It’s difficult in our modern times to grasp the idea of absolute economic desperation. Even in the worst economic times in most of the western world, jobs can be had and money can be made. That has not always been the case–in fact, what we experience now is the anomaly historically.
That said, we cannot relate to being so poor that we would completely debase ourselves in order to simply buy bread. Take the case of three young women who still lived at home with a father. He had not had work in many months. This little human drama played out hundreds of years ago, and, to be fair, it is the stuff of legend. However, the story is a sweet one, I feel, and it fits into the spirit of the holiday season. In any case, the girls spoke among themselves and decided that they must sacrifice themselves–sell themselves–so that the family could have food and firewood.
Now, this type of situation does indeed happen around the world today. And, yes, it does happen in the western world as well. But in the time context of our story here, this type of thing was much more common than we realize. People often lacked the resources to provide food for themselves. Weather, war, natural disasters, and poor implements all contributed to common periods of starvation around the world. Some historians have conjectured that farmers until recently would plant one seed and get two back in produce–one to eat and one to save to plant for the next year. Thus, much of the population lived on a knife’s edge.
The girls gathered their courage and presented their plan to their beleaguered father. His eyes filled with tears. His daughters were his treasure, his pride, and he told them that it had been his wish to have enough money to provide a proper dowry for them to find suitable husbands one day. If they went through with this plan, he warned through his tears, they would never find men who would make good husbands. He begged them to sleep on it. The girls looked one to the other. What difference would one more night make to people who had no food in the first place? To soothe their father, the girls reluctantly agreed.
The next morning, the girls were awakened by shouts from their father. They leapt out of bed and rushed to him. He shakingly held out a bag of gold coins. The girls were incredulous. Where did he get it? How did this happen? Were the coins real? Their questions all met with no answers from their father because he had none. He was as astounded as they. He said all he knew what that the bag was left under an open window in the main room of their house. The family hugged each other and danced in the room. There was not only enough gold there to provide them with enough food and fuel for the immediate future, but there was enough in the bag to provide a proper bride price for oldest girl to find a good man to marry. They hit their knees and thanked God for the miracle.
The next morning, after a wonderful night’s sleep, the father found another bag of gold under the window. Again, there was enough gold for a dowry. Again, the family celebrated and thanked God. The third night, the father stayed awake to see who their godly benefactor was. Sure enough, as soon as another bag of gold was tossed through the window, the grateful father ran outside. There, he found the bishop hurrying away.
“Father?” the man called after the bishop. The priest stopped and turned.
“Yes, my son?” he asked.
“I only wanted to thank you,” the father of the girls said.
“Don’t thank me; thank God,” St. Nicholas answered.