An ecumenical story that hopefully warms your soul by reflecting more on the first Christmas.
Updated: Nov 23
The Christmas Cardinal
by Paul Cummins
It happened every year. There were too many of them, it was inevitable. It was like the mystery of where lost socks went.
Yet she had a story for each one. She could tell you who made it or when it was purchased and everything that was happening when it was added to the tree. A whole life on a Christmas tree. And part of life was loss.
But this one was very special. She had made it with her own hands many years ago. Her mother was a potter and she would spend long hours as a child tending the clay and moving the pieces through her mother’s workshop from formless blobs to fired things of beauty--formed by human hands out of clay as God was said to have made humans themselves.
The girl had always played with the clay but this was the first time she had made something that looked like something. As usual she had no idea what she was making this particular day and she shaped the ball of clay into a tube with pointy ends as she had done hundreds of times before. Next she drew out a head and then a beak. That’s when she knew what it was! With her mother’s gentle arms reaching around her from behind they used a wire to form two sturdy legs for her bird. They took two other pieces of clay and rolled them out then marked feathers with the wire and carefully kneaded them onto the body.
The girl wasn’t sure what kind of bird it was until it was fired in the kiln. The glaze she thought would be bright orange turned a dullish brown. The girl was disappointed because it had not turned out as she expected. Her mom came over with a piece of dried wheat and glued it in the bird’s mouth and said,
“It’s a female cardinal, taking something home for the nest!”
And so it was… and for many years it had been nestled into the branches of every Christmas tree as an annual reminder of that time and of the girl’s mother who had long since passed away. The girl was a mother now and had her own little boy.
But, as she was taking the ornaments off the tree this NewYear’s Day the cardinal was hidden deep behind some browning boughs and went out with the tree to the curb to be picked up by the trash men the next day.
The cardinal had never known anything but the inside of houses and attics and nothing of human life but the Christmas season. It was a blustery winter day when she had been removed from the house and was crudely dragged across the yard with the wilted tree. The cardinal felt terribly alone and cold, especially after it got dark.
When morning came the cardinal could see other things that had been brought out and placed near her tree. She noticed an already used up XZ3200 that she had heard lots of people talking about on the television for weeks before Christmas and there was a toy airplane that hadn’t worked despite the handiest uncle’s best efforts to get it to fly, even after reading the instructions.
Next thing she knew she heard a large roar and several men jumped off a huge truck and picked up the discarded toys and then her tree. As they were lifting her tree into the back of the truck the cardinal felt herself falling and she slipped between the branches and tumbled to the ground. The cardinal landed roughly but didn’t break. Although she felt cold and lonely stuck in the tree, she felt far worse now without the modest protection the tree had provided. She was lying sideways and her strand of wheat was bent.
The cardinal was just getting resigned to having life as she knew it to be over when a real bird hopped up to her and pecked at her humble shaft of wheat. The most amazing feeling came over the cardinal at that moment. She felt warm and was able to move her head. Then she stood up on real legs and let out a real chirp. She was alive!
The clay cardinal had never heard anyone speak except the humans in her house but she could understand what the other bird was saying to her now. The other bird said,
“What are you?” The cardinal answered,
“I’m not sure, I’ve never felt this way before.”
“Well, I’ve never seen a dead bird come back to life before,” answered the real bird, and then he continued,
“But maybe it’s like when some of us fly into the hard air that covers some of the bountiful ones’ nests and look dead but sometimes get up after a short time?” He paused and then continued,
“You look like a female of my species: The Red Birds.”
“Well, then I guess that’s what I am,” said the cardinal.
“Come, I’ll show you around,” entreated the real bird.
My goodness! The first thing they did was fly! The cardinal could not describe the exhilaration she felt as her wings spread and her flight muscles pulled and then she dipped and turned following her new friend into a tangle of branches where his nest was. She met his mate who was immediately suspicious of the new female but then sensed something different about her and started talking to her freely. It was too cold for fruits and insects but there were still plenty of buds and seeds available, so they ate while they talked.
The cardinal’s new friends talked about her coming from the “outside” because they lived in the “Vastness”. They described humans as “the bountiful ones” because they would often find huge stores of seeds outside many of the humans’ nests. These seeds would appear by no cycle of nature that they knew and were uncertain in their regularity but made many a winter easier to survive. The bountiful ones seemed to have “flock nests” where many entered at a time. Sometimes they came out holding things and other times not. But when any bird had entered such a place, he usually didn’t come out again. This is why they called “inside” for humans “outside” for them. The real birds were astounded that all the cardinal knew was the “outside” and wanted to hear all about it.
The cardinal told them all about the comfort of being wrapped up gently with all the other ornaments most of the year, which the real birds could appreciate since that’s the way they felt huddled safely in their nest. She said how she liked it when the tree lights were turned on first thing in the morning and the real birds said that was like a clear night when many stars were visible. When the cardinal talked about the humans feasting during Christmas she related that to the joy of finding the piles of seed outside the bountiful ones nests. When she tried to describe the prayers and hymns offered during the season she was certain there would be no analogy for the real birds, but suddenly her hosts whispered to each other,
The real birds said how the Oneness was real to them. They felt it when they sang, when their eggs hatched safely, when spring arrived each year, when they found food they hadn’t expected but sorely needed and even when tragedy occurred. Their lives in the Vastness never gave them the opportunity to imagine that every moment of their lives was not a gift. And gifts had to come from somewhere. The Oneness was this reality. The birds went on to describe how the Oneness could be felt in other creatures, even the bountiful ones. There were some nests of the bountiful ones where the Oneness was more palpable than others. And sometimes, especially in some of the flock nests at certain times, the strength of the Oneness would almost be so overwhelming they had to be careful flying over them. The real birds had more questions.
“Is that all there is to Christmas?” they asked.
The cardinal thought for a moment and said,
“Well, they give lots of things to each other,” she said, but then she thought it couldn’t be things because that XZ3200 didn’t last too long.
“But that’s not it, and anyhow they bring new things into their nest all year,” and she continued, “They eat lots of food but humans just get hungry again the next day like all creatures.”
“What is it that makes Christmas special, what makes it last?” The cardinal thought out loud. Then she mused,
“The humans, particularly the little ones got very excited until Christmas came, but everyone seemed at least a little unhappy after it was over. And some of the grown ups seemed quite sad most of Christmastime,” she mused.
The cardinal remembered many references in the songs the humans played to infants and babies, and many about god and kings. They talked about God like the birds talked about the Oneness. Maybe these flocking nests where the birds had felt the Oneness strong from the humans would hold the answer. And maybe her new friends could help her find a human baby.
The cardinal spent the night in a nest for the first time and it was wonderful to be with living things. The next day they surveyed the neighborhood—flew to the top of the tallest yellow poplar, found many comfortable hiding places among the vines and bushes and the best sources for food as the days got longer and longer. In the afternoon they found humans entering one of the flocking nests wearing flowing robes and loose clothes that looked a lot like the pajamas everyone wore on Christmas morning, except they looked much more dignified. Maybe these were like the wise men the cardinal had heard so much about.
The real birds were reluctant to let the cardinal proceed with her plan to enter the flocking nest as it was their “outside” from which few of their kind ever returned, but they sensed her confidence and waited in a tangle of boxwoods just outside the main entrance. The cardinal waited until the door opened wide and flitted in so quickly the humans just thought it was the wave of someone’s robe.
This building was very different than the home that the cardinal knew every Christmas. The space was huge, covered everywhere by colorful tile, and supported by the most beautiful arches and columns.
The people referred to the main speaker as “Imam”. The phrase he repeated several times was,
“Your god is one god; there is no god but He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.”
He also said, “God is never unaware of anything you do,” and he gave examples of how the people gathered could also be gracious and merciful. (Sura 2: 163 and 140 from the Quran)
This felt like Oneness to the cardinal, like Christmas. She slipped outside and described what had happened to her friends and then they had a lovely supper of suet and seeds they found behind the mosque.
