CHRISTMAS EVE DATES
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Once upon a long time ago when I was a little boy on the outside as well as in the inside of my joyful heart/mind/soul, the special smell and sight of a Christmas tree standing gloriously in our parlor enchanted me like no other experience. Wow! – a tree inside our house, beautiful beyond description with all its Christmas decorations and pervading the whole of our home with its piney fragrance! On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, my twin brother Peter and I would lie on our bellies there in front of it like two dogs on the warm parlor rug. With great patience, we would stare transfixed at all the beautifully wrapped presents piled all around the base of the Christmas tree trying to figure out which ones might be for us. We were not allowed to touch any of them, but that made the wondering even more fun. Anticipation of happiness is the bread and jam of being a child.
As a Polish family, the real celebration of Christ’s birth for us took place on Christmas Eve with the singing of carols before sharing together a truly festive dinner and then finally when the night outside was deep and decorated with a billion stars, all the family would sit around the Christmas tree, and our dad would give out the presents to each and every one of us. But my story takes place on that Christmas Eve afternoon so many years ago when I was still a kid growing up in the Bronx.
After my mother had prepared the big dining room table with a large lovely white linen tablecloth, grandma would come down from her apartment upstairs and place in the middle of the still empty table a large white plate piled high with brown dates. Peter and I would get up and begin eating some of these unusually sweet and sticky exotic fruits. We had been so doing every Christmas time, but I guess on this particular one my brain had developed enough for me to be puzzled and to ask grandma how come we only got dates on that one day of the whole year. I mean, we never had dates on any other day – only on Christmas Eve. Why? She smiled at Peter and me and said come sit down, and I will tell you the story. This is the story she told us.
“A long, long time ago there lived a father, mother, and their one son. The father was a shepherd. Do you know what shepherds do? Well, they take care off sheep. They really work at night, for they have to watch over the flock of sheep while they are sleeping so that the hungry wolf does not sneak up, catch them, and eat them. This is why the shepherd works mostly at night and why he always has his shepherd’s staff with him. Do you boys know what a shepherd’s staff looks like? Well, it is a tall hard wood stick with a curved hook at the top and a very sharp point on the bottom. The shepherd uses the hook at the one end to catch hold of a frightened lamb when it runs away from the flock. He reaches out and hooks the back leg of the running lamb tripping it so he can pick it up and carry it back to the rest of the sheep where it will be safe. The pointed end is just as important, for the shepherd uses it as a spear to jab at an attacking wolf and defend his little helpless sheep. But it has a peaceful use too, for the shepherd also uses his staff as a third leg for himself. You see, his legs get tired from standing all night long while watching over his flock. So he sticks the pointed end of his staff into the hill and then holding onto it and leaning his weight on it he can rest one of his legs at a time through out the long night.
“Now, my story begins this one morning that was his son’s tenth birthday, and the boy woke up to find by his bed two wonderful and surprising presents: a new shepherd’s staff cut to his size and a leather shepherd’s shoulder strap pouch. The son jumped out of his bed with great joy for all of this meant that he finally was old enough to be a shepherd boy and to be able to join his father helping watch over the flock through the long nights. He was now old enough and was now equipped to be a shepherd boy!”
“What’s this got to do with dates, grandma?” I interrupted.
“You will see”, she answered and quickly continued.
“Well, the boy could hardly wait for the day to pass so he could go out with his father and take care of their flock of sheep. His mother made him take a little nap before he left, and she prepared a late night meal for him of bread and cheese and a special dessert all of which she wrapped in a cloth and put into his leather pouch for later eating. Boys, you cannot imagine the joy he felt when he walked out of their home next to his dad – his new wooden shepherd’s staff in hand and the new leather pouch hanging from a shoulder strap at his side. It was the very first night of being a shepherd boy, and he was in heaven! He felt like he was now a man, and although his father towered over him, as he walked by his father’s side now with his very own staff in hand, he seemed to be able to take longer and longer strides.
“Together they led the flock of sheep away from the gates and up into the high meadows above their little village. Once they got to the pasture that was thick with fresh grass they settled the sheep down to eat and then after the sunset got them all to lie down for the night. Soon it was dark, and all the stars came out in the heavens above. The boy and his father stood side-by-side up on a little hill so they could watch over the whole flock as the many sheep slept like little bundles of glowing whiteness on the ground. There the two shepherds stood leaning on their staffs into the night mostly being quiet, and then the father suggested to his son that they play a shepherd’s game to help pass the time. It was a ‘Do you see…?’ type of game. Shepherds have been for ages great stargazers, and they would find all sorts of animals and figures up in the sky using their imagination and connecting the starry dots. These were the great constellations such as the Bear and the Eagle and the Hunter.
The father began by asking his son, “Do you see a Swan up there in the sky?” The boy looked this way, looked that way and all around the night sky, and could not. His father smiled and then pointed it out right above them.
“Oh, now I see it!” shouted the boy.
“Shh,” said his father softly. “We don’t want to wake the sheep. Now it’s your turn to ask me to find something.”
The boy saw what looked like a big man running up the sky, but waited until he turned his head toward a different direction to fool his father, and then asked, “Can you find the giant running?”
His father of course was very familiar with the great figure of the Hunter running up the sky but pretended to look and look – and then after making some false guesses said, “I give up.”
