I can remember one Christmas when I was a boy of ten. Our home was a big, two story white farm house on a thirty acre plot of land out in the rural countryside. We owned a barn with a large hayloft, a pig sty, chicken house, fields of grazing cows and horses, and a large vegetable garden.
My father was away fighting in world war two. My two little brothers Jack and Arthur, my big sister Alice who was fourteen with dark black hair and eyes, my baby sister Rosalie, Mother and me, were all left to care for the farm.
The day he left, as we stood at the train depot watching the other soldiers saying goodbye to their loved ones, I felt a lump catch in my throat. They were all dressed in their uniforms, so was Father. Soon I heard the conductor call “All aboard, all aboard.”
Father gave Alice a hug and told her to help Mother around the house, he reminded Jack and Arthur to stay out of trouble, then kissed the baby on her plump little cheek. She did not know what was happening and was as joyful as ever. Finally, he came to me.
“You’re the man of the family now Frank. You take care of the girls and your little brothers. And do all the chores without Mother having to tell you.” “Alright Father,” I said, saluting smartly and forcing back the tears. “I will write every week.” And I did. Every Sunday afternoon when we came back from church, I sat in my room and wrote a report on the things that had happened that week.
Father said a long goodbye to Mother and then hurried to board the train before it left. We stood by the train tracks my brothers and I waving our caps, Mother and Alice there handkerchiefs, in what we hoped would not be our last farewell to Father.
It was the first of December and outside snow was beginning to fall. My brothers, Alice, and I, were trudging home from school thinking about Christmas. When we came in through the door I saw Mother was baking cookies.
Baby Rosalie was sitting in her high chair eating oatmeal, and laughing, while banging her spoon against the side of the chair. Her chubby cheeks were bright pink and had a dimple in each. That is how she got her name.
”I saved up our sugar ration,” Mother said, when she saw Alice’s questioning eyes as she placed a platter of warm cookies on the table.
“Can Santa Claus bring me a wagon for Christmas?” Asked my six year old brother Arthur, “Honey, you know there isn’t a Santa Claus,” Mother said, looking down at him. “I know, but I still want a wagon.” ”well, we will see,” was all Mother answered.
“Mamma,” I said, biting into a freshly baked cookie. “Mr. hite said at there is onna be a-““Young man, you swallow your mouth full and then talk.” Mother laughed. “Yes ma’am,” I replied, finishing my cookie in three bites.
“Mr. White said there is going to be a nativity play at the school on the 18th. The first through fifth grade is going to be in it. Tomorrow we are going to get our parts and all the mothers are going to make their children costumes. Do you think you can make mine?” “That sounds nice. I’ll start your costume as soon as you find out your part.”
“We had a practice for an air raid in school today,” Jack piped up as he reached for a second cookie. “There was a loud siren and we had to go down in the basement. Some of the kids were scared, but I wasn’t.” he hastened to add. “That’s good,” Mother answered. “Now you boys go do the farm chores. I have dinner to cook.” “Yes Mamma,” we three replied.
I pulled on my coat and grabbed the milk bucket, then headed into the cold outdoors. It was our boy’s job to do all the farm chores each morning and night. We three talked over our Christmas plans together as we milked the cows, mucked out the stalls, fed slop to the pigs, filled the horses water troughs, pitched new hay and scattered scraps for the chickens. Before we went in for the night we each brought a load of wood for the fireplace.
When we came back to the house I decided to voice the question all of us kids had been thinking, “Ma, when are we going to get a Christmas tree?” “Well Frank, we can get one tomorrow and we’ll decorate too. would you all like that?” “Yeah!” we boys cried.
The next morning my brothers and I were very excited. We got up early, did our chores and then loaded up into our 1940 Chrysler Crown Imperial automobile, which was a dark blue with eight seats.
Ma drove to town and we stopped at the first corner Christmas tree lot we saw. It took a while to find the perfect Christmas tree and after twenty minutes Mother decided to move on to another Christmas tree lot.
As soon as we arrived at the next one I found the tree. It was a beautiful Douglas fir with sturdy branches, six feet tall, and smelled heavenly of evergreen. The man that worked there helped us tie it down to the top of the car then we drove home.
