It was about the third day on the road to Egypt, when trouble started. Joseph had stopped to rest Jack, who by the way, was grinning from ear to ear. Jack, the donkey, was seeing the world for the ﬁrst time.
Joseph climbed a large rock to look around the countryside. There was trouble coming up fast behind them. Joseph could see three of King Herod’s evil soldiers riding toward them on great warhorses. There was no way Jack the donkey could outrun warhorses. The Holy family would have to hide.
Now, the area between Bethlehem and Egypt is mostly open desert country. There was no place to hide. Joseph looked around in vain. Then Mary saw a tiny grove of trees.
Joseph hurried over to the Oak tree and said, “Oak tree, will you hide baby Jesus from the vicious soldiers of evil King Herod?”
“No!” answered the Oak tree. “ I am King Herod’s Oak tree. Someday I’ll be cut down and made into beautiful furniture for King Herod’s palatial palace. I will not betray my King!”
Joseph turned to the Pine tree. “Pine tree, will you help hide baby Jesus? The evil soldiers want to kill him.”
“No! I am King Herod’s Pine tree. I hope to be cut down and made into masts and spars and sail King Herod’s ships throughout the Mediterranean Sea. I would never betray my King.”
Joseph looked at the Spruce tree. In those far off days, Spruce trees looked a whole lot different from our Spruce trees today. At that time, the branches of the Spruce tree grew straight down along the sides of their trunk. Not much of a place to hide.
Joseph asked, “Spruce tree, can you help hide our baby?”
“I’ll try. I’ll try.”
The Spruce tree grunted and groaned, trying to pull its branches away from its trunk. Spruce tree got the branches out from her trunk, but they stuck slanting down and the Spruce tree couldn’t pull them back or push them out. They just stuck right there and wouldn’t move. In fact, even today, the spruce tree’s branches are still stuck in the same place.
There was another tree in the grove that back in those days was called the Ilex tree. We know it by a different name today; but I’m getting ahead of our story.
Ilex was a childish tree. Always acting silly. Playing with the wind, ﬂipping its branches, bending this a way, bending that a way.
A bird would start to land on one branch and the Ilex tree would suddenly wiggle the branch out from under its feet and ﬂip the bird onto another branch. The birds loved it, especially the young ones. Well, their mothers sometimes would say, “Oh Ilex, please do be careful.”
Ilex then would remind them that he had been their baby sitter and they had turned out rather well.
Ilex always babysat the eggs in the nests and watched over the new baby birds and baby squirrels. The birds always nested with Ilex. In fact, Ilex was the ﬁrst tree the mother squirrels would let the baby squirrels play on by themselves. Sometimes, when Ilex was feeling silly, he would pick up acorns and pitch them at the squirrels. The squirrels, most of the time, would ﬂing them back, or run through Ilex’s branches trying to tickle her, and she always pretended that she was being tickled.
When rabbit visited, Ilex would ask crow to ﬁnd rabbit some carrots, to have with their tea. Of course, it was always pretend since neither drank tea. Then rabbit and Ilex would get into an acorn ballgame. Rabbit pitched, Ilex would bat, squirrel would run the bases and the birds played the inﬁeld and outﬁeld.
Ilex always asked Squirrel to run bases for her because of her aching sore foot. Squirrel would ask which foot this time? Then they would both laugh at their own joke.
They both knew that trees had no feet.
Lots of times, Oak tree, feeling righteous and proper, would call out, “Ilex stop talking foolishness. Stop playing games. Stand up straight. How do you expect your wood to ever amount to anything? Quit acting so immature. You are old enough to start taking some responsibility for your behavior!”
Ilex, always gentle and kind, would answer, “Thank you Oak tree. Life is also to be enjoyed, is it not?” Oak tree would grumble and mutter about this young generation.
Ilex heard Mary and Joseph and called out. “Hurry, hurry over to my trunk! I can bend over all of you and touch my head to the ground. I can wrap my branches around you and no one can see you through my leaves.”
And so the Holy family hid in the Ilex tree.
Meanwhile, back on the road one of the soldiers said, “Sergeant, I saw someone standing on that rock over there awhile ago. That man was looking back in our direction. We’ve been riding kind of fast and should be getting close to whomever it was. But I don’t see anyone.”
“You’re right”, answered the Sergeant, “they must be hiding somewhere. We’d best look for them.”
“No places to hide that I can see Sergeant,” said the soldier.
“You’re right there too. Except maybe that funny round green tree over yonder. One could hide in alongside of the trunk. Let’s ride our horses into the branches. If we ﬂush out anybody and they got any babies, King Herod says we got to kill them, and we will do just that.”
Ilex heard the soldiers. She knew she could not keep the warhorses away from her trunk. Ilex tried, slapping and pushing, but her branches were only slowing the horses. Ilex kept ﬁghting and started to pray.
“Oh Lord, help me help baby Jesus. I can’t stop these warhorses and soldiers. Please Lord, help me help save baby Jesus!”
All of a sudden, Ilex felt a sharp burning pain in her roots.
The searing ﬁre moved into her trunk and up into her branches. The pain moved out into her twigs and into her leaves.
A burning pain in each leaf as one, two, three, four, ﬁve little needles came out on each leaf. The leaves began to scratch the hands and faces of King Herod’s soldiers.
“Whoa, whoa! Back up horse, back up! I don’t know what kind of tree this is, but I’m all scratched and bleeding. Nobody could hide in that tree. We’ll go back and tell King Herod that this road was clear.”
Ilex watched the warhorses ride back toward Judea. When the soldiers were gone, Ilex slowly pulled away her branches and lifted her head.
“Mary, Joseph: the soldiers are gone and you are safe. But something strange has happened to me. Please be careful so my leaves don’t scratch you.”
Mary and Joseph thanked the Ilex tree. They all said their goodbyes and promised to stop and visit, if they came through this road again.
Mary, riding Jack with baby Jesus and Joseph, went on to Egypt.
They had hardly rode out of sight, when Michael, the Archangel, appeared in the air above the Ilex tree.
Michael looked down at the Ilex tree and in a lilting brogue said, “Ilex, that was a great battle you fought today. We are so proud of you. What a ﬁne ﬁght it was. Your ﬁght with King Herod’s soldiers will not be forgotten.”
“From this day on, you and all your kith and kin, for all time, will keep your leaves green all year round. I’m going to let you keep the little stickers on your leaves and give you three berries, three for baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
“And the berries will be the color red so that when people see you, they will be reminded of the blood you drew from the soldiers, in this great battle to save the Holy family.
“And Ilex, since you saved the Holy Family from now on we will call you and all your kith and kin the Holy Tree. However, don’t be surprised when someday, in far off America, people will change your name from the Holy tree to the Holly tree.”
Sometimes, you will see a Holly tree with four red berry clusters. That Holly tree wants you to remember that Jack the Donkey was in this story. Sometimes you will see a Holly tree with only one red berry. That tree wants you to remember that this story was about baby Jesus.
From ‘Christmas Stories,’
Collected and adapted for telling by Chuck Larkin