There was a smell of cinnamon and pine in the air. Everything was shining on the table: the candles, the knives, the cups, the glass balls, the golden pine cones. And people laughed and said to each other, “Merry Christmas.” The glasses clinked with a noise of joy and celebration. And seeing all this Joan thought:
“Surely Gertrude was wrong.” Christmas is a party for everyone. Tomorrow Manuel will tell me everything. Surely he also has gifts.
And comforted by this hope, Joana was almost as happy as before.
Christmas dinner was the same as every year.
First came the chicken soup, then the baked cod, then the turkeys, then the egg puddings, then the french toast, then the pineapples.
At the end of dinner they all got up, opened the door wide and entered the room.
The electric lights were off. Only the pine candles burned.
Joana was nine years old and had seen the Christmas tree nine times. But it was always like the first time. From the tree came a wonderful glow that rested upon all things. It was as if the glow of a star had approached the earth. It was Christmas. And so a tree was covered with light and its branches were bearing extraordinary fruit in remembrance of the joy that, on a very old night, had spread over the earth.
And in the crib the clay figures, the Boy, the Virgin, St. Joseph, the cow and the donkey, seemed to continue a sweet conversation that had never been interrupted. It was a conversation you could see and not hear.
Joana looked, looked, looked.
Sometimes he remembered his friend Manuel.
One of the cousins pulled her by the arm.
– Joana, there are your presents.
Joana opened the packages and boxes one by one: the doll, the ball, the books full of color drawings, the box of paints.
Around them everyone laughed and talked.
Everyone showed each other the gifts they had had, talking at the same time.
And Joan thought:
– Maybe Manuel had a car.
And the Christmas party went on.
Big people sat on chairs and couches chatting and children sat on the floor playing.
Until someone said:
– It’s half past eleven. It’s almost time for mass. And it’s time for the kids to go to bed.
Then people started to leave.
Joana’s father and mother also left.
– Good night my Dear. Merry Christmas, ”they said.
And the door closed.
In a moment the maids left.
The house was very quiet. Everyone had gone to Rooster Mass, except old Gertrude, who was in the kitchen tidying up the pots.
And Joana went to the kitchen. It was a good time to talk to Gertrudes.
“Good Christmas, Gertrude,” said Joan.
“Merry Christmas,” he said to Gertrude. Joana was silent for a moment. Then he asked:
“Gertrude, is what you said before dinner true?”
– What did I say?
– You said Manuel wasn’t going to have Christmas presents because the poor don’t have presents.
– Of course it’s true. I don’t say fantasies: there were no presents, no Christmas tree, no stuffed turkey, no french toast. The poor are the poor. They have poverty.
“But then how was his Christmas?”
– It was like the other days.
– And how is it the other days?
– A soup and a bite of bread.
– Gertrude, is that true?
– Of course it’s true. But now it was better for the girl to go to bed because it is almost midnight.
“Good night,” said Joan. And left the kitchen.
He climbed the stairs and went to his room. Her Christmas presents were on the bed. Joana looked at them one by one. And I thought:
– A doll, a ball, a box of paint and books. They are just like the gifts I wanted. They gave me everything I wanted. But to Manuel nobody gave anything.
And sitting on the edge of the bed, beside the presents, Joana began to imagine the cold, the darkness and the poverty. He began to imagine Christmas Eve in this house that was not quite a house, but a corral of animals.
How cold it must be! She thought.
How dark it must be! She thought.
How sad it must be! He thought.
And he began to imagine the cold, dim light where Manuel slept on the straws, warmed only by the breath of a cow and a donkey.
“I’ll give you my presents tomorrow,” she said. Then he sighed and thought:
“Tomorrow is not the same thing. Today is Christmas Eve.”
He went to the window, opened the shutters and peered through the windows. No one passed. Manuel was sleeping. It would only come the next morning. In the distance was a large dark shadow: it was the pine forest.
Then he heard, from the Church Tower, loud and clear, the twelve strokes of midnight.
“Today,” Joana thought, “I have to go today. I have to go there now, tonight. So he can have presents on Christmas Eve.”
He went to the closet, took off a coat and put it on. Then he took the ball, the paint box, and the books. He wanted to take the doll too, but he was a boy and he certainly didn’t like dolls.
Foot to toe Joana descended the stairs. The stairs cracked one by one. But in the kitchen Gertrude made a lot of noise tidying the pans and didn’t hear her.
In the dining room was a door to the garden. Joana opened it and left, leaving it just locked in the latch.
