The little Ouralian chain of mountains called by Russians “Semenoi Poias,” or the girdle of the earth, has given birth to a remarkable figure. The Baboushka lived there eighteen hundred years ago. The Baboushka lives there still.
As this Christmas legend of a woman is little known, let me translate for you the tale of an old Russian woman.
At the foot of the world’s girdle, surrounded by bushes of wild apricot, cherry, gooseberry, and currant, stood a small mud cottage. Its roof was shadowed by a graceful elm-tree. Before its door slept, for eight months in the year, a frozen stream. Its one window commanded a wide view of the distant plains. Its one chimney emitted smoke of a faint, blue colour. Its one inhabitant was the Baboushka!
The Baboushka was a “mujic” or peasant. She wore a caftan of coarsely woven wire-cloth edged with fur. Her boots were of untanned leather and reached to her knees. Her hair, braided in tiny plaits, hung beneath a helmet of undressed skins, while down her back was fastened a hood of sheep wool.
One morning, many, many years ago, the Baboushka was busy at her daily tasks. The samooa (or tea-urn) had to be brightened. The lemons had to be sliced. The rye seeds had to be bruised for her daily supply of black bread. The frozen butter in a keg had to be thawed.
Suddenly, from far up the world’s girdle, the Baboushka heard a sound of sleigh bells. They came on but slowly, not driven like the wind as usual.
Then down the hillside swept a long procession. Camels were there from the east country with humps and leathery necks. Tamed wolves from the Steppes were there. Horses were there, stepping daintily through the dazzling snow; above all hung the northern lights, yellow, green, and red.
The Baboushka tried to hide herself. Then stopped the procession at her door; and one, a very beautiful one, called out her name.
“Baboushka, come with us! We are on our way to find the Christ-Child.”
But the flame-coloured tunic of the beautiful one frightened the old woman.
“I will come, but not now,” she pleaded, stretching up her hands. “I have my house to set in order; when this is done I will follow and find Him.”
Thus the first one thousand past. The second wiseman in his cloak of divers colours stopped at her door.
“Baboushka! We are on our way to find the Christ-Child. We have seen His star in the east. Come with us?”
But the Baboushka trembled still more. The animal figures on the robe of the terrible one frightened her.
“I will come, but not now.” she replied. “I have my house to set in order. When this is done, I will follow and find him.”
When the second thousand had passed, the third magi stopped at her door. His robe of deep yellow, bordered with white, azure, and green, shone in the light.
“Baboushka, come with us! We are on our way to find the Christ-Child. We have seen His star in the east and go down to worship Him.”
But the Baboushka quaked exceedingly.
“I will come, but not now,” she promised. “I have to set my house in order. When that is done, I will follow and find Him.”
Then across the wide desert went the three kings, the beautiful one, the terrible one, and the wise one.
The Baboushka set her house in order. She extinguished the charcoal and guarded the lamp, emptied the samooa and took up the cake-bread. Then she went outside. Alas! the three kings had long passed away. And in the darkened heavens no longer shone the star. Across the wild Steppes, stumbling wildly, fled the Baboushka.
The constellations twinkled. The northern lights blazed. The moon shone, but she heeded not. She wished to find the Christ-Child but found Him not.
Still lives the Baboushka. She searches still. For the sake of the Christ-Child, she takes care of all God’s children. On the eve of the Nativity she visits every house in which the little ones be. For His sake she fills their stockings and dresses the trees. Children are awakened by the cry, “Behold the Baboushka!” But though they find her gifts she has ever vanished.
In this way she searches for the Christ-Child whom once she neglected. In each poor little one whom she warms and feeds she hopes to find Him. But she is doomed to eternal disappointment. Never in her ears sounds the comforting “inasmuch.” Not until the stars of heaven are falling. Not till the Steppes of Russia roll away as a scroll. Not till the work of the centuries is done and all the world set in order, will the Baboushka find the Christ-Child.
Lina Orman Cooper, as published in The Girl’s Own Paper, 1892
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