“The Christmas Guest” is a touching holiday song about Conrad, a humble shopkeeper whose acts of kindness highlight the importance of compassion and generosity. The song begins with Conrad relating to neighbors that Jesus came to him in a dream, saying that he would visit Conrad. It is implied that Conrad has recently faced some difficulty in his life — “his shop so meager and mean.” Throughout the day, three different people in need (a shabby beggar, an old woman, and a lost child) stumble upon his shop. Each time, Conrad invites them in and provides them with clothing, food, rest, and comfort. But as the day ends, and darkness comes over the village, Conrad laments why Christ has not visited as he promised; in prayer he asks: “What kept You from coming to call on me / For I wanted so much Your face to see.” Out of the silence comes a voice: “Lift up your head, for I kept My word / Three times My shadow crossed your floor / Three times I came to your lonely door / For I was the beggar with bruised, cold feet, / I was the woman you gave to eat, / And I was the child on the homeless street. / Three times I knocked and three times I came in, / And each time I found the warmth of a friend.” Jesus concludes: “Of all the gifts, love is the best, / And I was honored to be your Christmas Guest.”
The song has been covered by Johnny Cash (released in 1980), Reba McEntire (1987), and Grandpa Jones (2003), an old time country and gospel music singer. As you listen to its beautiful lyrics, you may wonder: who wrote “The Christmas Guest”? Excellent question. Let’s step back in time to arrive at the answer.
First, we need to go back 25 years to the year 1991. The song “The Christmas Guest” is a musical adaptation of the poem “The Story of the Christmas Guest” by American poet Helen Steiner Rice, who wrote religious and inspirational poetry, earning the unofficial title of “America’s beloved inspirational poet laureate.” The poem, inspired by the short story of a famous author, was included in Christmas Blessings, a collection of poems published in 1991.
Now we need to go back in time over a century to the late 1800s. Rice was inspired by Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s (1828-1910) masterful short story, “Where Love Is, God Is” (also translated as “Where Love Is, There God Is Also” or “Martin the Cobbler”) written in 1885. In Tolstoy’s story, the cobbler is named Martin (or Martuin) Avdeitch. The title of Tolstoy’s story is based on the Catholic hymn Ubi Caritas that contains the antiphonal response “Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibis est,” which translated from Latin means “Where true charity is, there is God.” Tolstoy’s story was translated from Russian to English by American writer and translator Nathan Haskell Dole in 1887.
Tolstoy, in turn, was inspired by the French folk tale “Le Pere Martin” (“Father Martin” in English) written by Ruben Saillens (1855-1942), a musician and pastor, considered one of the most influential Evangelical Protestants in France. Saillens sought to evangelize through his hymns and fables. The story “Le Pere Martin” is included in a collection of fables and allegories, titled Rectis et Allegories, published in 1888; however, it must have been written earlier and spread via oral tradition (pastors often repeated each others sermons), which is how Tolstoy must have heard it years earlier. However, Tolstoy does not merely translate Saillens’ story from French to Russian, he changes the story in significant ways in order to make it more poetic and compelling. Brigitte Hanhart retold the story in a children’s book titled Shoemaker Martin published in 1997.
At this point in our story, we must now go back thousands of years because Saillens’ allegory of the shoemaker was inspired by one of civilization’s oldest books — the Bible, specifically the New Testament. Let us turn to Matthew’s gospel, written about 70 A.D., specifically to Chapter 25 (Matthew 25:31-46) where Jesus discusses who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven using the Parable of the Judgment (or the Parable of the Sheep and Goats): “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
May the Story of the Christmas Guest inspire compassion and generosity during this holiday season and beyond. Merry Christmas — and may God bless us, every one!
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For further reading: Why are Red and Green Associated with Christmas?
Who Invented the First Christmas Card?
Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus
Twas the Night Before Christmas
A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life
Best Quotes from A Christmas Story
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
The Story Behind Scrooge
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Trivia
Mall Santas by the Numbers
The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Price Index: 2016
For further reading: O Christmas Three: Beloved Christmas Classics by O. Henry, Tolstoy, and Dickens (2010)