There was once a grumpy farmer. No one knew why he was grumpy. As far as anyone could remember he had always been grumpy.
He lived in a little two room farm house two fields away from a village. He kept himself to himself, and everyone gave him a wide berth too. There was one room for him and an adjoining room which served as a stable for his few animals, a cow and a couple of sheep, and beyond that a vegetable garden with a beehive.
Every evening he would eat his supper by the light of the fire - there was no point in lighting a candle just for him, and this was long before there were electric lights – and then he would go to bed.
Spring, summer, autumn went by until Christmas Eve arrived, not that the farmer ever took any notice of that. The farmer ate his supper by the firelight, and went to bed, just as he always did. There were no presents, no cards – who would have sent them? – no tree, no decorations, nothing to mark this day as any different from any other.
Now, as you know, I’m sure, at midnight on Christmas Eve each year, all the animals in the world are given the power of human speech. If you don’t believe me stay up and ask your dogs and cats next year… The animals in the grumpy farmer’s stable didn’t know why this was, because they’d never heard of Christmas, but each year they enjoyed their little chat with each other – normally the cow could only speak cowish and the sheep could only speak sheepish, but on this one night of the year they could understand each other perfectly.
On this particular Christmas Eve they were just agreeing about how sweet the grass had tasted that summer and how glad they were that they had this warm and cosy shelter since it was a cold and windy night outside, when all of a sudden a pure white dove squeezed through a hole in the thatch and flew down to perch on the windowsill. She shook herself out and looked at them “Brr… I am so glad to have found some shelter here from that cold wind, but I only came across this house by accident. Tell me, why, on this night of all nights, don’t you have a candle burning in your window like everyone else?”
“Why should we have a candle burning in the window tonight? “ asked the cow.
“Don’t you know? It’s Christmas Eve” said the dove.
“What’s Christmas Eve?,” asked the animals. “We’ve never heard of it ”.
So the dove told them about Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus, who was born in a stable and laid in a manger, because there was no room for him anywhere else. She told them about the shepherds who were the first to hear the news – the sheep liked that! – and the Magi who followed a star to visit the baby. She told them how the child was special, the son of God, sent to show people how much God loved them.
“That’s a lovely story” said the cow, “but what’s it got to do with putting a candle in the window?”
“Oh well” said the dove. “You see, it is said that every Christmas Eve, Mary and Joseph wander through the world once again, looking for a place for Jesus to be born. So people put a candle in their windows as a sign that they would be welcome there. Everyone does it – just look over there at the village!”
The animals crowded round the little window and sure enough they could see that each house in the village had a tiny pinprick of light in its window, a single candle ,burning to welcome the Holy Family if they should come that way.
“Oh, but we should have a candle too,” said the cow, “We would love a visit from these very special people. How sad that, all these years they might have been passing by and not known that we would have helped them. But what can we do? We have no candles ourselves, and I don’t think the farmer has any either!”
“Oh yes he doezz” said a small voice…
The animals looked to see where it had come from, and they spotted a small honey bee, which had crawled through a crack in the window frame and was sitting by the dove on the windowsill.
“ I thought you bees were all asleep for the winter.” Said the cow “I’m surprised to see you up and about”.
“Normally we would be” said the bee, “but every Christmas Eve all the beez in the world wake up and zing and dance to celebrate Jesus’ birth – I thought everyone knew that! We zing together one of the zongs in the human bible, Psalm 100, they call it ‘Make a joyful noize to the Lord all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladnezz, come into his prezence with zinging…’”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said the cow… “I’m sure it’s a very lovely song, but tell us, how do you know that the farmer has candles?.”.
“Every year, “ said the bee, “we make him lots of lovely beeswax to make them. We watch him make dozens of candlez and put them in a big box in his room. He looks at them zadly, though, and shakez his head. ‘ No real point in doing this,’ he zays, zince no one ever comes to zee me, and I’m zure Mary and Joseph won’t. Oh yes,” said the bee, “ he haz many hundreds of candles, but they have never come out of the box he put them in!”
“What a shame,” said the sheep, ”Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get one of those candles and put it in the window here to welcome Mary and Joseph. But how could we do it? We can’t get out of the stable. We can’t get into his room. We can’t open the box, and even if we could carry a candle back without waking him, how could we light it, since we haven’t got a match…?”
