It was the night before the very first Christmas Eve. All the animals had gathered to discuss - and to boast - about the gifts each would offer to the baby Jesus. They had gathered in the old stable, and each settled comfortably in a favourite spot. The cow decided she was going to boss their meeting, and so she took the very best place by the manger which was filled with delicious hay.
In one corner of the stable several sheep huddled together, and in another a donkey stood quietly chewing and watching proceedings with his large sad brown eyes. He had the gift of being able to see into the future, and he knew that whatever each animal could give now would be as nothing against the gift he would be permitted to give, but not yet for many years to come.
By the donkey stood an old horse, bony and gaunt, but still with the fire of remembered days when he had carried a strong soldier upon his back. He tended to look down on the donkey, but was generally kind enough not show it too much.
The rooster strutted around, scratching for seed, and near the manger his harem of hens nestled close to the ground, half asleep. Behind them several pigeons billed and cooed in each others' ears. Over near the door the old dog lay, muzzle on his paws, watching in his normal silence.
For once there was a truce between him and his old enemy, the farmyard cat, who sat elegantly upon a pile of hay and gave each of the gathered animals the benefit of her slit eyed stare. Her gaze rested on the geese and ducks that waddled in and found a place near the water trough, but she restrained herself nobly. That restraint was stretched even more when from a small hole a family of mice scuttled across to leap up and into the manger, where they made snug places for themselves among the hay.
High in the rafters the spider sat, watching with amazement the gathering below. She was a friend to none, and an enemy to most, but she could still feel the thrill of excitement rising from the company.
"Mine shall be the greatest gift," announced the cow, lifting her head so the bell around her neck emitted a soft clang. "I shall provide milk when the baby Jesus is growing into a child. He will rub my neck and I shall moo and present Him with nourishment."
The donkey said nothing, merely chewed contentedly and regarded the boastful bovine.
The sheep milled around and bleated, then one, bolder than the rest, trotted out to dance around and show off her thick fleece.
"Ours, ours is the warmth of the woollen blankets the mother will use to keep warm herself and her precious Baby in the cold of the night. Ours is a great gift. Our wool renews itself and can be shorn every year. So every year he can have a new blanket."
Muttering among themselves, the hens raised themselves to their feet and fluffed up their feathers. The largest of them pecked at the ground and then settled herself carefully down, strained a little and then cackled in boastful pride. Then she moved aside and allowed the company to see the egg she had deposited - very gently so it did not crack - upon the ground.
"An egg! An egg! The Child will not drink milk for ever. Mine shall be the wonderful gift of food for His life! Not one of you can compete with that."
Cackling proudly again, she strutted back and settled herself under the manger, aware of the admiration of her audience. The pigeons stirred themselves to point out they also could produce eggs, dainty and small and delectable. Deciding to grab the reflected glory, the rooster leapt up onto a beam and crowed enthusiastically until the other animals snorted, brayed and mooed their disapproval.
"Any more of that," the cat sniggered, "and the Child's parents will have roast chicken for their meal." She gave a wide feline smile that showed all her teeth. "Roast rooster, that is."
There was silence as the old bird decided to seek the company of his hens. They did not dare so insult him. They knew how important he was! The cat smirked and slinked around the stable, looking at each of the assembled animals. She gave the mice an especially long slit eyed stare, and they dug themselves deeper into the sheltering hay.
"I," she announced, "shall be the guardian of His childhood. I shall keep clean and free from vermin." As she said this word she snarled at the mice as they cowered in the manger. "So all of the rooms of His home will always be clean and free of dirty animals." She gave a nasty cat smile and showed the mice her teeth again. "He can stroke my soft clean fur and gain comfort from my company. I will be His protector. Mine is a great gift."
She sat and preened herself. She was so busy thinking about how wonderful she was that she did not see the old dog as he picked himself up silently and padded across the floor towards her. From less than six inches behind her he let out a bark. At this unexpected sound the cat leapt for the safety of a low rafter before she had quite realised what she was doing. She miaowed in indignation and anger at her wounded dignity.
"Some guardian," the old dog sniffed, "when she looks to her own safety first. If it is protection the Child needs, it will be best left to me. I will be loyal, and in the manner of my kind, will protect Him even at the cost of my own life" And he woofed again in satisfaction as the cat decided to remain where she was, merely giving him a baleful stare. The dog and the cat, after all, were old enemies, always had been and always would be. No Child could alter that.
"You are all arguing and trying to say you can do the most for the Child," said one of the geese, as she made her way into the centre of the stable. "But it is I, and my kin, who will provide soft down for pillows for His head. We shall give Him comfort when he sleeps. And we shall give comfort also to His mother as she holds and nurses the Child."
Now the ducks joined in, pointing out they also could provide eggs, even larger than the one the hen had laid.
Not wishing to be forgotten, the horse lifted his head and neighed.
"I can pull a wagon," he said. "I can turn the wheel that brings water and I can help to turn the grindstone to grind wheat for bread. The Child and His family shall never go hungry while I am around."
"So we are all agreed, are we not," said the donkey, speaking for the first time, "that each one of us can give a gift to the Christ child." He was a peace maker, but like all peace makers, his message was lost on some. "We are all able to worship Him in our different ways."
"Heh! Not quite!" said the cat again, pointing an elegant paw towards the mice. "What can they do?"
The little group of rodents squeaked among themselves and then pushed one of their group forwards to speak for them all. The mouse jumped up onto the edge of the manger and sniffed, his sharp whiskers alert for any danger, especially from the cat. In spite of the fact that there was supposed to be a truce at this most wonderful of times, no mouse would ever believe it possible to trust a cat's word on anything.
"We shall make it our job to see that any scraps of food that fall to the ground do not lie there and make dirty the house where the Child shall live. We shall keep it clean. We are small, but we can do that."
The other animals laughed, some nastily, some merely amused, but all knowing well that in their giving, the mice would also be receiving, as they would not go hungry.
Above them the spider hung in the centre of her web. She had no time for all these noisy animals, and she despised every one of them. But nonetheless, she also felt the urge to give something to the Child, this very special and wonderful Child.
"What about me?" she called down to them. "What can I give? I cannot lay eggs. I cannot give food, or company. I am only a weak little creature. I am of no use as a protector." And that last, she realised, was the solemn truth. A Child would more likely need to be protected against the eight legged tribe. Spiders have been feared and loathed by other animals and by humans for almost as long as they have all lived.
At the idea of the spider in her web wishing to be part of their gift giving the other animals laughed, each in their own different ways. All of them except the sad old donkey, despised the spider. Each would rather trample her into the ground, with hoof or paw or foot or claw. Her webs were a nuisance, and like many of her kind she possessed the ability to harm other living creatures. The spider had no gift that they could see to give, and they all rejected her plea.
All but the donkey. He stayed after the other animals left, each planning his or her own wonderful gift for the Child. Then he moved slowly, for his old bones ached, across to the manger and nibbled a little of the hay.
"You can give the Child a gift," he said gently as the spider huddled in her web. She was so terribly sad, knowing how despised and disliked she was by the other animals. Spiders do not cry, but all she felt like doing was weeping. But then she listened to the wise old donkey. When he had gone she rested, all through the night and the day of Christmas Eve.
Then, all through all that great and wonderful night when the Child was born in the stable among the animals, the spider laboured to produce her gift.
In the morning light of the very first Christmas Day the rays of the sun touched on the silken strands the spider had spun. Each drop of dew sparkled more brilliantly than diamonds or any other gems. The baby Jesus looked at the reflected rainbows and laughed in pleasure at the gift of the spider.