So many years of Christmas stories. Sixteen years ago, was “The Fire Keeper”

It was getting late.  The sky was growing dark; the night wind blew cold.  Angelina knew that if Mamma and Poppa had not returned by now, they would not get back to camp until the next day.

Angelina got up from the log by the fire.  She found a long stick and scraped the embers into a pile, building a little wall of damp moss to protect the coals until morning.  Next day she would spread the coals and fan them into a warm flame again.  It was Angelina’s most important job.  Poppa called her his little fire keeper.

Angelina’s parents were shepherds.  Each day they took their flock into the hills, to find fresh pasture.  Often they would spend the night in the fields, leaving their daughter alone at the camp to tend the fire.

Angelina didn’t mind being alone, although sometimes she thought it was hard for a little girl not quite ten.  She would have liked to play more with the other children.  But, she knew her parents depended upon her help and she knew that caring for the fire was an important job.  So, Angelina didn’t complain.

Angelina pulled her sleeping mat closer to the fire pit.  She snuggled under the warm sheepskin covering, looking up at the clear night sky. Sparks from the glowing coals floated up into the darkness.  Angelina imagined them rising up and becoming glistening new stars overhead.

As Angelina studied the sky she thought the stars seemed strange tonight, brighter than usual.  And, over the hills to the North, the horizon burned with a strange golden glow.  Angelina thought she heard a sound.  At first it was just a murmur in the distance; then it grew louder.  It was as if a huge choir were singing.  Angelina’s skin prickled with wonder and fear.  She pulled the covers tight around her neck until only her nose and eyes peeped out.  Then Angelina slept with visions of stars and fire sparks in her head.

The stars were all gone and there was still no morning sun when Angelina woke to the sound of voices.  She opened her eyes and saw Momma and Poppa leading their sheep across the field towards her.  It was strange for them to return so early in the morning.  Angelina could not imagine why they would have started back to camp while it was still dark.

As Angelina crawled from under her blanket she heard her mother call out, “Angelina, Angelina – did you see them?”

“Did I see who?” Angelina asked rubbing her eyes.

“Did you see the angels?” her father asked laughing as he joined Angelina and her mother by the fire.

Angels?  Angelina never thought she would hear Poppa talk about angels.  He was a nice man, and Angelina loved her Daddy; but he did not believe in angels.  Angelina might believe in angels and fire sparks becoming stars.  But Daddy believed in looking after sheep and eating a good hot breakfast.

“It’s true,” he said, “we were in the hills over the North slope. We had settled for the night along with other shepherds whose sheep were grazing nearby.  Then the whole sky suddenly lit up and we heard wonderful music.”

Angelina’s mother interrupted, “And there was an angel who said that there is a baby being born in Bethlehem.  And this baby is going to be the Saviour of the world and bring peace to all people.”

“So, we’re going to see this thing that the angel told us about,” Angelina’s father added.

Angelina felt bewildered and confused.  She had never seen her parents so excited.  They only stopped for a moment to secure the sheep in the little sheep pen.  Then they took up their walking sticks and headed towards Bethlehem.

“Wait,” Angelina called after them.  “Can’t I come?”

Her father and mother stopped and turned back.  Poppa said, “No sweetie.  We need you to keep the fire and watch the sheep.  There will soon be other shepherds going this way into Bethlehem.  It would be dangerous to leave our sheep alone.”

Angelina’s mother, seeing her daughter’s sad face, promised, “Tomorrow, or the day after, I will take you, we can see the baby together.”  Then they were gone.

It was a long lonely day, interrupted only by occasional groups of shepherds hurrying on the trail to Bethlehem.  Each group waved and called out.  But they all left Angelina alone with her sheep and the fire.

When Angelina’s parents returned, they were tired from their long walk and all the excitement.  Angelina wanted so much to hear about their adventure but Mamma and Poppa just stumbled to bed and fell asleep.

In the morning, there was no talk of the previous day.  Mamma and Poppa rose early to tend the sheep.  No one mentioned Bethlehem.  Life returned to normal.  Mamma and Poppa went out each day.  Sometimes they came home at night.  Sometimes they stayed away.  Angelina tended her fire and wondered.  She wondered how a baby could bring peace to all people.

A week after her parents had made their trip to Bethlehem to see the baby, Angelina was alone again by the fire.  It was late in the afternoon.  Just as Angelina thought that Mamma and Poppa would not be home for the night, she noticed three figures moving over the hills.  Angelina watched as they drew closer.  They were three men, riding camels, led by young boys.  She didn’t move as they came up to her fire.

The first camel crouched.  The rider slid to the ground and approached Angelina.  She looked at his face and thought he seemed gentle and kind.

“Little girl, “ he said.  “Can you help us?  We are lost.  We have heard of a baby born to be king of the Jews.  We have followed his star for many miles.  But it has disappeared.  We know he was born in Bethlehem.  But, without the star we have no guide.  Will you be our guide?”

Angelina stared.  Then she answered, “Sir, I must stay here and keep the fire and watch the camp for my parents.”

The man looked at the little camp and the small fire.  Then he said, “Child, we will leave our boys here.  They can keep your fire and care for your camp.  If anything is damaged or lost, we will pay for it five times over when we return.”

Angelina barely hesitated.  “I’ll guide you,” she said eagerly.

The man lifted her on to his camel, climbed up behind her and they moved off toward the village.

As they came to Bethlehem, Angelina began to worry.  She knew the way into the village, but she had no idea where to find the baby.  These great men would have come for nothing.  And Angelina would not be a good guide.

But, the moment they reached the edge of Bethlehem, a bright star appeared overhead.  The three men exclaimed, “The star is back.”  And they followed the light of that star through the narrow streets to a poor shed behind an inn.

Angelina thought there must be some mistake.  You don’t find a king in a cattle shed.  But the men didn’t hesitate.  Climbing down from their camels, they went to the door and knocked.  When a gentle voice called from inside, they entered.

It was quiet and warm in the shed.  The men moved towards the woman who sat in a cattle stall with a baby in the feeding trough in front of her.  The three men knelt and offered splendid gifts to the baby.

Angelina had no gift.  She felt shy and tried to hide in the shadows.  But, the mother noticed and beckoned her forward.  “Come, child,” she said.  “What is your name?”

“I am Angelina,” she answered.

“You are the fire keeper,” the woman said touching Angelina’s shoulder.  “Your father told us about you.  He said you would come.”

Then the mother pulled Angelina gently toward the feeding trough and drew back the blanket.   Angelina saw the tiny dark round face and thought of all the stars in the heavens, shining above her bed at night.

Angelina touched the baby’s cheek.  The moment her fingers touched his soft skin, she felt something warm and clean inside her chest.  It was as if one of the fire sparks had risen up and, instead of becoming a star, had entered her heart.  Angelina felt the peace of the night sky fill her with a steady glow.

The mother watched.  Then she said, “Angelina, this child has come to bring peace.  He will give peace to all people when he is born in their hearts as he is born in your heart today.  You must guard that place in your heart where he lives, just as you guard your fire through the night in your camp.  Then he will always be your guide just as you have guided these men to Bethlehem this night. He will guide you to that place of peace and love inside yourself and you will always know that you are never alone.”

(© Christopher Page December 2000)


a few more Christmas stories from the past 25 years of writing one each year: