Monday, December 24, 2012

Laura's Chrismas 1869

The memoirs of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the 'Little House' books, are best known as children's literature but I believe they are worth a re-read for adults. They provide a glimpse into the daily lives of the people we now refer to as 'pioneers'. The following story takes place in 1869 when Laura and her family were living in an isolated home in the Kansas-Oklahoma border area, many miles from the nearest neighbor.


Chapter 19: Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus

"The days were short and cold, the wind whistled sharply, but there was no snow. Cold rains were falling. Day after day the rain fell, pattering on the roof and pouring from the eaves.

Mary and Laura stayed close by the fire, sewing their nine patch quilt blocks, or cutting paper dolls from scraps of wrapping paper, and hearing the wet sound of the rain. Every night was so cold that they expected to see snow next morning, but in the morning they saw only sad, wet grass.

They pressed their noses against the squares of glass in the windows that Pa had made, and they were glad they could see out. But they wished they could see snow. Laura was anxious because Christmas was near, and Santa Claus and his reindeer could not travel without snow. Mary was afraid that, even if it snowed, Santa Claus could not find them, so far away in Indian Territory. When they asked Ma about this, she said she didn’t know. “What day is it?” they asked her, anxiously. “How many more days till Christmas?”

And they counted off the days on their fingers, till there was only one more day left.

Rain was still falling that morning. There was not one crack in the gray sky. They felt almost sure there would be no Christmas. Still, they kept hoping.

Just before noon the light changed. The clouds broke and drifted apart, shining white in a clear blue sky. The sun shone, birds sang, and thousands of drops of water sparkled on the grasses. But when Ma opened the door to let in the fresh, cold air, they heard the creek roaring. They had not thought about the creek. Now they knew they would have no Christmas, because Santa Claus could not cross that roaring creek.

Pa came in, bringing a big fat turkey. If it weighed less than twenty pounds, he said, he’d eat it, feathers and all. He asked Laura, “How’s that for a Christmas dinner? Think you can manage one of those drumsticks?”

She said, yes, she could. But she was sober. Then Mary asked him if the creek was going down, and he said it was still rising.

Ma said it was too bad. She hated to think of Mr. Edwards [the neighbor] eating his bachelor cooking all alone on Christmas day. Mr. Edwards had been asked to eat Christmas dinner with them, but Pa shook his head and said a man would risk his neck, trying to cross that creek now. “No,” he said. “That current’s too strong. We’ll just have to make up our minds that Edwards won’t be here tomorrow.” Of course that meant that Santa Claus could not come, either.

Laura and Mary tried not to mind too much. They watched Ma dress the wild turkey, and it was a very fat turkey. They were lucky little girls, to have a good house to live in, and a warm fire to sit by, and such a turkey for their Christmas dinner. Ma said so, and it was true. Ma said it was too bad that Santa Claus couldn't come this year, but they were such good girls that he hadn't forgotten them; he would surely come next year. Still, they were not happy.

After supper that night they washed their hands and faces, buttoned their red flannel nightgowns, tied their night cap strings, and soberly said their prayers. They lay down in bed and pulled the covers up. It did not seem at all like Christmas time.

Pa and Ma sat silent by the fire. After a while Ma asked why Pa didn't play the fiddle, and he said, “I don’t seem to have the heart to, Caroline.” After a longer while, Ma suddenly stood up. “I’m going to hang up your stockings, girls,” she said. “Maybe something will happen.” Laura’s heart jumped. But then she thought again of the creek and she knew nothing could happen. Ma took one of Mary’s clean stockings and one of Laura’s, and she hung them from the mantel shelf, on either side of the fireplace.

Laura and Mary watched her over the edge of their bed covers.

“Now go to sleep,” Ma said, kissing them good night. “Morning will come quicker if you’re asleep.”

She sat down again by the fire and Laura almost went to sleep. She woke up a little when she heard Pa say, “ You've only made it worse, Caroline.” And she thought she heard Ma say: “No, Charles. There’s the white sugar.” But perhaps she was dreaming.

Then she heard Jack [the bulldog] growl savagely. The door latch rattled and someone said, “Ingalls! Ingalls!” Pa was stirring up the fire, and when he opened the door Laura saw that it was morning. The outdoors was gray. “Great fishhooks, Edwards! Come in, man! What’s happened?” Pa exclaimed. Laura saw the stockings limply dangling, and she scrooged her shut eyes into the pillow. She heard Pa piling wood on the fire, and she heard Mr. Edwards say he had carried his clothes on his head when he swam the creek. His teeth rattled and his voice shivered. He would be all right, he said, as soon as he got warm.

“It was too big a risk, Edwards,” Pa said. “We’re glad you’re here, but that was too big a risk for a Christmas dinner.”

“Your little ones had to have a Christmas,” Mr. Edwards replied. “No creek could stop me, after I fetched them their gifts from Independence.” [Independence, Kansas]

Laura sat straight up in bed. “Did you see Santa Claus?” she shouted. “I sure did,” Mr. Edwards said.

“Where? When? What did he look like? What did he say? Did he really give you something for us?” Mary and Laura cried.

“Wait, wait a minute!” Mr. Edwards laughed. And Ma said she would put the presents in the stockings, as Santa Claus intended. She said they mustn't look.

