The Best Christmas Tale Ever Written

“The Other Wise Man”

The best Christmas tale ever written is: “The Other Wise Man,” by Henry Van Dyke. 

Van Dyke (1852-1933) was a preacher, writer, and professor of literature at Princeton University.  The idea for this moving story came to Van Dyke one night “as a gift out of the air,” after a year of suffering with illness and the thought of dying before his work was finished.

The story begins:

“You know the story of the Three Wise Men, and how they traveled to offer their gifts at the manger cradle in Bethlehem.  But have you ever heard the story of Artaban, the Other Wise Man, who also saw the star and set out to follow it?  Of the wanderings of this fourth pilgrim, of his great desire, and how it was denied, yet accomplished in the denial — I would tell the tale as I have heard fragments of it in the Hall of Dreams, in the palace of the Heart of Man.”

Upon discovering a new star in the heavens, Artaban searched the ancient religious texts.  He sold his home and all his belongings and bought a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl as gifts for the prophesied King.

Artaban recruited three other wise men to join him in a caravan and travel to witness the birth of this new King.  They set a time and place to begin their quest.

On his way to meet the caravan, Artaban came across a sick and injured Hebrew lying in the middle of the road.  Like the Good Samaritan, Artaban, delayed his journey to minister to the man.

When Artaban arrived at the gathering place no one was there. On the ground was a piece of parchment.  It read: “We can delay no longer.  We go to find the King. Follow us across the desert.”

Unprepared to make the journey alone, Artaban traveled to Babylon to outfit a caravan.  He had to use his precious sapphire to cover the costs.  He was distraught, but sacrificing the King’s gift was unavoidable.

The story continues:

Months later, Artaban arrived in Jerusalem. He entered the small home of a single woman with a baby.  She told Artaban that the holy family had already fled to Egypt.  He was devastated.  

Suddenly, there was a commotion in the streets.  People screamed: “They are killing all the babies.” 

The young mother huddled in a dark corner.  Artaban stood in the doorway blocking the entrance. 

He told the captain of the troops, “I am alone.  There is no one else here.  I have this ruby to give to the wise captain who will leave me alone.”  The captain eyes widened.  He grabbed the ruby and announced, “There is no child here.  Move on.”

Artaban was crushed. He had squandered two of his gifts meant for the King.  Only the pearl was left.

To make a long story short, for the next thirty-three years, Artaban searched in vain for the King, ministering to those in need along the way.

The story concludes:

“Artaban found none to worship, but he found many to help.  He fed the hungry, healed the sick and comforted the captive…  It seemed almost as if he had forgotten his quest.

“Finally, three and thirty years of Artaban’ s quest had passed. . . Worn and weary and ready to die, but still a pilgrim looking for the King, he had come to Jerusalem a final time ….

“Seeing a group from his own country … Artaban inquired where they were going.

“’To the place called Golgotha, outside the city walls,’ they answered. ‘Have you not heard?  Two famous robbers are to be crucified, and with them a man called Jesus of Nazareth, who has done many wonderful works among the people.  But the priests and elders say he must die, because he gave himself out to be the Son of God.  And Pilate has sent him to the cross because he said he was the King of the Jews.’

“How strangely these familiar words fell upon the tired heart of Artaban!  They had led him for a lifetime over land and sea.  Could it be the same at whose birth the star had appeared in heaven, and of who’s coming the prophets had spoken?  Artaban’s heartbeat excitedly.

“’The ways of God are stranger than the thoughts of men,’ he said within himself.  ‘It may be that I shall find the King at last and shall come in time to offer my pearl for his ransom before he dies.’

“So, the old man followed the multitude …  Just beyond the entrance a guardhouse soldiers came down the street, dragging a young girl with a torn dress.  As Artaban paused, she …broke from the hands of her tormentors to throw herself at his feet.

’Have pity,’ she cried, ‘for I am seized for my father’s debts to be sold as a slave.  Save me!

“Artaban trembled.  It was the old conflict in his soul between faith’s expectation and love’s impulse.  Twice the gift he had consecrated to religion had been drawn from his hand to the service of humanity. 

“This was the third trial, the final choice. Was it his great opportunity or his last temptation?  He could not tell.  One thing only was sure; to rescue this helpless girl would be a true deed of love.  And is not love the light of the soul?

“Artaban took the pearl from his bosom… He laid it in the slave girl’s hand.  ‘This is thy ransom, daughter, the last of my treasures I kept for the King.’

“While he spoke the darkness thickened, and the earth heaved convulsively.  House walls rocked, stones crashed into the street, dust clouds filled the air.  The soldiers fled in terror.  But Artaban and the girl crouched beneath the wall…

“What had he to fear, or to live for?  He had parted with the last hope of finding the King.  The quest was over, and it had failed. But even in that thought, accepted and embraced, there was peace.  He knew all was well, because he had done the best that he could.  He had been true to the light given to him….  If he could live his life over again, it could not be otherwise.

“One more lingering pulsation of the earthquake, and a heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck the old man on the temple.  He lay with his gray head resting on the girl’s shoulder, the blood trickling from the wound.  As she bent over him, there came a voice through the twilight like music sounding from a distance.

“The old man’s lips moved as if in answer, and she heard him say: ‘No so, my Lord.  For when saw I thee hungry, and fed thee?  Or thirsty, and gave thee drink?  When saw I thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?  Three and thirty years have I looked for thee: but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.

“He ceased, and the voice came again, very faintly. But now it seemed the maid too understood the words:

“’Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.’

“A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban like the first ray of dawn.  One long, last breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips.  His journey was ended.  His treasures were accepted.  The Other Wise Man had found the King.”

He who travels to heaven alone to save his soul
May keep the path, but will not reach the goal,
While he who travels in love may wander far,
Yet God will bring him where the blessed are.

–Henry Van Dyke

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2 thoughts on “The Best Christmas Tale Ever Written

  1. Brett: I have a fond memory of seeing you give a reading of this marvelous classic in 1976 at the Long Beach Playhouse Theatre on Anaheim Street. You wore a monk’s robe and entered the theater playing, I think, an Alto Recorder flute. Your pleasant voice was just right for the night!


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