| Christmas in Legend and Story|
|by Elva S. Smith|
|An exceptional collection of Christmas stories, legends, and poems, that have distinct literary merit, a spirit of reverence, and an appeal for children. Chosen from a wide variety of sources by a pair of children's librarians, the stories represent the work of many writers. The selections are arranged chronologically, beginning with the birth of the Christ Child. Ages 8-12 |
A VERY long while ago, perhaps as many as two hundred years, the little
Provençal village of Sur Varne was all bustle and stir, for it was the
week before Christmas; and always, in all the world, no one has known
better how to keep the joyous holiday than have the happy-hearted people
of Provence, the southeastern corner of France.
Everybody was busy, hurrying to and fro, gathering garlands of myrtle and
laurel, bringing home their Yule logs with pretty old songs and
ceremonies, and in various ways making ready for the all-important
Not a house in Sur Varne but in some manner told the coming of the blessed
birthday, and especially were there great preparations in the cottage of
the shepherd, Père Michaud. This cottage, covered with white stucco, and
thatched with long marsh-grass, stood at the edge of the village; olive
and mulberry trees clustered about it, and a wild jasmine vine clambered
over the doorway, while on this particular morning all around the low
projecting eaves hung a row of tiny wheat-sheaves, swinging in the crisp
December air, and twinkling in the sunlight like a golden fringe. For the
Père Michaud had been up betimes, making ready the Christmas feast for the
birds, which no Provençal peasant ever forgets at this gracious season;
and the birds knew it, for already dozens of saucy robins and linnets and
fieldfares were gathering in the Père's mulberry-trees, their mouths
fairly watering with anticipation.
Within the cottage the good dame, the Misè Michaud, with wide sleeves
rolled up and kirtle tucked back, was hard at work making all manner of
savory goodies, while in the huge oven beside the blazing hearth the great
Christmas cakes were baking, the famous pompou and fougasse, as they
were called, dear to the hearts of the children of old Provence.
Now and then, as the cottage door swung open on the dame's various cookery
errands, one might hear a faint "Baa, baa!" from the sheepfold, where
little Félix Michaud was very busy also.
Through the crevices of its weather-beaten boards came the sound of
vigorous scrubbing of wool, and sometimes an impatient "Ninette!
Ninette!—thou silly sheep! Wilt thou never stand still?" Or else, in a
Softer tone, an eager "Beppo, my little Beppo, dost thou know? Dost
thou know?" To all of which there would come no answer save the lamb's
weak little "Baa, baa!"
For Ninette, Beppo's mother, was a silly old sheep, and Beppo was a very
young little lamb, and so they could not possibly be expected to know what
a great honor had suddenly befallen them. They did not dream that, the
night before, Père Michaud had told Félix that his Beppo (for Beppo was
Félix's very own) had been chosen by the shepherds for the "offered lamb"
of the Christmas Eve procession in all its festival splendor in the great
church of the village.
Of the importance of this procession in the eyes of the peasant folk I
will tell you more by and by; it is enough to say now that to be the
offered lamb, or indeed the offered lamb's mother, for both always went
together, was the greatest honor and glory that could possibly happen to a
Provençal sheep, and so little Félix was fairly bursting with pride and
delight. And so it was, too, that he was now busying himself washing their
wool, which he determined should shine like spun silver on the great
He tugged away, scrubbing and brushing and combing the thick fleeces, and
at last, after much labor, considered their toilets done for the day;
then, giving each a handful of fresh hay to nibble, he left the fold and
trudged into the cottage.
"Well, little one," said the Misè, "hast thou finished thy work?"
"Yes, mother," answered Félix; "and I shall scrub them so each day till
the holy night! Even now Ninette is white as milk, and Beppo shines like
an angel! Ah, but I shall be proud when he rides up to the altar in his
little cart! And, mother, dost thou not really think him far handsomer
than was Jean's lamb, that stupid Nano, in the procession last year?"
"There, there," said the Misè, "never thou mind about Jean's lamb, but run
along now and finish thy crèche."