His son pointed over to the west and said, “There he is, papa! See him?”
“Oh, yes. Now I do,” and both father and son laughed together in the fun of it all. They played on for a long time until the boy began to feel hungry.
They ate their evening meal standing side by side, and when the boy finished his portions of bread and cheese, his hand found something sticky still within his pouch. It was the special dessert of dates his mother had put there as a surprise gift for his birthday. There was a handful of them neatly wrapped in their own cloth, and taking them out he offered some to his father.
“It’s a long night, my son,” said his father with a smile. “Let’s save them for later, for we will get hungry again before the sun rises.”
The boy obeyed his father and only licked the sweetness off his fingers saying, “I can hardly wait. I love dates.”
Having satisfied themselves with this late night supper, the two shepherds returned to their watching and stargazing. Two quiet hours went by and then sometime before the dawn of a new day they both suddenly saw what looked like a spectacular shower of falling stars.
“Look at that!” said the boy. The star shower intensified and seemed to be coming straight down toward them. They watched with their heads turned straight up and their mouths wide open. It was such an awesome sight. Suddenly the lights got brighter and closer and closer and then began to take shape – at first looking like big blazing birds with outstretched fiery wings – then like flying men – and they heard what seemed like a great chorus of singing voices and the words:
“Give glory to God! This night a King is born to you. The Christ has come. Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Man. As a sign, go find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a stable’s manger.”
Then the lights and voices faded away. All became quiet. The father and son shepherds just stood there almost not breathing. Then the father said, “Son there is a stable just outside of our village. We passed it when we led the flock up here. Run down there and see what you can see. I shall stay here with our sheep. Go! Run there and come back to tell me what you find.”
The boy did what his father commanded. Leaving his staff behind, he ran and ran down the meadows toward the village. As he got close, he saw the stable there and saw someone standing inside of it with a few animals. When he got to the opening of the stable, he saw that it was a pretty woman and a tall man standing behind her. The boy stopped there right in front of them all out of breath. And then he saw next to the lady a manger full of hay and in it was laying a little baby wrapped up in white linen cloth. He looked up and stared at the woman, not knowing what to say.
She smiled and said, “Hello.”
The boy just kept looking up into her beautiful face. Then he noticed that she looked hungry, so without thinking he reached into his leather pouch and pulled out a big fat sticky date. “Would you like one of my dates?” he asked in a whisper.
“Yes, thank you,” she replied with a smile and took it from his hand.
The shepherd boy then noticed the big bearded man standing behind her in the shadows. “Would you like one, too?” he asked, pulling out a second fat date.
“Thank you,” the man said in a deep voice.
The boy looked down at the little baby whose eyes were wide open and who was looking right at him. Taking out another date from his pouch, he leaned over the manger with the sweet brown date in his hand.
“Oh, no” said the mother in a quiet voice. “He is too small to eat a date.” And with a big smile on her face she gently took it from the boy’s hand and then leaning over, gently wiped the sticky date around the lips of her baby. The baby reacted by sticking out his little red tongue and licked all the way around. The baby seemed to smile, and the mother wiped some more of the date’s sticky juice around her baby’s mouth again which the baby obviously delighted in tasting. The shepherd boy could not help but laugh at the sight of the baby licking his tiny lips with such joy.
“Thank you,” the lady said again.
“I have to go back to the flock now and tell my father about this!” the boy said. He bowed to them, turned, and ran away as fast as he could up the hills.
As soon as he reached his father, the boy described the whole happening at the stable saying in a flood of words, “Papa, they were there just as the voices said – a lady and a man and a little baby lying in a manger! You have to go see, too, Papa! Go! Go!”
When the shepherd reached the village stable, he found the family there just as the angel voices and his son had said. There seemed to be a glow shining all around them such was the warmth of happiness abounding in that small humble place. The shepherd bowed to them and then got down on one knee to look into the manger at the newborn baby. All he could see was the baby’s round face looking up right at him with eyes that had starlight in them.
Tears came to the shepherd’s eyes as he looked up at the mother and said, “The voices told us that we would find you here. They said that this baby is the Christ.”
The mother just smiled at him with the loveliest of smiles and said, “Your son was very kind to us. He saw that we were hungry and gave us his dates to eat. He is a good boy.”
The shepherd did not know what to say except, “Yes, yes. He is a good boy.” And with that he stood up, bowed to them again, and turning away went back up the hills to his flock as dawn was just breaking and the sky was becoming a beautiful light rosy red.
With those last words Grandma stopped her story, paused a bit and then said to Peter and me,” Now do you know why we have a big plate of dates on the table every Christmas eve?”
“Because the shepherd boy had dates!” I said excitedly.
Grandma smiled at Peter and me and then said with a soft but solemn voice, “Yes, yes. And do you see that when the shepherd boy gave them to that hungry family in the stable that night, those dates became the very first Christmas gifts ever. Yes, Peter and Paul, those little brown sticky dates were the first Christmas gifts – the very first Christmas gifts!
“Now, that is why we have these beautiful sweet dates on our table every Christmas Eve -- so come, let’s eat some together so we will remember the story of a shepherd boy’s kindness a long, long time ago.”
Peter and I dug into the pile of dates with our grandma, and afterwards as we licked their sticky sweet syrup from our fingers and lips, we laughed and laughed.