The Christmas Rose is a story from the novel King Bartholomew. It is a stand-alone chapter near the end of the novel, but in truth, the structure of the entire book has been written around this small, but significant story inspired by the love of a young woman and her beautifully folded paper flower, and the love of a young boy for his mother . . .
The Christmas Rose
Although it was Christmas Eve and a bitter hoarfrost clung to the tender trees just outside the thinly glazed window, prompting little Sara Tillman to pull the covers all the way up to her nose, the aging man went about his business without the slightest hesitation or fear that he would be discovered. The house was dark, but in the early morning twinkling of the distant stars and the pale light cast by the sleepy moon, his eyes twinkled as the memory rushed back to his overwrought mind and calmness washed over him once more. His work did not require much time and he was almost finished before he saw the note left on the table for him. He picked it up and looked at it with a smile before putting it in his pocket and silently closing the door behind him braced himself for the long ride back to his home in the bitter air.
Through the dim light he rode past the sleeping men and women and children of his kingdom. Coming around a steep turn in the path overgrown with thick bracken and untended for years he came to the Crossag Bridge. He rode to the middle of the stone bridge that was built by restless monks centuries ago. There he reined his horse and stood alone gazing into the slowly moving water below. It was a clear night and the sky was filled with stars. The water shimmered with the faint light from the firmament and it seemed to him like a reflection of something from a time long ago when he was a boy. The water reminded him of the present that was not his own, and the longer he looked the younger he became until the memory captured him. . .
The castle was alive with activity for Christmas was just around the corner. A very young boy with long blonde hair and bright blue eyes ran from room to room laughing and asking the servants for candies and treats because it was a time of great joy and of special things. The servants always found a way to sneak goodies for the boy because they liked him so much. They would press a sugar cookie into his small hand and say, “now you don’t come back again Bartholomew,” and they would smile because he always did.
One day the boy found a package hidden away in a remote closet. The package was wrapped in brilliant red wrapping paper and tied with a golden ribbon. The boy knew that he had found a present that was meant for him but he must not reveal his secret, and he must forget about the present. The boy however, could not forget about the present, and in truth, it was all he could think about and dream about. He knew that it could be anything, so to the boy the present became everything, and anything became possible but for his vivid imagination. These were anxious and exciting days in which his daydreams carried him away with all the possibilities contained within the bright wrapping. The imagination of a young boy is endless and has no boundaries, no edges, and no constraints to keep it from expanding. The imagination of a young boy is only to be tempered by his fearless innocence as he can climb the tallest towers without falling. Woe to the man that tells him to look down, for the dreams of children are sacred and bear fruit that shall not taste bittersweet.
Finally the day had come and the morning light of Christmas morning found the boy already awake and eager for the moment when he would be given the present.
“Would you like to come along with me on a little errand?” Bartholomew’s father asked cryptically.
The boy certainly did and soon they were driving in their beautiful carriage away from the castle and across the Crossag Bridge. They came to a fork in the road and merged onto another road that was ruddy and in disrepair, curling and twisting this way and that, jostling the boy until he was increasingly curious for he had never before visited this part of the island. Here the houses were modest if not entirely small. On some of the houses could be seen patches on the roof where attempts had been made to repair the effects of age. It was still very early, but it was Christmas morning! Windows opened when the King rode by and greetings and silent waves from the sleepy children rubbing their eyes behind glass windows were exchanged.
“These are the good people of Man,” said Bartholomew’s father. “They are poor, but they love all that is their own.”
And then the carriage stopped in front of the lowliest hovel of all, the home of an unfortunate woman who had recently lost her husband at sea.
“This will only take a minute,” said the King to his young son.
Then the boy watched as his father removed from the back of the carriage a package. It was his present! The boy’s heart sank. The King went into the house carrying the bright red package with the gold ribbon and a moment later returned empty handed. On the ride back to the castle the boy tried to remain cheerful though his heart was heavy. When they were almost home, Bartholomew’s father turned to him and said.