Now, in Provence, at the time when Félix lived, no one had ever heard of
such a thing as a Christmas tree; but in its stead every cottage had a
"crèche"; that is, in one corner of the great living-room, the room of the
fireplace, the peasant children and their fathers and mothers built up on
a table a mimic village of Bethlehem, with houses and people and animals,
and, above all, with the manger, where the Christ Child lay. Everyone took
the greatest pains to make the crèche as perfect as possible, and some
even went so far as to fasten tiny angels to the rafters, so that they
hovered over the toy houses like a flock of white butterflies; and
sometimes a gold star, hung on a golden thread, quivered over the little
manger, in memory of the wonderful star of the Magi.
In the Michaud cottage the crèche was already well under way. In the
corner across from the fireplace the Père had built up a mound, and this
Félix had covered with bits of rock and tufts of grass, and little green
boughs for trees, all to represent the rocky hillside of Judea; then,
half-way up, he began to place the tiny houses. These he had cut out of
wood and adorned with wonderful carving, in which, indeed, he was very
skilful. And then, such figures as he had made, such quaint little men and
women, such marvelous animals, camels and oxen and sheep and horses, were
never before seen in Sur Varne. But the figure on which he had lavished
his utmost skill was that of the little Christ Child, which was not to be
placed in the manger until Christmas night itself.
Félix kept this figure in his blouse pocket, carefully wrapped up in a bit
of wool, and he spent all his spare moments striving to give it some fresh
beauty; for I will tell you a secret: poor little Félix had a great
passion for carving, and the one thing for which he longed above all
others was to be allowed to apprentice himself in the workshop of Père
Videau, who was the master carver of the village, and whose beautiful work
on the portals of the great church was the admiration of Félix's heart. He
longed, too, for better tools than the rude little knife he had, and for
days and years in which to learn to use them.
But the Père Michaud had scant patience with these notions of the little
son's, and once, when Félix had ventured to speak to him about it, had
insisted rather sharply that he was to stick to his sheep-tending, so that
when the Père himself grew old he could take charge of the flocks and keep
the family in bread; for the Père had small faith in the art of the carver
as being able to supply the big brown loaves that the Misè baked every
week in the great stone oven. So Félix was obliged to go on minding the
flocks; but whenever he had a moment of his own, he employed it in carving
a bit of wood or chipping at a fragment of soft stone.
But while I have stopped to tell you all this he had almost finished the
crèche; the little houses were all in place, and the animals grouped about
the holy stable, or else seeming to crop the tufts of moss on the mimic
"Well, well!" said the Père Michaud, who had just entered the cottage, "'t
is a fine bit of work thou hast there, my son! Truly 't is a brave
But here the Misè called them both to the midday meal, which she had
spread smoking hot on the shining deal table.
When this was finished Félix arose, and, as the Père wished, once more
went out to the fold to see how the sheep, and especially his little
Beppo, were faring.
As he pushed open the swinging door, Ninette, who was lazily dozing with
her toes doubled up under her fleece, blinked her eyes and looked sleepily
around; but Beppo was nowhere to be seen.
"Ninette!" demanded Félix fiercely, "what hast thou done with my Beppo?"
At this Ninette peered about in a dazed sort of way, and gave an alarmed
little "Baa!" for she had not before missed Beppo, who, while she was
asleep, had managed to push open the door of the fold and scamper off, no
one knew just where.
Félix gazed around in dismay when he realized that his lamb, the chosen
one, who had brought such pride and honor to him—that this was gone!
"Beppo!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, "Beppo! Beppo-o!"
But no trace could he see of the little bundle of fleece he had scrubbed
and combed so carefully that morning.
He stood irresolute a moment; then, thinking that if Beppo really were
running off, not a second was to be lost, he set out at a brisk pace
across the sheep-meadow. He had no idea in what direction the truant lamb
would be likely to stray, but on he went, calling every little while in a
shrill voice, "Beppo!" Now and then he fancied that he saw in the distance
a glimpse of white; but once it proved the Misè Fouchard's linen hung to
dry on a currant-bush, and again it was a great white stone—but no
Beppo; and all the while Félix kept on, quite forgetting that Beppo's
weak, woolly legs could not possibly have carried him so great a distance.
