Once upon a time there lived in a little German village a clockmaker named Hermann. Hermann was poor and owned very little. But Hermann had clocks - all kinds of clocks. He had big clocks and little clocks, carved clocks and plain clocks, porcelain clocks and wooden clocks, clocks with chimes and cuckoo clocks, and every kind of clock you can imagine!
Whenever people passed by Hermann's shop, they stopped to stare at Hermann's clocks. "Oh, look at that one! Surely that is one of Hermann's finest clocks!" Everyone came to Hermann to buy a fine clock.Hermann was small, and odd-looking, too. But no one in the village was as kind and good as Hermann. The children in the town especially loved him, and whenever any one of them had a broken toy or a doll without a leg or a top that would not spin, the careless owner would come rushing into Hermann's shop and cry, "Hermann, just look!"
One, two, three, Hermann would fix the broken toy. And he would never take a pfennig for his work. He said to the children, "Save your money for your Christmas gifts. Save your money for sweets."
Now it was the custom in that village for the people to gather each Christmas Eve at the cathedral to give gifts to all the children. These they laid before the altar, and all the children gathered round. The people said that gifts for the children were special things. They also said that an angel watched over the gift-giving at the cathedral, and would reward whoever was most generous.
This was legend, understand, and many people laughed about the angel, for no one had ever seen one. But the children always talked about the legend, and poets wrote poems about it, and often, when an especially lovely gift was opened, the people stood by whispering, "I wonder if the Christmas angel will descend."
Hermann came with all the others every Christmas Eve, and every Christmas Eve he brought along a lovely gift. But one year, Hermann woke on Christmas Eve morn and discovered that he had no gift to give. He had been so generous all year long that he had given away all his dolls and trains and the little toys he'd built or fixed. And so, this morning, he decided, he would have to give a different kind of gift.
He walked to his cupboard, opened it, and pulled from the shelves the most wondrous clock in all the world. He had worked on it for years, carving tiny scenes into its wood, and honing this, and tuning that, and fixing bells and chimes. He balanced the clock, and shined it and carved some more, and the clock grew still more beautiful. It was carved to look exactly like a stable, with tiny rafters and a stall and crib, and through the open doors, as the bell rang, came shepherds and angels and kings, and when the bell struck again, silver chimes played "Silent Night."
Thrilled with his treasure, Hermann set it on the shelf before his little window. All day long crowds stopped by to stare at the wondrous clock. "Do you think this might be Hermann's gift?" the children asked. "It's so glorious! Surely this clock will bring the Christmas angel."
The day was crisp and clear, and Hermann cleaned his little shop and wound all his clocks. He brushed his clothes and then stood before his clock, admiring its precision and beauty. Then, remembering he had not eaten, he bought a Christmas apple, which he planned to eat with his last small loaf of bread.
A few minutes later a blind beggar passed by the shop, and Hermann reached into his pocket and gave away his last pfennig. Just as he was tidying up, he heard a knock at his door.
There stood his neighbor, Gabriela. She was weeping. "What ails you?" Hermann asked, holding out his hand.
"My husband," the poor woman cried. "He is ill and all our money for sweets and toys has gone to the doctor. How can I tell the children that this Christmas will not be like all the others?"
Hermann smiled kindly. "It will be fine, Gabriela," he said. "I shall sell a clock. Someone in this city must want a clock. And when I sell the clock, we shall have enough money to buy the children toys and treats. Go home and sing with them. Prepare to celebrate."
When Gabriela had gone away, Hermann buttoned up his greatcoat and trudged off into the snow to visit the merchants. "Surely one of them will buy a clock," he said. "I will ask them what they want me to make, and this I shall do. I will ask only for a small sum in advance payment."
But no merchant wanted a clock. So he went to see the craftspeople. Surely one of them would buy a clock. But no, they said another clock would be useless to them. They would build their own fine clocks. So Hermann stood on the street corner, cold wind whipping his face, and called out, "Clock for sale. I will build a clock for anyone who wishes to buy one!"
But everyone was so busy preparing for Christmas, no one so much as stopped to chat.
At last, gathering up his courage, Hermann went to see the richest man in the village. "Will your Excellency buy a clock?" Hermann asked. "I would not ask, but it is Christmastime and I want to buy some happiness for the children."
Herr Halder smiled and said, "Yes, I will buy a clock from you. But I want one already built. I will give you 1,000 marks for the clock that looks like a stable."
"Oh no!" Hermann cried. "That is impossible!"
"Nothing is impossible," said Herr Halder. "It is that clock I will purchase or none at all. I will send for the clock in one half-hour."
Hermann stumbled sadly home, but as he passed by Gabriela's house, he heard lovely voices. He peeked inside and his heart filled with love for the children. And so, when Herr Halder's servant came to fetch the clock, Hermann gave it to him.
Hermann watched the servant disappear up the road, and then he went to give the money to Gabriela, who accepted it with great joy. Returning home, Hermann heard the church bells begin to peal. The streets of the village filled with people heading toward the cathedral.
"Now I have nothing to give the children in the cathedral," said Hermann. But just then he remembered his Christmas apple. A little smile crept into the corners of his mouth, and his eyes lit up. "This is all I have - my dinner. But this is better, after all, than nothing." So he picked up the apple and set off for the great cathedral.
How beautiful and peaceful it was there! A thousand tapers gleamed, and incense burned, and Christmas greens scented the air. And there on the altar lay the loveliest gifts anyone had ever seen. There were elegant china vessels, and silver necklaces and cloth of gold, and toys made from mahogany, and instruments so fine surely the angels, people said, would play them.
Hermann entered the cathedral and walked toward the altar, holding his Christmas apple. All the children gathered round, calling, "Hermann, we love you," but when their parents saw his gift, they began to murmur. "Shame! Shame on him! He is too mean to bring his clock! He hoards it as a miser hoards his gold!"
Hermann's head dropped low to his chest, and he used his hands to feel his way along the long aisle. The distance to the altar seemed forever, but at last he made it past the seats. Then he touched the first step. He had seven more to climb to the altar. He felt as if he might never reach the top.
"One, two, three," he counted to himself. He tripped and nearly fell. "Four, five, six." He was nearly there. The children followed close behind, for no matter his gift, they loved Hermann.
Just one more step.
And suddenly, amidst the murmurs of "shame," there came a rushing sound. Silence fell. And now a gasp rose through the crowd. "A miracle!" cried the voices.
"It has happened! The Christmas miracle!"
The people in their pews knelt down and began to say their thanks. The bishop raised his hands in prayer. The children stared in wonder. And the little clockmaker, stumbling to the very last step, looked up at the altar and now he saw: The Christmas angel swept down from on high and reached out to take Hermann's apple.