On the Christmas Cuckoo
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Retells the Browne/Olcott Christmas story of two brothers and their encounter with a Cuckoo bird.
On the Christmas Cuckcoo
An Inspirational Story
Told at the Annual Christmas Party of
The Sterling Park Ward, Ashburn, VA Stake
By D. Calvin Andrus, Bishop
08 December 2007, Version 1.0
This story is released under the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. It may be freely reproduced, distributed, transmitted, used, modified, built upon, or otherwise exploited by anyone for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial, and in any way, including by methods that have not yet been invented or conceived.
A blind girl was born in 1816 in Donegal, Ireland. She was the seventh of twelve children. She really wanted to learn how to write. She made a deal with her brothers and sisters, that if she did their chores for them, they would read aloud their lessons to her in the evening. This girl's name was Frances Browne.
When Frances was older she would think up poems and her sister would write them down. Her first poem was published when she was 24. When she was 31, Frances and her sister moved to Scotland, where Frances became a popular author. At age 36, she moved to London and wrote books. Her most famous book is Granny's Wonderful Chair. One of the stories in this book is called the Christmas Cuckoo. Frances Browne died in 1879 at age 63.
In 1914, a woman named Francis Jenkins Olcott published a book of stories for young children to practice their reading. The book was called, Good Stories for Great Holidays. In the book, Francis Olcott included an edited version of Frances Browne's Christmas Cuckoo story (pages 331-342). Francis Olcott died in 1963. The text of her book is available at the University of Virginia's website.
In as much as the copyrights for both Browne's original story and Olcott's edited story have expired, I have taken the liberty of re-writing the story in an early 21st Century young-reader style, as well as making the story somewhat shorter. Herewith is a modern version of the Browne/Olcott story of The Christmas Cuckoo, which I place into the public domain.
The Story (2007 Version)
Once upon a time there were two brothers named Scrub and Spare. Scrub and Spare were very poor. They lived on the edge of a poor village. The village was located in the coldest part of northern Scotland.
Scrub and Spare lived in a broken down shack. The shack was made out of small woven sticks that had been caked with mud. Because they had no windows, they would leave the door open for light. The roof was made of tied bundles of straw. It kept most of the rain out, but would leak when the snow melted. They had a dirt floor that would get a little muddy when the roof leaked.
The best feature of the shack was a sturdy fireplace at one end of the shack. Unfortunately, Scrub and Spare were too poor to buy very much wood, so they mostly used the fireplace to build small fires to heat their food. They got most of their food from a garden the two brothers tended behind the shack.
Scrub and Spare were cobblers, which means they made and repaired shoes and boots. They did not have as much business as they wanted. This was because the people in the village were also poor and because the villagers did not want to walk all the way to the edge of the village to drop off their shoes.
Fortunately, the brothers loved each other. They worked well together. Scrub and Spare would tell each other funny stories as they worked. They would encourage each other when they got sad.
On one unlucky day a new young cobbler moved into the village. He had learned how to fix shoes by working for an expert cobbler in a big rich city. He had become a very good cobbler. While working in the big city, he had saved his money. The new young cobbler had bought himself the best cobbler tools and rented a shop in the center of the village. He worked fast with his new tools. He did a good job with his new tools. The villagers took their shoes to the young cobbler instead of to Scrub and Spare.
The next year the two brothers were poorer than ever. They did not have very many shoes to repair. The summer had been cold and rainy. Their garden did not do well. Their cabbages were small. Their barley crop had a fungus. By Christmas time they had eaten all of their good food, and had almost nothing left for a feast. They had one loaf of bread and some bacon. But what was worse, they did not have any wood to cook the food on their stove.
Scrub asked his brother what they should do for Christmas. Spare reminded Scrub that the meadow in which they lived had big tree roots in the ground left over from the trees that had been cut down. Spare said it would be better to go dig up one of those roots than shiver in their shack. Scrub complained that the snow was two feet deep. Spare encouraged his brother by talking about what a big fire they could have if they dug up a big root. Not only that, they would get warm by digging up the root.