By and by he had left the village meadows far behind, and was skirting the
great marsh. Sometimes he shaded his eyes with his hand and looked far
across this low wet land to see if perhaps Beppo had strayed into its
uncertain foothold; but nothing could he see but the waving rushes and the
tall bitterns wading about on long, yellow legs.
And still he pressed heedlessly on farther and farther, till, after a
while, he found himself thrusting through a thick coppice of willow
boughs. "Oh," thought Félix, "what if poor Beppo has strayed into this
woodland!" And tired as he was, he urged himself on, searching among the
trees; and it was not until he had wandered on and on, deeper and deeper
into the wood, that he realized that the dusk had fallen, and that he must
be a very, very long way from Sur Varne.
Félix then began to grow uneasy. He stood still and looked anxiously about
him; the dark forest trees closed around him on all sides, and he was
quite unable to remember from which direction he had entered the wood.
Now, Félix was really a very brave little fellow, but he fairly quaked as
he peered through the gathering darkness; for in those days the forests of
Provence were known to harbor many dangerous animals, especially wild
boars and wolves. He pricked up his ears, and now and then thought he
heard in the distance the stealthy tread of some four-footed forest
prowler, and once he was sure he caught the deep howl of a wolf.
That ended his hesitation. He looked quickly around, and grasping the low
boughs of a slender sapling, managed to swing himself up into a tall
chestnut-tree that grew close by; and there he clung, clutching the thick
branches with might and main, feeling very cold and hungry and miserable,
his heart all the while sinking clear down into his little peasant shoes.
And indeed he had cause for fear, for, not a great while after he had thus
hidden himself, a gaunt wolf really did pass close by, sniffing and
peering, till poor Félix fairly gave up all hope of escaping from the
tree; but, luckily, the wolf did not see him, and at last slowly crept on
through the underwood.
How long the little boy stayed in the perilous shelter of the
chestnut-tree he never knew, but it seemed untold ages to him. After a
while the moon rose, and shed a faint light through the close-lapping
branches; and then, by and by, Félix's ears, strained to listen for
every lightest sound, caught the echo of distant tramping, as of horses'
hoofs, and presently two horsemen came in sight, picking their way
cautiously along a narrow bridle-path.
He did not know whom they might prove to be, but wisely thinking that
anything would be better than staying in a tree all night at the mercy of
hungry wolves, he waited till the first rider came quite close, and then
he plucked up courage to call out faintly: "Oh, sir, stop, I pray thee!"
At this, the rider, who was none other than the noble Count Bernard of
Bois Varne, quickly drew rein and, turning, called to his companion:
"Ho, Brian! Heardest thou aught?"
"Nay, my lord," answered Brian, who was some paces behind, "naught save
the trampling of our own horses' hoofs."
The count looked all around, and seeing nothing, thought himself mistaken
in the sound, and began to pace on. Then Félix, in terror, gave another
shout, this time louder, and at the same moment a little twig he was
pressing with his elbow broke away and dropped, striking against the
count's stirrup; for the bridle-path wound directly under the tree where
Félix was perched.
The count instantly checked his horse again, and, peering up into the
boughs overhead, he caught sight of Félix, his yellow hair wet with dew
and shining in the moonlight, and his dark eyes wide with fear.
"Heigh-ho!" exclaimed the count, in blank amazement. "Upon my word, now!
what art thou—boy or goblin?"
At this Félix gave a little sob, for he was very tired and very cold. He
hugged the tree tightly, and, steadying himself against the boughs, at
last managed to falter out: "Please thee, sir, I am Félix Michaud, and my
lamb Beppo, who was to ride in the Christmas procession, ran off to-day,
and—and—I have been hunting him, I think, ever since—since yesterday!"
Here poor Félix grew a trifle bewildered; it seemed to him so very long
ago since he had set out in search of Beppo. "And I live in Sur Varne."
At this the count gave a long whistle. "At Sur Varne!" he exclaimed. "If
thou speakest truly, my little man, thou hast indeed a sturdy pair of legs
to have carried thee thus far." And he eyed curiously Félix's dusty little
feet and leathern leggings, dangling limply from the bough above him.
"Dost thou know how far distant is Sur Varne from this forest?"
"Nay, sir," answered Félix; "but I trow 't is a great way."