The next afternoon the birds found another place of Oneness, where the males entering wore black caps that the real birds said were also worn by their neighbors the Chickadees. The speaker this time was called “Rabbi” and she kept referring to this phrase,
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God, I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous hand.” (Isaiah 41:10, The Old Testament) She spoke how fear keeps us from being who we were truly meant to be and that we should be faithful and courageous.
This too felt like Oneness to the cardinal, like Christmas. When she described what she had seen and heard in the synagogue to the real birds they nodded their heads in awe. They knew fear and how it could cripple you.
The next morning they found another Oneness place which had many of the symbols the cardinal had seen in her past: crosses and people kneeling, even some of the same songs. The speaker this time was called a “Priest” and he was talking about the wise men that came to worship the baby. He said the wise men came from nations far away and how that meant the new born king was a gift to all people. He also told a story about the man the baby had grown into. The man, Jesus, had said,
“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” The people listening to Jesus answered,
“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you sick or in prison and go visit you?” And Jesus answered,
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mathew 25: 36-40, The New Testament)
The priest went on to say that this means one can know Jesus without knowing his name. Indeed, because of our need to use human words to describe God, we necessarily limit God, like by calling God “He”. But the whole human adventure is to learn how limitless God is. We must be very careful when we place God within the confines of a particular time in human history or within a particular human culture. Like the wise men we must always venture out beyond what is comfortable for us and seek the true meaning of God in our lives and the world.
The cardinal left the church feeling as if she understood Christmas. She explained it to the birds and, as they had done when they had first asked the cardinal about Christmas, they both whispered, “The Oneness.” There was one last piece however, and that was the baby. So they followed a couple walking home from church with a tiny human in a pouch strapped to its mother.
The cardinal knew from her old home that the doors of the humans’ individual nests stayed open for a very short time. Her friends had a sense of dread watching her alight on the gutter just above the door and then flit in the instant the door was fully opened. They had no idea how she was going to get back out again. It was one of the coldest days of the year and all the windows on the house were tightly closed.
The cardinal flew immediately to the top of a bookshelf and hid in a shadow. She watched the couple lovingly unwrap the baby from a heavy winter snowsuit. The father held the baby high and made silly sounds which made the baby laugh with glee. The mother looked on with a carefree gaze.
Now that the cardinal knew other creatures besides humans had cares too, it seemed humans had more. The human mother of her family sat for hours at a time in the quiet around their Christmas tree with a furrowed brow, and was sometimes cross with her boy. The birds she now knew spent little time worrying. So, watching the idyllic scene of the couple with their new child, it was clear that babies held out new hope for humans.
Having all her answers, the cardinal began to look for a way out. Since the people had just returned the cardinal knew they would not be leaving for awhile, so she flew upstairs to look for a way out.
What she found was another room with two people in it: an old man sitting in a rocking chair and a boy lying in bed. The boy had a collection of figures on a shelf near his bed, which looked scary to the cardinal, but she braced herself and landed beside them.
The old man had just read a story to the boy and he said,
“I’m sorry we haven’t had much of a Christmas for you this year, Will.” The boy answered,
“Grandpa, I’ve been really sick and you all have been right beside me every moment.”
“Yes, you have given us quite a scare,” answered the old man. The boy continued, “Anyway, the Christmas story you just read me wasn’t about eating and presents. Mary and Joseph had all these weird things happening to them and were far away from home and didn’t even have a place to stay to have their baby.” Grandpa answered,
“You’re right, all they had was their faith and each other.”
At that moment the grandfather looked up towards heaven and noticed a real bird cocking its head next to Will’s action figures. The grandfather blinked, stood up and walked over to the bird, which, on closer inspection proved to be a lovely ceramic figure that looked too innocent amidst the threatening characters surrounding it.
“What’s this?” he said, and then, “Will, where did you get this?” and he showed it to the boy. Will answered,
“I’ve never seen that before, but a lot of people have been bringing me presents, maybe someone brought it over while I was sleeping.” A note of recognition came over the grandfather’s face and he delicately turned the clay cardinal over and said, “Ahhh, I knew this looked familiar!”