“Everyone needs help my boy. Sometimes there is no one to help, and then we must trust in God. Remember Bartholomew, the world belongs to the Savior, and we should not be selfish with his gifts. All gifts great and small come from God.”
And then they were home.
“We must return the carriage to the stable,” said the King.
But when they went into the stable, the boy saw something that he did not expect . . . a pony. The pony was freshly combed and had a ribbon around his neck.
“Imagine that,” said the King. “What do you think it says?”
The boy jumped out of the carriage to read the writing on the ribbon. It said, Bartholomew . . .
King Bartholomew looked up from the water. That was many years ago but it was a memory of his father that he would always cherish. He would return home in a great state of uncertainty as the vacillations in his mind left him feeling more and more melancholy.
The darkness became deeper and the heavens burned cobalt blue as he came around the last corner in the road that brought him to his place of birth. He walked his loyal horse the rest of the way so that even the soft footfalls of his silent companion would not wake the restful servants asleep in their beds. The gentle rocking motion of his favorite horse, his companion all these long years, was comforting and increasingly sad, and instead of his usual feeling of pure joy that this moment always brought, he felt like he was walking into the unknown and that this familiar road was no longer familiar. He now walked a lonely road with a single destination. Clop clop clop, the sound comforted him even as it led him away from his turning inner thoughts.
And then to Bartholomew’s utter disbelief, it started to snow. At first it was just a few tiny flakes floating down from the heavens, but suddenly something changed, something was different and Bartholomew was caught off guard by a sudden shift in perspective. It was not unheard of for snow to fall in the isles, but it was very rare, and then when it did, it was not like this. Large snowflakes gently floated down to earth partially obscuring his vision and making him forget for a moment where he was going. And then he heard the sound of hoofed feet striking something hard as if he and his mount had suddenly merged onto a different path. Bartholomew looked down and saw that indeed he was riding along a different path, one that was cobbled with stone that glittered like gold by starlight. The path narrowed on both sides until he sat on his horse within a narrow fissure that led onward and upward like a gate into a great walled city. Ahead he could see peaks of towers and tall spires shooting up to pierce the night sky. Everywhere tiny lights gleamed and glittered as if a great festival were taking place within its walls, or like a prodigal son they had waited up all night for, to return.
Bartholomew sat motionless and looked on afraid that the slightest movement or gesture would cause the beautiful mirage to dissolve before his eyes. The snow continued to fall, covering his shoulders and riding cloak and causing him to shiver as it began to accumulate all around him. So fragile was the illusion that he was almost afraid to exhale. Bright pennants and banners caught the wind and hung from every turret and tower and Bartholomew tried to imagine such a King that could rule such a city. This was a magnificent city, a gossamer city balanced between life and death as between two possibilities of awareness. Then suddenly up ahead a white stag bounded out of the forest and crossed his path, and when Bartholomew looked up again to the city in the snow it was gone and his own home stood before him. He cupped his hands over his tired eyes and tried to believe that what he had seen was real, but now the stiffness had returned to his tired bones and the vision faded from his mind.
King Bartholomew slipped his robe on over his nightshirt and walked with the candle up to his bed chamber. With him he carried a cup of warm milk to remove the chill from his bones before committing himself to sleep. Clenched in his hand he carried a piece of carefully folded paper. He took a sip of milk before unfolding the paper. Then he sat on the edge of his bed and began to read . . .
Tears flooded his eyes as he bowed his head to the memory. “Yes, yes I do remember,” he mused. “Sleep well sweet child,” he said. “You are forgiven. You have made me cry again.”
King Bartholomew stood up slowly and walked to the window. He opened the shutters and as he did a cold rush of air swept into the room. The air felt cold on his skin but he still felt warm from an inner emotion that he could not reconcile, an emotion that only grew stronger but for his many years to relinquish it.
“Why have I been blessed with such a capacity to feel pity?” he spoke into the evening sky. “The greater my capacity to feel, the greater is my pain. How can I endure such a gift, and must my heart burst?”