"There thou art right," said the count; "'t is a good two leagues, if it
is a pace. But how now? Thou canst not bide here to become the prey of
hungry wolves, my little night-owl of the yellow hair!"
And thereupon Count Bernard dexterously raised himself in his stirrups,
and, reaching upward, caught Félix in his arms and swung him down plump on
the saddle-bow in front of him; then, showing him how to steady himself by
holding the pommel, he turned to Brian, his squire, who while all this was
going on had stood by in silent astonishment, and giving the order to
move, the little cavalcade hastened on at a rapid pace in order to get
clear of the forest as quickly as possible.
Meantime the Count Bernard, who was really a very kind and noble lord, and
who lived in a beautiful castle on the farther verge of the forest, quite
reassured Félix by talking to him kindly, and telling him of the six days'
journey from which he and his squire Brian were just returning, and how
they had been delayed on the way until nightfall.
"And, by my faith!" said Count Bernard, "thou shalt sleep this night in
the strong castle of Bois Varne, with not even a mouse to fret thy yellow
head; and, what is more, thou shalt see the fairest little maid that ever
thou hast set eyes on!"
And then he told him of his little daughter, the Lady Elinor, and how she
would play with Félix and show him the castle, and how on the morrow they
would see about sending him home to Sur Varne.
And all the while the count was talking they were trotting briskly onward,
till by and by they emerged from the forest and saw towering near at hand
the castle of Bois Varne. The tall turrets shone and shimmered in the
moonlight, and over the gateway of the drawbridge hung a lighted cresset—
that is, a beautiful wrought-iron basket, in which blazed a ruddy torch of
oil to light them on their way.
At sight of this the count and Brian spurred on their horses, and were
soon clattering across the bridge and into the great paved courtyard. The
count flung his bridle to a little page who hastened out to meet him, and
then, springing from his saddle, lightly lifted Félix and swung him to the
ground. He took the boy by the hand and led him into the great hall of the
To Félix this looked marvelously beautiful. Christmas garlands of myrtle
hung on the walls, and a great pile of freshly cut laurel boughs lay on a
bench, ready for the morrow's arranging. But that which took his eyes most
of all was the lovely carving everywhere to be seen. The benches and
tables were covered with it; the wainscot of the spacious room was richly
adorned; and over and about the wide fireplace great carved dragons of
stone curled their long tails and spread their wings through a maze of
intricate traceries. Félix was enchanted, and gazed around till his eyes
Presently in came running a little girl, laughing with delight. Bounding
up into Count Bernard's arms, she hugged and kissed him in true Provençal
fashion. Then, catching sight of Félix, "Ah, mon père," she exclaimed,
"and where foundest thou thy pretty new page?"
"Nay, sweetheart," answered the count, looking down at Félix's yellow
hair; "'t is no page, but a little goldfinch we found perched in a
chestnut-tree as we rode through the forest."
Then, smiling at the Lady Elinor's bewilderment, he told her the little
boy's story, and she at once slipped down and greeted him kindly. Then,
clapping her hands with pleasure at finding a new playmate, she declared
he must come and see the Christmas crèche which she was just finishing.
She seized him by the hand and hastened across the hall, where her crèche
was built up on a carved bench. The poor little Lady Elinor had no mother,
and her father, the count, had been gone for several days; and while in
the castle were no end of serving men and women and retainers, yet none of
these presumed to dictate to the little mistress, and so she had put her
crèche together in a very odd fashion.
"There!" said she, "what thinkest thou of it, Félix? Of a truth, I fancy
somewhat is wanting, yet I know not how to better it!"
"Yes," said Felix, bashfully; "it may be I can help thee."
And so he set to work rearranging the little houses and figures, till he
succeeded in giving quite a lifelike air to the crèche, and Lady Elinor
fairly danced with delight.
While placing the little manger he happened to remember the figure of the
Christ Child still in his blouse pocket; this he timidly took out and
showed the little girl, who was charmed, and still more so when he drew
forth a small wooden sheep and a dog, which were also in the same pocket.
The Lady Elinor was so carried away with joy that she flew to the side of
the count, and, grasping both his hands, dragged him across the room to
show him the crèche and the wonderful figures carved by Félix.
