Written by Peter van Gorder
illustrations by Sabine
Table of Contents
(Narrator, a traveling minstrel:) Come gather ‘round the Christmas tree, for I have a story for you.
It is Christmastime, the time of giving. The wise men gave gifts to Jesus, the shepherds gave their love and praise, the innkeeper gave his stable, and most of all … God gave His Son to us. And this story is all about just that—giving.
— 1 —
Count Helmut von Steinhausen lived with his wife the countess, some 200 years ago, outside the city of Winkitz, Germany. The count’s castle overlooked his fruitful vineyards basking on the gentle slopes of Saxony. Under his protection were some 20,000 people in surrounding villages.
It was early December, a time when the count usually met with his advisors to take stock of what had been accomplished that year, and to plan goals for the coming year. Many problems faced them—the biggest one was whether they would escape Napoleon’s armies. Would their tiny land also be swallowed by the war spreading through Europe?
One of his advisors asked nervously, “How will we pay for an army to defend ourselves?”
Another suggested, “You must raise taxes on the villagers.”
The count looked out of his window, deep in thought, then said, “That I will not do. The villagers have enough burdens.”
“But sire, our coffers* are dangerously low.”
The count answered, “The Lord has blessed me with fertile vineyards that produce good table wine. I live comfortably off the sale of my wine. God has given me riches to share—not to hoard.”
“But Count Steinhausen, this is not good business sense!”
“Haven’t you read in the Bible about the rich fool who built bigger barns, then lost it all in one night? My life’s philosophy is summed up in the verse: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
“I understand, sire. But perhaps…”
Just then the countess burst into the room. “Enough talk of business! We must begin our preparations for the Christmas party!”
“Right, Liebchen*!” the count said affectionately to his wife. “This is the time when love can shine the brightest. Let’s make the most of it.”
Then the count turned to his counselors and asked, “Have the village elders given you the guest list yet?”
One replied, “Not yet, but I could supply you with a list of the wealthiest families in our realm. It would be wise policy to invite them, sire.”
“My good man, try to understand,” the count answered. “We will do as we have always done, and invite the orphans, the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the disabled, and the poor.”
“If I may ask, sire, how would you benefit by inviting them?”
“Jesus told us to invite not our family or rich friends to our feasts, but the poor and handicapped,” the count explained.
“Then God Himself will reward us! So you see, it is good business after all,” the count said with a laugh. And with a friendly slap on the back to his counselor, he got up and walked to the ballroom.
The castle became a beehive of activity, preparing for the grand celebration. The countess was like a conductor, directing the servants in their preparations. Banners of green were draped, the brass fittings were polished, apple and mince cakes were baked, and the castle was cleaned from the roof to the basement.
One afternoon, a messenger handed an envelope to the count. “Sire, the mayor has sent the list of the children and villagers who need your assistance.”
In the same moment, several servants entered, awkwardly carrying a large evergreen tree.
“Where shall we put this, sire?” they asked.
The count looked up from the letter he was reading. “Set it up in the middle of the ballroom, and put all the presents for the children underneath it.”
“As you wish, sire.”
— 2 —
The Christmas Party
It was Christmas Day, and the courtyard was filled with the sound of excited children.
A trumpet sounded and a herald announced, “The people have arrived.”
The count stood at the door. “Show them in!” he called. The massive oak doors were opened and the children filed in, bowing to the count and countess as they entered.
After everyone had arrived, the count called for the beginning of the festivities, and the band of minstrels came to life with the bouncy tunes of fiddles and horn.
“Come, Liebchen!” said the count, as he led his wife by the hand onto the dance floor. Everyone lined up behind them for the toe-and-heel dance. The boys danced in an outside circle surrounding the girls on the inside. Soon they made a procession that weaved around the room, then through a human tunnel made by everyone holding their hands up.
There were games of bobbing for apples, blind man’s bluff, and “Who am I?” For this guessing game, someone would act out famous people from history and the Bible and everyone would try to guess who it was. All kinds of other festive merriment followed.
Then it was time to open the presents. The count climbed on the raised platform and tapped on a glass to get everyone’s attention. After the room quieted, he spoke.
“Merry Christmas, everyone! May I offer a blessing for you at this time?”
The people nodded. “Very well then.—May your gifts be as a precious diamond or ruby, so that wherever you go, you will bring light to others. May your gifts supply all your needs and bring you before great men. May you experience the joy of giving, as I do tonight. So may you prosper and be blessed. Amen.”
A curly-haired, eight-year-old boy named Gunter was the first to approach the count, and tugged at his sleeve. “Do you have a present for me?”
