When the Christ-child was born in Bethlehem of Judea, long years ago, three kings rode out of the East on their camels, bearing gifts to Him. They followed the star until at last they came to the manger where He lay, a little, newborn baby. Kneeling down, they put their gifts beside him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh; they kissed the hem of the little white mantle that He wore, and blessed Him. Then the kings rode away to the East again, but before ever they went they whispered a promise to the Christ-child.
And the promise? You shall hear it as the kings gave it to the Christ-child, long years ago.
"As long as there be children on the earth, on every Christmas Eve we three kings shall ride on camels, even as we rode to Thee this night; and even as we bore Thee gifts so shall we bear gifts to every child in memory of Thee—thou holy Babe of Bethlehem!"
In Spain they have remembered what the Christmas kings promised, and when Christmas Eve comes each child puts his sapatico—his little shoe—between the gratings of the window that they may know a child is in that house and leave a gift.
Often the shoe is filled with grass for the camels, and a plate of dates and figs is left beside it, for the children know the kings have far to go and may be hungry.
At day's end bands of children march out of the city gates, going to meet the kings. But it always grows dark before they come. The children are afraid upon the lonely road and hurry back to their homes, where the good madres hear them say one prayer to the Nene Jesu, as they call the Christ-child, and then put them to bed to dream of the Christmas kings.
Long, long ago there lived in Spain, in the crowded part of a great city, an old woman called Doña Josefa. The street in which she lived was little and narrow, so narrow that if you leaned out of the window of Doña Josefa's house you could touch with your finger-tips the house across the way, and when you looked above your head the sky seemed but a string of blue, tying the houses all together. The sun never found its way into this little street.
The people who lived here were very poor, as you may guess; Doña Josefa was poor, likewise. But in one thing she was very rich—she knew more stories than there were feast-days in the year, and that is a great many. Whenever there came a moment free from work, when Doña Josefa had no water to fetch from the public well, nor gold to stitch upon the altar cloth for the Church of Santa Maria del Rosario, then she would run out of her house into the street and call:
"Niños, niños, come quickly! Here is a story waiting for you."
And the children would come flying like the gray pal mas when corn is thrown for them in the Plaza. Ah, how many children there were in that little street! There were José and Miguel, and the niños of Enrique, the cobbler, Alfredito and Juana and Esperanza; and the little twin sisters of Pancho, the peddler; and Angela, Maria Teresa, Pedro, Edita, and many more. Last of all there were Manuel and Rosita. They had no father, and their mother was a lavandera who stood all day on the banks of the river outside the city, washing clothes.
When Doña Josefa had called the children from all the doorways and the dark corners she would sit down in the middle of the street and gather them about her. This was safe because the street was far too narrow to allow a horse or wagon to pass through. Sometimes a donkey would slowly pick its way along, or a stupid goat come searching for things to eat, but that was all.
It happened on the day before Christmas that Doña Josefa had finished her work and sat, as usual, with the children about her.
"To-day you shall have a Christmas story," she said, and then she told them of the three kings and the promise they had made the Christ-child.
"And is it so—do the kings bring presents to the children now?" Miguel asked.
Doña Josefa nodded her head.
"Then why have they never left us one? The three kings never pass this street on Christmas Eve. Why is it, doña?"
"Perhaps it is because we have no shoes to hold their gifts," said Angela.
And this is true. The poor children of Spain go barefooted, and often never have a pair of shoes till they grow up.
Manuel had listened silently to the others, but now he pulled the sleeve of Doña Josefa's gown with coaxing fingers:
"I know why it is the kings bring no gifts to us. See, the street; it is too small; their camels could not pass between the door-steps here. The kings must ride where the streets are broad and smooth and clean, where their long mantles will not be soiled and torn and the camels will not stumble. It is the children in the great streets, the children of the rich, who find presents in their sapaticos on Christmas morning. Is it not so, Doña Josefa?"
And Miguel cried, "Does Manuel speak true—is it only the children of the rich?"
"Ah, chicito mio, it should not be so! When the promise was given to the Nene Jesu there in Bethlehem they said, 'to every child.' Yes, every little child."
"But it is not strange they should forget us here," Manuel insisted. "The little street is hidden in the shadow of the great ones."
Then Rosita spoke, clasping her hands together with great eagerness:
"I know; it is because we have no shoes! That is why they never stop. Perhaps Enrique would lend us the shoes he is mending, just for one night. If we had shoes the kings would surely see that there are little children in the street, and leave a gift for each of us. Come, let us ask Enrique!"
"Madre de Dios, it is a blessed thought!" cried all. And like the flock of gray palomas they swept down the street to the farthest end, where Enrique hammered and stitched away all day on the shoes of the rich children.
Manuel stayed behind with Doña Josefa. When the last pair of little brown feet had disappeared inside the sapateria he said, softly:
"If some one could go out and meet the kings to tell them of this little street, and how the niños here have never had a Christmas gift, do you think they might ride hither to-night?"
Doña Josefa shook her head doubtfully.
"If that were possible— But never have I heard of any one who met the kings on Christmas Eve."