"See, mon père!" said Elinor, "see this, and this!" And she held up the
little carvings for the count's inspection.
Count Bernard, who had good-naturedly crossed the room to please his
little daughter, now opened his eyes wide with surprise. He took the
little figures she handed him and examined them closely, for he was a good
judge of artistic work of this kind. Then he looked at Félix, and at
length he said:
"Well, little forest bird, who taught thee the carver's craft?"
"No one, sir," faltered Félix; "indeed, I wish, above all things, to learn
of the Père Videau, the master carver; but my father says I must be a
shepherd, as he is."
Here a tear rolled down Félix's cheek, for you must remember he was
"Well, well," said the count, "never mind! Thou art weary, little one; we
will talk of this more on the morrow. 'T is high time now that both of you
were sound asleep. Hey, there! Jean! Jacques! Come hither and take care of
this little lad, and see to it that he hath a soft bed and a feather
The next morning the children ate a merry breakfast together, and after it
Count Bernard took Félix aside and asked him many questions of his life
and his home. Then, by and by, knowing how anxious the boy's parents would
be, he ordered his trusty squire, Brian, to saddle a horse and conduct
Félix back to Sur Varne.
Meantime the little Lady Elinor begged hard that he stay longer in the
castle for her playfellow, and was quite heartbroken when she saw the
horse stand ready in the courtyard. Indeed, she would not be satisfied
until her father, the count, who could not bear to see her unhappy, had
promised to some day take her over to see Félix in Sur Varne. Then she
smiled, and made a pretty farewell courtesy, and suddenly snatching from
her dark hair a crimson ribbon of Lyons taffeta, she tied it about Félix's
sleeve, declaring, "There! thou must keep this token, and be my little
knight!" for the Lady Elinor had many lofty notions in her small curly
Félix could only stammer out an embarrassed good-by, for in the presence
of this lively little maid he found himself quaking more than when he
feared the terrible wolves of the forest. In another moment Brian lifted
him to the saddle, and, springing up behind, took the bridle-rein, and off
When, after several hours' riding, they drew near Sur Varne, Félix showed
Brian the way to the Michaud cottage, and you can fancy how overjoyed were
the Père and Misè to see the travelers; for they had been fairly beside
themselves with grief, and had searched all night for their little son.
Of course almost the first question Félix asked was about Beppo, and he
felt a great load taken off his mind when he learned that the little
truant, who had not really strayed very far from the village, had been
found and brought home by one of the shepherds, and was even then penned
up safe and sound in the sheepfold.
After a good night's sleep Félix was quite rested from his journey, and
was busy the next day in helping garland the Yule log, in giving Ninette
and Beppo an extra scrubbing and brushing, and in all the final happy
preparations for the great holiday.
And so Christmas Eve came. It was a lovely star-lit night, and on all sides
one could hear the beautiful Christmas songs of old Provence that all the
peasants and the children sang as they trooped along the roads on their
way to the great church of the village; for thither every one flocked as
the expected hour drew on.
Then presently the stately service began, and went on with song and
incense, and the sweet chanting of children's voices, till suddenly from
the upper tower of the church a joyous peal of bells rang in the midnight!
And all at once, through the dense throng of worshipers nearest the door
a pathway opened, and in came four peasants playing on pipes and flutes
and flageolets a quaint old air made up three hundred years before by good
King René for just such a ceremony as was to follow.
After the pipers walked ten shepherds, two by two, each wearing a long
brown cloak, and carrying a staff and lighted candle; that is, all save
the first two, and these bore, one a basket of fruit, the melons and
grapes and pears of sunny Provence, while the other held in his hands a
pair of pretty white pigeons with rose-colored eyes and soft, fluttering
And then, behind the shepherds came—what do you suppose?—Ninette!
Ninette, her fleece shining like snow, a garland of laurel and myrtle
about her neck, and twigs of holly nodding behind her ears, while bound
about her woolly shoulders a little harness of scarlet leather shone
against the white with dazzling effect; and fastened to the harness, and
trundling along at Ninette's heels, came the gayest of little wooden
carts. It was painted in the brightest colors. Its wheels were wrapped
with garlands, and in it, curled up in a fat fleecy ball, lay Beppo! Tied
about his neck in a huge bow was a crimson ribbon of Lyons taffeta, with a
sprig of holly tucked into its loops.