Mr. Edwards came and sat on the floor by their bed, and he answered every question they asked him. They honestly tried not to look at Ma, and they didn't quite see what she was doing. When he saw the creek rising, Mr. Edwards said, he had known that Santa Claus could not get across it. (“But you crossed it,” Laura said. “Yes,” Mr. Edwards replied, “but Santa Claus is too old and fat. He couldn't make it, where a long, lean razor back like me could do so.”) And Mr. Edwards reasoned that if Santa Claus couldn't cross the creek, likely he would come no farther south than Independence. Why should he come forty miles across the prairie, only to be turned back? Of course he wouldn't do that!

So Mr. Edwards had walked to Independence. (“In the rain?” Mary asked. Mr. Edwards said he wore his rubber coat.) And there, coming down the street in Independence, he had met Santa Claus. (“In the daytime?” Laura asked. She hadn't thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime. No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.) Well, the first thing Santa Claus said was, “Hello, Edwards!” (“Did he know you?” Mary asked, and Laura asked, “How did you know he was really Santa Claus?” Mr. Edwards said that Santa Claus knew everybody. And he had recognized Santa at once by his whiskers. Santa Claus had the longest, thickest, whitest set of whiskers west of the Mississippi.) So Santa Claus said, “Hello, Edwards! Last time I saw you you were sleeping on a corn shuck bed in Tennessee.” And Mr. Edwards well remembered the little pair of red yarn mittens that Santa Claus had left for him that time.

Then Santa Claus said: “I understand you’re living now down along the Verdigris River. Have you ever met up, down yonder, with two little young girls named Mary and Laura?”

“I surely am acquainted with them,” Mr. Edwards replied.

“It rests heavy on my mind,” said Santa Claus. “They are both of them sweet, pretty, good little young things, and I know they are expecting me. I surely do hate to disappoint two good little girls like them. Yet with the water up the way it is, I can’t ever make it across that creek. I can figure no way whatsoever to get to their cabin this year. Edwards,” Santa Claus said. “Would you do me the favor to fetch them their gifts this one time?” ”I’ll do that, and with pleasure,” Mr. Edwards told him. Then Santa Claus and Mr. Edwards stepped across the street to the hitching posts where the pack mule was tied. (“ Didn't he have his reindeer?” Laura asked. “You know he couldn't,” Mary said. “There isn't any snow.” Exactly, said Mr. Edwards. Santa Claus traveled with a pack mule in the southwest.) And Santa Claus uncinched the pack and looked through it, and he took out the presents for Mary and Laura. “Oh, what are they?” Laura cried; but Mary asked, “Then what did he do?”

Then he shook hands with Mr. Edwards, and he swung up on his fine bay horse. Santa Claus rode well for a man of his weight and build. And he tucked his long, white whiskers under his bandana. “So long, Edwards,” he said, and he rode away on the Fort Dodge trail, leading his pack mule and whistling. Laura and Mary were silent an instant, thinking of that. Then Ma said, “You may look now, girls.”

Something was shining bright in the top of Laura’s stocking. She squealed and jumped out of bed. So did Mary, but Laura beat her to the fireplace. And the shining thing was a glittering new tin cup. Mary had one exactly like it.

These new tin cups were their very own. Now they each had a cup to drink out of. Laura jumped up and down and shouted and laughed, but Mary stood still and looked with shining eyes at her own tin cup.

Then they plunged their hands into the stockings again. And they pulled out two long, long sticks of candy. It was peppermint candy, striped red and white. They looked and looked at the beautiful candy, and Laura licked her stick, just one lick. But Mary was not so greedy. She didn't take even one lick of her stick.

Those stockings weren't empty yet. Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar. The sparkling grains lay like tiny drifts of snow.

The cakes were too pretty to eat. Mary and Laura just looked at them. But at last Laura turned hers over, and she nibbled a tiny nibble from underneath, where it wouldn't show. And the inside of the little cake was white!

It had been made of pure white flour, and sweetened with white sugar.

Laura and Mary never would have looked in their stockings again. The cups and the cakes and the candy were almost too much. They were too happy to speak. But Ma asked if they were sure the stockings were empty. Then they put their hands down inside them, to make sure. And in the very toe of each stocking was a shining bright, new penny!

They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny. Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny. There never had been such a Christmas.

Now of course, right away, Laura and Mary should have thanked Mr. Edwards for bringing those lovely presents all the way from Independence. But they had forgotten all about Mr. Edwards. They had even forgotten Santa Claus. In a minute they would have remembered, but before they did, Ma said, gently, “ Aren't you going to thank Mr. Edwards?” “Oh, thank you, Mr. Edwards! Thank you!” they said, and they meant it with all their hearts. Pa shook Mr. Edwards’ hand, too, and shook it again. Pa and Ma and Mr. Edwards acted as if they were almost crying, Laura didn't know why. So she gazed again at her beautiful presents. She looked up again when Ma gasped. And Mr. Edwards was taking sweet potatoes out of his pockets. He said they had helped to balance the package on his head when he swam across the creek. He thought Pa and Ma might like them, with the Christmas turkey. There were nine sweet potatoes. Mr. Edwards had brought them all the way from town, too. It was just too much. Pa said so. “It’s too much, Edwards,” he said. They never could thank him enough."

I hadn't read this book for probably 25 years but I remembered this chapter well: the girls being overwhelmed by their simple gifts, Laura's wondering at Pa and Ma's tears, the selflessness of Mr. Edwards. Besides, this was just about the perfect little group of presents you could hope for: something practical, something beautiful, something sweet, something to save for later and above all, the genuine thought behind the gift.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate.

PS: Free ebook version of 'Little House on the Prairie' available here.

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