I will begin by saying that we never had a Christmas tree in our house in the Wisconsin coulee, indeed, my father never saw one in a family circle till he saw that which I set up for my own children last year. But we celebrated Christmas in those days always, and I cannot remember a time when we did not all hang up our stockings for “Sandy Claws” to fill. As I look upon those days it seems as if the snows were always deep, the night skies crystal clear, and the stars especially lustrous with frosty sparkles of blue and yellow fire — and probably this was so, for we lived in a northern land where winter was usually stern and always long.
I recall one Christmas when “Sandy” brought me a sled, and a horse that stood on rollers —a wonderful tin horse which I very shortly split into in order to see what the insides were. Father traded a cord of wood for the sled, and the horse cost $0.20 —but they made the day wonderful.
Another notable Christmas Day, as I stood in our front yard, mid-leg deep in snow, a neighbor drove by closely muffled in furs, while behind his seat his son, a lad of 12 or 15, stood beside a barrel of apples, and as he passed, he hurled a glorious big red one at me. It missed me, but bored a deep, round hole in the soft snow. I thrill yet with the remembered joy of burrowing for that delicious bomb. Nothing will ever smell quite as good as that Wine Sap or Northern Spy or whatever it was. It was a wayward impulse on the part of the boy in the sleigh, but it warms my heart after more than 40 years.
We had no chimney in our home, but the stocking hanging was a ceremony, nonetheless. My parents, and especially my mother, entered into it with the best of humor. They always put up their own stockings or permitted us to do it for them—and they always laughed next morning when they found potatoes or ears of corn in them. I can see now that my mother’s laugh had a tear in it, for she loved pretty things and seldom got any during the years that we lived in the coulee.
When I was 10 years old, we moved to Mitchell county, an Iowa prairie land, and there we prospered in such wise that our stockings always held toys of some sort, and even my mother’s stocking occasionally sagged with a simple piece of jewelry or a new comb or brush. But the thought of a family tree remained the luxury of millionaire city dwellers; indeed, it was not till my 15th or 16th year that our Sunday school rose to the extravagance of a tree, and it is of this wondrous festival that I write.
The land about us was only partly cultivated at this time, and our district schoolhouse, a bare little box, was set bleakly on the prairie, but the Burr Oak schoolhouse was not only large, but it stood beneath great oaks as well and possessed the charm of a forest background through which a stream ran silently. It was our chief social center. There of a Sunday a regular preacher held “divine service” with Sunday school as a sequence. At night—usually on Friday nights — the young people let in “ly-ceums,” as we called them, to debate great questions or to “speak pieces” and read essays; and here it was that I saw my first Christmas tree.
I walked to that tree across 4 miles of moonlit snow. Snow? No, it was a floor of diamonds, a magical world, so beautiful that my heart still aches with the wonder of it and with the regret that it has all gone —gone with the keen eyes and the bounding pulses of the boy.
Our home at this time was a small frame house on the prairie almost directly west of the Burr Oak grove, and as it was too cold to take the horses out, my brother and I, with our tall boots, our visored caps and our long woolen mufflers, started forth afoot defiant of the cold. We left the gate on the trot, bound for a sight of the glittering unknown. The snow was deep, and we moved side by side in the grooves made by the hoofs of the horses, setting our feet in the shine left by the broad shoes of the wood sleighs who’s going had smoothed the way for us.
Our breath rose like smoke in the still air. It must have been ten below zero, but that did not trouble us in those days, and at last we came in sight of the lights, in sound of the singing, the laughter, the bells of the feast.
It was a poor little building without tower or bell and its low walls had but three windows on a side, and yet it seemed very imposing to me that night as I crossed the threshold and faced the strange people who packed it to the door. I say “strange people,” for though I had seen most of them many times they all seemed somehow alien to me that night. I was an irregular attendant at Sunday school and did not expect a present, therefore I stood against the wall and gazed with open eyed marveling at the shining pine which stood where the pulpit was want to be. I was made to feel the room embarrassed by reason of the remark of a boy who accused me of having forgotten to comb my hair.
