The wind was biting into his very being as he made his way in the dark along the street. There was a flicker of the occasional lamp from inside the houses as he passed, but this was a poor neighbourhood and there wasn’t much money for oil in the lamps, he carried a small lamp himself, but with the freezing wind it was struggling to stay lit, never mind giving light for his way.
‘Why did I listen?’ he found himself muttering between chattering teeth. ‘Why this way?’
Snow was falling, drifting down and giving the impression that it served no purpose, but with the wind it had achieved the goal of keeping most of the sane people inside around warm fires. ‘That’s where I should be right now’ he thought to himself, ‘inside, enjoying a nice mulled wine, instead of out here freezing, trying to find a way through the maze of streets!’
There was a clink on the cobblestones as he made his way; the truth was he wasn’t totally sure where he was anymore. This was not a part of town he knew that well, something he felt almost ashamed to admit. He wasn’t afraid, totally safe, even on these rough streets, a stark contrast to the rich and opulent areas where he normally frequented. He was safe because the Empire made it so and guaranteed the safety of its people.
One good thing that three hundred years of Roman rule had brought was Law and order, the system was fair, but at times it was brutal and everyone knew that to attack a Roman citizen would bring revenge against the whole neighbourhood, examples would be made and it wouldn’t be pleasant.
He huddled down further into the robe, a fur lined garment from the Northern provinces of Germania, a gift from a member of the congregation who’d served in the legions stationed up there. But no matter how thick the coat, the cold bit through with razor sharp teeth chilling him right to the core of his being.
It was the middle of winter, the time when everything seems so lifeless and dormant, surrounded by barrenness, yet knowing that spring will eventually come with its new life and vitality, seven more days and the celebration of the birth of the year will begin.
The local followers of Jesus, the Carpenter from Nazareth used the time to remember that he came as a baby to bring new life to men. On the eve of his birth they took the bread and wine that he’d told them to remember him by and called it the Christ Mass.
As the overseer of a group of congregations of his followers Nicholas had been out this evening with some of the leaders of the congregations, teaching them from the holy scrolls and preparing for the mass the following night. Tonight he’d led a study from the sacred scrolls that they had in their church. The particular one they’d read from tonight was the story of how the faith spread from Jerusalem all the way to Rome itself, in particular they read from the address of Paul when he met with the elders of the church at Ephesus on the way to Jerusalem that final time.
The streets seemed to get narrower the further he went, the stench of poverty and filth began to rise up and assail his senses, especially the smell of stale urine that would be collected later to be used in the cleaning and dying of clothes.
A noise disturbed his thoughts, strange really because there was noise all around, there was an inn on the street he’d just passed and he could hear the sounds of men getting drunk , singing and making fun of the serving wenches, that was distressing in itself, but it wasn’t that noise, he could hear someone crying!
It wasn’t surprising really, this was the poorest area of town, the place where people lived with broken dreams and broken hearts, but it was if this sound was being magnified and heard for the first time.
He took a few moments to locate the direction of the crying, at first he couldn’t make out any words, but as he drew closer he began to figure out the crying was a young woman. One who should be approaching the happiest time in her life?
The crying was about that ‘happiest’ time, but they weren’t tears of joy! It was the fact that it was being taken from her, stolen just as if a thief had broken into the house and taken the gift away himself. Stolen by the cruellest of fates, poverty!
Iskander was frustrated, not with his daughter, he loved her, but there was nothing he could do. He was frustrated and angry with the situation he was in. one that meant he couldn’t even fulfil a basic need of his family.
he had three daughters, no sons, but three of the best daughters a man could ever have, except for one little issue, they were women and he was poor!
Not just poor, but he was also proud, and the thought of begging on the street was more than he could bear, he just couldn’t do it! Taking handouts from people who felt sorry for him was not something that he could bring himself to do, no matter how bad things got.
