The Icon's Warm Bread
A Greek Folk Tale
Retold by Louise Carus from The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope from Around the World
What is tragic is that in poor places, children are still sent out to beg, exactly as depicted in this old Greek folktale. Let us hope that St. Nicholas will be their protector as he is for the children here. —LC
Once there was a brother and sister whose parents had suddenly died, leaving the poor children all alone in the world—or almost all alone. They did have an uncle who lived not far away, and even though the children scarcely knew him, the townsfolk took them to him, since he was their only living relative.
"Don't cry," the people comforted the sad boy and girl. "Your uncle is your family now, and he will take care of you. You must be brave and good for him."
This uncle was a wealthy man, owning many cattle and a large house filled with fine possessions. Little did the townsfolk know he was a mean and stingy man. Far from caring for the children, he was angry with them for still being so small—too young to be useful servants and not yet strong enough to manage heavy work.
But there was one thing they were not too small for—begging! Every morning, the uncle sent the children out onto the streets to beg for money, and every evening he made them hand over every drachma they had collected as soon as they came home.
And that is how life was. With bare feet and cheeks flushed with hunger, the little beggars would stand all day on the street corners, holding out their cups to those who passed by. Some compassionate and kind people gave the children money or bread, but others were hard hearted and gave nothing. Some even made fun of the waifs or shook their heads in disapproval.
One rainy day the children had received almost nothing. As evening approached, the rain stopped and the sun came out from behind the clouds, but the small beggars looked at their empty cups in dismay, fearing their uncle's bad temper. Strangely enough, just then a well-dressed man appeared and gave each of them a large silver coin. The children had never seen such large coins. How they gleamed in the fading light! As the gentleman strode away, the brother and sister shouted their thanks to him and then said happily, "Today, for once, Uncle will surely praise us!"
As soon as evening came, they started off, eager to go home. But from a distance, two older boys had seen the gentleman take money from his pocket and give it to the children. These boys waited in the shadows until the children passed. Then they grabbed the defenseless little ones and took everything they had—including the gentleman's large silver coins.
The brother and sister ran home crying and told their uncle what had happened. "Get out!" the man screamed, chasing them from the house. "Disappear, you worthless little thieves! I never want to see you again!"
The terrified children ran out into the dark, dashing first one way, and then another. They did not know where to go or what to do. Finally, they happened to come to the street where the church was. Seeing its windows were lit, they went in.
Inside, the sanctuary glowed in the flickering light of many candles. The exhausted children began to cry with relief at being in what they felt was a safe place. The first thing they noticed was an icon of St. Nicholas. Through their tears, and in the shimmering light of the candles, it seemed to them that in the painting the Saint's lips began to move. An instant later they were surprised to hear a deep, kind voice say, "Children, are you hungry?"
"Yes, very hungry!" the astonished children managed to reply.
"Here, then, take this." In the unsteady light, the children couldn't be sure, but they thought they saw the robed arms of the icon move. Regardless, the delicious aroma filling the room was real enough, and so were the three warm pieces of bread the children suddenly found in their hands.
The image of St. Nicholas continued, "I know you were chased out of your home. So be it! You have nothing more to fear from that miser of an uncle. Go now to the little house down the road." He pointed to show them the direction. Give the old woman who lives there one of these pieces of bread and tell her that I sent you. She will take you in."
The children thanked St. Nicholas and did as he had instructed. Sure enough, when they gave the old woman the bread and said Nicholas had sent them, she welcomed them in. Her house was not grand like their uncle's and her possessions were modest and few. But her heart was much larger, and the children knew they had found a home at last.
The next day, they went back to the church to thank St. Nicholas again. Once more, he gave them three pieces of bread and said: "Come as often as you are hungry!"
In this way the children and the old woman lived for some time. Every day, the boy and girl shared the Saint's bread with the old woman, and she in her turn cared for them well.
Then, quite unexpectedly, the stingy uncle died in an accident. As it so happened, the children inherited his house, his cattle, and all his possessions. When they returned to what was now their new home, they took the old woman with them. They continued to give thanks to St. Nicholas whenever they passed the church. Now, though, he didn't need to offer them any more bread, because they had plenty to eat at home.
As time passed, the old woman became too frail to take care of the children any longer. But by then they were grown and took loving care of her.
Excerpt from The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope From Around the World, by Louise Carus, editor and translator, copyright © 2002. Reprinted by permission of Quest Books/The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois.
This delightful collection of thirty St. Nicholas stories includes many folktales that are not well-known. One story may be read each day during Advent or one or two could be selected for St. Nicholas Day. Other information and recipes are also included. Purchase from amazon.com, amazon.ca or amazon.uk.>
Illustration: Sebastiano Mainardi, Italian (1460-1513), Madonna and Child with St. Nicholas of Bari and St. Justina, oil on wood panel 63½ x 61 inches, Acc. #51.88, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Booth Tarkington in memory of her husband. Used by permission