Gateway to the Classics: How To Tell Stories to Children by Sara Cone Bryant
How To Tell Stories to Children by  Sara Cone Bryant


A Legend of Christmas Eve

One Christmas Eve, two strangers came to a village, and knocked at the door of a rich farmhouse, and asked if they might spend the night there.

"No, indeed," said the people; "we've no room for beggars!" and they sent them off.

The two travelers went down the hill till they came to the cottage where the poor farm laborers lived; and they knocked at that door, and asked if they might spend the night. The farm laborer and his wife had only one bed in the little house, but they invited the strangers in, and said they were most welcome to sleep there.

There was no meat in the house, but the man went out and killed the one little goat they owned, and his wife roasted it, so that the strangers might have a good dinner on Christmas Eve.

That night the strangers slept on the one good bed, and the laborers slept on straw on the floor in the outer room; but, curiously enough, they had never slept so sweet a sleep in their lives.

The next day was Christmas, and the farm laborer and his wife said the travelers must surely stay with them for the holiday, especially as there was plenty of good meat in the house. So they stayed, and all went to church together; and they had a very happy day.

When, at night, the strangers took their leave, they said to the man, "How many horns had the little goat?"

"Why, two!" said the man.

"Then for your kindness to us," said the stranger, "you and your wife may have two wishes, one each."

The man and his wife looked at each other. Then they said that really they were very contented as they were. If they could have their daily bread and the hope of heaven when they died, they asked nothing more.

The strangers said they should certainly keep these things, and they smiled at the farm laborer and his wife as they went away, and they promised that they would surely come to visit them again the next Christmas Eve.

From that day on, everything the farm laborer and his wife touched, prospered. Their hens had more chickens and laid better eggs than any in the country round. They had better milk and finer calves and fatter sheep than any one else. And it was not long before the poor farm laborers were no longer poor at all.

They knew quite well to whom they owed all the good fortune. And they told people who asked, all about the kind strangers and the two wishes. The rich farmers heard the story too, of course, and they burned with jealousy of the farm laborers, for, rich as they were, they always wanted to be richer. At last, they went and asked the farm laborers to send the two strangers up to them, when they should come next Christmas Eve, instead of entertaining them at the cottage. The farm laborers were glad that the strangers should be so well entertained, and promised to do so. So when Christmas Eve came, and the travelers again knocked at the cottage door, the laborers welcomed them gladly, but said they had promised the farmer to send them to his house for the night. The strangers said very well, they would go, and come back for the Christmas holiday.

So again they went and knocked at the farmer's door. This time there was a grand welcome for them. Remembering about the little goat, the farmer had killed and roasted a fine ox, and he gave the strangers all sorts of good things to eat. And after supper he gave them the best bed in the house, and everything as fine as could be.

The next morning, he urged the strangers to spend Christmas with them too, but they said they must go, for they were to meet their friends of last year, at church.

"Then, at least," said the farmer, "I must drive you to church," and he went and got his fine carriage and his best span of horses.

Just as they stood on the steps to take leave, one of the strangers asked the farmer, "Did you kill the ox for us?"

"Yes, yes indeed, we did!" said the farmer and his wife.

"How many horns had the ox?" said the stranger.

This was the question the farmers were waiting for. They looked at each other.

"Say four," whispered the farmer's wife.

"Well," said the farmer, "it was a very remarkable ox, in fact, a peculiar ox; it had four horns."

"Ah?" said the stranger, "then you and your wife may have four wishes, two apiece: the next four wishes you make shall be granted you." Then they drove away.

The farmer drove them to church, and started back home. He was so eager to get back and talk over with his wife what they should wish, that he couldn't drive fast enough. He beat the horses, and pulled at the reins, and he was so excited that he drove over a big stone; and one of the traces broke. He mended it, somehow, and started again. Pretty soon one of the horses stumbled, and then the other trace broke. He mended that one, too, but by this time he was all out of temper.

"Get up, get up!" he shouted to the horses. The horses shied as he struck them with the whip, and came near upsetting everything.

"Oh," shouted the farmer, "the wicked elves take you both! I wish"—but he didn't say anything more, for whisk!—the horses were gone, and nothing but the harness was left dangling from the pole. The farmer stared and rubbed his eyes, but there was no help for it; he had wished a wish. There was nothing to do but put the harness over his shoulders, leave the carriage, and trudge home.

In the mean time, his wife was waiting and watching for him, very eager to talk over what they should wish. He was gone so long that she lost all patience.

"I wish he would hurry," she said to herself. Before the words were out of her mouth, the farmer shot through the air and landed before her, red and sweaty, with the harness on his shoulders.

"What in the world are you doing with that harness?" said his wife.

"Why in the world did you make me hurry?" said the husband, and in no time they were quarreling. When the wife heard about the horses she called her husband the stupidest man in the world.

"Stupid, indeed!" said the farmer, who was now too angry to think at all. "It was all your fault; you started the trouble by making me tell a lie. Who was it that wanted me to say 'four horns'? 'Four horns,' indeed!—I wish two of them were sticking on your head this minute."

"Oh!" screamed the farmer's wife, and she put up her hands to her head. The farmer would have given anything to unsay his wish, but it was too late. The farmer's wife felt two little round nubs under her fingers. And they grew, and grew, faster than I can tell about it, until there were two little pointed horns sticking right up through her hair.

The farmer began to coax and plead and beg, "Oh, dear little wife, sweet little wife, don't mind the little horns! I'm sorry I wished it, but remember that we have only one wish left, and that is yours. Just wish for a million dollars now, and we shall be all right!"

"Much good a million dollars would do me," said the farmer's wife, "with these things sticking out of my head!"

"You could wear a head-dress," said the farmer. But before he got the words out of his mouth, his wife had wished the horns off her head.

And there they were, neither richer nor poorer than they were before; and the four wishes were gone. And so were the two fine horses.

And they say that's what you get by being greedy!

—Adapted from Fairy Tales from Afar
by Svend Grundtvig.

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