FICTION

Something for Christmas

The preacher thought it was a good omen . . . The atheist thought it was a sign from heaven . . . We think it is one of the best Christmas stories we've read

WESSEL SMITTER December 15 1944
FICTION

Something for Christmas

The preacher thought it was a good omen . . . The atheist thought it was a sign from heaven . . . We think it is one of the best Christmas stories we've read

WESSEL SMITTER December 15 1944

Something for Christmas

FICTION

The preacher thought it was a good omen . . . The atheist thought it was a sign from heaven . . . We think it is one of the best Christmas stories we've read

CHRISTMAS was not a day of frivolity and mirth in our family. There were no gifts, no talk about Santa Claus, and no “gadding about,” as father called it. Father was a stanch Calvinist and expected mother and me to observe the Lord’s birthday with the proper solemnity and Dutch decorum. On Christmas Eve, while the Baptists, whose church sat diagonally across the road from our farm at the edge of the village, held a gay celebration, we went to the Dutch Reformed Church and listened to a sermon that was neither shorter nor more exciting than those we listened to on Sundays. But this one particular Christmas Eve, 40 years ago, that I want to tell about, was different.

It had been snowing steadily all day and there’d been no wind and the big soft flakes had covered the brown fields and the roofs of the farm buildings, and every tree and dried mullein weed and fence rail was a thing of entrancing beauty and mystery.

About four o’clock father stamped the snow from his feet, swept out the entry, and came into the kitchen where mother was cleaning the lamp chimneys.

“There’s about a foot,” he said, hanging his coat on a nail. “Looks like this time it’s here to stay.”

“I hope so,” she said. “1 kinda like to see it come this way. It’s kinda like Cod was closing the books on the old year.”

It had already begun to grow dark in the kitchen. The teakettle simmered on the stove and there was a fire in the big heater that sat majestically in the centre of the floor in the front room. Outside, the walls of the house were banked with rotted straw and manure. Inside, it was cosy and warm.

“It. gives a man a good feeling,” said father, “to know he’s done his work and has something to show for it. We’ve got the crops in from the fields; the cellar is full of potatoes, apples and vegetables; we’ve got. popcorn and walnuts and smoked meat up in the attic. We’ve got a barnful of fodder and every animal on the place has got a warm roof over its head.”

“We’ve got plenty to be thankful for,” said mother. “I don’t doubt there’s many a person in the big towns that’s hungry and cold tonight and walking the Btreets.”

The word security, in its modern meaning, was unknown to my parents in those days, and yet they were as secure against the rigors of cold, hunger and want as it is ever given mortals to be.

There was the sound of sleigh bells as someone passed the house. Father went to the window and looked out.

“Someone driving up to the Baptist church in a cutter,” he said. “I suppose they’ll have big doings tonight.”

“I suppose so,” said mother.

“Yesterday,” father continued, “I see them drag in a Christmas tree that must have been all of 20 feet high. They’ll put a lot of trinkets on it and try to make it look pretty, but I swear I never see a tree as pretty as that old willow down behind the barn all covered with snow.”

“Just the same,” mother said, “I’d like to see it when they get it decorated and all lighted up. Last year, Mrs. Hoskins tells me, they had a star on it.”

“Well, we ain’t agoing over there,” said father.

“I didn’t say we was,” said mother, “though I don’t

WESSEL SMITTER

see what harm it’d do to stop in for a peep on our way past to church. Mrs. Hoskins tells me they’re going to have a real good program tonight. It’s a children’s program. There’ll be singing and recitations.”

“And a Santa Claus,” father added. “I don’t care for that kind of thing. It ain’t right to turn Christmas into a circus.” •*

Luke, our hired man, came into the kitchen with the evening’s milk and the talk about the Baptist church came to a stop. Luke was not a full-fledged Baptist at the moment, but he “had leanings,” as father called it. He liked the preacher, Brother Hoskins, and regularly he got converted during the protracted revivals that took place in late summer and fall. Just as regular he lost his hold on religion a month or two later and became a backslider.

For this sort of thing father held the deepest contempt. In part, he blamed Brother Hoskins, whose brand of religion was pretty mild compared with his own; in part, he blamed Doc Heyser, who accepted the Bible but was opposed to churchgoing; Bert McCauley, who was an admirer of Bob Ingersoll, and Joe Meyers, the owner of the livery stables, who was an out-and-out atheist. These three bedevilled Luke with their arguments, that took place about the stove in the village store during the long evenings of early winter, and always, after a few heated sessions, managed to talk Luke under the table. And when this occurred Luke once more went hunting on Sundays, in which manner he let it be known that he was no longer a member of the Baptist church in full standing.

Luke poured the milk into the pans and lit the lantern.

“Getting dark in the barn,” he said. “I’ll have to have a light to finish the chores.”

