Nicolas and the Six Bells
by David Ackerman
This story of exile and return, loss and re-discovery, based on what happened in Russia during the Soviet time when so many church bells were destroyed. Since that time many bells have been recast and ring out once again. The story draws out Gospel values of love, forgiveness, and hope.
This is a simple dramatization, with a primary narrator and several other briefer speaking roles. Most of the cast provides a supportive presence in walk-on roles.
Narrator Paul (in bold)
Lights at (yellow)
Stage directions (italic)
There was once a country called Ophis and in Ophis children were never happy. There were many reasons for this, but mainly it was down to their not being allowed to have parties. No one was given a cake on his or her birthday or looked forward to getting up early on Christmas morning and opening presents. Imagine having nothing to look forward to! The only celebration allowed was on New Year's Eve, but nobody wanted to celebrate a new year, because it would be like the last one.
If you were under 8 years' old you had never been to a party, but many thought about it because for some, when they went to bed, their mothers and fathers would tell them stories about the old days. Ophis was also a quiet country: no one danced or played music and the one sound you never heard was the ringing of bells. When there are no parties things become very quiet and very boring. But most sad of all was that there was never Christmas.
The last great party and the last occasion of real happiness was the day the new King was crowned, it was also Christmas Day and so let's go back to that day 8 years ago when Ophis had another name and welcome King John the new King of Kolokol and his sister, Princess Frederica. Please stand and cheer!
Music - Zadoc the Priest (Handel)
When all are in place and the King is in his throne, music fades
As Kings and Queens for centuries were crowned in the great Cathedral of St Paul so was young John crowned. God save the King!
The King is crowned (music - God Save The King)
Following the music:
But because he was very young he needed someone called a Regent who could make important decisions in the name of the King. It was going to be Bishop Nicholas and not the late King's Chancellor Ophis Kirtle.
Music, as Ophis enters
Lights: to green
Ophis enters and royal party leave
Ophis speaks and then signals to narrator to continue
Then the unhappiness came. A crowd gathered outside the palace, the same crowd that had recently cheered the new King: "Ophis, Ophis". They cried
All join in:
The Bishop sent a message from across the mountains to the young King and said the time had come for them to leave "it is only when we lose something precious that we realise what it meant to us" said the good Bishop. "Wherever we go all that is good in this Kingdom will be with us and live on, and one day we will return". So Princess Frederica put the Crown and three small bags of money into a hand bag, took his hand, and they set out on their journey to the mountains and to find a boat to take them across the sea. And so the King and the Princess and those who loved and protected them left the Kingdom and as they did so the bells in the palace rang to say goodbye.
(Princess and King leave to ringing of bells) - Music, bells
So Ophis Kirtle was now in charge.
As he placed his thin green behind on the empty throne her found a letter, it was from Nicholas. Ophis had already decided to do two things, change the name of the Kingdom of Kolokol to "The People's Land of Ophis" and silence all the bells in every tower in the land.
What did the letter say?
You once said to me that when you have ended the days of Kings and Bishops you will silence a sound that reminds people of them. Remember you will silence a sound of faith. A sound of happiness and sadness, joy and grief, thanksgiving and hope. A great sadness will come upon this land but for as long as one person remembers that sound there is hope. You may take away all the bells of Kolokol but I promise you that one day a bell will be found. On the day it is rung your rule will end.
Ophis always wore green clothes and was very tall and had sticky out teeth. He only ate raw vegetables and drank water, so he was very thin. However strange he looked Ophis was cunning, and he said to himself every morning as he ate his breakfast ( a single carrot) - "Better to be feared than to be loved".
He hated bells. He hated them because of what they reminded people of.
So Ophis had the bells silenced, and then taken away and yet he had one fear in his thin cold heart - the letter of Nicholas. When a bell rang the King would return so every bell must be found and destroyed. There were however some bells he could never reach. High in the highest tower of the Palace were bells and they were so big they stayed. No one could see them, in any case. So he did what he was good at - he lied!