The two brothers pushed away the snow and dug around the root. They strained and strove with all their might for two hours. Finally, between pulling and pushing, they got it out. They dragged the great old root into the shack and put it into the fireplace.
As the root began to crackle and blaze with the red embers Spare and Scrub gleefully sat down to their bread and bacon. Then suddenly they heard a sound. It was coming out from the blazing root. They heard: "Cuckoo! cuckoo!" It was as plain as if a bird was singing on a bright May morning.
"What is that?" said Scrub, terribly frightened; "is it something bad?"
"Maybe not," said Spare.
And out of the deep hole at the side of the root, which the fire had not reached, flew a large, gray cuckoo, and landed on the table before them. The cobblers were even more surprised when the bird said:
"Gentlemen, what season is this?"
"It's Christmas," said Spare.
"Then a merry Christmas to you!" said the cuckoo. "I went to sleep in the hollow of that old root one evening last summer, and never woke till the heat of your fire made me think it was summer again. But now since you have burned my home, please let me stay in your hut till the spring comes around. I only want a hole to sleep in, and when I travel next summer I will bring you a present to thank you."
"Welcome to our home. You may stay." said Spare. Scrub was still wondering if a speaking bird were something bad or not.
"I'll make you a good warm hole in the straw roof," said Spare. "But you must be hungry after that long sleep. Here is a slice of barley bread. Come help us celebrate Christmas!"
The cuckoo ate the slice, drank water from a brown jug, and flew into the snug hole which Spare scooped for it in the roof of the shack.
Scrub said he was afraid keeping a Cuckoo bird in the house would be unlucky. The bird just slept the rest of the winter, and Scrub eventually forgot his fears. After a few months, the days got longer and the weather warmed up. One sunny morning the brothers were awakened by the cuckoo singing at the top of its lungs to let the brothers know spring had come.
The Wish List
"Now I'm going on my travels," said the bird, "over the world to tell everyone that spring has come. I will follow spring around the world. I will see you one year from now. Please give me another slice of barley bread to help me on my journey, and tell me what kind of present you want me to bring back."
The cuckoo continued, "There are two trees by a well on the other side of the world; one of them is called the golden tree. Its leaves are made of thin gold. Every winter they fall into the well with a sound like coins falling on a table. The other tree is always green. It is a wise and merry tree. Its leaves never fall, but if a person can get just one leaf, they will always be happy and smart no matter what bad things happen."
"Good cuckoo, bring me a leaf off the green tree!" cried Spare.
"Now, brother, don't be a fool!" said Scrub; "think of the leaves of gold! Dear cuckoo, please bring me a gold leaf!"
Before another word could be spoken, the cuckoo had flown out of the open door, and was shouting "cuckoo, cuckoo" as it went.
The next year was a little worse than before and the two brothers were poorer than ever. Nobody sent them any shoes to mend. Scrub and Spare would have starved to death except for their field of barley and their garden of cabbages. They also worked on the farms of the other villagers.
So the seasons came and passed; spring, summer, harvest, and winter. At the end of this winter, Scrub and Spare had grown so thin and their clothes so ragged that their old friends stopped inviting them to dinner and to parties. The brothers thought the cuckoo had forgotten them, too. Then, at daybreak on the first of April they heard a hard beak knocking at their door, and a voice crying: "Cuckoo! cuckoo! Let me in with my presents!"
Spare ran to open the door, and in came the cuckoo, carrying on one side of its bill a golden leaf larger than that of any tree in Scotland; and in the other side of its bill, a small leaf of fresh green.
"Here," said the cuckoo, giving the gold one to Scrub and the green one to Spare. "I am tired from having flown from the other side of the world. Please give me a slice of barley bread. And then I need to be on my way to tell the rest of Scotland that the spring has come."