He left the kitchen, but in a moment or two he was back.

“They’s^a bunch of gypsies out there!” he announced. “They’re stopping!”

“No!” said father. “You’re seeing things!” “Maybe so,” said Luke. “But what I saw was gypsies. They’s a whole pack of ’em.”

THE four of us hurried into the front room and looked out of the window. It was true. There were three loads of them. They had pulled up in front of the barn at the side of the road. It vras the typical assortment of men, women, children, horses and dogs. The wagons were covered with canvas, and the women and children, for the most part, were still out of sight, but six or eight men in long ragged coats were tramping about in the snow, and a number of halfstarved dogs were already making a search for stray chickens and odd bits of food. Pots and kettles and crates of vegetables were slung beneath the wagons. Tied behind the wagons were a number of old and decrepit horses, standing with bony backs arched against the wet snow and the cold.

“My land o’ Goshen!” said mother. “What do you suppose they’re stopping here for?”

“Probably because they got run out of town,” said father. “Well, they’re gonna get run out of here too.” “Get me my coat!” he shouted. “Luke, you get down to the barn and watch things. Don’t let ’em open a door.”

Father started to put on his heavy coat, but before he got to the door there was a knock. Mother opened it and we saw an old man in a coat that was much too large for him. Tied about his waist and covering a part of one shoulder was a heavy scarf made from a torn horse blanket. He had a large crooked nose and one eye was partially closed by a red festering sore.

“We have some trouble,” he said. “One of our daughters is to have a young one. Already the pains are upon her. We have no place to go.”

“Well, we don’t have a place for you,” said father. “You’ll have to go down the road.”

Mother pressed forward.^ The old man turned his attention upon her.

“It is cold in the wagon,” he said. “And the old

woman says there is not room. She says she cannot do the things that need to be done for the girl. It is not easy, the first one.”

“How long is it since the pains started?” mother asked.

“Two hours. It could be a little more.”

“And you’ve got her in the wagon?”

“Yes.”

“Now see here, Martha,” said father, “you let me take care of this.”

The old man, pressing his advantage with mother, said, “We need only a place from the cold.”

Mother said, “You go back to the others and wait. My husband and I, we’ll talk it over.”

As soon as the door closed mother said, “I’m ashamed of you, Clayton! I’m sure you don’t mean to turn that woman out into the cold.”

“They’re covered with vermin,” said father. “And if we take one we’ll have the whole bunch on our hands. We can’t have them.”

“We’re going to have them,” said mother quietly.

Mother was meek enough, ordinarily. She was submissive and unassertive in small things, but in a moral emergency her courage and determination were like a forest fire.

“They’ll strip the place bare,” said father. “They’ll steal everything they can lay hold of. i’ll have to sit up all night with the shot gun instead of going to church.”

“Clayton,” said mother, with firm emphasis, “remember your principles! Go down to the barn and fix a place for the woman to have her baby. It’s warm in the cow barn. I’ll be down pretty soon. We’re going to do what we can.” Still grumbling father took a lantern and left to make the best of a bad situation. I followed along on his heels.

An hour later we had arranged things for the girl. There was a clear space in the barn between the stone wall and the front of the manger where the cows were stanchioned in a long row. Father and I had carried in armfuls of clean straw, and here, on a idle of blankets, the gypsy women had made a bed for the girl.

She seemed very young and small to be having a baby. Still wearing the silver ornaments about her neck and wrists, she met the pains with clenched fists and set teeth, and during the intervals in between her wondrous dark eyes were like those of some frightened animal. She was very beautiful, I thought. I thought that 1 had never seen such black hair.

There were gypsies everywhere. Women and children, with heavy drapes trailing in the snow, went in and out of the barn. The men placed the wagons

in a half circle and raised a large canvas. Father allowed them to make a small fire and sent me to get an armful of dry wood. In the lower part of the barnyard, near the lit tle spring that came out from beneath a large willow, there was an old strawstack, eaten away at the base until it looked like a giant toadstool, and here there was both shelter and feed for the horses.

Having arranged grudgingly for the comfort of his strange guests, father next proceeded to safeguard himself against their marauding proclivities. We nailed shut the granary door, bolted the tool house, and while Luke and I captured a tom turkey that had a habit of roosting outside in the apple tree, father looked for a padlock to put on the chicken coop door.

Mother came across the road to the barn. She carried some woollen cloths, a small bottle of lanolin oil and a pan of hot catnip tea.

“You’re too early,” said father.

“Well, I’m going to see her,” said mother.

We accompanied her, with the lantern, to the back of the barn where the gypsies were encamped. But before going into the stables she went to the group of men and women who were cooking supper. A large iron kettle, suspended from a pole attached to one of t he wagon wheels, hung over the fire.

“Who’s taking care of her in there?” mother asked. There was no response, eit her by word or look.