The stars did not answer and his lamentation disappeared into the starry night. He waited for an answer or even the gentle echo of his own bitter thoughts, but his mind had gone completely empty and he peered into the inky darkness like a lost soul in the wilderness.
“I can only live my life,” he cried. “Can I give hope to the hopeless? Is it my gift to share their pain? I am just a man,” he said.
Then he saw that there was a snowy owl perched on the balustrade just outside his window. He blinked, for the owl had not been there a moment ago. The owl was looking at him through black, penetrating eyes.
“I have nothing for you to eat,” said Bartholomew. “I have only questions to offer this night.”
The owl remained and its eyes became fixed on the eyes of the King who strangely, could not look away.
“Are you a messenger, or a message?” said Bartholomew.
The owl spread its wings, revealing a brilliant, white coat of feathers that emanated an intense radiance that struck the King like a creeping mist from the moors. Bartholomew fell into a deep rumination as his eyes like blazing meteors were captured in a vortex. Down, down, down he plunged into a muse that took him back through time to a time when he was young, a time before he was old enough for questions . . .
The Isle of Man is an island of rare beauty and stark diversity ranging from the steep cliffs and craggy windswept coastline to the tender meadows overflowing with wildflowers and bottle-flies, to thick forested glens surrounded by ancient rune-stones and Celtic monuments. Every legend, wives tale, mystery, superstition, and myth is taken seriously and is understood innately as if the essence of the island had slowly penetrated and transformed them, but their humble heritage is tempered in the strong arms of Christianity. The Manx have leaned to see the world differently, as if by breathing a different air they had gradually become part of the rich mythology of legend. All these things exist in harmony in the isles where the saints did sail.
Young Bartholomew looked elegant and sleek as he rode away on his fleet footed horse across the Crossag Bridge with his red scarf flapping in the wind. The Manxman said he was an impetuous prince, but a fine hunter; the Manxwomen mostly blushed when he turned his attention on their pretty faces, for the young prince was handsome. His hair, the color of chestnuts, was parted down the middle and hung about his shoulders carelessly until he would fling it back with a quick snap of his head. And his blue eyes shone brightly across his high cheekbones that held up a most delicate mouth forever tinged with a sly smile that revealed his propensity for adventure. Across the bridge he thundered as if all his errands always required all his energy. Such was the mind of the young Prince. But the people did not know everything about young Bartholomew, for today he was on a very special errand, and he would not have his meanderings gossiped about frivolously.
Reining his horse in front of a very modest house he politely knocked on the door and waited to be invited though no one would ever refuse the young Prince passage.
“How is little Omma?” he asked emphatically as he squeezed the hand of a middle aged woman standing in her doorway thoughtfully. He could see that she had been crying.
“My little Omma is weak, my lord. I have been praying for her on this fine Christmas Eve. She has been dreaming of having her own pony, my lord. Just imagine, I say’s to her, such a fine young girl doing with a pony on the Isle of Man.”
“Dreams of ponies are just as important as dreams of kingdoms, my lady,” said Bartholomew politely. “Our dreams always want to take us to places we can never go and tread paths we can never follow. Many of our dreams are the dreams of others. Blessed are the dreams that belong to our dreams. May I see her?”
Omma lay with her eyes open. She smiled broadly when Bartholomew entered and would have tried to sit up had he not prevented her.
“Easy now young lady,” he spoke tenderly. “Your mother tells me you will be better before you know it . . . and even that you said something about wanting your own bunny.”
“My own pony,” the young Omma spoke up. “My own pony silly.”
“A pony is it?” Bartholomew repeated playfully as a smile formed on his face. “I’m not sure our little island is big enough for you and your own pony. Hum . . . you won’t make him fly will you?”
They laughed and laughed until Bartholomew knew it was time to be serious. He took her little hand and said to her: “Tonight is Christmas Eve, Omma. Do you believe in angels?”
“Yes, because my mommy says that they are watching over me when I sleep.”
“And they are,” Bartholomew answered. “Would you like to know a secret?”
