From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1936 –
An Old Fashioned Christmas
By Zipporah L. Stewart
It was June. Ebenezer Brown arose very early after a sleepless night in the old rock farm house in Eden Valley. With a heavy step he went out through the kitchen and onto the back porch. The house dog sprang out from the corner for his usual morning greeting, only to turn back disappointedly without a word from the man who did not even see him.
Out through the yard gate past the barn and over the old creek bridge and through the cow pasture he strolled, to a clump of wood at the right of a field of corn that he, with Jim, had planted just yesterday.
Ebenezer sat down, rested his head on two sturdy work worn hands and gazed over his eighty acres. Better than fifty years ago, when just a young man, he had helped grub the sage from these fields. For forty years he had paid taxes on them. Not one year had they been delinquent. They were his very own. He understood and loved them. With Ann by his side he had made a home for six boys and girls, five of whom had left to make homes of their own in the neighboring country side.
Today as he reviewed the past, his heart was bitter. Somehow things did not seem worth striving for. Jim, his youngest boy, whom he thought he could lean and depend upon to carry on the work in the fields now that he and Ann were growing old, had failed him.
This lad hated farm life; these corn and hay fields, the barn and cow sheds, yes, even the rock farm house was old fashioned and ugly to him. He wanted real life. A city with lights, moving cars, modern homes, shows, laughter, girls, who could give him all the thrills his heart called for.
Today, Ebenezer felt nearer Ann than ever before. She was the only one who knew and understood. She had been by his side, always. She had helped to plan and build the rock farm house. She had held the young trees in the hole, while he had packed the dirt around their roots. She had watered them and together they had watched them grow to stately beautiful shade trees, that almost covered the house and out building sin the yard.
These and more thoughts went through the mind of Ebenezer Brown as he sat on the wood stump near the corn field. They had so absorbed his mind, that he had failed to notice the sun rise with its lovely colors and the haze it spread over the hills back of him. A meadow lark on a cedar post nearby pouring out his morning song, was unheard by this man with a heavy heart.
Suddenly he became aware that he was wasting time. It was getting late. The cows must be milked in time for the milk man who called at seven. He arose, half startled as if he had experienced a stupid ugly dream. He walked hurriedly toward the house. as he turned and went over the bridge by the barn he noticed Jim coming toward him with his best clothes on. He was walking defiantly as though he meant business and was going to put it over right now. They met at the yard gate. These two men who were filled with pent up, angry emotions, burst forth immediately into a series of decisive sharp angry words. Words that cut deep into the heart of each and made jagged wounds, that only time could erase.
In the farm house Ann brown was preparing breakfast. She knew that father and Jim were always disagreeing about the farm, and going to the city to live. In her quiet way she had soothed them and smoothed things over to keep peace. She felt that Jim was only young and father didn’t understand boys anyway.
Ann was startled when Jim came bounding through the back door demanding that she pack the family suitcase at once, for he was going away. He was tired of it all. He was going where people understood him. Where he could enjoy life and see things.
She was convinced now that the climax had come, that she could do no more. In her quiet way, with tears falling from her pale cheeks she went to the attic and found the suitcase that had been unused for many years. She dusted it off and packed it with freshly ironed shirts, underwear and socks. It wasn’t much for Jim to leave with, but it carried all he owned.
In the kitchen she found Jim pacing restlessly back and forth. he took the suitcase, gave his mother a hurried kiss on the forehead, and rushed out the front door and up the lane to the main highway.
Ann dropped to her rocking chair in the corner, convulsed with sobs that seemed to tear heart and soul apart.
The days and weeks that followed at the Brown farm home were sad ones. Father Brown kept up a haughty pride that would not give in when Ann had tried to persuade him to go to the city to search for their boy and bring him home again.
Fall came. Crops were gathered. The pantry and cellar as usual were filled to overflowing for winter. Far more than was needed for the table of Ann and Ebenezer. But the children and grandchildren were always coming home for a few days, and then too, they must have something to take back with them.