“I’ve got some things here,” she said. “1 want to leave them with someone. Who’s the father?”

Three men, sitting on their heels, shrugged their shoulders. One of them said: “You see the old one. You see Rahah. She is in there.”

Mother left t he group and went into the st ables, and as the door opened we heard the girl cry out in a long spasm of pain, but the gypsies, gathered about the kettle, appeared to give her no heed.

Father said, “Let’s go up to the house, son. At a time like this they don’t. need us. It. ain’t decent for us to hang around here.”

Luke had already put on his Sunday suit and gone to the celebration at the Baptist church. We wore alone in the house. Father poked at. the fires in the stoves. I was lying on t he floor with the dog when father said: “Come here, kid ! Look what 1 see!”

He was standing at the window. He had pulled the curtain to one side and was looking out.

“Those crazy Baptists!” he said. “They got. a big star on their church.”

I stood beside him and looker! out.. Sure enough! There it was! The church itself was somewhat hidden from sight behind our barn, but the star rose above the barn roof. 11 was on the steeple.

“Those crazy Baptists,” father repeated. “What’ll they think of next year!”

Once more he started walking the floor between the front room and the kitchen.

“She’s been down there an hour,” he said, referring to mother. “I wish she’d get back here.”

He put another chunk in the heating stove and then suddenly asked: “Are you sure that tom turkey was in the coop when we locked the door?”

“He sure was,” I said. “We caught him. Luke and I put him in there.”

“That’s good,” he said. “I wouldn’t want him to end up in that kettle.”

“I wonder what they had in there?” 1 asked.

“Some kind of goulash,” he answered.

“And meat?”

“1 didn’t smell meat cooking,” In; said. “We didn’t give ’em a chance to get meat.”

The door opened and mother came into the house. She had a proud quiet look on her face as she laid off her shawl and entered the room.

“Well,” she said, “there’s another soul in the world.” “Another gypsy,” said father. “The old world would be better off without ’em.”

“You can’t always tell,” said mother, holding her head high and sort of looking starry-eyed at the ceiling. “The old woman, the one they call Rahah,

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said the boy will do great things. Before cutting the cord she told his fortune.”

“Oh, duck soup!” said father. “He’ll grow up to be a lying, thieving horse trader, just like his father. By the way, who is the father?”

“I don’t know,” said mother. “I asked the old woman but she didn’t tell me.”

WE HEARD sleigh bells outside.

Father said, “Well, I guess the circus at the Baptist church is over. They’re going home.”

But a moment later there were footsteps in the snow at the side of the house. We heard voices and the door opened and Luke came into the kitchen.

“There’re a lot of people out here,” he said, sort of breathlessly. “They can’t all get in the house.”

“What do they want to get in the house for?” said father. “Who are they?” We were all sort of excited.

“They’re from the church,” said Luke. “They heard about the gypsies. Just about the whole town is out there.”

We heard singing outside. It sounded like a Christmas song and the voices were those of young girls. Brother Hoskins came into the doorway.

“We heard the news,” he said. “We thought maybe you’d tell us about it.” “Why, pshaw!” said father, “there’s nothing to tell. A bunch of gypsies stopped here. One’s had a kid in our barn.”

Outside, men, women and children were milling about in the snow. Sleighs and cutters stood near the gate. The yard was filled with laughing, shouting people. Someone called, “We want to hear all about it! Tell us about it!” Mother sized up the situation while father was still wondering if everyone had gone crazy.

“Why, sure, I’ll tell them,” she said to Brother Hoskins. “I was there to help with the birth.”

She threw her shawl about her shoulders, and, standing on the entry step, she told about the coming of the gypsies and how the young mother had given birth to a baby.

But they were not satisfied. Mother’s story, instead of satisfying them, aroused their curiosity even more. They wanted to go into the barn. They asked to see the gypsy mother and the new baby.

“Well, now, I don’t know about that,” said mother, but their voices rose to a clamor. Father had caught up with things. He took the matter in hand.

“If you’ll do what I tell you,” he said, “I think I can fix it up. I’ll have a talk with the gypsies. I’ll go down there with a couple of lanterns and hang them up in the barn. Everybody will have to stay here till I give the sign. When you come down you’ll have to go in the back door of the barn, one at a time. You’ll go up the stairs, through the barn and back to the road. From the stairs you can look down and see them.”

Father stepped into the kitchen to get a couple of lanterns.

“It ain’t hardly decent,” he grumbled to mother and me. “If that woman wasn’t a gypsy I’d tell that whole bunch to go plumb to grass.” Father left with the lanterns. The crowd waited.

NEVER before had I seen such a crowd at our house. Many, having come directly from the celebration at the Baptist church, still carried their Christmas gifts. There was Mrs.

