Christmas folktale that explains a special miracle that happens in the North Georgia mountains each Christmas Eve. Written by Chuck Larkin.
I heard this particular story when I was a child. Back then, my parents discovered that it was a better lifestyle for them if they would send me off for the summer to visit kinfolk. And my favorite place to visit was my Aunt Irene and Uncle John’s farm in the mountains of north Georgia, in a county called Habersham. Let me tell you, they were rich farmers. I mean, they had huge fields that went all the way up through the valley.
The story I want to tell you is one of the Christmas stories I picked up while visiting their farm during “Old Christmas.” Never heard of “Old Christmas,” huh? Well, let me tell you what it is. You see, we changed the calendar way back in the 1700s so that the 25th of December, which is now Christmas Day, shifted over to the 6th of January. So, a lot of folks continued to celebrate Christmas right on through the 6th of January, which they called “Old Christmas.”
Anyhow, the story I heard goes something like this:
Now, you remember how Joseph and Mary were riding a little donkey right into Bethlehem. The way I’ve been told, the donkey was blind as a bat – I mean, he couldn’t see anything! Joseph knew that donkey was blind, but since that land over there was flat and sandy, and his donkey had never tripped once, as long as Joseph was there to lead him, that ol’ donkey didn’t have any problems at all.
They got into Bethlehem, and you know how they ended up in that barn. And Mary eventually gave birth to the baby Jesus.
Well, right after baby Jesus was born, the angels appeared in the sky, singing what would later become known as the first Christmas carols.
There was a group of shepherds herding their sheep out on the side of the hills. The angels were singing to the shepherds – just regular country people out working, tending their sheep in their fields. Uh-huh, I bet they were surprised and maybe a little scared. I know I would be.
Well, the angels called out, “Hey, it’s all right, don’t be afraid.” They told the shepherds about how baby Jesus, the Christ child, was born in a barn in a little town called Bethlehem. The barn was in a cave. Now some have said it was a building, but I was told it was a cave. Well, at least the back part of the barn was in a cave. The front part of the barn had been built out of mud, straw and wood. The angels said if the shepherds wanted to go and visit the Christ child, they could find him under the new star they had set up in the sky to help people find Bethlehem and the barn.e
The next morning, bright and early, Sylvester, the chief of all the shepherds, called his young son, Frederick. “Freddie,” he said, “Your uncles and aunts and I are going into Bethlehem to see the new baby the angels were singing about last night. Would you like to go?”
Would Frederick like to go? He was nine years old and had never been to town! Of course, he wanted to go! Not only would he get to go to town for the first time, but he’d be able to see the Christ child, too! Frederick was excited!
Let me tell you something about Frederick. When he was a tiny baby, his Grandma had taken some sheep’s wool and had made him a baby lamb doll. As long as Frederick could remember, he had slept with that baby lamb doll and had eaten his meals with that baby lamb doll. He even carried the doll with him everywhere he went. He loved that baby lamb doll, and had named her “Willie.”
But now there was a problem. You see, now that Frederick was nine years old, the older children had been teasing him about carrying a doll all the time. Recently, he had been hiding Willie under his shepherd’s clothes. Frederick decided that if he were old enough to go to town and see baby Jesus, he was old enough to leave his lamb doll home. He hugged Willie and hid her under his bed covers.
Frederick stood up straight, puffed out his chest, put on his new shepherd’s cloak and strutted out the cabin door with his daddy and his family heading for Bethlehem. They had not gone down the road a hundred yards when he stopped and said, “Daddy I left something at home I need. I’m going to run back and fetch it, but I’ll catch up with you.”
Well, you can guess what he went back for. He picked up Willie and hid that baby lamb doll under his cloak and ran to catch up with his mommy and daddy and kinfolk. He quit strutting too and just trod along quietly with the grown ups.
When they entered Bethlehem, Frederick had never seen so many people. The barn was filled with well wishers and gift givers and a long line of folk outside waiting to get in.
Frederick was almost broken hearted. He didn’t see how they would ever get in to see baby Jesus. What Frederick forgot was that his daddy was the chief of all the shepherds. When the folks saw Sylvester, they all called out, “Come on Sylvester! Bring your boy and come on in the barn.
When they got inside the barn, Frederick climbed up on a high pile of hay so he could see over everybody. Frederick couldn’t believe what he saw. There was baby Jesus, sleeping peacefully in a horse’s feeding trough, with some fresh hay under him for a mattress.
“Oh, wow!” he thought. “I remember Mama saying that once when I was a baby, I slept a few nights in a wooden box that was used to feed the sheep, just like baby Jesus! What an exciting day! I’m in town for the first time and I’m seeing the baby son of God. Wow!”
Then Frederick noticed that the whole barn, full of people, had gotten quiet. Frederick turned and looked toward the door. People were moving aside, and in walked three men in beautiful, flowing robes. Frederick looked at their clothes and remembered the stories his Mama had told him all about the Kings and how they dressed. He never thought he’d ever see a King. Those three men had on fancy King clothes for sure. What a day! First time to go to town, first time to see so many people. A chance to see baby Jesus and now three Kings. Oh, what an adventure!
Frederick watched as the Kings went over to baby Jesus. The first King, whose voice was commanding and deep said, “I bring a gift of gold to the Christ child, the symbol of a King.”
