So I haven’t thought of anything new and creative to mark the coming of Christmas this year … I do have lots of stories, though, from magazines past, and will post one each afternoon in December.
From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1957 –
By Frances Carter Yost
“How does that look?” Margaret Conway asked, as she fastened the sparkling star to the top of the Christmas tree.
“It doesn’t look right,” Joey, her seventeen-year-old son, said. “Something’s lacking.”
“It’s wonderful!” Jamie, her seven-year-old son, replied. Jamie’s little face was alight with Christmas expectation more this Christmas Eve than ever before.
“I said it doesn’t look right. Something’s lacking!” Joey repeated. His voice was packed with usurped authority.
“Please, boys, let’s not disagree Christmas Eve.” Margaret sighed. Even a Bethlehem star on the Christmas tree didn’t suit Joey. It’s hard rearing two sons without a father, Margaret thought. Then she stopped short; why, she shouldn’t even think such a thought. She wasn’t rearing her sons without a father. They had the most wonderful father in the world, Major Joseph Conway of the United States Air Corps. He was doing his share of the rearing of his sons by remote control, right now from Japan, where he was stationed.
“major Joseph Conway,” Margaret said his name silently. Major to most people spelled rank and quality, but to Margaret it spelled Lonely with a capital letter. when she and Joe had made their wedding vows, oh, even before that, when they had been courting, they had planned a big family. A family of boys and girls, a half dozen of them. Two years after their marriage Joey had arrived. “A fine start,” Joe had said. Then overseas duty, followed by war with Germany, had kept them apart. Joseph Conway had served in the European theater of war. Margaret could never understand why they called anything so hateful as war, a theater. As if they were playing a role on a stage. It was in the hateful European theater, that Joe had been shot down, and for more than a year his whereabouts had remained unknown. Then, after what seemed an eternity, Margaret had received word that he was a prisoner of war. Margaret could still shut her eyes and imagine the wakeful nights, knowing Joe was hungry, sick, and cold, and she could do nothing for him.
Even after Joe was able to come to the States, there followed years of convalescence in hospitals. Finally, that glorious day when he could come home! But, by then, Joey was eight years old, and had outgrown any brothers and sisters he might ever have.
But new hope was theirs, when two years later Margaret and Joe brought little Jamie from the hospital. It was then they rearranged their plans for a family. Joey would be the “bit brother” to several little brothers and sisters near Jamie’s own age. but here again their dreams were crushed for, following Jamie’s birth, came her operation which made the large family a dream not to be fulfilled.
Now here was Joey, a prince of a fellow of seventeen. his only fault was that he became so annoyed with everything Jamie said and did, just because he was too small to be the pal Joey needed. And here was Jamie, trying to grow up too soon, because of the hero worship he had for his older brother.
Yes, Margaret thought, Jamie is growing up much too soon. He won’t even let himself be seven. Why, when Joey was seven he let me go with him to do his Christmas shopping, but would Jamie this year? Definitely not! Margaret recalled his very words: “Let me be big like Joey and go all by myself! I earned the money cutting the lawn and things, and I’ve saved it, so I’m big enough to spend it all by myself,” Jamie had pleaded.
It was just like Jamie to have bought something for Joey which he would have liked for himself. Something that just wouldn’t appeal to a seventeen-year-old. With Joey going through the stage of changing from boyhood to manhood, well, anything could happen! If Jamie had only let her go with him that day he had gone shopping …
To Jamie Conway, the entire city seemed like fairyland with the Christmas decorations. Big green wreaths hung one very light post, while strings of colored lights stretched across the streets, blinking their elf-like eyes in the daylight. Jamie was not aware of the coldness of the day, though passers-by turned up their collars against the icy snow flung by the wind. To Jamie, the world was wonderful, and he was big like Joey and doing his own shopping!
Jamie almost ran as he saw Santa Claus in the next block, standing on the sidewalk in his red, fur-trimmed suit. As Jamie came closer he could tell it was just a Santa Claus helper. You could tell a helper, because his beard was made of cotton, not real whiskers. This helper was shaking a bell, and over a charcoal fire, hung a big black kettle with a sign which read: “Help the poor to have Christmas.”
