KAREN ASKS ABOUT CHRISTMAS
VER the old Flemish city of Bruges the wintry twilight was
The air was starry with
snowflakes that drifted softly down, fluttering from
the steep brown roofs, piling up in corners of ancient
doorways, and covering the cobblestones of the narrow
streets with a fleecy carpet of white.
At a corner of one of the
old-  est of these and facing on another no wider than a lane,
but which bore the name of The
Little Street Of The Holy Ghost, a number of years ago
there stood a quaint little house built of light
yellow bricks. It had a steep gabled roof, the bricks
that formed it being arranged in a row of points that
met at the peak beneath a gilded weather-vane shaped
like an arrow. The little house had no dooryard, and a
wooden step led directly from its entrance to the
flagstones that made a narrow, uneven walk along that
side of the street.
Icicles hung from the edge of the brown roof and
twinkled in a crystal fringe around the canopy
 of the little shrine up
corner of the dwelling.
For, like so many others of the
old city, the little house had its own shrine. It was a
small niche painted a light blue, and in it, under a
tiny projecting canopy of carved wood, stood a small
figure of the Virgin Mother holding the
Christ-child in her arms. Now and then a starry
snowflake drifted in beneath the canopy and clung to
the folds of the Virgin's blue robe or softly touched
the little hands of the Christ-child nestling against
And, by and by, as the wind rose and blew around the
corner of the house, it began to pile up the snow on
the sills of the
case-  ment windows whose small panes of glass lighted the
room within, where sat an old woman and a little girl.
The woman was clad in a plain black gown, such as is
still worn by the humbler of the Flemish dames, and on
her silvery hair was a stiffly starched cap of white.
The little girl was dressed much the same, save that
her light brown hair was not hidden but braided in two
plaits that were crossed and pinned up very flat and
tight at the back of her head.
The woman was bending over a rounded pillow, covered
with black cloth, which she held in her lap; it was
stuck full of stout pins, and around these was caught
 a web of fine threads each ending in a tiny bone
bobbin, and beneath her skillful fingers, as they
deftly plied these bobbins in and out, a delicate piece
of lace was growing; for it was thus that she earned
bread for herself and the little girl.
Indeed, the lace of Bruges, made by the patient toil of
numberless of her poorer people, has
for many centuries been famous for its fineness and
beauty. And those who so gain their livelihood must
often begin to work while they are still children, even
as young as the little girl who sat there in the
twilight by the window of the little yellow house.
She, too, was bending over a black-covered pillow,
was smaller and had fewer bobbins than that of the
white-capped woman beside her; for the child was just
beginning to learn some of the simpler stitches. But
though the bit of lace on the pillow showed that she
had made good progress, she was working now slowly and
had already broken her thread twice, for her mind was
full of other thoughts.
She was thinking that the next night would be Christmas
eve, and that she would set her little wooden shoes by
the hearth, and that if she had been good enough to
please the Christ-child, he would come while she was
asleep and put in them some red apples and nuts, or
perhaps—perhaps he might bring the little string of
 beads she wanted so much. For Flemish children do not
hang up their stockings for Santa Claus as do the
children of our land, but instead, at Christmas time,
they set their little shoes on the hearth and these
they expect the Christ-child himself to fill with
As the little girl by the window now thought and
thought of Christmas, her fingers dropped the thread at
last and, looking up from her task with her blue eyes
full of dreams, "Grandmother," she said softly, "will
the Christ-child surely come again tomorrow night? And
do you think he will bring me something?"
"Why, yes, Karen, thou hast been a good child,"
 Grandmother, who was trying hard to finish a
difficult part of her lace pattern before the dark
"And, Grandmother," went on Karen, after thinking a
little longer, "is it really his own birthday?"
"Yes, yes, child," said Grandmother.
"Then," said Karen, as a bewildered look crept into her
eyes, "why is it that he brings gifts to me, instead
of my giving something to him? I thought on people's
birthdays they had presents of their own. You know on
my last one you gave me my blue kerchief, and the time
before, my pewter mug." Karen considered a moment more,
and then she added: "Is it because we are so
 poor, Grandmother, that I have never given the
Christ-child a Christmas present?"
Here Grandmother's flying fingers paused an instant,
though still holding a pair of the tiny
bobbins, as she answered, "It is true we are poor,
Karen, but that is not the reason. No one gives
such gifts to the Christ-child. Thou must give him
obedience and love; dost thou not remember
what Father Benedicte told thee? And then, too, thou
knowest thou art to carry a wax candle to the cathedral
for a Christmas offering
at the shrine of the Blessed Virgin and Child."
"But," continued Karen perplexedly, "does no one
something for his very own?"
 "There, there, child," said Grandmother, with a note of
weariness in her patient voice, "I cannot work and
answer thy questions!"
And Grandmother bent still closer over the flower of
lace which she was trying so hard to finish, and the
little girl became silent.
After a while, from the beautiful tall belfry that
soared into the sky from the center of the city, the
chimes rang out the hour, and, no longer able to see in
the gathering dusk, Grandmother rose and laid aside her
"Come, Karen," she said, "put up thy work, and get
thy shawl and go fetch some water for the tea-kettle."
 The little girl carefully placed her lace-pillow
on a shelf at one side of the room; and
taking a knitted shawl from a peg near the
doorway, she ran to the dresser and lifted down
a copper tea-kettle, polished till it shone. Then
she unbarred the door and sped out into
the snowy dusk.