Then he crossed the garden. Alex and Ghiribita barked.
“It’s me, it’s me,” Joana said.
And the dogs, hearing his voice, kept silent.
Then Joana opened the garden door and went out. The star
When she found herself alone in the middle of the street, she wanted to go back. The trees looked huge and their leafless branches filled the sky with fantastic birdlike designs. And the street seemed alive. It was all deserted. At that time no one passed. Everyone was at Rooster Mass. The houses, within their gardens, had their doors and windows closed. You didn’t see people, you just saw things. But Joana had the impression that things were looking at her and hearing her as people.
I’m afraid, she thought.
But he decided to walk forward without looking at anything.
When he reached the end of the street he turned right and took a shortcut between two walls. And at the end of the shortcut found the fields, plains and deserts. Here, without walls or trees or houses, the night was better. A very high and round night and all bright.
The silence was so strong it seemed to sing. Far in the distance was the dark mass of the pine forests.
Is it possible for me to get there? Joana thought.
But he kept walking.
His feet were buried in the frozen herbs. There in the open was a short wind of snow that cut his face like a knife.
I’m cold, Joana thought.
But he kept walking.
As she approached him, the pine forest grew larger. Until it got huge.
Joana stopped for a moment in the middle of the fields.
Which way will the cabin be? She thought.
And he was looking in every direction for a trail.
But there was no trail on his right, no trail on his left, and no trail in front of him.
“How should I find my way?” She asked.
And raised his head.
Then he saw that in the sky, slowly, a star was walking.
This star looks like a friend, she thought.
And began to follow the star.
Until it entered the pine forest. Then in an instant the shadows swirled around him. They were huge, green, purple, black and blue, and they danced with great gestures. And the breeze passed between the pine needles, which seemed to murmur incomprehensible phrases. Seeing herself surrounded by voices and shadows, Joan was afraid and wanted to flee. But he saw that in the sky, very high beyond all shadows, the star continued to walk. And followed the star.
Already in the middle of the pine forest he seemed to hear footsteps.
Is it a wolf? He thought.
He stopped listening. The sound of footsteps approached. Until he saw a tall figure appearing among the pines that was walking towards him.
Is it a thief? He thought.
But the figure stopped in front of her and she saw that it was a king. He had a gold crown on his head, and from his shoulders fell a long blue cloak all embroidered with diamonds.
“Good night,” said Joan.
“Good evening,” said the king. – What is your name?
“Me, Joan,” she said.
“My name is Melchior,” said the king. And he asked:
– Where are you going alone at this time of night?
“I’m going with the star,” she said.
“Me too,” said the king, “I too go with the star.”
And together they went through the pine forest.
And again Joana heard footsteps. And a figure appeared in the shadows of the night.
On her head was a crown of diamonds, and from her shoulders fell a large red cloak covered with many emeralds and sapphires.
Good night, ”she said. – My name is Joana and I’m going with the star.
“I, too,” said the king, “also go with the star, and my name is Gaspar.”
And they walked together through the pine forests. And once again Joana heard a clatter of footsteps, and a third figure appeared between the blue shadows and the dark pines.
He had a white turban on his head, and from his shoulders hung a long green robe embroidered with pearls. His face was black.
“Good night,” she said. – My name is Joana. And let’s go with the star.
“Me too,” said the king, “I walk with the star, and my name is Balthazar.”
And together they followed the four through the night.
On the ground the dry branches crackled under the footsteps, the breeze murmured among the trees, and the great embroidered cloaks of the three kings of the East shone among the green, purple, and blue shadows.
Almost at the bottom of the pine trees they saw a glare in the distance. And on that light the star stopped.
And they kept walking.
Until they reached the place where the star had stopped and Joan saw a shack without a door. But he saw no darkness, no shadow, no sadness. For the shack was full of clarity, because the brightness of the angels illuminated it.
And Joana saw her friend Manuel. He was lying in the straw between the cow and the donkey and sleeping smiling.
On his wheel, kneeling in the air, were the angels. His body was weightless and made of light without shadow.
And with folded hands the angels prayed kneeling in the air.
This was, in the light of the angels, Manuel’s Christmas.
“Ah,” said Joan, “this is like in the crib!”
“Yes,” said King Balthazar, “here is like in the crib.”
Then Joanna knelt down and laid her presents on the floor. Sophia by Mello Breyner Andresen The Christmas Eve Porto, Figueirinhas, 1989 Adaptation