‘Honey’ he was trying very hard to be gentle with Helen, but there was a brutal truth that they were going to have to face up to, ‘You know we’re a poor family, and since your Mum got sick last year, what little money we had was used for her medical bills, there’s just nothing left!’
Helen, a young woman with red hair and pale skin was sobbing, ‘nothing father, but I’m marriageable age father! How will we pay for it?’
‘I know young Timothy loves you dear’ he looked into those big brown eyes, eyes ringed with the red that tears cause. ‘But there’s no money for the dowry! I can give you my blessing, but there’s nothing else I can give!
No dowry! It was unthinkable. In their culture the custom was that when a woman marries then the father of the bride gives money and goods to provide for his daughter in her married life, he literally paid the groom to take the woman off his hands. It was a common cause of the infanticide of girls among the poor, they knew when the daughter was born that they would never be able to afford the dowry, so they got rid of the problem!
Iskander had thought of that at the time, but something inside prevented him from doing it. He was glad he listened to that inner voice, but there were days when he really regretted not having a boy. This was one of those days!
It wasn’t that he hadn’t prayed, he’d prayed to every god he could think of, but not one of them had listened, each time his wife fell ‘with child’ they’d prayed and hoped for a boy, each time they’d had their hopes first dashed, and then obliterated as each time a daughter came into the world.
‘Timothy will wait for you Honey,’ Iskander put his arm round the sobbing girl, ‘you know he will’ they both knew it was probably a lie, very few men waited for a girl’s father to raise a dowry, and almost none waited around when there was no hope of one ever coming!
‘I suppose’ she looked up and returned his look, ‘at least I can ask!’ but they both knew that it would mean there would be no marriage and that she would probably grow old alone with no husband and children to look after her in her old age. Not only that but they were consigning her sisters to the same slow shameful fate.
His second daughter was at the door as he barged through; he’d delivered the blow and didn’t want to hang around for the aftermath. It would take days for the bad feeling from the deed he’d had to do to go away, but in reality it never would. In time she would come to resent him for being poor and not being able to provide for her, she would see it as him being selfish and wanting to control his daughters, but he really wanted them all to find a husband, even if it meant there was no one there for him in his old age, but that wasn’t going to happen.
Nicholas had heard most of the exchange, at least as much as he wanted to.
Later that night, the snow had abated a little in the street, although it was still cold enough to form ice in the water pooling at the side of the street. Everyone was home, asleep, or at least they should have been.
A lone figure moved silently down the street, darting from shadow to shadow, like a thief in the night, avoiding the light of the lamps and the attention of the guards on watch. Anyone out at this time better have a really good reason for being there, otherwise they’d be spending a few days in the local jail.
The window was open, but the occupants were asleep, no one saw the hand reach up to the window. Slowly he reached for a hand hold and began pulling himself up. He slowly hauled himself into the room and paused, the target was in the next room asleep, creeping towards the door, he reached for the inside of his coat.
Applying a little grease to the hinges before pushing the on the door made sure it wasn’t going to wake the occupants, the door slid open smoothly.
Entering the room he found the target and using stealth made his way there, reaching inside the coat again he took out the object and placed it next to the target, and then he slowly retreated the way he had entered.
No one saw him arrive, and no one saw him leave, yet the evidence that he had been there would be there for all to see in the morning.
The story says that the poor family didn’t find out for a long time who gave the money, but even stranger still was the fact that a year later the next oldest girl was in the same situation and once again a gift was left. This went on for all three girls. Eventually someone worked out that the Bishop was from a rich family and loved to give gifts in secret. He continued to do so and carried on giving gifts until he went to be with his Lord many years later.
It is said in the Roman catholic church that for someone to become a ‘saint’ or be ‘canonized’ as they call it at least two miracles have to be attributed to them after they have left this mortal frame behind, but for St Nicholas, every year his influence and his love for celebrating the birth of the Messiah touches the hearts and lives of hundreds of millions.
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