1880 Christmas Story

Pa never had much compassion for the lazy or those who squandered
their means and then never had enough for the necessities. But for
those who were genuinely in need, his heart was as big as all
outdoors. It was from him that I learned the greatest joy in life
comes from giving, not from receiving.

It was Christmas Eve 1881. I was fifteen years old and feeling like
the world had caved in on me because there just hadn't been enough
money to buy me the rifle that I'd wanted so bad that year for
Christmas. We did the chores early that night for some reason. I
just figured Pa wanted a little extra time so we could read in the
Bible. So after supper was over I took my boots off and stretched out
in front of the fireplace and waited for Pa to get down the
old Bible. I was still feeling sorry for myself and, to be honest, I
wasn't in much of a mood to read scriptures. But Pa didn't get
the Bible, instead he bundled up and went outside. I couldn't figure
it out because we had already done all the chores. I didn't worry
about it long though, I was too busy wallowing in self-pity. Soon Pa
came back in. It was a cold clear night out and there was ice in his
beard. "Come on, Matt," he said. "Bundle up good, it's cold out
tonight." I was really upset then. Not only wasn't I getting the
rifle for Christmas, now Pa was dragging me out in the cold, and for
no earthly reason that I could see. We'd already done all the chores,
and I couldn't think of anything else that needed doing, especially
not on a night like this. But I knew Pa was not very patient at one
dragging one's feet when he'd told them to do something, so I got up
and put my boots back on and got my cap, coat, and mittens. Ma gave
me a mysterious smile as I opened the door to leave the house. Something
was up, but I didn't know what.

Outside, I became even more dismayed. There in front of the house was
the work team, already hitched to the big sled. Whatever it was we
were going to do wasn't going to be a short, quick little job. I
could tell. We never hitched up the big sled unless we were going to haul a
big load. Pa was already up on the seat, reins in hand. I reluctantly
climbed up beside him. The cold was already biting at me. I wasn't
happy. When was on, Pa pulled the sled around the house and stopped
in front of the woodshed. He got off and I followed. "I think we'll
put on the high sideboards," he said. "Here, help me." The
high sideboards! It had been a bigger job than I wanted to do with
just the low sideboards on, but whatever it was we were going to do
would be a lot bigger with the high sideboards on. When we
had exchanged the sideboards, Pa went into the woodshed and came out
with an armload of wood---the wood I'd spent all summer hauling down
from the mountain, and then all fall sawing into blocks and

What was he doing? Finally I said something. "Pa," I asked, "what are
you doing?" "You been by the Widow Jensen's lately?" he asked. The
Widow Jensen lived about two miles down the road. Her husband had
died a year or so before and left her with three children, the oldest
being eight.  Sure, I'd been by, but so what?  "Yeah," I said, "why?"  "I
rode by just today," Pa said.  "Little Jakey was out digging round in
the woodpile trying to find a few chips.  They're out of wood, Matt."

That was all he said and then he turned and went back into the
woodshed for another armload of wood.  I followed him.  We loaded
the sled so high that I began to wonder if the horses would be able to
pull it. Finally, Pa called a halt to our loading, then we went to the smoke
house and Pa took down a big ham and a side of bacon.  He handed
them to me and told me to put them in the sled and wait.  When he
returned he was carrying a sack of flour over his right shoulder and a
smaller sack of something in his left hand. "What's in the little
sack?" I asked. "Shoes. They're out of shoes. Little Jakey just had
gunny sacks wrapped around his feet when he was out in the woodpile
this morning.  I got the children a little candy too.  It just
wouldn't be Christmas without a little candy."

We rode the two miles to Widow Jensen's pretty much in silence.  I
tried to think through what Pa was doing.  We didn't have much by
worldly standards, of course, we did have a big woodpile, though most
of what was left now was still in the form of logs that I would have
to saw into blocks and split before we could use it. We also had meat
and flour, so we could spare that, but I knew we didn't have any
money, so why was Pa buying them shoes and candy?  Really, why was
he doing any of this? Widow Jensen had closer neighbors than us.
It shouldn't have been our concern.

