A German Legend
By Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
WAY across our big ocean is the Christmas land, Germany. There one can see the wonderful old toymakers at work all the year round, making Christmas dolls and wooden animals and air ships and more trains than a child could run. There the glass blowers are busy manufacturing dainty glass balls of all the rainbow colors to trim the Christmas trees. And from Germany come, too, many quaint, lovely old stories that tell a child how Christmas customs first came to be.
There is one story about the silver cobwebs that very few American boys and girls have heard. It is the story of little Peter, who didn’t have time to trim his Christmas tree.
Peter lived on the edge of the Black Forest, and his father was the village woodchopper. Every day, Peter went a mile into the big jungle of green-black trees to carry a pail of warm coffee and a loaf of black bread to his father. In the winter it was a long, cold journey, but Peter didn’t mind. Hadn’t he the little fir tree to meet and pass the time of day with each trip?
It was the tiniest and the straightest and the most beautifully pointed fir tree in the whole forest,—at least so Peter thought. It was summer time when he first spied it and laid his hand caressingly on its little green branches as he whispered:—
“You are fine enough to be a Christmas tree. Just keep on growing, and maybe I’ll cut you down and take you home and hang pretty things on your branches when Christmas comes.”
The fir tree must have heard, for it kept right on working hard at growing. Why, it was two inches higher when winter came. And Peter had been working, too, earning money for gifts to hang on the tree. Frosted gingerbread toys and silver balls and gilded nuts and a wooden doll for Gretchen, his sister, would he buy. He had gathered chips, and made bouquets of checkerberries to sell, and gone without butter on his bread to earn the few bits of money with which to buy these baubles for the little fir tree. Then, the week before Christmas, he cut down the tree, and carried it home on his back to the little hut on the edge of the forest, where he and Gretchen and the Grossmutter and the father lived. He stood it up in the corner of the kitchen, and he jingled the silver coins in his pocket.
“Just wait, little tree,” he said, “and the night before Christmas you shall be trimmed with toys from top to root.”
But, alas, that very day the woodchopper cut his foot with his ax, and had to take to his bed. There never was very much money in the blue china mug which stood on the mantel over the fireplace. Before the end of the week one of Peter’s precious coins had to be given to the village doctor. Another was spent for soup stuff, another bought bread, and at last there were none of the coins left which were to buy the gingerbread and the doll for Gretchen, and the baubles to hang on the tree.
But Peter did not lose courage.
“There shall be pop corn strings and wreaths of pine on the tree,” he said, the day before Christmas. “I will make them to-day.”
But, alas, it was such a busy day for Peter! Early in the morning he scoured the woods for herbs to steep for his father and lessen the pain in the hurt foot. He found no time to make the pine wreaths. Then he wound yarn for the Grossmutter’s knitting, and got the midday meal and cleared it away, and swept the kitchen floor.
Then it was very late in the afternoon, but he started across the fields to the house of his friend, Hans, to borrow a few ears of pop corn with which to make the chains for the little fir tree. On his way, he found a wild hare, with its little foot cruelly caught in a trap. Peter’s fingers were very stiff and cold, but he knelt down on the snow and tried to untie the knots which held the quivering, frightened thing. As he worked, the afternoon drew to a close, and the twilight of Christmas Eve fell upon forest and field. The shadows drew near, and a quivering star beamed out in the sky. As the grateful hare leaped off, free and happy, Peter looked up. Why, it was too late now to go to Hans’ house for the pop corn. He would never be able to find his way through the dark. All he could do was to stumble slowly home, following the candlelight that glimmered across the snow from his own kitchen window.
Every one in the hut had gone to sleep. There in the corner, untrimmed and bare, stood the little fir tree. Peter put his hands softly on its green branches and he spoke to it as he crept over to his bed in the wall.
“Poor little fir tree,” he said, “why, you’re all covered with cobwebs because I didn’t have any time to even dust you off. I’m so sorry.”
Then, when all the world was sleeping, even little Peter, the Christ Child came walking by from out the forest. Every Christmas Eve He came, to peer in through all the windows and lift, with His soft little hands, the door latches of the good children. As He walked through the village He came to Peter’s house and He went inside and He saw the Christmas tree with its burden of gray cobwebs.
Then the Christ Child touched the cobwebs with his fingers and they turned, every one, to pure gold. In glittering splendor stood the little fir tree, draped from root to crown in a lacework of shimmering, shining gold threads.
And ever since then we have hung threads of tinsel from every branch of the Christmas tree in memory of that other little tree with its gray cobwebs turned to gold.
Kindergarten Review 21(4). December 1910. 219-221.
Carolyn Sherwin Bailey was born in 1875 in Hoosick Falls and grew up in Lansingburgh. Her version of the German legend “The Christmas Cobwebs” was recorded by Edna Bailey for Edison twelve years after it had appeared in Kindergarten Review. It’s not immediately clear if they were related; Edna Carol Bailey was born in Buffalo about 1895, daughter of Alfred O. Bailey (1870-1926) and Olive Sturtevant.
Christmas on the Edison, “The Christmas Cobwebs” A Bed Time Story, Edna Bailey 50999
The Xmas Cobweb” (Carolyn Bayley [sic]) Rectation by Edna Bayley [sic] Diamond Disc 50999
L 4887-B-1-3 1916.07.18/9 The Christmas Cobwebs (Carolyn S. Bailey) A Bed-Time Story – Edna Bailey