Meyers and the wife of the preacher; Airs. Alontgomery, who walked with a cane, and the widow Zimmerman, who received a pension because her husband was killed in the war. Tiny Pearson, who was a little queer, was there with his sled, and Land Sisson, the deafmute, and the two old-maid sisters who lived over the store and sewed dresses. There was Leon Cooper, the town bully, and Ike Cady, who trapped muskrats and coons for a living, and the four Visser brothers, big as giants, and the best wood choppers in the county. There was Earny Hubbel, who ran the grist mill, and Tom Foley, the blacksmith, and there, too, standing a little back from the crowd, were Joe Meyers, Doc Heyser and Bert AlcCauley. There were groups of young girls and boys and still others were coming down the road from the village.

Father waved a lantern and the crowd moved across the road. They formed a long line in the barnyard and when father opened the door they were as eager to go in as the cows after the mangers were filled and they had been kept too long in the cold.

They had no interest in the gypsies about the fire and in the wagons. They had their eyes on the door. Mrs. Meyers, like a bell cow at the head of the line, was the first to go up the steps. She stopped a moment and looked down at the gypsy mother holding the baby, and then,, before going on to make room for the others, she took a small gift of some sort from her sealskin muff and dropped it near the mother’s feet in the straw down below.

Others followed. The mother looked with wondering eyes at the strange procession that filed past up the stairs. Mrs. Meyers had set an example for the others and nearly everyone left a small present, and the little pile of gifts in the straw began to grow. The storekeeper’s wife left a bottle of cologne, the two old-maid sisters a box of bath salts. Even the children left oranges and toys, bags of pink netting, some of which were still half filled with popcorn and peanuts.

Mrs. Montgomery had difficulty getting up the steps with her cane. Tiny Pearson refused to leave his sled behind at the door and was so absorbed in dragging it up the stairs that he forgot to notice the girl and her baby down below. When the procession slowed father urged them to keep going.

Not counting the preacher, who said, “God bless you, little mother; God bless the baby,” Land Sisson, the deafmute, was the only one who made a sound. In the excitement no one had told him what he was going to see. Because he was deaf he had not been able to hear the talk of the crowd, and when, from the top of the stairs, he saw the gypsy mother and the baby it was a complete surprise. He made rapid gestures with his hands, and when father motioned for him to go on he pointed violently and made a noise like nothing I’d ever heard before.

Last of all in the procession were Doc Heyser, Bert McCauley and Joe Meyers. They had brought no gifts from the Christmas tree, but Joe Meyers wrapped a silver dollar in his big, red bandanna and dropped it on the pile as he went up the stairs. Father gave me one of the lanterns and started toward the door.

“You go along,” he said to me. “I’ll be up pretty soon.” I followed the tail end of the procession up the stairs and out to the road. The three men who had been last were talking to mother and Luke. The preacher was there too.

THE others were leaving. In groups of twos and threes, in cutters and sleighs, they were going back to the

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village. A row of young girls, holding hands and singing a Christmas song, covered the width of the road. Behind them walked the four Visser brothers, playing their mouth organs. Land Sisson, himself somewhat of a cripple, pulled the sled on which Tiny rode. The big flakes were still floating down and the lights from the village were dimmed to a soft, yellow glow.

The preacher and the three others were starting to leave when father came up.

“I was just telling your wife,” said the preacher to father, “this thing that’s happened to you and yours is a good omen. Yes, sir, a good omen, I do believe.”

“Why, shucks,” said father, “they’re nothing but a pack of gypsies. I’ll be glad when they’re gone.”

“Brother Hoskins is right,” said Joe Meyers. “I don’t doubt it’s some sort of sign from heaven.”

“I don’t believe in signs,” said father. “They lead people astray.”

“On Christmas Eve,” said the preacher, “every man believes what his heart tells him. Yes, sir; I do believe it’s so.”

“That’s a fair statement,” said Bert McCauley. And Doc Heyser added,

“Yes, sir; a fair statement. I see nothing wrong with it.”

The four men left, with the preacher walking in the centre of the group. Our own little group started toward the house and father said: “That’s a bunch of talk for you! A sign from heaven ! A fine statement from a man who claims to be an atheist! On Christmas Eve a man believes what he always believes, if he’s got any grounds for his thinking.” “Well,” said mother, “Christmas does do something to people. In some way it changes them.”

“Nonsense!” he said. “It don’t change me one bit.”

But when we went into the house and were sweeping the snow from our feet Luke mentioned the tom turkey, and mother asked if it was in the coop with the chickens.

“It was,” said father, “but I took him out.”

“What’d you do that for?” she asked. “Well,” he said, “that blame turkey, we couldn’t break him from roosting up in the trees. I gave him to the gypsies. I thought I’d give them something for Christmas.”

Luke chuckled a little, but not loud enough for father to hear. Mother said: “If Christmas came twice a year, instead of once, you’d be just like the Baptists.”