A Christmas Tale: José's Sandals

On Christmas Day, a special boy learns the true meaning of gift-giving.

This Christmas tale by Paulo Coelho is based on a story written in 1903 by François Coppée and translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Published with permission from HarperCollins Publishers.

A long time ago, so many years ago that we can no longer remember the exact date, there lived in a village in the south of Brazil a little seven-year-old boy called José. He had lost his parents when he was very, very young and had been adopted by a miserly aunt who, even though she had lots of money, spent almost nothing on her nephew. José, having never known the meaning of love, assumed that this was simply the way life was and so it didn’t bother him at all.

They lived in an extremely affluent neighborhood, but the aunt persuaded the head teacher of the local school to take on her nephew for only a tenth of the normal tuition fee, threatening to complain to the Prefect if he declined her offer. The head teacher had no option but to agree; however, he instructed the teachers to take every opportunity to humiliate José in the hope that he would misbehave and give them a pretext for expelling him. José, having never known love, assumed that this was simply the way life was and so it didn’t bother him at all.

Christmas Eve arrived. The village priest was on holiday, and all the pupils had to go to Mass in a church some distance from the village. The girls and boys walked along, chatting about what they would find the next day beside the shoes they left out for Father Christmas: fashionable clothes, expensive toys, chocolates, skateboards, and bicycles. Since it was a special day, they were all well-dressed--all except José, who was wearing his usual ragged clothes and the same battered sandals several sizes too small (his aunt had given them to him when he was four, saying that he would only get a new pair when he was 10). Some of the children asked why he was so poor, and said they would be ashamed to have a friend who wore such clothes and shoes. Since José had never known love, their questions and comments didn’t bother him at all.

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However, when they went into the church, and he heard the organ playing and saw the bright lights and the congregation in their Christmas finery, saw families gathered together and parents embracing their children, José felt he was the most wretched of creatures. After Communion, instead of walking back home with the others, he sat down on the steps of the church and began to cry. He may never have known love, but only at that moment did he understand what it was to be alone and helpless and abandoned by everyone.

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