While shepherds watched their flocks A Christmas scene from Syria. (Charles Roffey/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

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 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 a white plate piled high with brown dates in the middle of the still empty table. My brother Peter and I would get up and begin eating some of these unusually sweet and sticky exotic fruits. We did so every Christmas, but on this particular time I was puzzled enough to ask Grandma how come we only got dates on that one day of the year. We never had dates on any other day — only on Christmas Eve. Why? She smiled at Peter and me and invited us to come and sit down and told us this story:

A long, long time ago there lived a father, mother, and their one son. The father was a shepherd. Now, my story begins one morning on the son’s tenth birthday when the boy woke up to find two wonderful and surprising presents by his bed: 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 and to be able to join his father helping watch over the flock through the long nights!

Just kids“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 with 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 was now a man, and, although his father towered over him, 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 thick with fresh grass, they settled the sheep down to eat and then 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 they play a shepherd’s game to help pass the time. For ages, shepherds have been 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.

“Do you see a swan up there in the sky?” The boy looked this way and that way and all around the night sky, and could not. His father smiled and pointed.

“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 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, they both saw what looked like a spectacular shower of falling stars.

“Look at that!” said the boy. He pointed to a very bright star in the eastern night sky. His father looked and said in a quiet voice, “I never saw that star before. It certainly is big and bright.” Suddenly some falling stars were seen by them both streaking down from that brilliant new star. The shower of lights 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. 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. Then one deep voice said these startling 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 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, he saw 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 a manger full of hay and in it was a little baby wrapped 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. Leaning over, she then gently wiped the sticky date around the lips of her baby. The baby stuck 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 angelic voice 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 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.

Paul Clement CzajaPaul Clement Czaja is a semi-retired Montessori educator and teacher trainer. He’s the author of two books, Writing with Light and You!

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Believe me, in 19th century Poland, dates were an extremely rare and costly item.  What a gorgeous tradition.  Only a Grandma could stage-manage it and most effectively convey the message.  Must be centuries old.  "Literacy not needed."