“Gunter? Oh yes, let’s see. Here it is,” said the count as he handed a package to Gunter. “But before you open it, can you guess what’s inside?”
“Hmmm … I don’t know,” Gunter said.
“Well, can you read the label? It’s a riddle in a poem, and a clue for how you can use this present.”
The boy read in a loud, clear voice.
“I’m straight as a knife.
Use me to bring joy to life,
Release the shape sleeping in the wood.
Use your talent only for the good.
“Hmm … a woodcarving set?” he asked.
Unable to wait a second longer, he tore open the paper. In the package was a fine set of tools.
“Gunter, I have written a letter to the village woodcarver, and he’s expecting you. I’ve arranged for a carriage to come pick you up, as I have done for other boys from your orphanage. My driver will take you to the woodcarver’s shop, where you will learn how to use these tools. After you’ve learned how to carve, perhaps you can make a nativity scene, or a small piece of furniture, or a small toy, and then give it to someone else. It will be a good way to make friends and to reach out to those around you, don’t you think?”
“Why thank you, sire!”
“And if you keep at it, eventually you will become a skilled woodcarver.”
“Thank you, sire,” Gunter said.
“Is there a Hans Adam here?” the count called out as he read another label on a present. A seven-year-old boy with blond hair and deep blue eyes came forward, hobbling on crutches.
“I’m Hans, sire,” he said with his hands open to receive the large box.
“It’s your turn. Can you guess from this riddle what’s inside your present?”
“We are like the colors of a rainbow;
Share beauty you’ve seen
So others feel what you know.
May your vision be keen.”
Hans was so eager to see what was inside that he started tearing at the wrapping paper without even trying to guess. He then exclaimed, “A paint set! Oh, thank you!”
The count added, “When you have finished your first painting, please show it to the master painter in town. He will help you with guidance and instruction.”
The count noticed that Hans’ nose was running, and bent down to wipe it with his handkerchief.
“You poor child. You have a terrible cold! You must dress more warmly.”
The count ordered extra clothes and blankets to be prepared and sent back with the children when they returned to the orphanage.
As the evening wore on, many other children were called up, and each was given a present. Gisele, a blond nine-year-old, came forward when her name was called. She was handed a gift and she read her card slowly:
“Let cloth be so formed,
That others may be warmed.”
“Oh my! This must be a sewing set.” She answered correctly.
The gifts continued to be handed out till the time came for the last one. A small blind boy came to the front, and his friend read his card:
“If you have patience from the start,
You’ll soon play music from your heart.”
He guessed it was a musical instrument, and by feeling it with his hands, he discovered that it was a horn. When he first tried to blow it, though, no sound came out. One of the minstrels knelt down and showed the boy how to hold his fingers correctly and how to blow into it. The horn made a shrill shriek, and all the children laughed.
“Don’t worry, my little friend,” the musician said, as he laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “My first note on the horn sounded like that too. I will come to your orphanage and teach you, if you would like to learn.”
“Yes, I would like that very much,” the boy said shyly.
The count then called the villagers over to him. “Good villagers, I have not forgotten you. I would like to give you these cuttings from my famous vineyard. My gardeners have carefully prepared a cutting for each of you,” the count said, as he motioned to the head gardener, who began distributing the vines to each of the men.
The gardener said, “Plant them in good soil, water them, and soon you too will own a beautiful grapevine.”
“Now, good Count and Countess, the children would like to perform for you the Christmas play they have prepared to show their appreciation,” said the mayor. “We hope you enjoy it.”
“This is one of my favorite events of the evening. The children always make the story come to life in their own cute ways,” the countess said.
The performance was grand, and was wildly applauded by everyone.
The last event of the evening was when everyone held hands around the Christmas tree and sang a carol.
— 3 —
All to Ruins
And so they enjoyed many Christmases in this way, until the day that disaster struck. It was the head gardener who announced the news, running into the courtyard, out of breath. “Master, the invading army is approaching!”
The count was startled. “What? What army? What are you talking about?”
“Napoleon’s army. The Prussian army is burning everything in its path to prevent the enemy from getting any food or help! Our vines will certainly be turned to ashes. What can we do?”
“At least we must not let the palace be burned down. Get as many men as you need and clear an area far enough away so that the fire will not be able to reach us.—And then we shall pray for a miracle. Maybe the fire will not come our way, if the wind is in our favor.”
Soon, everybody was working furiously, pulling up vines and clearing an area around the building with shovels and pickaxes.
