It was wartime and life was hard all over Holland. For the Breck family, who owned a nursery, life was especially difficult. Little Johan knew nothing of the politics of war. He only knew that instead of playing with his friends after school, he now raced home, took up a heavy sack and went door to door selling bulbs until the street lights came on at dusk. At first, he was able to sell enough bulbs to bring money home to help his family. He would even receive a groschen for his efforts that he could use any way he wished. But as winter set in, fewer and fewer people were buying.
"We have already planted our tulips," they would say. "Besides, we have no money. We do not even have coal to heat our house today." And they would shake their heads sadly. Little Johan was still young enough to have hope. He would say to himself,
"Perhaps tomorrow I will knock on the door of a rich family and they will buy my entire bag." When it did not happen, he would begin to hope anew the following day. In this way, he was able to continue peddling his wares day after day, week after week, despite the cold. For hope creates a warmth as real as fire.
But soon the money those bulbs brought in was gone, gone to a few pieces of coal and a meager sack of potatoes that must last them until Christmas. Johan's father had no more tulip bulbs to sell, but he had an idea. He had discovered a new bulb, one that could be planted inside. He would call them Christmas Amaryllis and teach customers how to plant them in a pot indoors to have them bloom during the holidays. Excited, he showed the bulbs to Johan and told him he might begin selling them right away.
The next day, when Johan came home from school, he immediately went out to sell the new bulbs. A few people were interested and bought them, but the rest said as usual that they had no money for food, let alone decorations. "What good are these bulbs," they said, "if they cannot be eaten?"
Finally, it was Nicklaas Eve. Johan put out his wooden shoe and filled it with hay. "I know my parents have no money and cannot buy me toys or even sweets," he said. "But surely Sinterklaas will remember me, for I have been a good boy this year.”
So saying, he went to bed happy, unaware of the sad look that passed between his parents.
The next day, Johan indeed found a few candies, a precious orange, and some nuts in his shoe. What pleased him even more was that the hay was gone, proving that Niklaas had come on his white steed. Johan went out early to sell his wares. It was a lucky day, for he sold enough Amaryllis bulbs that day to allow his mother to buy a special dinner for their Niklaas Day meal.
But the next day, Johan sold no bulbs, even though he worked long past sundown and went farther than ever. The next day was the same and the next day after that. Each day he came home with a sack full of bulbs and no coins in his pocket.
Finally one day, he dared to climb the steep hill to the manor. This manor belonged to a man said to be very rich but also rather mean. Johan knocked timidly on the door. He was rebuffed by a curt "No" and a door slammed in his face. For the first time, Johan began to lose hope. "Will there never be an end to this silly war?" he thought. 'Why must the adults fight when we children are starving?"
One especially cold day Johan came home to find his father in a real temper. "Why is there nothing but potato soup on the table," he scolded his wife." And you," he said, pointing at Johan, who had shrugged as he entered to show he had no money, " what have you to say for yourself, you worthless son? Why can you not sell a single bulb? Why do you even bother coming home? Here, take these and throw them into the canal, for they are no good to me." And he threw the sack of bulbs back at Johan.
Johan fled with the sack, heedless of the calls of his mother. Under the cold, moonlit sky, he went to the field next to the canal and got ready to throw the sack into the water. But as he hefted the heavy load onto his shoulder, he paused.
"These bulbs are not worthless," he said to himself. "Nor am I. My father does not mean what he says. It is the hunger and worry speaking. Neither I nor the bulbs have done anything wrong. We are not the ones fighting wars. No, I will not throw the bulbs away, for that would be akin to throwing myself into the canal."
He knelt down, found a sharp stick and dug a hole into the ground. Then he dropped a bulb into the hole. And another. And another. All that cold night, he dug with bare hands, and planted bulbs. He barely felt the cold or his hunger. Finally, just as the sun was rising, he finished and slowly walked home, knowing that he must return to his house, no matter what he might find.
When he entered, his father was nowhere to be seen. His mother embraced him amid sobs.
"I thought I had lost you, my son," she cried. "I feared that you had thrown yourself into the canal as well, or that you had fallen while heaving the heavy sack."
"No, mother, I am here now and all is well," he answered. "Only where is father?"
"He ran out after realizing what he had said," she replied. "Oh Johan, he didn't mean it, you know. It is just that he feels so bad that he cannot help his family."
"I know, mother," Johan said. "And because I knew that, I did not throw myself in the canal, nor the bulbs."
"Then what did you do with them? And where did you spend the night?"
"For now, that is my secret," he said. "For I have an idea. But right now, mother, could you not heat me some potato soup and warm some bricks to put by my feet, for I have spent a very cold night."
