(The story of a little boy named David)
Since the formal publication of A Most Unusual Christmas Eve a few days before Christmas in 1994 and, particularly during the Christmas seasons since then, I have had many opportunities to read to, and discuss this story with, hundreds of children and adults of all ages. This has included groups as diverse as a first grade class in North Carolina, a group of professional women at the NCSU Chancellor's residence, and a group of highly successful people in their late fifties at a Christmas party in a beautiful home in Park City, Utah. The response in every case has been overwhelmingly warm and positive and I have come to better understand why the story has such universal appeal.
First, this heartwarming story itself, with its magic surprise ending, has a simple, enduring and universal message: Love and giving of one's self, not material things, are the true gifts of Christmas. Obviously, this is not a new message, but A Most Unusual Christmas Eve presents it again in a compellingly moving and special way. David, the main character of this nineteenth century story, learned this message one Christmas Eve on a journey of discovery with his Guardian Angel, by observing the children of his village and most especially by watching and listening to a little boy and his grandmother whom he observed living in a warm, rough-pine cabin set deep in the woods. David told no one about his journey and the magic gift he had received, yet it changed his life and the lives of all those around him - the careful reader of this story will see that, at the beginning of his journey, David left his house but returned to his home.
Second, the "story of the story" is a clear example of this enduring message at work. It began as a simple gift of love to my children on Christmas Eve in 1966 when my daughter Theresa (then five years of age) asked me to tell her a story. Sitting in a darkened room with only candles for light, this story came spontaneously from my heart. Then in 1986 Theresa, now grown with one child of her own and struggling financially while she and her husband were finishing their college education, and not able to afford what she considered an appropriate gift, gave of herself by drawing six beautiful illustrations and surprising me with a bound copy of the story I told her 20 years earlier --- then the characters of my story were brought to life, and I will never forget her gift of love. Finally, we decided in 1994 to formally publish this magic story so that everyone could share in its simple message and we decided we needed additional illustrations. That September, while Theresa began redrawing the original illustrations, I spent an entire day driving around the high mountain valleys of Utah taking pictures of meadows, trees and wooded lanes that she could use for the new drawings. We contracted with Barefoot Press in Raleigh, NC late that fall and distributed copies to bookstores and friends a little more than a week before Christmas. A much larger second printing was made the following year. All but a few hundred copies have been sold and often since then, I have read the story to children in my grandchildren's classes.
Now you, the reader of this story, also will know about the magic gift that David received and will be reminded of the simple message this story gives. It is our wish that in this troubled world it may also change your life.
Many years ago there lived on the top of a very high hill, in a large marble house that overlooked the village nestled below, a most miserable little boy named David. He had no brothers nor sisters. He was rude to his parents. He played mean tricks on the household servants and, as you might well imagine, he had no little friends of his own. David's parents didn't know what to make of their son. "Why?", they often asked. "We have given him everything he has ever asked for, yet he has never shown the least bit of love nor happiness, not even as a very small child." He had never cried either and his parents wondered if he had any feelings at all in his heart.
It was on a particular Christmas Eve when David was nearly ten years old that something very unusual happened to him, something so unusual that I'd like to tell it here.
On that Christmas Eve the snow was falling lightly, and the runners of the horse-drawn sleighs that raced from place to place, cut deep grooves into the brilliant white mantle that covered the earth. Everywhere, the scent of burning Yule logs and freshly cut pine boughs filled the air. And on the village streets you could hear carols being sung by pink-cheeked merry-makers muffled against the cold.
In David's house, in a room that was very large, stood a 20 foot high Christmas tree all covered with gold and silver tinsel and candy canes. And on many of the branches were flickering candles, because you see in those days there were no lights. Now you would think that these smells and sounds and beautiful sights would make anyone glad, but then you just didn't know David very well. Even though there were hundreds of gifts for him under that magnificent tree, no one in the house that evening saw David show even the slightest bit of happiness.
Much later that night as David slept in his unheated room protected from the cold by the thick, goose-down blanket on his bed, the big clock in the hallway chimed three times. When the sound of the last chime died away, David was suddenly awakened by the presence of someone in his room.
He sat up with a jolt and demanded of the figure who stood at the foot of his bed, "Who are you?" "What do you want?" "WHO gave you permission to enter my room without knocking?" All spoken very rudely, of course.