The fire caught quickly on the vines and spread down like a fire-breathing dragon, consuming everything in its way.
After the fire had at last died out, the count went into his vineyard to assess the damage. At the sight of the huge expanses of scorched vines, he sat in the smoldering ashes with his head in his hands, weeping.
His courtiers tried to console him, but the count just wanted to be alone. He turned away and locked himself in the chapel to pray.
He poured out his heart to the Lord, “All that I have worked for—it’s all gone! All my precious vines!”
He lifted his head and walked over to an open Bible lying on the altar, and his eyes fell upon these verses:
Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me: for my soul trusteth in Thee: yea, in the shadow of Thy wings will I make my refuge, until these calamities be overpast. My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword. My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise. (Psalm 57:1,4,7)
The Lord’s comforting voice spoke to his heart at this lowest point of his life, and gave him hope. A ray of light beamed into his soul through those verses.
— 4 —
Living with Loss
The conquering army soon left in retreat, due to loss of other battles. The count and countess tried to make the best of things in spite of their losses. In the months that followed, they had to sell all their family treasures and heirlooms to survive. Gradually, as the money became scarcer, the castle fell into disrepair.
One day, after making his inspection tour, the gardener reported to the count, “The ballroom is not doing well, the roof has holes in it.”
“Well, sire, it’s great for the pigeons who have made it their nesting place. But I’m afraid it will have to be closed. The plaster is cracked and the walls are crumbling. We could start a mushroom farm with all of the fungi thriving in the recesses from the leaks and…”
“Well, I appreciate your sense of humor, but seeing as there is no money for repairs, I suppose we will have to board the ballroom up. Which reminds me—I’ll have to dismiss all the servants today, I’m afraid we can’t afford their services any longer. I’m sorry to say I’ll have to let you go too.”
“Please, sire, don’t worry about that! I’ll stay on anyway.”
“But why would you want to do that?”
“Sire, there is more to do now than ever. I can’t just leave this beautiful place to ruin. Besides, it’s nice to know that I’m needed.”
Several months passed. Some villagers, whom the gardener called his apprentices, came to help him in his work.
One day the count heard banging and curiously asked the gardener, “What is all that noise?”
“Just fixing the leaks in the ballroom roof, good Count.”
“Perhaps I’ll come and take a look.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it, sire. It is much too dangerous!”
Life went on, and one day, the countess remarked to the count, “Well, we have managed to eke out an existence these last months, but I am afraid that we are running out of things to sell.”
“We just need to learn to live on less. I am sure that there is a bright spot in our lives right around the corner. The Lord won’t fail us.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” said the countess.
— 5 —
A New Kind of Christmas
Christmas was fast approaching, and the count was discussing with his wife what they could do for this magical holiday.
“One thing is certain,” said the countess, as she dragged her stool nearer to a little pile of burning sticks that they had gathered in a feeble attempt to stay warm. “We cannot have the children here at Christmas this year.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because we have nothing to give them,” she said. “We have nothing for them to eat, nothing to put on a tree, and no money to buy presents for them.”
“True. But there were a few apple trees that escaped the fire. We could give some of our apples to the children—and singing doesn’t cost anything.”
“Then what will we have to eat?” She looked over at the count and, seeing his amused expression, immediately knew what he was thinking.
The countess continued, “But if you have made up your mind, I suppose there is no use in my saying anything more about it.”
“God will provide for us!” he replied with a chuckle.
The count’s guardian angels were concerned about him too, knowing his thoughts and prayers. One of the count’s thoughts went something like this: I am getting old. There aren’t many more Christmases left for me. Perhaps this is my last Christmas. Please help me to make the children happy one more time, as I have done in the past.
His angels had already begun to work their magic, by putting it in the hearts of the gardener and the villagers to help wonderfully fulfill his heart’s desire. So the count invited the children as he had always done, but explained in a letter:
“This Christmas will be different from past celebrations in our castle. Unfortunately, due to the great fire, we will not be able to give any presents. But that won’t stop us from having a joyous celebration of Christ’s birth in song. Please come and celebrate it with us.”
As Christmas Day dawned bright and white, Count Steinhausen and his wife remained happy in spite of their misfortune. As they were making their meager breakfast, they heard a noise in the distance. The countess looked out of the window to see where it was coming from.
She said excitedly to the count, “They are coming!”
“Who is coming?”
“Don’t you remember? The children you invited!—And it looks like the whole village is with them!”
“What? I know I invited them, but I did not expect many … or even any to come. There must be some mistake.”
“Come to the window and look for yourself!”