Ophis leaves - music
George and Georgiana enter with quilts, put them down and "go to bed"
Yvonne - to microphone:
It is now 8 years since Ophis took over and for 8 unhappy years no one has heard a bell ring - imagine, anyone very young has never heard that sound.
We live in Myra, the biggest town in our country and in our town the six bells of the cathedral were taken away and the money went into Ophis' green pocket). They had last rang on the day the King was crowned, the day Gabriel was born, the last Christmas Day. When Ophis moved into the Palace people were told that little would change and for a while parties were still allowed. But people celebrated things that annoyed Ophis and the bells of Kolokol still rang on the days they always had. So to stop the parties he banned the ringing of bells.
This year it is a cold winter and Gabriel was in bed and he liked to be told stories of the time he liked best, the days before he was born. He had noticed that I only ever smiled when I thought of the past, and so Gabriel knew that people had been happy then. Gabriel "Sometimes at times of great sadness a bell would ring slowly and sound as sad as sad could be. There was a time when during a war they were not rung because people knew if they heard them the enemy had arrived". They made a joyful sound on my wedding day when roses were thrown in the air and petals had landed on my hair. It was only a year later when the King left and everything changed. The day the King had left was also the last time I ever say Peter my husband, their father, and we have not seen him since.
Gabriel and Georgiana would often ask me: "what does a bell sound like"? "It is not like anything else in the world," I would reply: "Over the old cathedral were great bells, taller than a man, and they could be heard for miles around. Wherever you lived bells would ring and tell you the time or they would remind us of the day when heaven and earth met and an angel told a girl called Mary that she would help bring into the world the God who made everything. That's who Gabriel was named after.
Gabriel means "God is my strength" and the sound of bells gave us strength. "On Sundays we would hear the bells calling us to gather to celebrate all the gifts we have, and to remind us to share with others if we have more than we need. In the winter the horses and sleighs would have little silver bells on them so you could hear them even if you couldn't see them. But mostly we took them for granted. When you think something will last for ever you can stop taking any notice of it".
"Then when Ophis took over from the last of the Kings we were told that bells couldn't ring because they were the sound of the past, and the sound of the things we shouldn't believe any more. Sometimes a brave priest would ring a bell but then one day the bells were taken away. We were told as well not to tell our children about them, because when people forget it's only a few who have control of history. The greatest change was when we realised that people aren't good and kind and generous on their own, and when people forget why they should be good, they stop being good."
Now we enter the classroom, so children come into the middle and prepare to welcome your teacher
Get children to move to the nave in row
Teacher enters: music
Gabriel was sitting in class and thought about his name and what made him strong: his mother; how she said he should make his father proud; his love for his family and what Kolokol had been. At night he decided he would say his prayers and discover who might listen. And he thought why should I be strong? He had walked to school when a sleigh passed him. Everyone knows what a sleigh looks like because Father Christmas rides in one and his sleigh can fly. But Gabriel couldn't hear the sleigh because it didn't have any bells on it. As he stepped back and stood between two young pine trees he could see at the back of the sleigh little bits of leather that once were tied to their silver bells. He then knew why he should be strong and live up to his name. The sound of bells came from a time when people were happy. He would find a bell and ring it.
The search begins
Gabriel had learnt that when you know why you must do something, and know what you must do, you have to work out how you achieve it. He knew the first step was to trust someone. School was as boring as usual. Teachers were some of the few people who believed what Ophis promised and they became teachers because grown ups didn't take them seriously: children in class had to listen. He had in front of him one of his father's old books which was written before Ophis decided what books and television could tell people. In school his teachers told his class that Kings and Bishops were rich, and ate too much, and took money from the poor to make bells because the Church - which was as bad as the King - only cared about money. But in his Father's book Edmund, King John's father was called "the Just" and Nicolas, the great Bishop of Myra, was shown giving gifts to the poor. His father's book said that Nicolas gave gifts because he, like millions of others, followed someone who said the greatest thing we can do is love. Gabriel decided that to be strong he needed to read more and trust what he was told in school less. To find a bell he needed as well to trust his sister, because he couldn't do it alone. He had taught himself something very important.
