A story for Christmas day - my own re-telling of a traditional Breton tale.
There was once an orphan boy called Bo, who lived in St Malo, on the Northern coast of Brittany. He’d been abandoned as a baby, and brought up by an old shipbuilder, who took him on as his apprentice as soon as Bo could hold a hammer and chisel. He wasn’t a kind or generous employer though, and made Bo sleep in a shed on a straw mattress. Often he went hungry and when the winter came he was always cold.
As Bo had grown up, it was clear that all was not well with him. His back was twisted and bent, and Bo couldn’t run like the other boys. People can be cruel and often they would laugh at Bo and bully him. They called him Bo Bossu, Bo the hunchback and no one wanted to be his friend
Despite this, Bo turned out to be very skilful with his hands. By the time he was a teenager no one could carve like him. He was especially good at carving the great curved prows of ships with their elaborate figureheads.
Bo took pride in his work, but he was often lonely, but he took great comfort in visiting the great granite cathedral of St Malo, and he was often to be found there, sitting in the stillness, or praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary. She was his mother, and Jesus was his brother, and when he was there he felt at home, knowing he was loved and welcomed by God.
One day as he knelt praying, he had an idea. Every Christmas in the Cathedral they would set up a big nativity scene, with carved figures of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men, oxen and donkeys, and in the centre, the baby Jesus, lying in his manger crib in the stable. A curtain would hang across the stable, and as the service started it would be pulled aside to reveal the scene. . But it had always seemed to Bo that the crib in which they laid the child was a poor, rough thing. It looked odd and out of place amid all the other fine carving. So Bo decided he would make a new crib for Jesus – it would be a secret from everyone else. His gift to Mary and Jesus. He decided that he would make it in the shape of a little ship, and on each end he would make a curved prow, adorned with an angel.
He looked up at the statue of Mary and made a solemn promise to her that the coming Christmas he would give her a beautiful crib for her son to sleep in.
He went home full of joy and began collecting little off cuts of wood, which he hid under his straw mattress. Whenever he had a spare moment he would work on the crib and gradually it began to take shape. It was slow work though, because Bo was kept very busy, making ships for his master. He would rise early in the morning to work on it, and carry on after work as long as there was any light to see by.
|picture by William Stobbs|
It got to the week before Christmas and still the crib wasn’t quite finished, but Bo worked on, determined to keep his promise to the Virgin Mary. But then disaster struck. An order came in for a new ship for the fishing fleet of a wealthy local man. He wanted it ready as soon as possible, so it could sail with the rest of his ships in the New Year. Everyone in the shipyard was ordered to work all the hours there were to get it ready, and by the time their daily work was finished, there was no daylight left for Bo to work on the crib, even if there had been light, he was so tired that he would fall exhausted onto his straw mattress straightaway.
Christmas Eve came and still Bo hadn’t finished the crib. At the end of the day, the other apprentices has gone to prepare for the feast of Christmas, but Bo sat alone in his shed. He looked sadly at the crib. There was no way he could get it finished now. All it needed was some work on one of the angels and to be smoothed and polished, but he knew he could not do the work in time, and there was no light left to work by. Bo felt the tears come to his eyes and fall on the rough wood. “Holy Mother “ he cried, “ I so wanted to give you this gift, but I have done what I can, and it isn’t enough, and I can do no more!” But then he heard a voice.
“Bo, can I help to finish the crib?” Bo lifted his head, and there, standing beside the little ship was a boy around his own age, a boy with a kind face who looked strangely familiar, and yet Bo was sure he’d never met him before.
“You are tired, Bo.” said the boy, “Give me the chisel and I will finish it for you.”
“Can you carve?” asked Bo. “And will you have enough light to see by?”
“Oh, yes, I am apprentice carpenter too, just like you, “ he said, “ I work for my father, and I will have plenty enough light.” And it did seem to Bo that there was a light around him, though he couldn’t see where it came from.
So Bo handed him his chisel, and lay down, intending to take just a short nap.
When he woke up, though, it was morning, full daylight, and the cathedral bells were already ringing to announce that worship would soon begin.
Bo sat up with a start. He would be too late after all. And what about the crib? Surely it could not be finished. But there it stood, with the boy carpenter standing beside it, smiling at Bo. And it was beautiful. Somehow the angels on its curved ends almost seemed to be singing for joy, they were so real.
“Oh! It is wonderful!” said Bo. “But we will be too late! The service is about to start!”
“We can carry it together – there is just time” said the boy.
So they picked up one end each and they hurried through the streets towards the cathedral. They slipped in through a side door, and came around the back of the stable scene. No one noticed them as they carried the crib in behind the curtain.
Bo took the carved baby out of the old crib and laid him in the fine new one, and as he did so Bo fell to his knees in wonder, because it seemed to him as if the child in the crib – the carved wooden baby – smiled up at him, and as he looked into the face of his mother, she smiled too.
Just at that moment the curtain was pulled aside, and the crowd who had gathered for this moment gasped in wonder. They gasped to see the beautiful new crib. But they gasped too to see Bo there, kneeling in the straw, and they knew then who it was who had had the idea to make this crib. Who else could have carved such a fine little ship to bear the Christ Child? And it was strange ; it was the same Bo they had always known, and yet, as he got up, didn’t he seem to stand straighter and taller and stronger than they had known? It seemed to them that he did, and whatever had happened, they knew that they would never call him names or bully him again.
Bo looked around, wanting to tell them of the mysterious boy who had helped him, but he was nowhere to be seen. Then, lifting his head, he caught sight, high in the roof above him of a small carving of Joseph, in his carpenter’s shop, and by his side his young apprentice, Jesus himself, with a chisel in his hand, and the kindest of kind smiles on his face.
And suddenly Bo knew who it was had come to him when he had done all he could, and it wasn’t enough, and he could do no more. It was the same Christ who comes to us when we have done all we can, and it isn’t enough and we can do no more.
Anne Le Bas Christmas 2013