“Yes, I would,” Omma answered joyfully. “Tell me,” she begged.
“Angels love flowers,” said Bartholomew with great difficulty. “Angels love roses in particular, and do you know why?”
Omma shook her head and watched Bartholomew intently.
“It is because there are no roses in heaven, Omma.”
“Why are there no roses in heaven?”
“Because roses exist only for our sake,” he told her. “And that is why the angels have to come all the way down to Earth just to smell them.”
“That is sad,” said Omma.
“Would you like to make a rose to give to the angels?” said Bartholomew. “I have brought some paper with me and I will show you how to make one out of paper.”
When Bartholomew and Omma were finished making the rose he looked at her again and said: “Now you must leave it on the table tonight and when the angel comes to look at you, he will see it. They will all say in heaven that the rose that was made by Omma McIntosh was the finest rose ever.”
“Will I see the angels when I get to heaven?” Omma said quietly.
Bartholomew knelt down on the floor near Omma and brought his lips next to her ear. “You are like a rose Omma,” he said. But he could speak no more, so he kissed her on the forehead and left her room.
The Isle of Man is not a large island. Bartholomew rode like the wind and did not stop until he got to the edge of the island where he boarded a small ship. After talking with the captain for a few minutes, and having a Christmas toast of mulled wine, the captain handed him a small package and he handed the captain a small bag of coins. “Farewell,” said Bartholomew, and then he mounted his horse and galloped away. Bartholomew kept the package next to his heart to keep it warm and the package warmed his heart in turn.
Omma McIntosh said her prayers with special joy because it was Christmas Eve and she knew that little Jesus was born on that day a very long time ago and that the angels still sang songs about it in heaven. She was very tired and felt sick even as her mother was telling her that she was getting better, but she was also excited because she knew that the angels would see her rose and it would be just as Prince Bartholomew said. Her mother always told her to be happy with all of the wonderful things that were given to them by Jesus, so Omma said an extra prayer to Jesus and thanked him for giving her such a wonderful mother. Then her mother brought them both a cup of hot cider to drink before bed, but before blowing out her candle, Omma’s mother kissed her on the head and said: “Sleep tight, little sugar plum, and don’t let the man in the moon come.”
“You’re the man in the moon,” answerer Omma, and they both laughed.
“I am the man in the moon,” she said reaching for the door.
“Mommy?” said Omma. “Do you think the angels will like my rose?”
“Very much,” she said softly as she closed the door.
Prince Bartholomew was woken by a servant in the middle of the night. He had left special instructions before going to bed.
“It’s after two, “he said. “You asked me to wake you. “
“Thank you,” said Bartholomew. “Merry Christmas Sorren, now go back to bed and sleep well. There is no need to wait up for me”
Before leaving the castle he said a prayer for it was now Christmas morning and he felt especially peaceful in the early hours before dawn. The morning air was brisk. Bartholomew wrapped a riding cloak around him and rode away quietly into the darkness. After crossing the Crossag Bridge he stopped in the middle of the road. Looking up to heaven he was overwhelmed by the beauty before him so often neglected and taken for granted. He knew that the stars always would be there, but it wasn’t often that he remembered who put them there. He knew there were messages in the heavens, messages not unlike the one sent to the three wise men long ago on just such a night. But the messages were often so hard to find, and were it not for simple faith he should perish from the weight of these enigmas.
Outside the house he prepared himself to enter. With him he carried a small candle and flint. Bartholomew entered the house with such an intense feeling of joy that he nearly gave himself away. Moving quietly to the corner near the prayer lamp he unburdened himself of the parcel he concealed in his riding cloak. On the table was a small glass vessel out of which a single, paper rose reflected brightly in the faint candlelight. Carefully he reached out his hand and took the rose and put it in his riding cloak; then he busied himself with the package. He hesitated for a moment, said a silent prayer, and left the house unnoticed by either one of its inhabitants. When he was safely back in his castle, he removed the paper rose from his cloak and put it in a small box he kept hidden beneath his bed.