That night we set it up in the living room. It was snowing again as we got down the old cardboard boxes from the attic that held our decorations. We hung a freshly made pine wreath at the door and put garlands on the stairs. Mother helped us string lights on the Christmas tree along with popcorn and cranberry garlands that we had made, then came the ornaments.
Some of them were very old. There was a little Dutch doll that my great grandfather had brought with him when he came from Holland and given to my mother when she was a little girl. Then there was the tin jumping jack painted red and white that my father had received as a gift one Christmas from his uncle, James. There were ornaments that we children had made and a little yellow cat ornament that Father had bought Mother as a Christmas gift the first year they met.
There was also a little porcelain fire place with two stockings hanging from it. Inscribed on the mantle were the words “from now on your stocking will always hang next to mine” and there was a date underneath it: 1930. That was the first Christmas my Mother and Father were married.
When the tree was decorated we all sat around the fireplace, drinking hot coco and admiring our work, while Mother told stories of Christmases when she was a girl.
“Time to go to bed,” Mother finally said. Our clothes had been hanging on the backs of chairs by the fire so that they were toasty warm. My brothers and I changed quickly into them and ran upstairs to our cold bedrooms.
I snuggled down in the feather bed with one of Mother’s thick quilts on top of me. I could hear Jack and Arthur whispering in their bed, “Quiet down. We have to get up early and I don’t want your talk to keep me awake.” I said, burrowing deeper under the covers. “Oh, all right,” came the replies. And soon we were all three in dreamland.
The next day after school as we walked home through the snow, I made a plan. “Mamma,” I said, dashing in through the front door. “May I get a paper route? All my friends are doing it: Clarence and Arnold and Ben! I need Christmas money! May I?”
When I was finished Mother said, “Well, if you can do it after your chores in the morning and still be on time for school I don’t mind.” “Thanks Mamma!” I cried. “Oh, and one more thing, the teacher said I am going to be the angel Gabriel in the play. Can you make me a costume all white and a halo too?” “I will start work on it tonight,” Mother answered.
Those next couple of weeks were full of Christmas cheer. We practiced for our play, helped Mother bake cookies, fudge, and popcorn balls, and kept surprises.
Every day when I came home from school I took out my jar from under my bed and put my paper route money inside. My savings were growing and soon I was going to go out Christmas shopping.
One Saturday morning on the fifteenth of December, I had just finished my breakfast and was hurrying to get to school when Mother showed me my costume: a large white sheet with holes for my arms and head. It was hemmed all the way around and the sleeves were nice and full so they looked like wings. The halo was a metal hanger bent into a circle with strips of white cloth glued around it and attached to a band of elastic that could slip over my head.
“Thanks for making it Mamma,” I said, standing up from the table. “I am going to do a little Christmas shopping at Woolworth’s today. Is that okay?” “Sure, if you take Jack and Arthur with you.” she replied. So we three boys walked the two miles in to town.
My little brothers looked all around the shop while I was looking for the right gifts for each person in my family. I found a hand held looking glass, with ornately carved designs of birds and flowers on the back for Alice, and a stuffed pink rabbit for Rosalie. For Jack I got a bag of marbles and I found a brightly colored spinning top for Arthur.
Then came the challenge: what should I get for my mother? I hopped from one thing to the next, a pad of pretty writing paper, a box of chocolates, a sliver chain necklace, and a bottle of sweet smelling perfume. At last I found it: a sewing basket made of maple wood. It was lined with muslin and had little pockets sewn into it. There was a big open storage space inside, large enough for all her sewing supplies. I had overheard her remark about her old basket falling apart and decided this was the perfect gift.
There was just a nickel left so I purchased a penny thimble, because her old one had been lost and a paper of needles, for two cents.
With my remaining two cents I bought a little white cloth mystery bag. Inside was a comb, bottle of cologne and a razor. Just right to put in the big Christmas box we were going to send Father. It contained homemade cookies and fudge, stockings Mother had knit, a new shirt Alice sewed, a picture Arthur colored with his crayons, and Jack’s prized possession: a tin whistle for dad to remember him by.
After I was done shopping and the clerk had wrapped up all of my purchases, I rounded up my brothers and we started home. I took all my packages to the bed room I shared and hid them away. The next morning we sent out the Christmas box to Father, along with a three page letter about everything at home.
