The ceremony was held at the darkest time of the year, near the winter solstice when the days were short and the nights were long. On the first night of this Festival of Gratitude, they placed a large torch – taller than the tallest man and brighter than the fullest moon – in the central square of the capital city. The people gathered around the torch and sang songs and told stories of their kingdom's history.
On the second night, they placed two torches in the square – each of them taller than the tallest man and brighter than the fullest moon – and sang more songs and told more stories. The third night they brought three torches. The fourth night they brought four. Each night they sang the songs, told the stories, and celebrated their joy and gratitude.
This Festival of Gratitude continued for a total of eight nights. On the eighth and final night, the people brought eight torches – each of them taller than the tallest man and, when combined, they burned with a light that was as bright as the sun. The people sang their very favorite songs and told their very favorite stories late into the night. Finally, as the eight brilliant torches began to fade, the king himself appeared in the square. He wept with joy to see the happiness of his people and he returned their expressions of gratitude with thanks of his own for the privilege of ruling such a kingdom.
The next morning, the sun would rise and the people would see that the daylight had begun to grow longer. The time of long dark nights was beginning to give way to the light.
This custom continued for many years and became the highlight of the entire year. People looked forward to the Festival of Gratitude to the point that they prepared all year long to make it as beautiful as possible. Women spent their spare hours weaving beautiful dresses to wear on the eight nights of burning torches. Men collected coins in jars throughout the year to purchase exotic and expensive foods from distant lands to serve their families for the festival. Even children spent time throughout the year making decorations of carved wood to display on the doors of their homes for the days of the festival.
In time, the special dresses, the exotic foods, and the elaborate decorations became emblems of status among the people. Without ever saying so, the people began to think of the preparations for the festival as a competition. Each person wanted to impress others that his or her display of sincere gratitude was the very best and the most beautiful.
Year after year, the king saw the growing splendor of the festival and he also saw the expanding competition among the people. He was not sure whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. One year, the tears he cried on the eighth night were both tears of joy and of sorrow.
The following year was difficult for the kingdom. A sickness swept through the sheep and the shepherds were not able to sheer as much wool as in previous years. The quality of the wool was diminished. There was less good yarn for the women to weave into their fabulous dresses.
Stormy seas interfered with the ships that brought exotic herbs and spices from distant lands. The men were not able to prepare feasts that could equal those of the past.
That year, the wood harvested from the forests was more knotty and twisted than in the past. The trees, it seemed, had forgotten how to grow straight and tall. The children could not make decorations for their doors as fine as those they were accustomed to making.
Throughout the kingdom, there was a silent, unspoken sadness. The people knew that the Festival of Gratitude that year would not be as beautiful and as perfect as it had been in previous years. Privately, many people wondered whether the era of their beautiful festivals was coming to an end. Some thought that it might be better not to have a festival at all that year.
As the days grew darker, and the nights became longer, the mood of the kingdom became darker, too. As the first night of the Festival of Gratitude approached, the familiar feeling of excitement was mixed with a feeling of dread.
As the sun set on the first evening of the festival, the people gathered in the square as they had done for many years. The single torch – taller than the tallest man and brighter than the the fullest moon – was brought into the square. The light of the torch illuminated the way that the dresses were woven with yarn that was thin and wiry. The light of the torch shone through the windows of the houses to display the tables laden with ordinary and plain foods. The light of the torch revealed every knot and the twisted grain of the wooden decorations on the doors. Instead of filling the people with joy and delight, the light of the torch made them miserable.
The second night was worse, with twice as much light to penetrate into every imperfection of the diminished festival. By the time of the third night, the people lost all heart. Their singing was muted and shortened. The stories seemed repetitious and dull. The people began to wonder how they had ever thought that this hollow and painful farce of a festival could be meaningful or joyful. They asked themselves why they had ever bothered with it at all.
The fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh nights all blurred into each other with nothing to distinguish one from the other. The people felt tired and exhausted by the endless nights of torches, old songs and tired stories. They looked forward to the end of the festival and a chance to get back to normal life.
On the last night of the festival, the eight torches were brought out – each of them taller than the tallest man and, when combined, they burned with a light that was as bright as the sun. The people squinted from the painful glare. The songs were sung. The stories were spoken until the last one had been told. Relieved, the people began to take down the festival decorations and prepared to return to their homes to finally sleep.
…And then they remembered. The king had not yet come to the square for the climatic moment of the festival. The people asked each other: Where is he? Why didn't he come? There was confusion and hurt feelings. Some children began to cry. Where was he?
And then, they saw him. He was not standing in the middle of the square, as in years past at the end of the eighth night. Instead, he was sitting on a low stool by one corner of the square, watching the people of the kingdom. A quiet came over the people. They looked at him, hoping he would say something to break the awkward silence, hoping that he would do something to remind them of the joy of the festivals they remembered from years past.
The king stood. He walked to the center of the square. He looked at the people all around him and then he looked down to the stones of the square beneath his feet. He spoken softly but clearly.
"There are no words," he said, "that can describe my feelings tonight. Of all the kings in all of the kingdoms of the world, I am the most fortunate. Nowhere is there a king who has the privilege of ruling such a magnificent people as the people of my kingdom. When I look at you, I see the splendor in which you are attired. When I peer into your homes, I am humbled by the delicious fragrances and aromas that fill them. When I see your doors, I am dazzled by your innocent and heartfelt joy to be alive. I am humbled before you. I am unworthy to rule such a kingdom. Please, let me step aside from being your king. Rather than embarrassing myself by pretending to rule over you, you should become my teachers and show me how to be a king."
When the people heard these words from their king, they remembered their profound love for him. They remembered how grateful they were to have such a wise and just king who brought such happiness and goodness into their lives. They remembered the generosity and the gratitude that made this kingdom the greatest to be hoped for or wished for.
The people embraced the king and lifted him up onto their shoulders. The sang their most joyous songs. They told their most heartfelt stories. They wept and danced all night in celebration of the beauty and the radiance that made their kingdom a heaven on earth.
The next morning, the sun rose and the people saw that the daylight had begun to grow longer. The time of long dark nights was beginning to give way to the light.