She had but a short distance to go to the quaint pump
that served the neighborhood. It stood among
the cobblestones of the narrow street, and had been
made long, long ago, when the workmen of even
things loved their craft and strove to make
everything beautiful that their fingers touched. So
the pump had a wonderful spout of wrought iron
shaped like a
drag-  on's head; and as Karen tugged at the long, slender
handle of the same metal, she laughed to see how the
icicles hung from the dragon's mouth like a long white
beard. She liked to pretend that he was alive and
wanting to eat her up, and that she was very brave to
make him fill her tea-kettle; for Karen loved fairy
stories and lived a great deal in her own thoughts.
Meantime, the dragon had not eaten her, and the
copper tea-kettle was brimming over with cold water,
seeing which she stooped and lifting it in both hands,
carefully carried it back to the little yellow house
and set it on the hearth where Grandmother had raked
glow-  ing coals. Then she lighted a candle, and
helped prepare their simple evening meal of coarse
brown bread and coffee, though this last was for
Grandmother; for Karen there was a pewter
mug full of milk.
When they had finished their supper, Grandmother placed her
lace-pillow on the table
the candle and again busied herself with her work.
For the wife of Burgomaster Koerner had
ordered the lace, and it must be finished and sent
home the next day.
And Grandmother sorely needed every penny she could
earn; for, since Karen had neither father
nor mother, there was no one but herself to gain a
 livelihood until the little girl grew older and could
help carry the burden. To be sure, Grandmother was not
really so old as she looked, but many years of toil
over the lace-pillow had bent her back and taken the
color from her face. While Karen's father had lived
they had known more of comfort; but when he died and
the mother had followed soon afterward, leaving her
baby girl to Grandmother's care, there had been but
little left with which to buy their bread. That had
been eight years before, but Grandmother had struggled
bravely on; she was one of the most skillful of the
scores of lace-makers of the old city, and so she had
managed still to keep the little yellow
 house in which she had always lived, and to shield
Karen from knowing the bitterest needs of the poor.
But Grandmother was weary; and as now she bent over
the fairylike web of lace in which she had woven
flowers and leaves from threads of filmy fineness, she
was glad that the piece was almost finished, and
that she would have the blessed Christmas day
in which to rest.
And while Grandmother's fingers flew back and forth
among the maze of pins, Karen was busy
tidying up the hearth and the few dishes which
she neatly set
back on the old-fashioned dresser near the
fireplace. Then she drew a little stool close to the
 hearth, and, resting her chin on one hand, looked
dreamily into the fire.
"RESTING HER CHIN ON ONE HAND, LOOKED DREAMILY INTO THE FIRE."
She was still thinking of Christmas eve, and the more
she thought the more she wanted to give something to
the Christ-child. For she was a generous hearted little
girl and loved to share any little pleasures with her
friends, especially those who had been so good to her.
And she considered the Christ-child the most faithful
friend she knew, "for," she said to herself, "as far
back as I can remember, he has come every
Christmas while I was asleep, and has always put
something in my wooden shoes! And to think that no one
gives him any present for himself!"
 For Karen could not see how giving him one's obedience
or love (for, of course, every one expected their
friends to love them anyway!), or offering a wax
candle in the shrine at the cathedral, could take the
place of some little gift that he might have for his
Surely, she thought, the Christ-child must like these
things just as other children do. If only she
had some money to buy something for him, or if only she
had something of her own nice
enough to offer him! She went over in her mind her little
possessions; there was her blue kerchief, her
pewter mug, her rag doll, her little wooden stool;
but none of these things seemed just
 right for the Christ-child. And, besides, she felt that
he was so wonderful and holy that his
present should be something not only beautiful, but also quite
new and fresh.
Poor Karen gave a sigh to think she had
not a penny to
buy anything; and Grandmother,
looking up from her work, said,
"What is the matter, child?"
And as Karen said nothing,
"Where is thy knitting?" asked Grandmother,
" 'tis yet a little while till bedtime; see if thou
canst remember how to make thy stitches even, the way I
showed thee yesterday."
"Yes, Grandmother," answered Karen; and going into the
little room that opened off from
 living-room, she came back with a bit of knitting and
again seating herself on the wooden stool, began
carefully to work the shining needles through some
coarse blue yarn. For little Flemish girls even as
young as she were not thought too small to be taught
not only the making of lace, but
how to knit; and their hands were seldom allowed to be
Indeed the folk of the humbler class in Bruges had
to work long and industriously to keep bread on
their tables and a shelter over their heads.
The city had once been the richest and most powerful
in all Flanders, and up to her wharves great
ships had brought wonderful cargoes from all
over the world;
 and the rulers of Bruges and her merchant citizens had
lived in the greatest splendor. The wealthy people were
wealthier and the poorer people less poor in those old
days. But then had come bitter wars and oppression;
the harbor had slowly filled up with sand brought down
by the river Zwijn, till at the time when Karen lived,
Bruges was no longer the proud and glorious city she
had once been, but was all the while becoming poorer
It was true there were many ancient families who still
lived at ease in the beautiful old carved houses facing
on shady squares or built along the edges of the
winding canals that everywhere
 threaded the once busy city; though the quiet water of
these now scarcely rippled save when the trailing
branches of the overhanging willow trees dipped into
them, or a fleet of stately white swans went sailing
the poorer parts of the city the people must work
hard, and there were whole streets where every one
made lace; and all day long women and girls, old and
young, bent over the black-covered pillows just as
Karen's Grandmother was at that moment doing.
Grandmother's fingers steadily plied the tiny
bobbins in and out long after Karen had put away
her knitting and crept into the little cupboard bed
 built into the wall of the small room next to the
At last, as the candle burned low, the lace was
finished; and carefully unpinning it from the pillow,
Grandmother laid it in a clean napkin; and then she
raked the ashes over the embers of the fire on the
hearth, and soon her tired eyes closed in sleep as she
lay in the high-posted bed close to Karen.