They all stood in silence and racked their brains for a solution.
“Well,” said the cow. “There must be a way, even if we haven’t puzzled it out yet. I know – why don’t we tidy up the stable and put some fresh straw in the manger anyway, just in case. And perhaps by the time we’ve done that one of us will have figured out what to do.”
So they all set to work. They pushed the dirty straw aside, and spread out fresh straw on the floor. They lined the manger with new hay and the sheep even scratched off some of their wool against a beam which the dove laid on top of the straw so it would make a soft bed. The bee just carried on singing his song in the hope it would keep their spirits up. When they’d finished, if a baby ever had to be born in a stable, this was surely the very best stable he’d find.
But they still had no idea how to get that candle. The animals stood with their heads hung low. All that effort, but it would be no use…
And then, there was a knock at the door. They all swivelled round to look as it slowly creaked open, and a man’s head appeared around it.
“Can we come in, me and my wife? We’re looking for shelter, and somewhere for our baby to be born.”
The animals all stood with their mouths open.
“Are you…?” said the cow…”Are you…? Said the sheep “Are you…?” said the dove and the bee.
“Are you Joseph, and is your wife Mary,” they all said together.
“Why yes, of course” said Joseph. “So, can we come in?”
“Yes” “Please do” “we’d be delighted”, they all said at once.
And Joseph led Mary in, and the cow lay down on the strawy floor and offered her broad back for Mary to rest against, and the sheep surrounded her to keep off the draughts. And very soon the baby came squalling into the world, as babies do.
In the room next door the farmer was still fast asleep. He was used to the sound of the animals moving around, so he hadn’t woken up as they cleaned the stable. But in the depths of his dreams, he suddenly heard a noise he wasn’t expecting. He sat bolt upright. Was it a lamb? No, it sounded like a human child. Someone had broken into his stable, probably trying to steal something…
He got out of bed, and picked up a heavy stick. Then he crept out of his door, round the side of the house. He gripped the stick in one hand and the stable door handle in the other and …one, two, three… he flung it open.
“Ha! Caught you in the act, you miserable thieves…” But all he saw in front of him was a woman, leaning on the back of his cow and surrounded by his sheep, and a man, looking a bit worried, behind her, and a baby, lying peacefully now in his manger on a bed of soft wool.
“Are you…Could you be…Mary and Joseph…in my stable…in my house?”
“Why yes, of course, who else would we be, and where else would we want to come?” they said.
“But , but, there is no candle in the window? How did you find your way here?”
“There didn’t need to be a candle,” said Mary, “The kindness in your animals’ hearts shone more brightly than a thousand candles. They did everything they could to make this place ready for us, and if a child ever had to be born in a stable, surely this is the one they should choose.”
And the farmer saw that it was so. And a tear slid down his cheek, and he sat down and told Mary and Joseph how he didn’t really want to be grumpy, but early on in his life, the other children had never wanted to play with him. Perhaps he was odd or different. Perhaps it was just that he lived two fields away, not in the village with them. But he had learned not to ask to join in with their games, not to hope that someone would be his friend. And once he’d started to keep his distance, he just couldn’t seem to stop. So no one ever risked visiting him, and he never risked visiting them either. But if God himself, in his Son, could come to visit him, and even be born in his stable, then perhaps he should think again.
And the farmer thought again. And suddenly, he had an idea.
And he rushed next door, and threw open the box with all those candles in it and gathered up armfuls of them and piled them on his table. Then he sat down and he wrote lots of paper labels which he tied to the candles. Then he threw them all into a bag, and set out across the fields to the village.
And in the morning, when the villagers awoke on Christmas Day, every one of them found a candle on their doorstep, with a label tied to it, which said, “This is not a Christmas candle. This is an anytime candle. Let it shine as a sign of welcome, because when we welcome each other we welcome the Christ child too, and he is born in us. Christmas blessings, from the not-so-grumpy farmer”
And ever after that, when night fell, if the farmer wanted company he would look out of his farm house towards the village and see one of his candles burning in the window of this house or that house. And he would set out across the fields and knock on the door and be welcomed in for a chat and a drink and maybe a game of cards or two, except, that is, for the nights when he lit a candle in his own window, and everyone else came to him.