Each day when I walked to school with my brothers and my best friend Clarence, we would pass by the toy store. I always looked longingly at that beautiful electric train with an engine, two box cars, one passenger car, and a caboose. It rode on a shiny metal track and would whistle loudly every time it passed by the display window, just like a real train!
“Christmas is coming! Christmas is coming!” Jack and Arthur yelled, running in front of Clarence and me as we walked home from school. “See you tomorrow,” Clarence said, when we stopped by the shop window as always. “Yep,” I nodded my head. Tomorrow instead of having a regular school day we were going to have a dress rehearsal for our nativity play. The day after would be the real thing with everyone coming to watch us preform.
“Bye” Clarence waved, running across the street to his father’s grocery store. I took one last glance at the train and then turned, “come on boys,” I called to my brothers. And soon the three of us were on our way home.
The next day dawned cold and grey. After Jack, Arthur, and I had finished the chores we ate biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Alice was going to school as usual; her class had had there play the week before. Mother was taking Rosalie along with her, and instead of dropping us off was going to stay to watch the rehearsal.
The dirt road we drove along was turned into a frozen slush of mud and snow. In town Mother stopped to fill up the car tank with gas using her gas ration stamps.
While we children practiced the play, Mother sat and watched us, holding Rosalie in her lap. It was funny to see my friends in costume. Clarence was one of the shepherds; he wore a brown bath robe and had his grandpa’s wooden cane as a staff. Two and a half hours later the rehearsal was over. Mother headed home while we continued with our regular classes. That was our last day of school before Christmas vacation!
The next day we worked around the farm because we did not have to leave until later as the play was not starting until the evening.
After I had finished my chores, paper route, and breakfast, I rode my horse Brave around the farm giving him some exercise since he had been cooped up in the stable all winter. He was a handsome, coal black stallion, with a white blaze down his face, and large, deep blue eyes. After a while I brought him back to his warm stall, rubbed him down, gave him some oats and poured a bucket of fresh water in to his trough.
I was just hanging up Brave’s saddle in the tack room when I heard a voice call, “Frank.” it was my mother. “It’s time for lunch.” I shut the stable door and ran to the house.
After a lunch of hot tomato soup and bread right from the oven I went outside to chop more wood for the fireplace, as the wood pile was getting low.
One hour later as I stacked the last of the wood, the rumble of a car engine caught my ear. “Come on Frank! It’s time to go,” Arthur cried. I hastily stood up, grabbed the axe and placed it back in the tool shed; brushing wood chips off my clothes as I walked. Soon we were on our way to the school.
Mother and Alice were dressed in their Christmas best; even Rosalie had a tiny red velvet dress with a black sash.
There was a giant Christmas tree in the foyer of the school decorated to the highest bough. Behind stage all of the children were dressed and waiting their turn to come out. I stood in the corner, quietly going over my lines one last time. Finally, everyone was in place and the curtains opened.
“And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,” The narrator began. One of the girls from my class stood hanging clothes onto a line: she was Mary. I came out soon to speak my part and then it was back behind stage.
The narrator continued with his spiel with the other actors saying there parts when needed. I watched through a crack in the door that led back stage, as Mary was placed on the back of a “donkey” which was really Jack and another little boy in a large costume. I was afraid they would stumble but Mary, Joseph and the donkey had a safe journey to Bethlehem.
Finally I heard the words: “and, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them.” At this moment I walked into view, stood in front of the “fearful” shepherds, spread my arms wide and said, “fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
As I spoke I looked out over the audience and spotted my mother on the first row, Rosalie in her lap and Alice sitting beside her. On stage, Arthur, the little lamb, was squirming where he knelt in his wooly white costume beside shepherd Clarence and I hoped no one would notice.
Before we knew it, the play that had taken so long to practice was over and we children were out of costume, serving platters of homemade cookies and cups of steaming cocoa (set out by the mothers) to the guests.
The refreshments were greatly enjoyed by all who attended and everyone congratulated us on our wonderful performance. All too soon it was time to head home.
Three tired little boys were dozing in the back of the car when the big clock in the church steeple struck nine. Once home, Mother awoke each of us, as even Alice had fallen asleep. We stumbled upstairs and into bed.