“Yes, I see them! And hear them too—there is a band of musicians leading them, and they are all dancing to a rousing tune! Get the gardener! Throw open the gate and let’s meet our guests!”
Soon the courtyard echoed with cheerful greetings of “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, everyone!” while the band still kept playing loudly.
“Come in, my dears!” the count cried out to the children. “I am glad to see you. I wasn’t expecting so many of you. I am afraid there is not much room for all of you. You see, the ballroom is under repair.”
“Please let us in, good Count!” they insisted.
“All right then, but don’t expect too much.”
“The ballroom! To the ballroom!” the children shouted.
“You do not understand. I have not been able to repair the ballroom for lack of money.”
Before he could say more, they had begun to push open the doors. “Now stop that, children!” But they just kept opening the doors.
To his surprise, as they led him in by the hand, he saw that in the middle of the ballroom was a huge Christmas tree. He was amazed to find many presents underneath it. Everything was in perfect repair; even the floor shone with polish.
“Who is responsible for this?” the count asked. “Why, the ballroom looks even better than it did before!”
“Some of the boys that you gave tools to decided to return your favor,” the gardener said, pointing to his apprentices, who wore sheepish grins on their faces.
“So this is what you have been up to! How ever did you manage it?”
“We worked on it while you were away last week, visiting the poor in the nearby village,” the gardener explained.
“I am astounded!” the count exclaimed. “Thank you!” Then he turned to the others, “Where did you get this tree?”
“The forest gave it to us, and we who love you, give it to you!” they shouted with glee.
He looked around at all of the beaming faces and began hugging as many as he could. “My heart is too full of joy to speak.”
As they led him by the hand closer to the tree, the count was surprised to discover that all the packages were for him and his wife. Each time he opened a present, all the children clapped and cheered.
It took a long time to look at all the unusual presents. In the packages were each of the family treasures that the count and countess had had to sell in order to get by.
The couple could not hold back their tears another moment, but there was more. One boy put a specially wrapped package in his hand with a note saying, “From All the Villagers of Winkitz.” “We wanted to give you this sand clock* for the years you have loved us and tried to help us, especially on Christmas Day,” said the messenger boy awkwardly as he read his carefully prepared speech.
Everyone cheered and clapped.
“Read the inscription on the bottom!” one of the children shouted.
The count read out loud:
Life is a sand clock of rich and poor;
The sand flows not in vain.
It is turned over and filled once more—
What you give returns again.
It turned out to be one of the most wonderful Christmases they ever had. As usual there was dancing and an abundance of games, and a fine feast from the food everyone had brought. There were splendid pies, great bowls of jelly, and tremendous fruit cakes for all to satisfy their appetites.
“Speech, speech!” everyone cried out as glasses were raised for a toast.
The count stood to try to put into words what he was feeling, “I cannot tell you how happy you have made us. I thought that this was going to be my last Christmas, but I know that with real friends like you, our tragedy has become a bridge to something better. It has brought us closer together.”
He continued. “Christmas is a time of giving. You have taught me that when we give to others, God will bless us in a special way. So I propose a toast—to the joy of giving!”
“To the joy of giving!” everyone shouted as they clinked glasses.
After singing around the tree, all the children came up, and each in turn said merry Christmas. Before they marched off home again, they had one more surprise for him. “Look on your windowsill, good Count.”
“I feel like a little boy with you leading me from one surprise to another.”
On the windowsill was a cutting from a vine. “What is this?” the count asked.
One of the villagers explained, “We have nurtured the small vine cuttings that you gave, and now they have grown to become fruitful vines. And so, from their cuttings, come spring we will plant them in your vineyard, and your vineyard will be reborn. In a few years you will be producing the best wine in Germany once more—you’ll see!”
“I don’t know how to repay you all. But please come to my castle any time, not just at Christmas! I can teach you all about making wine and you can teach me all you know about having fun. That is what you children are very good at, aren’t you?”
“And we can call you grandfather!” the children shouted.
“Yes, and I will call you my grandchildren,” he answered.
“And we’ll have lots of flowers!” said the gardener.
“Of course you will, with all of your apprentices helping you,” the count said with a smile.
“And we will have a splendid Christmas festival every year,” added the countess.
“For as long as I live!” the count announced.
After everyone was gone, the count and countess shared a moment of peace together, “My, my, what a happy Christmas this has been!”
The countess replied, “May you have many more, my dear!”
And so they did.
Just as the sand clock turns over and is filled once more, what they’d given had come back again.
*coffer: a supply or store of funds
*Liebchen: sweetheart (German)
*sand clock: hourglass