“What do you mean?” asked Will, “Do you know who’s it is?”
“No, but I think I know who made it,” responded grandpa and, as he left the room, he said, “I’ll be right back!” Will nodded. His grandfather was prone to get irresistible ideas and rush off someplace. He always came back with an interesting story. It just took a few minutes this time and grandfather returned with two clay figures: the cardinal and a whimsical giraffe.
“Look at the marks on the bottom of these!” grandfather said with youthful enthusiasm. Will turned them both over in each hand and saw a small MG stamped into the clay on each figure.
“They’re definitely the same marks,” said Will, and then, “What do they mean?” Grandpa answered,
“Potters, that is people who make ceramics, usually “sign” their work with a unique mark. This is the mark of a potter that I used to get clay for when I was a young man. She gave me this giraffe one summer as a “Thank You”. I would always linger in her workshop as long as possible admiring her work. She’s probably passed on by now, but she usually had her daughter helping her. I wonder if I could find her?” and then he continued, “Do you mind if I take this cardinal?” he asked Will.
“No problem,” said Will, “Just ask mom if she knows who brought it,” he added.
“Right!” said grandpa, “Always safe to check with the womenfolk first!” he said with a laugh as he left the boy in peace.
The next day the old man found himself outside the front door of the cardinal’s old house wondering what he was going to say about how this little cardinal came into his possession. He guessed it could have been purchased by anyone at anytime, but then he had to have some explanation for why he was showing it to the potter’s daughter. He decided nostalgia was enough of an excuse, reminiscing being expected out of older folks.
When she came to the door she looked from his face to the object he was holding and she could not believe her eyes.
“My cardinal!” she exclaimed, and then, “Oh, it’s missing its sprig of wheat” and then, “My goodness, I’m sorry, please come in.” The old man introduced himself and then said, “I guess I found the right place, I used to bring clay for your mom and have a cherished piece of hers myself.”
“Wherever did you find this?” asked the woman.
“My grandson found it, or rather it found him,” answered the man.
“Well, he must have found it by the curb where I threw out this year’s Christmas tree,” said the woman.
“Just so,” grandfather answered gratefully, being excused from the real explanation.
“May I keep it?” she said hopefully.
“Of course, that’s why I tried to find you,” responded grandpa. They talked about her mother for hours and shared many happy memories. Long after the grandfather had left the woman sat in her living room holding the cardinal. All of a sudden she felt a transformation come over her. Things once confusing seemed so clear. She couldn’t wait until her boy came home.
Just before dusk, the woman’s son did come home from playing at a friend’s house. When he came in he saw his mother sitting in her usual place but there was nothing usual about her. He saw a light in his mother’s eyes that was very compelling, then he noticed her little cardinal,
“You found it!” he said, “It wasn’t lost with the tree after all?”
“No,” she said, “and I’ve found much more than that” she added. She motioned for him to come sit beside her.
“This bird is very special. Keep it now, I want you to have it,” she said reverently.
“I know,” said the boy, “Your mom helped you make it.”
“It’s more than that now,” answered his mom mysteriously, and then she continued slowly,
“Here I am moping over an ideal Christmas that never existed…
Christmas is about not being afraid to love each other because we know God loves us… There’s nothing easy about this because we are all hard to love sometimes… The extra goodwill we feel at Christmastime is proof of people’s hope in this universal dream: to love because we are Loved. But lack of faith in each other’s lovability makes everything more difficult. Christmas is an annual reminder of the offering that exists for us everyday.” As she stroked his hair she entreated,
“Promise me you’ll try to remember this, my son. Don’t fret as much as I have. No matter what happens never forget you are part of the Oneness.”
The boy hugged his mom, and repeated softly, “the Oneness.”
Other stories by Paul A. Cummins:
My Soul Magnifies the Lord: Mary after the Crucifixion
Liz Matchett: Science Sleuth
The Story of You: Everything You Need to Know About Science before High School
Not Up To Code: A Bill Johnson Mystery
All available on Kindle