That night had been a wonderful one, but not quite complete as Father had not been there too see us act in the play. I felt a tear run down my cheek as I snuggled under the covers, but hastily wiped it away. I knew Father would want us all to be happy, even if he couldn’t be there with us.
With this last thought, I headed off in to a peace filled slumber.
The next day was full of leisurely fun; Christmas was one week away and we had no school, but before we knew it the day before Christmas had arrived!
It was mostly just a day of waiting for tomorrow. My brothers and I finished the chores early and helped mother fix the midafternoon meal. She had saved up for a long time so that we could have a good Christmas eve dinner.
There was a ham that we had butchered ourselves before Father had left and all of the fixings. After we ate, we hurried to change into our night clothes then gathered around the fire, eating sugar cookies, fudge and popcorn balls and drinking hot cider.
“You have to read us a Christmas story like Daddy always used to, Mamma.” Jack said, as we munched on our goodies. Mother smiled, but her smile looked half sad. “All right; bring me the book Frank.”
We children sat in a half circle around Mother’s rocking chair as she read. When the story was over we each got one of our stocking’s and hung them on the mantle, then Alice helped Mother get the little children to bed. They protested that it wasn’t too late, but they yawned so much and could hardly keep their eyes open that we laughed. Mother carried little Rosalie (who was fast asleep in her arms) to bed.
I took my wrapped packages from their hiding place and set them around the tree. As I turned to leave the room, Mother kissed me goodnight on my forehead.
“Merry Christmas Frank,” she whispered, as I crept up the cold stairwell to my bedroom. “Merry Christmas Mamma,” I replied.
Alice followed me up the stairs to her own room, “good night Frank. Merry Christmas,” she said, hugging me. “Goodnight Alice,” I answered, going through my bedroom door.
Once in my room, I blew out the candle I was holding and placed it on the table next to my bed. The old metal bed springs squeaked as I plopped down on my mattress and pulled the covers about me; very soon I was asleep.
The next thing I knew, Arthur and Jack were up, yelling: “it’s Christmas day! It’s Christmas day!” I catapulted out of bed and ran down the old wooden stairs.
There it was under the tree: the shiny train, chugging along its track. The smell of gingerbread pancakes wafted through the house and the sound of the train whistle filled my ears. All I could do was stare.
Arthur was running about pulling a shiny red wagon behind him and Jack was cuddling something brown and furry close to himself, but I hardly noticed. After a moment, I looked around; Alice’s eyes were shining with delight, for hanging from the Christmas tree was beautiful dress sewn in the latest fashion;
“Thank you Mamma! Thank you!” I cried, running toward the kitchen. Mother laughed and gave me a hug, “your welcome Frank.” Alice came dashing in behind me, the dress held tight in her hands. “May I change now?” she said. Mother nodded, smiling at the joy of her children.
I heard a soft yapping noise coming from the living room and it was only then that I realized what Jack’s gift had been: a tiny brown puppy. “I’ll name him Duke,” Jack said, his voice filled with delight. Rosalie sat on the floor in front of the Christmas tree; a little rag doll in her arms, her eyes wide.
“You can open your stockings before breakfast,” Mother said, coming in to the living room. In each of our stockings were an orange and some penny candy. I got a pocket knife too and so did Jack. Alice had a string of blue beads and Arthur a small bird whistle.
Alice came into the room wearing her new dress, “But how did you ever afford all this Mamma?” she said. “Don’t you worry about that,” Mother replied. “Your father had some money set aside. You didn’t think he would let you children not have a decent Christmas, did you?”
All that day we played with my new toy train, gave Arthur and Rosalie rides in Arthur`s new red wagon, ran around outside with Jacks new puppy Duke, carved sticks into spears with our knives, and ate some of the candy from our stockings. Rosalie couldn’t be persuaded to let go of her doll, nor her rabbit once she had unwrapped it. Alice loved the mirror, Jack and I played several games with his marbles, Mother said the sewing basket was just what she needed and Arthur sent his top spinning, much to the delight of the puppy, who thought it was a lovely toy to pounce upon.
Later that morning, as we sat at the table eating the delicious pancakes drenched in syrup, I looked around at my family’s faces and thought that it was indeed, a merry Christmas.