There was once a nation which was very powerful, very fortunate, and very proud. Its lands were fruitful; its armies were victorious in battle; and it had strong kings, wise lawgivers, and great poets. But after a great many years, everything changed. The nation had no more strong kings, no more wise lawgivers; its armies were beaten in battle, and neighbouring tribes conquered the country and took the fruitful lands; there were no more poets except a few who made songs of lamentation. The people had become a captive and humiliated people; and the bitterest part of all its sadness was the memory of past greatness.
But in all the years of failure and humiliation, there was one thing which kept this people from despair; one hope lived in their hearts and kept them from utter misery. It was a hope which came from something one of the great poets of the past had said, in prophecy. This prophecy was whispered in the homes of the poor, taught in the churches, repeated from father to son among the rich; it was like a deep, hidden well of comfort in a desert of suffering. The prophecy said that some time a deliverer should be born for the nation, a new king even stronger than the old ones, mighty enough to conquer its enemies, set it free, and bring back the splendid days of old. This was the hope and expectation all the people looked for; they waited through the years for the prophecy to come true.
In this nation, in a little country town, lived a man and a woman whose names were Joseph and Mary. And it happened, one year, that they had to take a little journey up to the town which was the nearest tax-centre, to have their names put on the census list; because that was the custom in that country.
But when they got to the town, so many others were there for the same thing, and it was such a small town, that every place was crowded. There was no room for them at the inn. Finally, the innkeeper said they might sleep in the stable, on the straw. So they went there for the night.
And while they were there, in the stable, their first child was born to them, a little son. And because there was no cradle to put Him in, the mother made a little warm nest of the hay in the big wooden manger where the oxen had eaten, and wrapped the baby in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in the manger, for a bed!
That same night, on the hills outside the town, there were shepherds, keeping their flocks through the darkness. They were tired with watching over the sheep, and they stood or sat about, drowsily, talking and watching the stars. And as they watched, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared unto them! And the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. But the angel said unto them, "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born, this day, in the city of David, a saviour,—which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: ye shall find the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
When the angels were gone up from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." And they came, with haste, and they found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw Him in the manger, they knew that the wonderful thing the angel said had really happened, and that the great deliverer was born at last.