We came in from the blind side of the Jensen house and unloaded the
wood as quietly as possible, then we took the meat and flour and shoes to
the door. We knocked. The door opened a crack and a timid voice said,
"Who is it?" "Lucas Miles, Ma'am, and my son, Matt. Could we come in
for a bit?" Widow Jensen opened the door and let us in. She had a
blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The children were wrapped in
another and were sitting in front of the fireplace by a very small
fire that hardly gave off any heat at all. Widow Jensen fumbled with
a match and finally lit the lamp. "We brought you a few things,
Ma'am," Pa said and set down the sack of flour. I put the meat on
the table. Then Pa handed her the sack that had the shoes in it. She
opened it hesitantly and took the shoes out one pair at a time. There
was a pair for her and one for each of the children---sturdy shoes,
the best, shoes that would last. I watched her carefully. She bit
her lower lip to keep it from trembling and then tears filled her
eyes and started running down her cheeks. She looked up at Pa like she
wanted to say something, but it wouldn't come out. "We brought a load
of wood too, Ma'am," Pa said, then he turned to me and said, "Matt,
go bring enough in to last for awhile. Let's get that fire up to
size and heat this place up."

I wasn't the same person when I went back out to bring in the wood. I
had a big lump in my throat and, much as I hate to admit it, there
were tears in my eyes too. In my mind I kept seeing those three kids
huddled around the fireplace and their mother standing there with
tears running down her cheeks and so much gratitude in her heart that
she couldn't speak. My heart swelled within me and a joy filled my
soul that I'd never known before. I had given at Christmas many
times before, but never when it had made so much difference. I could
see we were literally saving the lives of these people. I soon had
the fire blazing and everyone's spirits soared. The kids started
giggling when Pa handed them each a piece of candy and Widow Jensen
looked on with a smile that probably hadn't crossed her face for a
long time. She finally turned to us. "God bless you," she said. "I know
the Lord himself has sent you. The children and I have been praying that
he would send one of his children to spare us." In spite of myself,
the lump returned to my throat and the tears welled up in my eyes
again. I'd never thought of Pa in those exact terms before, but after
Widow Jensen mentioned it I could see that it was probably true. I
was sure that a better man than Pa had never walked the earth. I
started remembering all the times he had gone out of his way for
Ma and me, and many others. The list seemed endless as I thought on
it. Pa insisted that everyone try on the shoes before we left. I was
amazed when they all fit and I wondered how he had known what sizes
to get. Then I guessed that if he was on an errand for the Lord that the
Lord would make sure he got the right sizes. Tears were running
down Widow Jensen's face again when we stood up to leave.
Pa took each of the kids in his big arms and gave them a hug.
They clung to him and didn't want us to go. I could see that they
missed their pa, and I was glad that I still had mine.

At the door Pa turned to Widow Jensen and said, "The Mrs. wanted me
to invite you and the children over for Christmas dinner tomorrow.
The turkey will be more than the three of us can eat, and a man can
get cantankerous if he has to eat turkey for too many meals. We'll be
by to get you about eleven. It'll be nice to have some little ones
around again. Matt here, hasn't been little for quite a spell." I was
the youngest. My two older brothers and two older sisters were all
married and had moved away. Widow Jensen nodded and said, "Thank
you, Brother Miles. I don't have to say, "'May the Lord bless you,' I
know for certain that He will."

Out on the sled I felt a warmth that came from deep within and I
didn't even notice the cold. When we had gone a ways, Pa turned to
me and said, "Matt, I want you to know something. Your ma and me have
been tucking a little money away here and there all year so we could
buy that rifle for you, but we didn't have quite enough. Then
yesterday a man who owed me a little money from years back came by to
make things square. Your ma and me were real excited, thinking that
now we could get you that rifle, and I started into town this morning
to do just that. But on the way I saw little Jakey out scratching in
the woodpile with his feet wrapped in those gunny sacks and I knew
what I had to do. So, Son, I spent the money for shoes and a little
candy for those children. I hope you understand." I understood, and
my eyes became wet with tears again. I understood very well, and I
was so glad Pa had done it. Just then the rifle seemed very low on my
list of priorities. Pa had given me a lot more. He had given me the
look on Widow Jensen's face and the radiant smiles of her three
children. For the rest of my life, whenever I saw any of the Jensens,
or split a block of wood, I remembered, and remembering brought back
that same joy I felt riding home beside Pa that night. Pa had given
me much more than a rifle that night, he had given me the best Christmas
of my life.
1880 Christmas Story