Omma opened her eyes to the first faint light of day. It was Christmas! She pushed back the covers and put her feet on the cold floor. The room was cold. Omma painfully rose from her bed and steadied herself. Then she shuffled out to the front room quietly so as not to wake her mother. Omma went straight to the corner table where she had left her rose, and beheld a miracle. She stood awed before her rose, for it was still there, but it was changed. It was alive! Protruding from the makeshift vase she and Bartholomew had used, was a rose, a real rose, and surrounding the rose was the thinnest, most brilliant halo of angel hair she had ever seen. The angels had breathed life into it! She no longer felt cold. Then she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“Look mommy,” she said. “The angels were here.”
The second miracle was the expression on her mother’s face as the tears streamed down her cheeks from pure joy. “There is something else on the table for you,” she said tenderly. “What do you think it is, Omma?”
Omma looked again, and then she saw them. On the table was the finest pair of black riding gloves she had ever seen, and when she picked them up she felt as light as a feather.
King Bartholomew returned from his vision as the wind whipped through his white hair and across his once beautifully chiseled face and blinked several times to make sure he was awake. His once bright blue eyes now had become pale as if something that once was had faded and they were fixed upon something that was to be. Slowly he closed the shutters, but he remained standing at the window. He felt calm, the stillness that comes after a violent storm or the tranquility of a sleeping baby. The owl was gone. He had traveled back through time to a day when everything was possible, a time when everything made sense to his young, agile mind.
There was a presence in the room; he felt it as surely as one feels the fast approaching storm being pushed by the scudding clouds. He knew that this storm was different; he knew that it was the spirit of Christmas, and it was not in his room, but in his heart.
“There is much misery in the world, that is true,” he said to himself. “I cannot change the world or alter the plan of our Lord. Perhaps the pain I accept is truly taken from the world and the world be free from such pain as I can bear. If that is so, I accept it willingly, for why should my heart be immune to pain?”
Bartholomew was exhausted. His years were multiplied even as his bones were tired and brittle. It was getting harder and harder for him to continue his long tradition and someday soon he would have to stop as his age would spare him no longer. He took one last glimpse of his kingdom. Across his kingdom they would be asleep, except for the quickly darting hands of those with secret gifts to bear. He smiled because he knew that everything was as it would be. Then he walked to his bed and took off his robe. He laid his robe across the end of the bed, pulled back the covers, and then turned to blow out the candle on the nightstand. Suddenly he stopped. He took up his robe, and from the pocket he removed a crumpled, paper rose. He looked at the rose and smiled. Then he carefully inserted it into a small vase that he kept on his nightstand. Lastly, he said a prayer and remembered how the birth of a small child had given meaning to his lonely life. Then he went to sleep.
The next morning a soft knock on the door went unanswered. Iona slowly opened the door and came in with a tray of steaming hot coffee and a blueberry tart. It was Christmas morning!
Iona was King Bartholomew’s oldest and dearest servant. She had been with him for so many years that she scarcely needed to address him as King anymore, and when she did it was always to make herself feel better. Iona knew Bartholomew’s faults, but she also knew his generosity and his humble benevolence toward all his servants as if in some small way he were serving them. Bartholomew was a King, but he was also a man. Though his once blonde hair had now turned white and his strong hands withered and weak, he was strong in ways that only years of joy and suffering can temper against the creeping sickness of despair. Life had taught him to sing when others wept, and it was to his great strength that they turned in times of need. She was young when he was young, and together they had grown old together.
“Good morning, sire,” she said. “It is Christmas morning, wake up and see the snow.”
Bartholomew lay facing the window. He slept the sleep of the righteous, the sleep of compassion, the sleep of forgiveness, and he would not be woken. Iona smiled to herself as her King liked to tease her in the morning with his stubbornness.
Iona went to the nightstand to set down the tray. On his nightstand protruding from a small vase, emerged a beautiful flower, a single red rose. Iona smiled warmly.
“Look sleepy,” she said. “The angels were here.”