Frederick thought, “Now hold on there, King. That’s a foolish gift to give a little baby. What’s a baby going to do with money?” The second King stepped up and with that same kind of King voice said, “I bring the gift of Myrrh, the symbol of the healer, for the Christ child.” Frederick thought, “Uh, oh. That king’s not so smart, either. Mama cooks sometimes with Myrrh. What does that King think a baby is going to do with a bitter herb like Myrrh?”
Then the third King said, “I bring the gift of Frankincense, symbol of the priest, to the Christ child.”
“Frankincense?” thought Frederick. “That’s incense, and that stuff stinks! Kings may dress fancy, but they sure don’t have much gift giving judgment. The only time I’ve ever smelled Frankincense was when it was burned at funerals – and he gives that stuff to a baby?”
Frederick sadly shook his head and thought how silly Kings were, as he watched the other gifts being given. Nothing for a baby. Then he saw his daddy Sylvester stand up, walk over to where baby Jesus was sleeping, and lay down his huge shepherd’s staff as a gift to baby Jesus. That’s when Frederick realized that sometimes grown ups do silly things. They just don’t have the sense they were born with. Did you ever notice that?
As Frederick thought about all the foolish baby gifts, he suddenly remembered that, under his cloak, he had the perfect gift for a newborn baby.
No, uh-uh, no way. He sure didn’t want to give up his Willie! Frederick even looked out of the barn window and watched a small flock of birds perching on a tree, trying to erase the thought from his mind. It didn’t do any good. All Frederick could think about was how baby Jesus was born in this old barn, dug into the side of the hill, dirty and smelly and everybody giving him gifts that he couldn’t use. Frederick knew that if baby Jesus was going to receive a gift that a baby could use, he was going to have to be the one to do it.
Frederick climbed down off the pile of hay. He squeezed between the big people until he reached the manger. Frederick thought, for a horse’s feeding box, the manger wasn’t even well built. No mattress at all – just straw for the baby Jesus, the son of Heaven, the Christ child, to sleep on in this rank-smelling barn. That’s awful!
He looked down at baby Jesus sound asleep. He reached under his cloak and pulled out Willie, his baby lamb doll. He held her up and whispered into her ears how much he loved her and how baby Jesus would love her too, and how much he would miss her. But now Willie had to take care of a new baby, like she had taken care of him when he was a baby.
Frederick gave Willie a big hug. When he started to put Willie into the manger, baby Jesus woke up, saw the baby lamb doll up in the air above him and started giggling. Baby Jesus reached his little hands into the air, grabbed and hugged Willie to his chest. Then baby Jesus, snuggled up next to Willie, closed his eyes and went back to sleep with a smile on his face.
When baby Jesus saw Willie and laughed for the first time, that’s when the first of the three Christmas miracles we know about took place. Remember when I told you about the blind old donkey that had brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem? Well, he suddenly could see! He looked all around the barn, and was mighty surprised. You should have seen the big grin on his face!
The second miracle happened to this old ragweed that used to grow throughout the Roman Empire. When Frederick gave his doll to baby Jesus, it suddenly bloomed a pretty red flower. Every year after that, the old weed blossomed the same red flower during the Christmas season. People started calling it the “Christmas Flower,” which we call the “Poinsettia” here in the U.S. of A.
But it’s the third miracle I like the best. You see, that’s the time the animals get the gift of speech. When I was a child visiting Aunt Irene and Uncle John’s farm in the North Georgia mountains during the holidays, they took me down to the barn on Old Christmas Eve to watch the animals. I’d been told about the animals getting the gift of speech at that time, but if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed it.
There’s a moment on the night before the 6th of January, Old Christmas Eve, when this does indeed happen – if you got pets at home, you watch them. Right around dusk, they’ll do something that looks like they’re saying a little prayer. First, they bow down on their knees and say a quiet prayer, then they tell these old stories. Just after they bow their heads to say their Christmas prayers, they will have the gift of speech, and they love to tell these old stories. My own dog told me this story when I was five years old!
My sister, Barbara Anne, told me her pet fish came to the top of the water once and told a Christmas fish story. I would tell you that story, but my sister was real young and forgot the story.
And that night right up there in the North Georgia mountains – wow! Seeing is believing. And that is a true story – the story of the first Christmas gift.
– THE END –
Where Did This Story Come From?
Like other indigenous folktales, Appalachian Christmas stories, for the most part, can be traced back to the British Isles. The early mountain settlers, who were largely Scotch-Irish immigrants, probably brought these tales over the ocean with them.
As they formed their own distinctive, tight-knit culture in the rugged hills, these original Christmas tales were transformed into stories that reflected their new lives in America. Two centuries later, as modern influences crept into Appalachia, these distinctive Appalachian tales spread rapidly throughout the world – so much so that cultural origins are sometimes blurred.
Some Appalachian Christmas stories attempt to explain how certain traditions and images such as gift giving, mistletoe, Poinsettia flowers and Christmas trees came to be associated with Christmas. In some cases, these traditions and images became significant because they were featured in the celebration of the birth of Christ. One of the more popular Appalachian “tall tales” – the story of how farm animals talk to one another on Christmas Eve – was actually part of a centuries-old tale of the first Christmas miracles.
The First Christmas Gift – Story Credits
Written and Told by Chuck Larkin
Directed by Craig Dominey
Sound Design by Henry Howard