Children back to places
Teacher leaves (music)
My daughter Georgiana was a little younger than Gabriel although she liked reading more. They were walking one morning to look for some wood for the fire when Gabriel asked: "what do you think a bell looks like? George - she was known as George in the family - said "we don't know what a bell looks or sounds like, but our father wrote a book when he was teaching at the University about how we should think".
Their father was called Peter and he had taught a subject called Philosophy. George and Gabriel stopped walking because they had entered a small wood called the King's Wood and close by four roads met and there was an old house called "The Plough". I remember in the book, said George, daddy wrote about the questions that make people think. One is "if a tree falls in a wood and no one is there to listen, does it make a noise"? He also said that some of the most difficult questions can be answered by knowing what people in the past had written, and to trust them. Long ago someone said that everything we see has been made and when we think back millions and millions of years who made the first thing? Who started it" ? These were the questions that Ophis didn't want asked anymore which is why they closed the University and their father was taken away.
So, said George: "think"! "We know what things look and sound like, so when we find something we have never seen before and sound like something we have never heard before the chances are it will be a bell". As George spoke she was thinking of how proud her father would be of her. They moved through the King's Wood to a larger wood called St Peter's Holt. The lake looked black as the snow had covered all the fields and the trees looked black too - and in the trees they could hear robins singing. "Always winter and never Christmas" said Gabriel to himself thinking of another book his mother had read to him.
Gabriel was thinking about the day when the sleigh had passed him and the bits of leather that once had been tied to bells. One somewhere must have fallen off and be buried under the snow, perhaps with a bit of leather still tied to it. He had found old coins before and you could work out their age by which King or Queen's head was shown. Ahead, across the snow, was the black lake and leafless trees and they could hear someone singing a song. It was coming from the woods, where they could see a little column of smoke rising into the grey sky, and the song went:
"He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
As they listened George saw a flash of red in the sky (a robin) and as she pointed to Gabriel to look he looked up he saw to his left something flash in the dappled light of the wood (dappled is a word he learnt because he read books!) He took George's hand and said "I think I have seen a bell".
Under the branches of a great Hornbeam, behind an ancient yew, its branches heavy with snow, something glistened. Reaching down Gabriel picked it up and inside the silver case was snow and flecks of brown earth. Holding it up to the light George, with her little finger, picked out the snow and felt something inside, looking in they could see a chain with a small ball made of metal at the end of it. "I think" said George "this is a bell". "There is one way to find out" said Gabriel and holding the top of what they thought was a bell shook it. In the wood the silence was broken by a sound they had never heard: a ringing sound came from what they now knew must be a bell. A pure, joyful, ringing noise echoed around them, and the robins stopped to listen. They rang the bell together and it made them laugh and cry and want to dance all at the same time. They cried for the father they had never seen and they felt great happiness that they were making a sound that no other children their age had heard. Then they heard another laugh as through the Yew walked a man.
As he got closer Gabriel and George saw in his face something they saw in each other. It was their father.
"I have waited a long time to meet you".
Eight years is a long time to talk about and after a long talk I said to my children "the day has come for me to return home. Because you have found and rang a bell much will happen and happen very quickly".
As the sun went to sleep and we returned to Myra we saw a very early snowdrop. Pointing to it I said: "Snowdrops were once called 'Candlemas Bells" because they would peep through the earth when we remembered, not long after Christmas, that the child born for us grew up, like I see you have grown". "names matter. Your names, my names, the names of almost everything have meaning. Mary is a great name, as is Peter and George. Learn about a name and you will learn much. Soon we will see John and Nicolas again and the wonderful name of Kolokol will be restored".