Jamie was glad that he could read. He would never forget Miss Mason, the first grade teacher who had taught him to read. It was so handy to be able to read the signs when you shopped all alone. Jamie lingered and watched older people dropping money into the kettle. Jamie had lots of money, he could help the poor people have a good Christmas, too. He pulled a silver quarter from his pocket and listened to it jingle in the kettle. But he must hurry along now, and get his shopping done.
First, he would buy a present for Mommie. He decided to look in the windows first, that would save time. Jamie couldn’t ever remember giving Mommie a present that she didn’t like. Even with the homemade things he had made when he was little, she had hugged him close when he gave them to her. Why, even when he gave her the little perfume sachet he had made in school last year, she had thanked him over and over and she still kept the little sachet in her hanky box, though the perfume smell was all used out of it.
But this year he would buy something nice like Joey would buy. Jamie looked at the nightgowns in the window. Four dollars and ninety-eight cents. He felt the two silver dollars in his pocket and pennies for the tax, and walked on. Chocolates in the pretty boxes would make a nice gift, but Jamie remembered Mommie was passing up candy these days. She said she wanted to be trim when Daddy came home, but Jamie liked Mommie just the way she was.
Jamie looked at the earrings and necklace sets, and even the watches in the jewelry window, but when he looked at the price tags, he knew they were presents for Daddy to give her.
And then, there it was, just the right present for Mommie. There was a little manicuring set, and it closed up like a tiny coin purse, which would fit in Mommie’s big purse. So often Mommie was busy doing dishes and things, and didn’t have time for her nails until they were on their way to church, and she would use her fingernail file while Joey drove the car. But Jamie had heard Mommie say, “I’ve lost my file,” and there was the cutest little file in the manicure set. And there was an orange stick, and even a tiny pair of trimming shears, and all of them fitted in the tiny, brown, purse-like case.
Jamie’s heart stood still, if only the present didn’t cost too much! he had two dollars, he could spend sixty-six cents on each person in his family. Jamie hardly dared look at the price tag on the little manicure set. Surely it would be more than sixty-six cents, but he crossed his fingers and hoped, as he pushed his nose flat on the windowpane.
Then, taking a long breath, eh opened his eyes wide and looked at the price tag. One dollar and thirty-five cents. At first Jamie started to go on, but the manicure set was just the right present for Mommie. He went into the store.
“I want to buy the little manicure set in the window.” It was hard to speak out, but Jamie remembered how Joey would have said it. Jamie stood at the window and pointed to the manicure set, and the clerk walked right into the window, and picked it up, and came back to where Jamie stood waiting.
“It’s the last one in the store,” the clerk said.
“Oh, I’m glad,” Jamie said, then swallowed, thinking of all the mothers who would be disappointed on Christmas not getting a little manicure set. “I’m glad there is one left for my Mommie,” Jamie explained.
“Shall I gift-wrap it?” the clerk asked, then added, “it’s ten cents more.”
Jamie hesitated. He would like to give Mommie a present wrapped neatly, like Joey would, but he needed the ten cents. Anyway, Mommie always made a fuss about the big hide and seek packages he fixed. “I’ll wrap it,” Jamie replied.
Then, pocketing the sixty-five cents change, and putting the little manicure set safely in his inner pocket, he left the store.
Daddy’s present wasn’t hard to figure out. he had planned all the time to send a box of stationery, the air-mail kind with thin paper. It would be fun seeing all the letters coming back, and Mommie would say: “Jamie, this is the very stationery you sent Daddy for Christmas!”
But the stationery cost sixty-five cents, and that was all the money he had. Jamie stood on one foot and then the other trying to figure out how to buy the stationery and still have money to buy Joey something. But when he thought of the candy and fruit cake mother had made tos end, the bath robe and Joey’s fountain pen for Daddy, Jamie just had to buy the stationery.
Jamie walked back into the store. “I’ll take the stationery,” he said and handed over the last of the Christmas money.