"See the wisdom of my choice," Scrub said, holding up the large leaf of gold. "As for yours, it could have been plucked from any bush. I wonder why such a sensible bird would carry it so far."
"Scrub," cried the cuckoo, finishing the bread, "do not judge too quickly. I go on the same journey every year. If your brother is disappointed in the green leaf, he can ask me to bring a gold leaf next year." Darling cuckoo," cried Scrub, "bring me a golden one again." And Spare, looking up from the green leaf said: "Be sure to bring me one from the merry green tree."
And away flew the cuckoo.
The Next Year
Scrub started to make fun of his brother, for asking for a green leaf for a second time. "I can't believe what a fool you are, Spare," he said. But Spare just responded happily with wise sayings about how money can't buy happiness. After a couple of days Scrub could not stand living with his brother in the old shack. He broke off a piece of his gold leaf and rented a house in the center of the village. Scrub then broke off more of his leaf and bought some fine new clothes. He broke off more of his leaf and got new cobbler tools. He went into business with the young cobbler. Scrub had lots of work now.
Not only that, the prettiest girl in the village, named Fairfeather, started flirting with Scrub. He would break off parts of his leaf to buy her presents. The more he bought her presents, the more she would flirt with him. After about 6 months, Scrub and Fairfeather got married. Scrub used his leaf to throw a big wedding party for all the villagers. Scrub used his leaf to buy Fairfeather nice clothes and fancy food. They had lots of fun spending the golden leaf. But one day, before the winter was over, they had spent the whole leaf. Now they did not have any money. They ran out of food. They were sad. They were hungry. They started to get angry with each other. Fairfeather started to think her husband wasn't so great. Scrub just day-dreamed about the cuckoo coming back again in the spring with a new gold leaf.
Meanwhile, Spare was back at the old leaky shack. He didn't have any shoe repair work. He just worked in his cabbage garden. He got poorer and poorer. A few people would come to visit Spare. They noticed that he was cheerful and happy in spite of being poor. When people visited Spare, he made them feel so good they went away content, feeling happier and treating others with more kindness than before. As a result, the whole village became a more enjoyable place to live.
Every first of April the cuckoo came with the golden leaf for Scrub, and the green leaf for Spare. Scrub always spent the golden leaves before the year was out. Fairfeather, his wife, always remained discontented. The villagers liked going to the parties Scrub and Faithfeather threw, but the villagers stayed away after the parties were over.
Spare, on the other hand, was merrier and nicer, with every passing year. Lots of people would now come to visit Spare: men who had lost their money; women who had lost their friends; pretty girls who had grown old; and clever boys who had become boring. Whatever their troubles, the villagers all went home happy. The villagers loved Spare more and more as the years went on.
After many, many years Scrub and Spare got very old and eventually died. They both died on Christmas day, with funerals one day after the other. Almost no one, except his family, went to Scrub's funeral. On the other hand, the whole village turned out for Spare's funeral. In the spring, the villagers raised a statue to Spare in the middle of the village. In the statue's hand was a green leaf, and on the statue's shoulder stood the Christmas Cuckoo.
During this Christmas season, as we wait expectantly for our gold leaf iPods, our gold leaf dolls, our gold leaf clothes, our gold leaf DVDs, and our gold leaf gift cards, let us take some time to help another person be happier. Let us to imagine there is a green leaf in our pockets. This will remind us to be more cheerful, and more kind, and more patient during this season than any other. In doing so, we all will help each other feel the Spirit of Christmas.
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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Olcott, Frances Jenkins. Good Stories for Great Holidays. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
Table of Contents for this work.