All day in the city people hurried to and fro. In the great streets flags were waving from the housetops, and wreaths of laurel, or garlands of heliotrope and mariposa, hung above the open doorways and in the windows. Sweetmeat-sellers were crying their wares; and the Keeper-of-the-City lighted flaming torches to hang upon the gates and city walls. Everywhere was merrymaking and gladness, for not only was this Christmas Eve, but the King of Spain was coming to keep his holiday within the city. Some whispered that he was riding from the North, and with him rode his cousins, the kings of France and Lombardy, and with them were a great following of nobles, knights, and minstrels. Others said the kings rode all alone—it was their wish.
As the sun was turning the cathedral spires to shafts of gold, bands of children, hand in hand, marched out of the city. They took the road that led toward the setting sun, thinking it was the East, and said among themselves, "See, yonder is the way the kings will ride."
"I have brought a basket of figs," cried one.
"I have dates in a new panuela," cried another.
"And I," cried a third, "I have brought a sack of sweet limes, they are so cooling."
Thus each in turn showed some small gift that he was bringing for the kings. And while they chatted together one child began to sing the sweet Nativity Hymn. In a moment others joined until the still night air rang with their happy voices.
"Unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a gift is given.
Hail with holiness the morn,
Kneel before the Prince of Heaven.
Blessed be this day of birth,
God hath given His Son to earth.
Jesu, Jesu, Nene Jesu,
Behind the little hills the sun went down, leaving a million sparks of light upon the road.
"Yonder come the kings!" the children cried. "See the splendor of their shining crowns and how the jewels sparkle on their mantles! They may be angry if they find us out so late; come, let us run home before they see us."
The children turned. Back to the city gates they ran, back to their homes, to the good madres watching for them and their own white beds ready for them.
But one they left behind them on the road: a little, bare-limbed boy whose name was Manuel. He watched until the children had disappeared within the gates, and then he turned again toward the setting sun.
"I have no gift for the kings," he thought, "but there is fresh green grass beside the way that I can gather for the camels."
He stopped, pulled his hands full, and stuffed it in the front of the little blue vestido that he wore. He followed the road for a long way until heavy sleep came to his eyes.
"How still it is upon the road! God has blown out His light and soon it will be dark. I wish I were with the others, safe within the city; for the dark is full of fearsome things when one is all alone. . . . Mamita will be coming home soon and bringing supper for Rosita and me. Perhaps to-night there will be an almond dulce or pan de gloria—perhaps. . . . I wonder will Rosita not forget the little prayer I told her to be always saying. My feet hurt with the many stones; the night wind blows cold; I am weary and my feet stumble with me. . . . Oh, Nene Jesu, listen! I also make the prayer: 'Send the three kings before Manuel is too weary and afraid!' "
A few more steps he took upon the road, and then, as a reed is blown down by the wind, Manuel swayed, unknowingly for a moment, and slowly sank upon the ground, fast asleep.
How long he slept I cannot tell you; but a hand on his shoulder wakened him. Quickly he opened his eyes, wondering, and saw—yes, he saw the three kings! Tall and splendid they looked in the starlight, their mantles shimmering with myriad gems. One stood above Manuel, asking what he did upon the road at that late hour.
Manuel rose to his feet, thrusting his hand inside the shirt for the grass he had gathered.
"It is for the camels, señor; I have no other gift. But you—you ride horses this Christmas Eve!"
"Yes, we ride horses. What is that to you?"
"Pardon, señores, nothing. The three kings can ride horses if they wish; only—we were told you rode on camels from the East."
"What does the child want?" The voice was kind, but it sounded impatient, as though the one who spoke had work waiting to be done and was anxious to be about it.
Manuel heard and felt all this wondering. "What if there is not time for them to come, or gifts enough!" He laid an eager, pleading hand on one king's mantle.
"I can hold the horses if you will come this once. It is a little street and hard to find, señores; I thought perhaps you would leave a present—just one little present for the children there. You told the Christ-child you would give to every child. Don't you remember? There are many of us who have never had a gift—a Christmas gift."
"Do you know who we are?"
Manuel answered, joyfully: "Oh yes, Excellencias, you are the Three Christmas Kings, riding from Bethlehem. Will you come with me?"
The kings spoke with one accord, "Verily, we will."
One lifted Manuel on his horse; and silently they rode into the city. The Keeper slumbered at the gates; the streets were empty. On, past the houses that were garlanded they went unseen; and on through the great streets until they came to the little street at last. The kings dismounted. They gave their bridles into Manuel's hand, and then, gathering up their precious mantles of silk and rich brocade, they passed down the little street. With eyes that scarce believed what they saw, Manuel watched them go from house to house, saw them stop and feel for the shoes between the gratings, the shoes loaned by Enrique, the cobbler, and saw them fill each one with shining gold pieces.
In the morning Manuel told the story to the children as they went to spend one golden doblon for toys and candy and sugared cakes. And a gift they brought for Doña Josefa, too; a little figure of the Holy Mother with the Christ-child in her arms.