A few stars were beginning to appear above Father Risolino's small town in the Italian Alps. It was two days before Christmas, and the good weather was holding. It was cold, but not the kind of cold that turns your blood to ice. Not yet.
"Un miracolo," thought the priest. A miracle for the people and especially for the cats, the stray cats.
As the priest scanned the neighborhood, he looked around for the strays that used to populate the town, but there wasn't even a fleeing shadow. For generations the town had been famous for its willingness to feed and shelter strays. Cats used to be seen slipping out from under cars or behind trees and prowling through the streets, where little cat cafes had been set up beside empty boxes lined with blankets, which made very cozy sleeping quarters. But the townspeople had given up those practices, and now -- there were no gatti in sight!
"But the cats have to be out there," sighed Father Risolino, "cold, hungry and miserable, trying to fend for themselves." The priest scratched his head. How could he lure them out of their wretched hiding places and provide for them? And why had his congregation stopped caring about the cats?
The few parishioners he asked just shrugged their shoulders. They made it obvious that they were too busy -- or too important -- to worry about such small things as feline tummies.
The priest sighed again, more sadly this time. He would have loved to take every one of the hungry strays into the rectory, but his housekeeper made it plain that he couldn't. Clutching her chest, she had described in such an operatic way all the horrible torments she would suffer -- everything from shingles to leprosy -- if he were foolish enough to bring a cat into the house, that he arrived at the truth very simply: she didn't like cats.
So he contented himself with feeding stray dogs. He had given shelter to many of them, and since he always took the oldest and sickest, they were all in heaven now except for one, a limping St. Bernard, who came up behind the priest and pushed his nose into the man's hand.
"I get the message, Agostino," said the priest. "It's dinner time, isn't it?" But before he went inside, he checked the bowls of cat food that he kept beside the steps. He refilled them several times a day, but he knew there were many, many more customers out there than he could accommodate. The situation really needed the whole town to pitch in as it used to.
As he was halfway down the walkway to his front door, a vicious gust of wind almost knocked him off his feet, and even Agostino swayed a little on his damaged legs. But through the whoosh of the wind came a piteous little sound from a bush beside the door. Bending down to find out what was making the sound, the priest saw only a black-and-white paw stretched out, as though someone were holding out a hand, saying, "Hello."
In a gruff but not unfriendly way, Agostino woofed. The paw shot back under the bush but then cautiously extended itself again. And the sound, clearly a mew, wasn't so piteous this time, as though the creature making it recognized he was among friends and help was at hand.
"Let's see what we have here," said the priest, stooping down and reaching into the bush. What he came out with was a black-and-white cat so thin he was more like the skeleton of a cat.
"So the mice outran you, did they?" joked Father Risolino. "Well, never mind, I have something inside you'll like almost as much." Carrying the skinny little nothing into the kitchen, he put him down by the radiator. While he opened a can of fish, Agostino added his portion of warmth by lying down beside the rectory's newest guest.
As the cat weakly but steadily mopped up the fish, Father Risolino said, "I'm going to call you Carlo. I always wanted a cat named Carlo." He added, "You can spend tomorrow in my room, and I'll keep the door closed so you'll be safe." He meant safe from the housekeeper, not from Agostino.
Sitting in his chair and watching the little cat snuggle into the big dog's belly, the priest began to have an idea. The idea involved a little trickery, but it was blessed trickery. . . . So when the group of people who decorated the church each year arrived in the morning, he suggested, "Let's put thepresepio outdoors on Christmas Eve."
By the presepio, he meant the life-sized wooden figures of Joseph and Mary, the shepherds and the little baby that was meant to be Jesus. Every year they were set up in the back of the church with a stable around them.
"Bene! Bene!" Everyone said, meaning, "Great!"
"To make sure the wood doesn't split in the cold," said Father Risolino, "I think we should light braziers around the statues. Do you think we could get large braziers and enough coal to keep them going all night?"
Well, that was no trouble, and when the priest asked, "What about piles of hay?" that was no trouble either.
Getting bolder, he suggested putting a few cows and a flock of sheep on the lawn, and once again, nobody objected. Everybody knew somebody who had a farm, and the farmers would certainly be willing to lend their animals for such a good cause. The braziers would keep them warmer than they would be in their barns and pens.
"Anselmo can watch them," suggested the priest.
"Anselmo?" wondered the townspeople. The old tramp was known for only three things -- eating, sleeping and being totally impervious to the weather. But if Father wanted him. . . nobody objected.
The next night, all the townspeople gathered around the outdoor crib, where the animals were standing beside the braziers, and where Anselmo, a tall, wiry octogenarian, already half-asleep, was leaning against a bale of hay.
The general verdict was "magnifico," but as soon as they had admired the realistic Nativity, they hastened home. The air was growing colder by the minute.
Early the next morning, when Mass was finished, the townspeople were surprised to find Anselmo motioning them over to the lawn. "Non capisco," he cried, meaning "I don't understand."
Although their stomachs were growling, they followed Father Risolino, who was following Anselmo, until they saw the priest throw up his hands.
"Un miracolo," Father Risolino exclaimed, as everybody crowded around on the frozen grass. "Cats have come to worship the newborn King!" He pointed around the crib, where dozens of cats were rolled up in furry balls. They had snuggled next to the woolly backs of the sheep, cuddled up by the udders of the cows, burrowed under the hay, and curled themselves around the braziers.
Most startling of all -- one skinny little black and white cat had even climbed into the manger. He was sleeping with his paw around the wooden figure of the baby.
"The cat is embracing Gesu Bambino," announced Father Risolino. "He is a model for us all."
While the people crept closer, the priest said, "Despite the reverence of these saintly creatures, I don't think we should leave them here, because the braziers will soon go out. Who is willing to take one into his own home?"
The whole group surged forward, but the priest waved them back by saying, "Let's do this one at a time and respectfully." Taking the furry bundle nearest to him into his arms and quickly thinking up a name, he said, "Now, who will adopt 'Tommaso'?"
After eager hands reached out to "Tommaso," the priest went on to "Giovanni," and then "Bartolomeo." When he got to the end of the twelve apostles, he turned to the most popular saints. "Here is 'Francesco d'Assisi' . . . and 'Maria Magdalena' . . . and 'Lucia.'"
Interrupting him, the mayor strutted over to the manger. Pointing to the black and white cat, he said, like someone ordering a cake in a pastry shop, “I’ll take this one.”
He added, "I'll call him Garibaldi."
Agostino, who had placed himself under the manger, growled. But the priest stopped the hijacking by saying, "God intended this one to belong to the church. He will stay with me."
Once all the cats had been carried off, with the exception of those who scratched and clawed themselves free from their benefactors' grasp, Father Risolino reached into the manger, clasped its breathing occupant to his heart, and said, "Come on, Carlo Emanuele. I'm going to call you Emanuele since you were the saviour of your people. You're getting a new home, and I'm getting a new housekeeper. And you too, Anselmo -- come, my friend. It's time for breakfast.
Anselmo and Carlo Emanuele went along happily, one of them purring all the way.
By Lynn Schiffhorst - this story was chosen as the winning entry in the 2014 Christmas short story/poem competition. Well done Lynn, it's beautiful.
Every effort has been made to trace the owners of copyright for the above images. If you own copyright to any image and wish to have it removed, please contact me. Thanks.
My thanks to Jem Vanston who trawled the Net looking for the above illustrations.