Thanksgiving came, then Christmas and the holidays were passed, spring and planting time had come again. Ann had watched and waited every day for Jim’s return or for a letter telling where he was, but all in vain. His place was always set at the table and at night the door was never locked for fear he might return and find it so. Three years passed and no message had come.
It was Christmas time. The snow was piled high; in places it covered the fences and sheds. Ann Brown had spent days preparing for Christmas. The children and grandchildren would all be home; what a crowd they made. Not only had she been preparing food, but for weeks and months before this she had been working on gifts for all of them. From scraps of old woolens she had pieced two large quilts for the two older girls and filled them with home carded wool. A number of fluffy, soft pillows had been made from the down off her geese she had plucked during the summer months. These she would give to her son’s wives. For the three older boys she had knitted woolen socks. They would give extra comfort when the boys were out after cattle on cold days. Warm mittens, scarfs and caps were crocheted or knitted for each of the grandchildren. These were carefully wrapped in bright colored papers tied with Christmas cord and safely hidden away in a large box in her bedroom ready for Christmas morning when the children would be there, and the annual Christmas party would take place in the old fashioned living room.
At last Christmas Eve had arrived. Ann Brown gave a tired sigh as she sat down in her rocker by the little window in the kitchen. On her range stove two large plum puddings were simmering. In her pantry, the shelves were loaded with good things to eat – pumpkin and mince pies, a large platter of home made honey candy. Best of all two large fine turkeys, the pick of her flock, were stuffed ready for the oven. She had spent the afternoon at this task, and felt quite relieved and proud when she put the on the shelf. A basket of shining apples and two huge logs were placed by the open fire place. Over the old mantle shelf and on top of the bookcase she had arranged pine boughs. On these, bits of white cotton were dotted around with shining tinsel scattered over to represent sparkling snow. Streamers of red and green paper hung from the corners of the room, and were draped in the middle to the cords of the hanging lamp. The lamp itself was adorned with green bows and tinsel. The very atmosphere of her home breathed a true spirit of Christmas. While Ann was happy and satisfied with her Christmas preparations, tonight somehow she felt such a longing for her lost boy.
It was early twilight outside, and a bitter cold night. Ann wondered why father was so long with his chores. She thought he must be giving the cattle an extra feed of oats and perhaps fresh straw beds for Christmas Eve. As she looked out her window across the fields of white, she noticed a small dark spot in the snow at the head of the lane. It seemed to be moving toward the house. Father must have let one of his cattle out. What a job it would be getting it in this cold night with the snow so deep.
She watched more closely, the dark object came nearer. She could see that it was a man with a suitcase. She thought it was some traveler who had lost his way in the deep snow drifts and was coming here for warmth and shelter for the night.
She stepped to the stove and added more coal to her fire and pushed the soup kettle forward. Whoever it was he must be hungry and cold.
In a few moments this stranger had entered the front gate and rounded the corner past the kitchen window and onto the back porch. Ann Brown opened the door. Immediately she was enveloped in two strong arms, and her face was smothered with kisses. “Mother” was the only word spoken. Words were unnecessary. Both understood.
Jim noticed the extra place set at the kitchen supper table. “Were you expecting someone, mother?” he asked. She answered, “Yes, Jim, you.”
In a moment the father’s step was heard on the porch. A feeling of terror seemed to strike at the heart of Ann Brown, a flash of the harsh angry words spoken that morning in June, when Jim had left home, went through her mind. She knew how stern and almost stubborn father had been about the whole affair. Now what would he do? Could he forgive this wanderer who had come home on Christmas Eve?
Jim seemed to experience the same feeling of terror. The old man stepped into the room. He stood for a moment, almost as if he were frozen to the spot. His eyes were round and glassy, the lines of his face were hardened with the old emotion he had felt when the boy had gone away. Jim saw this, but with his heart and very being filled with forgiveness that only one feels who has truly repented, he sprang forward to embrace his father. Instantly as if by magic the old man’s heart was softened. He gently caressed and welcomed this wanderer back to their fireside again.
What a glorious Christmas Eve the Browns spent. The bitterness of the past was forgotten and only happy plans for the future were talked of. Life seemed suddenly to be worth while. They were all so happy with the satisfaction that comes with true forgiveness and repentance.