Peter, George, and Georgiana walk together to front of church, Yvonne joins them
After Gabriel, Georgiana and Peter had reached home and Mary and Peter had embraced and talked alone for some time the family sat around the fire in the drawing room. Peter told them why he knew of Nicolas' promise. He had travelled with the King to the mountains and had been asked to take a letter to the Palace. "I knew of the promise". After he had delivered it he knew Ophis Kirtle would have little time for Universities and so decided to live in the woods close to home. "I often saw you and your mother. Although I didn't go far it was safer for you that you did not know where I was. Sometimes the best thing we can do for others is the hardest thing we do to ourselves".
They then waited.
Ophis enters (music)
It was, at least in the old days, Christmas Eve. Ophis was sitting in the King's study sipping water when he turned his thin face to the ceiling. A vibration and a thumping sound rocked the room and then cheers and shouts followed, both inside and outside the Palace. The great bells high up in the highest tower were ringing. Moving his green clad legs to the door, upon opening it he could see people running around and one of the old servants had taken a standard, which is a name for a flag, from a cupboard which used to fly when the King was in the Palace.
and noticed all the guards had gone. The old servant was taking the standard to the door that led to the flag pole. Ophis knew that Nicolas and the King were coming back and his thin fingers dipped into his green pocket and felt the letter he had always kept with him.
As the bells rang crowds gathered.
Music - bells flag goes back up
Children move to centre
They saw the standard raised and happiness returned to the land, like water that returns to a land of drought. The old flag pointed to what they knew must now happen, like Advent once pointed to the return of someone they could now speak of again. Then the crowd began to sing and louder and louder the people sang as they remembered what it was to be happy.
Organ: Tune WALTHAM
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
Ophis is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
Then the sound of singing was joined by the sound of bells:
So unwrap your bells and start ringing them…
in a sleigh, its silver bells ringing, King John, entered the square. How many he wondered who were cheering him now had cheered when he left. Perhaps he thought, like him, they had changed a lot. In the sleigh were Peter and Mary, Gabriel and Georgiana. From the palace, servants, wearing again the uniforms from the days of the Kings, brought out Ophis. "I shall be of need of cooks" said the King and Ophis was taken to the kitchens when from that day on he sat by the fire and turned the beef and lamb as it roasted. He remained content with his carrot and as he had never been happy soon got used to things.
Parents and children and king and servants walk in (music)
During the below a priest kneels before the king and then takes ciborium to altar
"To the cathedral" shouted the King and followed by thousands of people the Sleigh was driven to meet Nicolas. As they entered the cathedral, closed for so long, they could see down the long passage under the great oak roof six covered shapes (this part of the church is called a nave as if you turned it upside down it looks like a ship, and lots of ships together make a navy!).
King John led people into the great church and an old priest knelt before him. He had secretly prayed every day for the King and his family and his people and prayed at the greatest prayer of all with a tiny piece of wine and a small cup of wine. The King lit a candle and the priest took something that looked like bread but was now something far greater, placed it in a gold box and placed the candle beside it. "The winter is gone" said John and tonight Kolokol is restored, tonight the true Christmas begins, and Nicholas has sent gifts"
He once gave three gifts that saved three lives and he has sent six gifts that will change every heart that hears them,
"Before you are the six gifts said the King and they were unveiled
Children unveil Bells: to music
on each bell is a name. Each name will be remembered. They are the names of those who made a new future possible by restoring what this land had once been. Mary, Peter, John, Gabriel, George and Nicholas. Today we begin a new journey, building on all that was good and all that we had taken for granted. When you hear them ring be thankful that you are free, and free to believe and hope and love".
And now Nicolas returns and speaks:
Many good things have been restored to this land tonight. The greatest gift of all is freedom.
Defend it and honour those who gave everything for it.
Freedom is not given, but achieved.
Great men and women of the past have known courage and the power of faith to overcome hatred.
Make their words and stories your own:
This is your hour
stand up for freedom together,
let freedom ring.
Let freedom ring.
As he did so the new bells rang out from the cathedral tower for the first time, and Christmas began again.
By the Reverend David Ackerman, vicar, Parish of St John the Evangelist at Kensal Green, London, England. Used by permission.
The Parish of St John the Evangelist dedicated six new bells on St Nicholas Day in 2020.