Jamie took the package and went from the store, but his heart was heavy. Somehow the Christmas decorations looked gaudy now to him. The colored lights stretching across the streets blinked freakishly at him in the daylight. Jamie just couldn’t help thinking about the present he didn’t have for Joey. He kept thinking of the quarter he had dropped in Santa Claus’ black kettle for the poor. he didn’t want his quarter back, he just wanted another one like it to buy something for Joey for Christmas!
If it were summer he could earn some more money cutting lawns, but it wasn’t summer. If it would snow hard, he could make some money shoveling snow, but it wasn’t snowing. Jamie scuffed the mud on the sidewalk.
And then all of a sudden he saw the sign. Jamie was glad that he could read. He thought again of Miss Mason, and how he was using reading for shopping. The sign said, “Merry Christmas, little children, Come in and get a balloon.”
Jamie turned into the store. The balloons were all sizes and shapes, and their colors glittered and dazzled Jamie’s eyes.
“What color do you want, Sonny?” the clerk asked.
Jamie stretched his neck looking at every single one, before he spotted the big blue one hanging form the ceiling.
“I want that big blue one.” Jamie could hardly wait to hold it. He would like to walk down the street waving it behind him. And wouldn’t Mommie and Joey be surprised about the free balloon? But he couldn’t tell them about it, at least not yet. What was the clerk saying?
“Do you want me to put a stick on it, to carry?” the clerk asked again.
“No, no, I want you to let the air out,” Jamie explained. “You see, it’s for a present.”
Jamie left the store with a good feeling inside his little heart. The whole city seemed like fairyland again. The big green wreaths hung fresh and green, with their red beads of holly, and the street lights blinked again like elves in the daylight. Everything was wonderful for Jamie, and this would be the happiest Christmas he had ever had. It was fun to be grownup and able to do your own shopping …
Margaret came to with a start. She had been thinking of Jamie and wondering what he had wrapped so bulkily in those two packages he had placed under the tree. He had hesitated even to tell her what he had for Daddy Joe, but when she had explained that she had to declare at the post office everything in the box she shipped, he had shown her the air-mail stationery. But about her present and Joey’s, he remained very secretive. It didn’t matter what he gave her, she would love it. She remembered the little plaster of Paris print of his hand he had brought home from kindergarten, and how she had hung it in the bedroom, so she would see it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. She hoped he had used seventeen-year-old wisdom when he purchased Joey’s present. though.
“Well, boys, the tree is as pretty as any one we’ve ever had. Before we go to bed, Joey, let’s get out the kodak and take some flashlight pictures of us all by the tree. But first, let’s sing a Christmas son,” Margaret said with enthusiasm.
“Let’s sing Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” Jamie warbled. “I like ti best.”
“ah, that’s kid’s stuff,” Joey replied with a sneer.
“How about Silent Night?” Margaret compromised. Even singing is a problem with different aged children, Margaret thought. She sat down at the piano, and the boys sat beside her on the bench. The piano was such a comfort to Margaret with Joe gone so much.
her hands touched the familiar keys:
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm; all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child,
Holy Infant, so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace …
Sleep in heavenly peace …
“Now, let’s open the presents,” Jamie said.
Margaret never remembered seeing Jamie so excited.
The custom of opening family presents on Christmas Eve had begun one of those first years that Joe had been in the Air Force. It helped to fill the empty hollow of Christmas Eve without him. Christmas morning wasn’t too lonely, as there were all the Santa Claus surprises.
Another custom which had arisen in the Conway family was the drawing of straws to see whose presents were to be opened first. The one who got the longest straw had the presents he was giving opened last. The middle straw was second, and the short straw, the first.
“Joey, you fix the toothpicks,” Jamie called excitedly, “and Mommie and I will draw. I hope my presents are opened first.”
Margaret drew first, the boys both insisted. Her straw was the middle one. Jamie drew, getting the longest straw, and Joey was left with the shortest. Joey’s presents were to be opened first.
Margaret hesitated to open her present from Joey, it was so beautifully wrapped. “Gift wrapped from Lothrop’s,” Margaret exclaimed. Carefully she slipped off the ribbons and turned back the gilt paper. There it was, a lovely nylon nightgown. “Oh, Joey, how beautiful!” She decided to express her thinks more fully later on; right now Jamie was opening his present from Joey, and all eyes were upon him.