Beppo lay quite still, looking about him with a bewildered, half-dazed
expression, and just behind his cart came ten more shepherds with staffs
and candles, while following them was a great throng of peasant folk and
children (among them Félix), all carrying lighted tapers, and radiant with
delight; for this was the Procession of the Offered Lamb, and to walk in
its train was considered by all as the greatest honor and privilege.
And especially did the shepherd folk love the beautiful old custom which
for centuries the people of Provence had cherished from year to year in
memory of the time, long ago, when the real Christ Child lay in the manger
of Bethlehem, and the shepherds of Judea sought him out to worship him,
and to offer him their fruits and lambs as gifts.
And so on up the long aisle the procession slowly moved, the pipers
playing, and Ninette marching solemnly along, only now and then pausing to
thrust her nose between the Père Michaud and his companion, who walked
directly in front of her. Ninette pattered on as if she had trod the
floors of churches all her life; and as for Beppo, only once did he stir,
and then he gave a faint "Baa!" and tried to uncurl himself and stand up;
but just then the queer little cart gave a joggle which quite upset his
shaky lamb legs, and down he sank, and kept quiet throughout the rest of
After the service the players again struck up King René's tune, and the
procession, shepherds, Ninette, Beppo, peasants, and all, once more moved
on, this time down the outer aisle and toward the great open portal.
It took some time for the last of its followers to reach the doorway, for
the throng was very great; but at length Félix, who had marched with the
children in the last group, came to the threshold and stepped out into the
He stood for a moment smiling and gazing aimlessly ahead, overwhelmed with
the glory of all that had passed within the church, when presently he felt
some one pluck his sleeve, and turning round, he met the dancing eyes of
the little Lady Elinor.
She gave a little peal of laughter at his surprise, and exclaimed: "Oh, I
coaxed mon père, the count, to fetch me hither for this blessed night.
Thou knowest he promised! I rode my white palfrey all the way by the side
of his big brown horse. And I have seen the procession, and Beppo with my
red ribbon round his neck." Here she gave another little gurgle of
delight. "And oh, Félix, my father hath seen thine, and 't is all settled!
Thou art to be a famous carver with the Père Videau, as thou wishest" (for
the Lady Elinor had unbounded faith in Félix's powers); "and, Félix," she
added, "I trow 't was the little Christ Child for thy crèche that did it!"
Then, with a merry little smile, she darted off to her father, the Count
Bernard, who was waiting for her down the church path.
For a little while after she had gone Félix did not move, but stood as one
in a dream. Presently a loud bleat close at his side startled him, and,
looking down, he saw that Ninette, decked in her gay garlands, and still
dragging the be-ribboned Beppo in the little cart, had broken away from
the Père Michaud and come close up to himself.
Then, with a sudden movement, he stooped over, and, seizing Beppo in both
arms, hugged and squeezed him till poor Beppo squeaked with surprise, and
opened his red mouth and fairly gasped for breath. But Félix only hugged
him the harder, murmuring under his breath, "Bless thy little heart,
Beppo! Bless thy little heart!" For in a vague way he realized that the
truant lamb had somehow brought him his heart's desire, and that was quite
enough Christmas happiness for one year.
And the little Lady Elinor was right, too. Years after, when Félix grew to
be a man, he did, in very truth, become a "famous carver," as she had
Far surpassing his first master, the Père Videau, he traveled and worked
in many cities; yet never, through all his long life, did he forget that
Christmas Eve in the little village of Sur Varne.
Those who knew him best said that among his dearest treasures he always
kept a beautifully carved little box, and in it a bit of faded crimson
ribbon from the looms of Lyons. While, as for Beppo—well, if ever some
happy day you chance to visit the lovely land of Provence, perhaps you
will see a certain grand old cathedral in the ancient city of Arles; and,
if you do, look sharp at the figure of a lamb chiseled in white stone over
the great portal. Look well, I say, for Félix, when he carved it, would
have told you that he was thinking all the while of his little pet lamb
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