The figure spoke, and in a quiet heavenly voice said, "David, have no fear." "I am your Guardian Angel and I have come that you might learn." David began to protest again, of course, but the Angel simply reached out and took his hand. And before David realized what was happening he was dressed in his boots and heavy coat, and they were outside in the snow walking down the long hill from David's house toward the village that lay nestled below.
At first they passed houses almost as elegant as his own, but as they walked toward the center of the village David could see that the houses were getting smaller and the children less well dressed. In fact some, he noticed, had patches and torn spots on their pants and coats. He chuckled to himself at their condition, but he couldn't help noticing something very strange about them. They laughed! Not with David's kind of unhappy laugh, but with a joyful laugh, the kind that begins deep in the heart. Confused and angry, David demanded of his companion, "Why do these miserable people laugh so?" "They are poor and couldn't possibly have gifts to give each other ... look at their clothes." "What do they have to be so happy about?" The Angel said simply, "That David, is what we shall see."
When they came to the far end of the village, David could see that the houses were quite shabby now. Some had cracks in the walls that were rudely stuffed with a mixture of mud and straw or rags. "Surely, this can't keep out the winter cold," David said to himself. But it was always the same. Even from those homes that he least expected to hear even a human sound came laughter and song. It seemed to him that from the poorest surroundings came the greatest expressions of joy. "Why?", he asked over and over again. "Why?". And each time the answer was the same. "We shall see, David." "We shall see!"
Their walking now took them out of the village and toward the dark, thick forest. It had stopped snowing and light from the full moon burst through the clouds to alternately illuminate each individual snowflake, creating what David thought looked like a glistening carpet of diamonds. He had even become less rude as they walked and managed to speak in a sometimes half-pleasant voice.
Soon, straight ahead of them, David could see what appeared at first to be a small lantern suspended from the trees. As they drew closer, however, he saw that it was actually the light coming from a window of a very small, one-room rough-pine cabin nestled protectively back against the gigantic evergreens. He thought how cold and uncomfortable and frightening it must be to have to live there and his heart, for the very first time, felt just a tiny bit sad.
As they stopped near the window David turned toward the Angel and asked in a quiet voice, "Who lives here?" "Why have you brought me here?" The Angel did no speak, but beckoned David closer. Looking inside through the clear center of a window pane bordered by thick white frost, David saw a very small house indeed.
Except for a short flickering candle sitting wax-encrusted on a table in the corner, it was obvious that the light he had seen earlier in approaching the cabin had come from a fire that burned brightly in a rock fireplace on the other side of the room. "There is warmth here," he said to himself, genuinely surprised.
As his breath cleared more of the frost from the glass, he became aware of an old woman sitting in a rocking chair in the middle of the room. She had a rough knit shawl around her shoulders and another draped across her knees, and she rocked slowly. "Who is she?", David asked, but again the Angel did not answer.
As David turned back to the window he saw a small, frail little boy just about his own age, he guessed, lift himself slowly to his feet, and David could see that he needed crutches to walk. The boy stopped in front of the old woman's chair and slowly lowered himself to the floor in front of her, holding onto her knees for support. He began to sing of the Christ Child, and the emotion in the boy's voice conveyed the expression that David could now see clearly on his face. He was smiling! He was happy, truly happy.
David was visibly disturbed by what he saw and by what he heard, because it was so totally unexpected. In a soft voice that seemed to plead for relief, he asked the Angel, "How, of all those we have seen this night, could this small crippled boy and this old woman have anything to be thankful for?" "It is Christmas Eve and I don't see any gifts they could give each other, and there is so little food for the winter." "Why?", he asked. "Why?".
The Angel simply smiled this time and David, becoming aware again of the voices from the room, pressed his small ear to the cold window pane so that he could hear. "Oh, grandmother," he heard the small boy saying. "I love Christmas better than any other holiday of the year, because we can honor the birth of Jesus and remember why He came."
She smiled at her grandson and reached down with her wrinkled hand and tenderly moved an errant curl away from his sparkling eyes. "You are right my son," she said. "It is important to celebrate Christ's birth. He gave the world many things, but none were more important than His gift of love. Tonight love is all that we have to share with each other, but love my son is the greatest gift of all."
