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The Christmas Gift
by Siro Dal Degan, O.S.J.


Once upon a time, in a little village high up in the Austrian Alps, there lived an old man; proud of his age and proud of the heritage of his noble blood. He lived from day to day on the revenues derived from little chores his old and tired body was still capable of doing for the townsfolk. He never accepted any alms or charity, and walked slowly but proudly, like a man of noble birth should.

It was the night before Christmas, and the heart of the old man ached and longed for the warmth of a fire place and the laughter of children opening their Christmas gifts after
the solemn Midnight Mass of the Nativity in the ancient parish church. Every year one or the other family in the village would invite the old man to spend Christmas night with them because he was well liked by everybody and he never came without a little gift of his own, if not for everybody, at least for the smallest child in the family. He had looked with great anticipation for many a day to
this year's Christmas night because he had been invited to the home of little Kirsten who had befriended him with her radiant and loving face.

The old man was warming his hands on the fire he had readied to roast his chestnuts on, but
the tin can had stood empty all day and every passer-by would simply greet him and wish him a
"Merry Christmas" as he hurried on and soon disappeared in the flurries of snow flakes which had
been falling all day long. As the night grew colder, so did the heart of the old man, and the
thought of presenting himself empty handed at Kirsten's home sent even colder chills down his

"Could it be - the old man said to himself - that this will be the only Christmas night I will spend
away from a warm house and the laughter of children?" He had worked for a whole month on a little figurine he had intended to donate as a Christmas gift to little Kirsten; but the carving knife had broken in his hand and the broken blade had left a deep, ugly scar all across the delicate face of the Baby Jesus. "No! - the old man said to himself -I will never go empty handed ... If I could only sell a few handfuls of chestnuts ... I could then hurry and buy a new carving knife."

But the night grew colder and colder, as the solemn Mass of the Nativity got closer.

When the townsfolk appeared in the snowy street again, all wrapped up in their heavy coats and hats, they all hurried to Mass, and nobody paid any attention to the old man seated by the fire ready to roast his chestnuts for them.

When the last woman and child had
disappeared inside the brightly lit ancient parish church, the
old man stood up slowly and slowly extinguished the fire with
two, three generous handfuls of snow. He shook the fresh
snow flakes from his torn, old coat; picked up his belongings,
threw the sack of chestnuts on his shoulder; and, with
uncertain steps, started on his way home.

He walked slowly and sadly, because he did
not have any particular place to go. Worst of all, for him this would be a year without
Christmas: the warmth of a home,
with the laughter of children opening
their Christmas gifts.

As he wallked home and climbed the snow-covered stairway of the ancient castle, he tried to think of anything he could give to the little girl.But all his possessions were gone, sold little by little in the years past, just to get by from day to day.

As he walked slowly across the magnificent but barren hall, his steps echoed through the adjacent
rooms and up the stately stairways ... He looked around as he moved from room to room; but
even in his master bedroom, high in the main tower of his beautiful but empty castle, he found
nothing worth giving as a Christmas gift to his little friend Kirsten.

He lit the fireplace, threw some heavy logs on the flame, and sat by it in his great-
grandfather's worn-out throne with the proud family coat of arms embrazoned under a prince's
crown. He closed his eyes and tried to dream of a room full of children and their laughters as they
opened the presents under the Christmas tree. But the whole castle was wrapped in silence and
the snow fell softly outside the broken window panes. A few snow flakes wandered into the
empty room through the broken glass, driven by a silent draft. They danced merrily but briefly in
the air, then they suddenly fell to the floor, as if they had been overcome by the sad sight of an old
man sitting alone ... in a big, cold, empty, old castle. The old man dozed off; but instead of
dreaming of children and laughter, he dreamed of drifting hopelessly in the cold air outside ....
like a snow flake, . . . with snow flakes all around him. Drifting . . . and swirling . . . and
drifting .. . endlessly, up and down, aimlessly . ..

He woke up suddenly at the touch of a soft hand and, as he opened his eyes, he
was startled by the unexpected presence of the little girl. Kirsten's smiling eyes were looking at
him full of gentleness and love.

"Come", she said softly, "Let's go home! It's Christmas!"

Her voice was full of joy and laughter as she pulled the old man gently to his feet.
" I cannot come", he said sadly, " I have no gift for you. "

The little girl looked up at him and into his eyes, searching for the meaning of his words.
"What gift?" she finally asked," What has a gift to do with Christmas? You are my friend and Christmas would not be Christmas without you."

But the old man replied apologetically, "I should give you a gift..."

Then the most beautiful smile appeared on the face of the little girl and her
eyes danced with joy as she said,
"But YOU are my gift! You are my FRIEND ! "

And so even that year, the old man sat by the fireplace in a room full of children and laughter, and was peaceful and content once more.

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