THE CHRISTMAS CUCKOO
BY FRANCES BROWNE [ADAPTED]
ONCE upon a time there stood in the midst of a bleak moor, in the North Country, a certain village. All its inhabitants were poor, for their fields were barren, and they had little trade; but the poorest of them all were two brothers called Scrub and Spare, who followed the cobbler's craft. Their hut was built of clay and wattles. The door was low and always open, for there was no window. The roof did not entirely keep out the rain and the only thing comfortable was a wide fireplace, for which the brothers could never find wood enough to make sufficient fire. There they
worked in most brotherly friendship, though with little encouragement.
On one unlucky day a new cobbler arrived in the village. He had lived in the capital city of the kingdom and, by his own account, cobbled for the queen and the princesses. His awls were sharp, his lasts were new; he set up his stall in a neat cottage with two windows. The villagers soon found out that one patch of his would outwear two of the brothers'. In short, all the mending left Scrub and Spare, and went to the new cobbler.
The season had been wet and cold, their barley did not ripen well, and the cabbages never half- closed in the garden. So the brothers were poor that winter, and when Christmas came they had nothing to feast on but a barley loaf and a piece of rusty bacon. Worse than that, the snow was very deep and they could get no firewood.
Their hut stood at the end of the village; beyond it spread the bleak moor, now all white and silent. But that moor had once been a forest; great roots of old trees were still to be found in it, loosened from the soil and laid bare by the winds and rains. One of these, a rough, gnarled log, lay hard by their door, the half of it above the snow, and Spare said to his brother: --
"Shall we sit here cold on Christmas while the great root lies yonder? Let us chop it up for firewood, the work will make us warm."
"No," said Scrub, "it's not right to chop wood on Christmas; besides, that root is too hard to be broken with any hatchet."
"Hard or not, we must have a fire," replied Spare. "Come, brother, help me in with it. Poor as we are there is nobody in the village will have such a yule log as ours."
Scrub liked a little grandeur, and, in hopes of having a fine yule log, both brothers strained and strove with all their might till, between pulling and pushing, the great old root was safe on the hearth, and beginning to crackle and blaze with the red embers.
In high glee the cobblers sat down to their bread and bacon. The door was shut, for there was nothing but cold moonlight and snow outside; but the hut, strewn with fir boughs and ornamented with holly, looked cheerful as the ruddy blaze flared up and rejoiced their hearts.
Then suddenly from out the blazing root they heard: "Cuckoo! cuckoo!" as plain as ever the spring-bird's voice came over the moor on a May morning.
"What is that?" said Scrub, terribly frightened; "it is something bad!"
"Maybe not," said Spare.
And out of the deep hole at the side of the root, which the fire had not reached, flew a large, gray cuckoo, and lit on the table before them. Much
as the cobblers had been surprised, they were still more so when it said: --
"Good gentlemen, what season is this?"
"It's Christmas," said Spare.
"Then a merry Christmas to you!" said the cuckoo. "I went to sleep in the hollow of that old root one evening last summer, and never woke till the heat of your fire made me think it was summer again. But now since you have burned my lodging, let me stay in your hut till the spring comes round, -- I only want a hole to sleep in, and when I go on my travels next summer be assured I will bring you some present for your trouble."
"Stay and welcome," said Spare, while Scrub sat wondering if it were something bad or not.
"I'll make you a good warm hole in the thatch," said Spare. "But you must be hungry after that long sleep, -- here is a slice of barley bread. Come help us to keep Christmas!"
The cuckoo ate up the slice, drank water from a brown jug, and flew into a snug hole which Spare scooped for it in the thatch of the hut.
Scrub said he was afraid it would n't be lucky; but as it slept on and the days passed he forgot his fears.
So the snow melted, the heavy rains came, the cold grew less, the days lengthened, and one sunny morning the brothers were awakened by
the cuckoo shouting its own cry to let them know the spring had come.
"Now I'm going on my travels," said the bird, "over the world to tell men of the spring. There is no country where trees bud, or flowers bloom, that I will not cry in before the year goes round. Give me another slice of barley bread to help me on my journey, and tell me what present I shall bring you at the twelvemonth's end."