The boy hugged his grandmother's legs and gave her a radiant smile that most surely came from deep down in his heart. Gently lifting the boy onto her lap and, sharing with him the shawl from her own shoulders, she wrapped her arms around her grandson and drew him close.
David stood silently watching for a long time. As he turned away from the window, a very small tear dropped from the corner of his eye and fell to the collar of his coat ... the very first tear he had ever shed. His Guardian Angel, who was still at his side, smiled knowingly and said, "David, come, it is time now for you go home." David looked at the Angel and back again at the huddled pair, but then he began to feel sleepy and slowly closed his eyes.
When he reopened his eyes he discovered, much to his surprise, that he was sitting on the cold floor of his bedroom dressed in just his nightshirt. "Was all this just a dream," he thought as he rubbed his eyes?
Then David looked out the window, and seeing that the night was turning into day, exclaimed with a brand-new feeling, "Oh how wonderful! It's Christmas morning." He jumped to his feet and raced down the hallway, noisily waking all the servants and his parents, causing more commotion in that big house than had ever been heard before.
Each member of the household scurried down the stairs and into the large room and, to their utter amazement, they saw that David was already there and lighting, one by one, the candles of the tree. He excitedly beckoned all of them in and asked them to sit down. And with a happy smile on his face (his first, ever), David personally delivered to each servant beautifully wrapped presents that he had selected from the immense stack under the tree. Then, much to the surprise of everyone in the room, he leaned over and gave them each a most deserving ... but totally unexpected kiss.
When he had given out all the servant's presents, David paused, and turning to his parents, who by this time were quite beside themselves with wonder, he said, "There are many gifts for you under this tree, but the one I want to give you most is the greatest gift of all."
With a stream of tears now falling from his eyes David ran to his parents and, as he threw his little arms around both of their necks (this also for the very first time), he said in a most magic and angelic way, "I love you!"
So you see, David did have something quite unusual happen to him that Christmas Eve, but that is not the end of the story. No indeed, because David asked everyone to get dressed and together they loaded his father's sleigh with all of his toys and other gifts from under the tree, and with extra boots and coats and gloves that he had in such abundance in his closets. He was going to give them away, all of them, that very Christmas morning down the hill in the village that lay nestled below.
As the horse trotted steadily along pulling the sleigh down the long hill toward the village, David sat and watched the white-frosted breath erupting rhythmically from the horse's nostrils, and he wondered about the experience he had had the night before. "Was it really just a dream?", he thought to himself.
David asked to go first through the village to the dark, thick forest that lay beyond. Search as he might, however, he could not find the small cabin that was the center of his dream and where he had learned so much about love and giving.
"It was just a wonderful dream," he concluded, but with a new warmth in his heart. Then he asked his father to turn the sleigh around and go back into the village, and together they began giving away the gifts to every child they saw.
Soon all the gifts were gone and David's father, who had been watching his son all morning, marveled at the joy that the boy so obviously felt.
He watched as David reached up with his hand to turn down the collar of his coat and was struck by the sudden, increased radiance of David's already brilliant smile, a smile that now came, it was clearly evident, from all the way down deep in his son's heart.
At that moment a new and wonderful feeling also welled up within the heart of David's father. And as the sleigh cut a path back along the tree-sheltered road, he gently lifted David onto his lap and, sharing with him the fur blanket from his own shoulders, he wrapped his arms around his son and drew him close.
The crisp clear air of that Christmas morning breathed new life into the two huddled bodies. And as they started up the long hill to their home, the mid-morning sun caught and brilliantly illuminated something that was on the collar of David's coat; something that was in the exact spot where David had just placed his hand.
It was a very small piece of ice.....tear shaped!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ERNEST KNOWLES is a retired Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor at North Carolina State University. He holds a Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography and joined the faculty at North Carolina State University in 1970. Though retired, he continues teaching Oceanongraphy during summer school and each semester in his internet course. He is married with six children, twenty grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren, and lives with his wife Patricia in Raleigh, NC.
THERESA COLLINS is the daughter of the author and shares with him a love of writing. In addition to art, she has a broad range of other creative interests, including drama and music. She is married with four children and eleven grandchildren, and lives with her husband Rick in Draper, Utah.