This was not true, but the cap I wore always matted my hair down over my brow, and then, when I lifted it off invariably disarranged it completely. Nevertheless, I felt guilty—and lost. I don’t suppose my hair was artistically barbered that night—I rather guess mother had used the shears—and I can believe that I looked the half wild colt that I was; but there was no call for that youth to direct attention to my unavoidable shagginess.
I don’t think the tree had many candles, and I don’t remember that it glittered golden apples. But it was loaded with presents, and the girls coming and going clothed in bright garments made me forget my own looks — I think they made me forget to remove my overcoat, which was a sodden thing of poor cut and worse quality. I think I must have stood agape for nearly two hours listening to the songs, noting every motion the Adoniram Burtch and Asa Walker as they directed the ceremonies and prepared the way for the great event — that is to say, for the coming of Santa Claus himself.
A furious jingling of bells, a loud voice outside, the lifting of a window, the nearest clash of bells, and the dear old Saint appeared (in the person of Steven Bartle) clothed in a red robe, a belt of sleigh bells, and a long white beard. The children cried out, “oh!” The girls tittered and shrieked with excitement, and the boys laughed and clapped their hands. Then “Sandy” made a little speech about being glad to see us all, but as he had many other places to visit, and as there were a great many presents to distribute, he guessed he’d have to ask some of the many pretty girls to help him. So, he called upon Betty Burtch and Hattie Knapp—and I for one admired his taste, for they were the most popular maids of the school.
They came up blushing, and a little bewildered by the blaze of publicity thus blown upon them. But their native dignity asserted itself, and the distribution of the presents began. I have a notion now that the fruit upon the tree was mostly bags of popcorn and “corny copias” of candy, But as my brother and I stood there that night and saw everybody, even the rowdiest boy, getting something, we felt aggrieved and rebellious. We forgot that we had come from afar here — we only knew that we were being left out.
But suddenly, in the midst of our gloom, my brother’s name was called, and a lovely girl with a gentle smile handed him a bag of popcorn. My heart glowed with gratitude. Somebody had thought of us, and when she came to me, saying sweetly, “there’s something for you,” I had not words to thank her. This happened nearly 40 years ago, but her smile, her outstretched hand, her sympathetic eyes are vividly before me as I write. She was sorry for the shock headed boy who stood against the wall, and her pity made the little box of candy a casket of pearls. The fact that I swallowed the jewels on the road home does not take from the reality of my adoration.
At last, I had to take my final glimpse of that wondrous tree, and I will remember the walk home. My brother and I traveled in wordless companionship. The moon was sinking toward the west, and the snow crust gleamed with a million fairy lamps. The sentinel watch dogs barked from lonely farmhouses, and the wolves answered from the ridges. Now and then sleighs passed us with lovers sitting two and two, and the bells on their horses had the remote music of romance to us whose boots drummed like clogs of wood upon the icy road.
Our house was dark as we approached and entered it, but how deliciously warm It seemed after the pitiless wind! I guess we made straight for the cupboard for a mince pie, a donut, and a bowl of milk.
As I write this there stands in my library a thick branched beautifully tapering fir tree covered with the gold and purple apples of Hesperides, together with crystal ice points, green and red and yellow candles, clusters of gifted grapes, wreaths of metallic frost, and glittering angels swinging in ecstasy; but I doubt if my children will ever know the keen pleasure (that is almost pain) which came to my brother and to me in those Christmas days when an orange was not a breakfast fruit, but a casket of incense and of spice, a message from the sunlands of the South.
That was our compensation—we brought to our Christmastime a keen appetite and empty hands. And the lesson of it all is, if we are seeking a lesson, that it is better to give to those who want than to those for whom “we ought to do something because they did something for us last year.”
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