Scrub would have been angry with his brother for cutting so large a slice, their store of barley being low, but his mind was occupied with what present it would be most prudent to ask for.
"There are two trees hard by the well that lies at the world's end," said the cuckoo; "one of them is called the golden tree, for its leaves are all of beaten gold. Every winter they fall into the well with a sound like scattered coin, and I know not what becomes of them. As for the other, it is always green like a laurel. Some call it the wise, and some the merry, tree. Its leaves never fall, but they that get one of them keep a blithe heart in spite of all misfortunes, and can make themselves as merry in a hut as in a palace."
"Good master cuckoo, bring me a leaf off that tree!" cried Spare.
"Now, brother, don't be a fool!" said Scrub; "think of the leaves of beaten gold! Dear master cuckoo, bring me one of them!"
Before another word could be spoken the cuckoo had flown out of the open door, and was shouting its spring cry over moor and meadow.
The brothers were poorer than ever that year. Nobody would send them a single shoe to mend, and Scrub and Spare would have left the village but for their barley-field and their cabbage- garden. They sowed their barley, planted their cabbage, and, now that their trade was gone, worked in the rich villagers' fields to make out a scanty living.
So the seasons came and passed; spring, summer, harvest, and winter followed each other as they have done from the beginning. At the end of the latter Scrub and Spare had grown so poor and ragged that their old neighbors forgot to invite them to wedding feasts or merrymakings, and the brothers thought the cuckoo had forgotten them, too, when at daybreak on the first of April they heard a hard beak knocking at their door, and a voice crying: --
"Cuckoo! cuckoo! Let me in with my presents!"
Spare ran to open the door, and in came the cuckoo, carrying on one side of its bill a golden leaf larger than that of any tree in the North Country; and in the other side of its bill, one like that of the common laurel, only it had a fresher green.
"Here," it said, giving the gold to Scrub and the green to Spare, "it is a long carriage from the world's end. Give me a slice of barley bread, for I must tell the North Country that the spring has come."
Scrub did not grudge the thickness of that slice, though it was cut from their last loaf. So much gold had never been in the cobbler's hands before, and he could not help exulting over his brother.
"See the wisdom of my choice," he said, holding up the large leaf of gold. "As for yours, as good might be plucked from any hedge, I wonder a sensible bird would carry the like so far."
"Good master cobbler," cried the cuckoo, finishing its slice, "your conclusions are more hasty than courteous. If your brother is disappointed this time, I go on the same journey every year, and for your hospitable entertainment will think it no trouble to bring each of you whichever leaf you desire." "Darling cuckoo," cried Scrub, "bring me a golden one."
And Spare, looking up from the green leaf on which he gazed as though it were a crown-jewel, said: --
"Be sure to bring me one from the merry tree."
And away flew the cuckoo.
"This is the feast of All Fools, and it ought to be your birthday," said Scrub. "Did ever man
fling away such an opportunity of getting rich? Much good your merry leaves will do in the midst of rags and poverty!"
But Spare laughed at him, and answered with quaint old proverbs concerning the cares that come with gold, till Scrub, at length getting angry, vowed his brother was not fit to live with a respectable man; and taking his lasts, his awls, and his golden leaf, he left the wattle hut, and went to tell the villagers.
They were astonished at the folly of Spare, and charmed with Scrub's good sense, particularly when he showed them the golden leaf, and told that the cuckoo would bring him one every spring.
The new cobbler immediately took him into partnership; the greatest people sent him their shoes to mend. Fairfeather, a beautiful village maiden, smiled graciously upon him; and in the course of that summer they were married, with a grand wedding feast, at which the whole village danced except Spare, who was not invited, because the bride could not bear his low-mindedness, and his brother thought him a disgrace to the family. As for Scrub he established himself with Fairfeather in a cottage close by that of the new cobbler, and quite as fine. There he mended shoes to everybody's satisfaction, had a scarlet coat and a fat goose for dinner on holidays. Fairfeather, too,
had a crimson gown, and fine blue ribbons; but neither she nor Scrub was content, for to buy this grandeur the golden leaf had to be broken and parted With piece by piece, so the last morsel was gone before the cuckoo came with another.
