst kneel?"

As if at his bidding the ewe-lamb shook herself, rose upon her hind legs, even upon the one that had been broken, and bent her forelegs on the straw. Again the blind boy's hand moved comfortably through the thick fleece. He prayed: "Big king - send someone to sponsor me - one who will speak for me among the valley-folk. For I would be as other boys, welcome at table, called to church by the bell, having a share in worship and the Christ Eve."

The bell stopped ringing. Marko felt a stirring not far off, feet rustling the straw. Then a strang hand was placed upon his shoulder.

Marko spoke in wonder: "Can words reach Heaven faster than a bird flies?"
"Some words can."
"Did the Big King send you to be my sponsor?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps to bear you company, that you need not be alone this Christ Eve."
"Who are you?"
"A boy, even as yourself."
"Not blind. But are you blind? Think."
"People call me blind, and I would see. I would see the whole world and all it holds."
"No one sees that. But think - in the little piece of world that lies about you, have you not found more beauty than those who see? Do they know the small loveliness of a bird's feather? Do they hear what the wind whispers? Have they caught the song the morning stars sing? And can they put all these things into music and play it on a pipe as you can?"
"But I would see."
"It is not given for any one person in this life to have too much. Have you not seen more with your eyes of faith than those who live by sight. Would you bargain your music away for the power to see only what most humans see? Think."
"I am thinking. This I know. I would see once the face of the Small King."

A hush had fallen on the shed, on the valley, on the whole world. The words Marko heard were barely whispered: "Put your fingers on my face. Trace every line, slowly, so you will remember."

Lightly as winter snow the hand of the blind boy touched the face held close to his own - tracing forehead, feeling the wide-set eyes, the rounded cheek, the slender clear-cut nose, the strong molded chin. He nodded, his own face lighting with exaltation as each feature became familiar, possessed. Then he sighed with deep tranquility: "I will keep the music. I will be a singer for the people of Serbia."

He put his pipe to his lips and blew the tune for his carol. Between the pipings he sang the words he had made:

This is the Christmas.
To Mary most blessed, Jesus, the Savior, is born.
These are the angels -
Singing through heaven, all curses forgiven this morn.
These are the shepherds.
They seek for the Stranger, they kneel at the manger, to pray.
And I - a blind shepherd -
Give prayer to the Big King, give prayer to the Small King - this day.

The midnight service over, the valley-folk poured out upon the road. A dazzling light filled the sky. It shone over the whole valley. "It comes from there!" said one. "No, from yonder it comes." said another. Hands pointed everywhere. The Priest, who had shepherded them to the doorway of the church, pointed to Janovic's farm: "It is there from which it comes."

He led the way. When they came to the farmyard, they found the small, mean shed bathed in light. No word was spoken. Massed about the low doorway they stood, unbelieving what their eyes told them. For they could see within, kneeling on the straw, the blind boy; and kneeling with him were a small ewe-lamb and one who could only be the Christ. A circle of light shone about his head, making such brightness as the valley-folk had never seen on earth.

All bent their heads as in church worship. The old priest spoke in low humility: "The miracle. It is we who have been blind. It is upon our heads the curse come home to rest." And picking up his robe he knelt on the fringe of the straw. The valley folk knelt with him, making no stir in the night. The blind boy piped on, singing his carol over again and again in his great gladness.

There fell three apples from heaven. One for the teller, and one for the listener, and one for all the peoples of the world.

Ruth Sawyer was a gifted storyteller and a prolific writer, with a passion for folk-tales and a great affection for Christmas stories. It seems particularly fitting that her first book, This Way to Christmas, was a collection of folk tales, bound together by the surrounding story of a lonely young boy who is separated from his family at Christmas-time. Ruth Sawyer's books include Newberry and Caldecott Award winners. Another Christmas story, The Good Night, a Finnish tale, will appeal to astronomers. Ruth Sawyer's The Way of the Storyteller is a classic volume on the art of telling that continues to inspire storytellers.

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