Jim’s blue eyes filled with tears when he saw the pantry shelves loaded with the Christmas feast, and his mother related to him the plans for the morrow.
Christmas morning Jim was up bright and early making fires and doing chore about the place. Father was made to understand that his place was indoors on cold mornings.
Breakfast was soon over, and the turkeys were put to cook. Father wanted dinner at noon or soon after. He never liked this idea some city folks had of serving it at three or four o’clock. Besides, the children were all hungry at noon.
About ten o’clock sleigh bells and merry voices were heard outside. The children had come and what a happy surprise it was when Jim came out to greet them.
When greetings were over, the horses unhitched and taken to the barn, wraps and overshoes put to dry, the family gathered around the open fire place for the real Christmas fun. Mother’s great box of gifts was dragged out from behind her bedroom door. Her home made remembrance for each seemed to be the greatest thrill of all. Everyone large and small gave and received presents. Grandfather presented each child with a large orange, and what a treat this was. Jim also had his share of last minute remembrances.
Father, watching his big silver watch, kept time for the party and reminded mother when it was noon.
At twelve-thirty the family was all seated around two long tables. How interesting those two tables were with their variety of grandmother’s old fashioned chairs around them – big chairs, little chairs, chairs that wore signs of many coats of paint. These had been decorated to match the woodwork in the kitchen from year to year. There were chairs with velvet backs adorned with crocheted medallions. Two rosewood chairs with wicker bottoms that came from the first bedroom set were brought out for these special occasions. The wash bench with a quilt thrown over it finished the lineup around the children’s table.
Everyone, old and young, was eager to begin. With Jim home it was complete. Everyone was happy. Ebenezer Brown sat in his old fashioned arm chair at the head of the table and as this family sat with heads bowed he offered a blessing on the food.
After dinner they all seemed a bit stupid – a Christmas feast that Ann Brown had prepared was apt to react that way in spite of the best digestive organs.
It was not long, however, before the fun began again. A program was arranged by one of the older girls and everyone took a part. Father sang an old fashioned song and step-danced on the hearth stone to the delight of the younger ones. A variety of talent was displayed. Old fashioned songs and stories down to the later songs and modern poems were recited and sung.
Later in the afternoon the apple basket was passed around. When the fire bed was just right Father Brown began to pop the corn, what a pile of it he did pop. Part of it they flavored with yellow butter and salt and the rest was flavored with molasses, and molded into large popcorn balls for the younger ones. The homemade honey candy and dishes of pine nuts were passed around. everyone seemed to have an endless cavity inside to fill, for on these days there was always room for more.
At last it was time for this Christmas party to end. It was so cold outside, and the children they felt must get home before it was too late. Rocks were heated and put around in the sleighs to keep the little folks warm. Mother Brown had prepared a few turkey sandwiches for those who felt the need of a little more nourishment.
When the last sleigh load was snugly tucked in and had driven away, the old couple listened to the tinkle of their sleigh bells in the cold night air, until they faintly died away in the distance.
The rooms of the farm home that were so orderly in the morning, now presented an upside-down appearance. Bits of honey candy, nut shells, popcorn and colorful scraps from the Christmas wrappings were scattered all over the floor. This did not seem to worry Ann Brown in the least. everyone had been so happy. Why should she worry, if a little candy was stuck to her best carpet. It would be so easy to sponge off.
With the help of father and Jim things were soon put in their places, and the worst of the litter gathered up. she would arrange things in apple pie order in the morning, after she had rested.
Ebenezer, Ann and Jim were sitting in the twilight around the last dying embers of the fire that had burned so brightly during the day. The fire, too, seemed to feel that it had done its best to add to the Christmas cheer, and was now about to fade away for the night. The still quietness of the old house seemed to bring with it a feeling of melancholy after such a joyous day, when its walls had fairly echoed with laughter and shouts of merry children.
As these three were about to part for the night, they knelt together. The voice of Ebenezer Brown was heard in an earnest prayer of thanksgiving to God, for his blessed home and family, and for Jim, his youngest boy, who had repented and come home.