Spare lived on in the old hut, and worked in the cabbage-garden. [Scrub had got the barley-field because he was the elder.] Every day his coat grew more ragged, and the hut more weather- beaten; but people remarked that he never looked sad or sour. And the wonder was that, from the time any one began to keep his company, he or she grew kinder, happier, and content. Every first of April the cuckoo came tapping at their doors with the golden leaf for Scrub, and the green for Spare. Fairfeather would have entertained it nobly with wheaten bread and honey, for she had some notion of persuading it to bring two golden leaves instead of one; but the cuckoo flew away to eat barley bread with Spare, saying it was not fit company for fine people, and liked the old hut where it slept so snugly from Christmas till spring.
Scrub spent the golden leaves, and remained always discontented; and Spare kept the merry ones.
I do not know how many years passed in this manner, when a certain great lord, who owned that village, came to the neighborhood. His
castle stood on the moor. It was ancient and strong, with high towers and a deep moat. All the country as far as one could see from the highest turret belonged to its lord; but he had not been there for twenty years, and would not have come then only he was melancholy. And there he lived in a very bad temper. The servants said nothing would please him, and the villagers put on their worst clothes lest he should raise their rents.
But one day in the harvest-time His Lordship chanced to meet Spare gathering water-cresses at a meadow stream, and fell into talk with the cobbler. How it was nobody could tell, but from that hour the great lord cast away his melancholy. He forgot all his woes, and went about with a noble train, hunting, fishing, and making merry in his hall, where all travelers were entertained, and all the poor were welcome.
This strange story spread through the North Country, and great company came to the cobbler's hut, -- rich men who had lost their money, poor men who had lost their friends, beauties who had grown old, wits who had gone out of fashion, -- all came to talk with Spare, and, whatever their troubles had been, all went home merry.
The rich gave him presents, the poor gave him thanks. Spare's coat ceased to be ragged, he had bacon with his cabbage, and the villagers began to think there was some sense in him.
By this time his fame had reached the capital city, and even the court. There were a great many discontented people there; and the king had lately fallen into ill humor because a neighboring princess, with seven islands for her dowry, would not marry his eldest son.
So a royal messenger was sent to Spare, with a velvet mantle, a diamond ring, and a command that he should repair to court immediately.
"To-morrow is the first of April," said Spare, "and I will go with you two hours after sunrise."
The messenger lodged all night at the castle, and the cuckoo came at sunrise with the merry leaf.
"Court is a fine place," it said, when the cobbler told it he was going, "but I cannot come there; they would lay snares and catch me; so be careful of the leaves I have brought you, and give me a farewell slice of barley bread."
Spare was sorry to part with the cuckoo, little as he had of its company, but he gave it a slice which would have broken Scrub's heart in former times, it was so thick and large. And having sewed up the leaves in the lining of his leather doublet, he set out with the messenger on his way to court.
His coming caused great surprise there. Everybody wondered what the king could see in such a common-looking man; but scarcely had His
Majesty conversed with him half an hour, when the princess and her seven islands were forgotten and orders given that a feast for all comers should be spread in the banquet hall.
The princes of the blood, the great lords and ladies, the ministers of state, after that discoursed with Spare, and the more they talked the lighter grew their hearts, so that such changes had never been seen at court.
The lords forgot their spites and the ladies their envies, the princes and ministers made friends among themselves, and the judges showed no favor.
As for Spare, he had a chamber assigned him in the palace, and a seat at the king's table. One sent him rich robes, and another costly jewels; but in the midst of all his grandeur he still wore the leathern doublet, and continued to live at the king's court, happy and honored, and making all others merry and content.