“Ah! Just what I wanted!” Jamie chuckled, holding up a glove and mitt in miniature size. “Gee, thanks, Joey!”
It didn’t take long for the boys to open Margaret’s presents to them. They were blue striped pajamas which she had made herself. It was a tradition in the family to have new pajamas to wear to bed the eve of Christmas. Both boys took time out to go and undress and test the fit, which was perfect.
Jamie, in his excitement, brought his grotesquely wrapped packages to Joey and Margaret. “Here, Mommie, you unwrap yours first,” Jamie said.
Margaret’s package from Jamie wasn’t as big as Joey’s. She came to the little brown something after only four different colors of wrapping paper. She opened it and laid it flat. “Why, Jamie, a cute little manicure set! why, bless your little heart!” She reached over and drew his small pajama-clad body close to her. “I didn’t think you were big enough to go shopping all alone, but this proves you are. Well, Joey, it’s your turn to unwrap your present from Jamie.” Margaret looked over at Joey.
Joey untied and unwrapped box after box, and Jamie stood by giggling with excitement. And then, finally, the old powder box Margaret had discarded turned up, and Joey broke the string and looked inside. He picked up the balloon, and looked for something else, but that was all there was in the box, just the balloon.
Margaret’s heart faltered. She looked at Joey’s expressionless face, and then at Jamie’s wreathed in smiles. There was no doubt Jamie was pleased with the gift he had given. He was babbling something about spending all his money on Daddy and Mommie and seeing a sign, ‘Merry Christmas, little children, come in and get a balloon.” But when Jamie looked at Joey’s face, and didn’t see any smile, even Jamie realized the free balloon wasn’t such a good idea.
Still Joey’s face registered neither joy nor sadness, just blank, blank thinking. over and over in Margaret’s mind ran part of the words of a poem, or was it an essay? “The gift without the giver is bare.” But what about a gift without the receiver? Margaret wondered. Jamie had given his gift in good faith. The balloon was something Jamie himself would have enjoyed. he had made a priceless sacrifice in giving his present. If Joey could only look beyond a free balloon as a gift, and see the worth of the giving!
What was it Jesus had said, the widow with the mite had given more than all the others? Margaret found herself wishing Jamie had given her the balloon and the manicure set to Joey. If only she had known ahead, but it was too late now to connive any form of exchange.
Margaret breathed a prayer in the silence of the room. Dear Heavenly father, don’t let my boys hurt each other, just because they are ten years apart in age. The gift without the receiver is bare, then please, Father, give my Joey an understanding heart.
Margaret looked at Joey. Was that a sneer breaking out on his face? Was he going to laugh, or would the disappointed boy heart in him break down and cry? What was going through that half-boy, half-man mind of his?
Margaret watched Joey sprawled on the floor in his new pajamas. She had never realized how very large Joey’s hands were until he held that balloon between them and started blowing it up. Still his face was expressionless, and the silence was appalling. The balloon became larger and larger. Was he going to break the balloon, and with it, break the dreams Jamie had put into his mite of a present?
The balloon was so very large now! Would Joey ever stop blowing? At length Joey stopped, sized up the balloon, felt its perfect roundness, and tied the end securely and said: “Jamie, come here!”
Jamie, hungry for brother love, cuddled between Joey’s sprawled legs on the rug, their blue striped pajamas blending as one.
Margaret’s heart took up a slow beat as Joey started speaking.
“You know, Jamie, I told you and mother earlier this evening, there was something lacking when she hung that star on the top of the tree. Well, I know now what it is. The night Jesus was born, there was a big star, it shone, oh, even brighter than the big star at the top of our tree, but there was something else shining that night. there was a big blue moon behind that star. It was big and blue like this balloon you gave me.”
Joey unfolded his length, and reaching easily to the topmost branch of the tree, he tied the balloon securely behind the shining star. Margaret knew as he came back and cuddled Jamie in his arms again, that even though her boys were ten years apart, they would never be lacking in brotherly love.