The Tale of the Burning Snow

by Catherine Doherty

 

Of all the tales I heard in my childhood, the one about the burning snow was my favorite. It is Russian or maybe Polish in origin, and my father used to tell it to us some time before Christmas, during Advent.

Sometimes, just to tease us, he would appear to forget all about the tale, but that did not last long, for we would be coaxing him until, with a smile, he would give in. He would settle us around the fireplace and begin.

***

Once upon a time, very long ago and very far away, when Christianity was yet quite new to Russia, the Lord our God sent a truly snowy winter upon our land. It was all covered with many feet of white dazzling snow.

Perhaps it was out of kindness that God the Father covered Russia with this heavy jewelled mantle. There were many things he might not want to look at in it, because paganism was not dead yet.

But the Christians were fervent and loved his Son much, so out of mercy for all, and love of them, he just covered the unseemly sights with a nice white coat, as white as the Host.

But not everyone was happy about all that snow. It was hard to go about one’s business in it. The pagans did not like it at all, for it interfered with their strange rites in the deep forests to the gods of thunder and lightning.

And as the days went by, and it continued snowing, they got angry, believing that the trouble was due to that new religion, Christianity, which did not make any sense to them at all.

The snow kept falling, and the pagans got angrier and angrier. Finally, they decided to do something about it. And the simplest thing they could think about was to find a boy and a girl, say around ten to twelve years of age, and sacrifice them to their gods, to pacify them and make them stop that never-ending snow.

In those days few people lived close to each other. But just outside an immense forest in which the pagans had built a village of logs and bark roofs, there was a tiny settlement of Christians—five or six families, all told.

Each had many children. But everyone knew that Ivan the Handsome and his wife Tecla the Good, had the most beautiful children of all.

And the best of their large family were Naida and Volia.

Yes, definitely Naida and Volia were the prize of the lot. Handsome, beautiful, joyful, innocent, and good, they would make the right sacrificial offering.

The pagans decided to go into the Christian settlement and kidnap the two children.

They would then make a block of ice out of the snow in the very heart of their forest, which to them was also the temple of their gods. On this ice altar, they would kill the Christian children with long sharp knives. That, they thought, would pacify their gods and stop that snowing.

No sooner said than done. That very night, stealthily and quietly, as only forest people can, they made their way to the house of Ivan and Tecla.

They hid well. Early in the morning when Naida and Volia came out to see what the weather was like, the pagans pounced soundlessly on them, and were off at breakneck speed.

They brought the victims into their forest stronghold. The snow hid their tracks almost at once. This did not seem nice of the snow which the Lord had sent himself. (But then, children, wait till the end of the story and learn to withhold judgement!)

Anyhow, preparations had to be made for the sacrificial services. Naida and Volia were kept warm and were given a good dinner, for they had to be in perfect condition to be worthwhile offerings to the pagan gods. The children, of course, were very frightened.

But Volia said to Naida, “Don’t be afraid, little sister. Don’t you remember what tomorrow is? It is the birthday of Jesus. It is the big feast of Christmas. All we have to do is to pray.

“You remember that good old priest who visited us last spring and read to us about Jesus from a big, big book? It said he loved little children. And why shouldn’t he? He was a child himself and knew all about us. Also, being God, he can do all things. So let us not be afraid, but pray.”

Naida dried her tears, and the two children started to pray. Still there was a little bit of fear left in their hearts.

Naida explained to God that they could not quite get rid of it by themselves, so would he please help them not to fear, for they were still quite small and did not know how to do things by themselves.

Soon after that they fell asleep. It seemed to them they had slept but very little when they were awakened and dragged outside. And there was that huge block of ice—and all the pagans standing around it!

They had cleared the snow around the block, at least some of it. They tried to lay hands on the victims to lift them on the block of ice. But the children escaped for a moment, and they knelt down and cried out for help to the Infant Christ and his Mother.

Astonished at the strange words, the pagans paused—and then, with a terrible cry, fell back.

For all around them the snow was on fire!

The ice block melted into a little pool. The fire was a protecting wall around about the children. Yet little tongues of flame were already licking the soft moccasins of the pagans. They started to run but each of their steps created a fire! Wherever they turned, the snow was aflame!

They could not escape, and they all burned, everyone of them. Then the fire became snow again, except for two or three vivid little tongues that beckoned the children to follow them and then set the snow ahead of them afire making a clear snowless path for them all the way to their parents’ house.

The Christians were all out looking for the children and so they all saw the miracle of the snow catching fire and burning brightly.

They told the story to their children. And those children told it to their children. And their children told it to their children. And on through the years. That is how I know it, and now I am telling it to you.

And from this you learn that Faith is a fire sparked by the Crimson Dove, the God of Love, the Holy Spirit, who descended on men in tongues of fire.

Be dry wood, children. Burn with the fire of Faith. And you will see the miracle of the burning snow, for it is seen by all those who not only keep the Faith but also pass it on.