.Johan did not go to school that day. Later in the morning, he said to his mother,
"I must go out to find father. For, no matter what he has said, we are a family and must stay together. If we cannot do so, what hope have we for our nations?"
He did not have to go far, for he found his father in the shed at the end of the property.
"Father, come in from the cold," he said.
"No, my son, for I have hurt you and your mother. And I have failed to provide for you. I am not worthy to be your father."
"You are my father is what I know and all is forgiven," Johan said. "As for providing, we will find a way. But it will be easier to do so if we stay together and help each other."
For the next few weeks, the little family managed somehow. They were grateful that they at least had enough firewood to warm their house and the potatoes lasted so that they might at least have soup for supper. Johan would disappear for an hour or so every day and would not tell his parents where he had been. They let him be, for after all, he was now almost a man.
Then it was Christmas Eve. Along with the other townspeople, the little family dressed warmly and walked to church. It was a clear, crisp evening, with the stars glistening in the sky. All was hushed as the village walked in unison to their little church. As the pastor began to talk, a tall, well-dressed man entered and sat in the back. A few turned and stared, but most just let him be.
The church was warm and well-lit with candles. The congregation prayed fervently for peace and all felt a renewed hope as they left the church. Johan walked a bit ahead of the others, lost in his own thoughts. When he reached the fork in the road, he took the path to the left.
"No, Johan, " a man shouted. "That is the way to the canal. You need to go right."
"Go right if you wish," Johan answered. "I have something to see. Come with me if you wish to see it as well."
Well of course they were curious, so they followed him. As they neared the field by the canal, they saw a red glow in the air. At the edge of the field, they all stopped in wonder. For there before them was a field full of flowers. And these were no ordinary flowers. Tall stalks rose from the ground topped by large blossoms, four to a stalk. Some of the flowers were dark red, others pure white, and still others striped red and white.
One woman recognized the flowers, for she was one of the few to have bought a bulb from Johan. "These are Amaryllis, the Christmas bulb," she exclaimed. 'But how did they come to be here?"
Johan stepped forward. "I planted them," he said. "No one would-or could- buy them, so they are my Christmas gift to you."
"But this is my property," a deep voice said from the shadows. A man stepped forward. It was the tall well-dressed man, the man from the manor.
Johan felt his heart fall. He had not thought of whose property this might be. He had only wanted to plant bulbs. Would he be arrested?
The man continued. "One night, I could not sleep," he said. "So I walked down by the canal. I saw someone digging in the ground. I came back the next day and saw him checking the holes. And every day since, this young lad has come here to check on his bulbs. Tonight, I came here to see, and behold, the flowers had all bloomed in unison. So I came to church with you. And am with you now. Come here, boy. "
He beckoned to Johan and hugged him tightly. "Will you forgive me for slamming the door in your face?" he asked. "I could not bear the sight of another man's son. For my son and wife died a year ago. They are buried here." He pointed to a small grave marker at the other end of the field. "I came here that night to be near them. And saw you instead. But you came to make something beautiful. You have given them- and me- and all of us the finest Christmas we could have imagined. For that I thank you. What can I do for you in return?"
"There is nothing to forgive," Johan answered, in a strong voice, for he was now a man and not afraid of others. "And I ask nothing for myself in return. But I do ask for the others. These people are of your village. Many have too little to eat and their houses are cold. Help those in most need. The rest of us will manage on our own."
"But of course," the rich man answered. "I will provide. For you have shown me that a community must stick together, just as the flowers bloom in unison. Tomorrow, all of you are invited to my house for Christmas dinner. After that, I will see to your needs."
Well, what a hue and cry ensued. The townspeople surrounded the rich man, men slapping him on the back, women kissing him, and children surrounding him as though he were Sinterklaas himself.
The next day, all climbed the hill to his house where they celebrated Christmas as they never had before. Despite wartime rationing, there was plenty of meat for all, platters of vegetables, cakes and pies, and hearty ale. But best of all, for the children, there was Sinterklaas, regal and tall, asking them if they had been good and handing out gifts to all. Yes, Sinterklaas came twice that year, for he said they had all been extra good.
As for Johan, when the war ended, he left town to study botany. But he returned after that, for he missed his family and his town, and he joined his father in the business. It became a successful nursery once more, sending bulbs not only to Europe, but around the world. And at Christmas, it always featured the Amaryllis, which became one of its most popular items.
This story is based on a notice I read in the Breck Bulb catalogue about hard times in Holland and the development of the Amaryllis Christmas bulb.