From the Improvement Era, December 1954 –
Christmas in a Nutshell
By Yvonne Child Hiss
Becky lifted the basket of clothes and stepped out into the frosty morning air. She held her face in her collar to hold the warmth of her breath and started courageously toward the clotheslines, struggling to keep the basket above the deep snow.
“It’s a good morning,” Becky said to herself, “for today Papa comes home from his trip to the settlement.” She peered over the basket and intently watched her feet so she could step in the footprints already in the snow, made by her previous trips to the line. “Papa will bring presents,” she thought, “and food, and maybe surprises!”
The clothes on the line rattled like skeletons against each other and bobbed stiffly up and down as she lifted the steaming pieces from the basket and quickly hung them up.
Peter would come home with Papa, big brother Peter who was thirteen and who had been staying in town with Bishop Osburne’s family. He had been gone two months now, to work and go to school, and it would be good to see him again.
“Peter must go to school all winter!” Papa had said, “for someday Peter Hansen will be a great man!”
Becky blew on her hands to ease the ache in her numb fingers. “It is good there are not many more clothes,” she sighed. “My fingers will not work quickly now. They move slowly like the poor crooked hands of Katrina Black’s grandmama.”
At that thought she worked with renewed vigor and finally hung the last pair of socks on the line with a flourish. Then, slinging the basket over her shoulder, she picked her way along the path back to the washshed.
Mama was standing over the boiler stirring the clothes with a stick. Her blonde hair was done in two neat braids, but wisps of hair curled along her perspiring forehead.
“Is now the last batch,” she smiled at Becky. “You have worked well – and with no complaining. Mama is proud of you.”
Becky flushed under her fond gaze. “Is it not time for Papa to come?” she asked.”The sun is beginning to go down.”
Mama frowned and wiped the steam from the windowpane to peer out at the road. “Ya, it is just about time,” she answered. “We must hurry and get to the cooking or dinner will not be ready. Come, we lift the boiler down, Rebecca.”
Becky dropped a creamy white potato into the pan and started dutifully peeling another. She kept listening for the sound of the sleigh that would bring Papa and the presents. “There is no use to wonder what they will be, though,” she sighed to herself. “Always they must be the same; new boots for Papa and shoes for the rest of the family, only this year Peter would have boots, too, and cloth for each that Mama must sew into clothes.”
Becky frowned a little as she thought of the presents she would give. Always she and Peter put their money together to buy gifts. Peter would buy some pen points for Papa and yarn for Mama, and he had made willow whistles for the boys.
She searched for an idea. There should be something she could give that would be special for Mama alone. The yarn always ended up made into socks for the boys or a muffler for Papa, but never into anything for Mama. There had to be something special! But what? There were only five days until Christmas!
Her reverie was interrupted by the noises of the sleigh and horses outside. She hurriedly put the pot of potatoes on to boil and skipped out of the door to meet the arrivals.
The boys climbed all over the sleigh, and Peter industriously shooed them out of the packages. Papa kissed Mama and put his arm around her, then turned to Becky, and taking her hand they started toward the house.
Becky shivered at the delightful crunch and squeak an complaining of the snow under Papa’s big boots as he walked. Mistaking it for cold, Papa hurried them into the house.
“I have a surprise for you,” he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. “Something quite wonderful, and you won’t have; to wait until Christmas! Only wait until Peter and I unpack the sleigh.”
The children were seated around the fireplace in wriggling anticipation when Papa opened the door, stomping the snow off his feet as he came in. Seven-year-old David could contain himself no longer. “What is it, Papa?” he squealed, clutching at the big sack Papa was carrying.
“David!” Becky tried to restrain him, but it was too late. The sack slipped from Papa’s grasp and fell to the floor. Little round balls bounced and clattered in every direction.
Papa smiled. “Is all right, don’t cry, Davie,” he said. “You see, they are walnuts – English walnuts! Bishop Osburne sent them home to us!” Then getting on his knees he roared playfully, “Come on, now we will hunt for our treat like a treasure!”
It was a merry gathering that night in the little farmhouse. The fire crackled as it devoured the shells, and the children laughed as they ate the nuts. Becky was kept busy cracking nuts for little Karl and baby Benjie, although it must be confessed that she was busier keeping shells out of Benjie’s inquisitive mouth than putting nuts in.
Finally Mama saw her plight and said, “Take some nuts for yourself, Rebecca. Mama will feed the babies for a while.”
Becky looked at the nut in her hand. It was beautifully grooved and golden. Suddenly a glow came into her eyes. “I know!” she said to herself, “I know now what I’ll do for a present for Mama.” And she cracked her nuts carefully so as not to crush the shells.
Becky set the steaming bowls of gruel on the table. It smelled deliciously of cinnamon and nutmeg, and she was very hungry. They had taken the little tree decorated with suet and bread and berries for the birds and set it by the grave in the orchard. They always put the tree by the grave because Mama said that would make it so the little dead baby sister could share in the Christmas, too.
Now they must eat their breakfast, and then they could open the packages and the stockings that were bulging so enticingly on the mantlepiece. Becky coaxed the gruel into Benjie’s mouth and hastily swallowed her gruel between his bites.
“I’m ready!” announced David loudly.
“Just one minute!” cautioned papa, “we all go in together.”
“Come Benjie,” said Mama, lifting him from his chair, “we go to see the tree now!” and the family trouped into the front room.
Never was there such a glorious Christmas! The stockings were filled with candy and nuts and popcorn, and in the very toe was an orange! Never did one see such a wonderful thing as an orange, except on Christmas.
Becky was in tearful ecstasies over her doll. Mama had made the cloth body to be sure, but the head – the head was of china – beautiful, delicate china! Everyone was exclaiming over his gifts, and Benjie was eating everything within his reach, stockings, paper, orange, peel, and all. Finally all the presents were opened except Mama’s.
“I wonder why Mama never opens hers until last?” Becky thought, “maybe it’s because she already knows what will be in them.” She picked up her present. “Open this one, Mama,” she whispered.
Mama smiled and took the package. She opened it, and with an expression of pleased wonderment came into her face. “Oh, it is beautiful!” she exclaimed.
There in the package lay a cluster of three nutshells tied together with ribbon. Nestling in each shell cup was a tiny bouquet of delicate flowers which Becky had painstakingly fashioned from her own hair and some softly tinted down feathers.
“Do you like it?” Becky asked anxiously.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Mama, the tears brimming in her eyes. “I will wear it on my dress this very Sunday. I will wear it to church for all to see!”
Anne glanced again at the small envelope which lay on her dressing table and an expression of mingled pleasure and distaste came into her face. Miss Rebecca Anne Osburne – Anne looked at the name which caused her displeasure. Why had Mother picked such a revoltingly old-fashioned name as Rebecca? it sounded as if it belonged in a log cabin or a musty old book! Just because Grandmother Gregerson had been named Rebecca, Becky Hansen, she was called. Oh, well, Rebecca was her name, and there seemed to be nothing she could do about it except inform everyone that she preferred to be called Anne. Anyway, if she was going to the party with Bob tonight she had better get busy.
She snatched her coat from the back of the chair and fairly flew down the hall.
“Where are you going, Anne?” Mrs. Osburne called as she saw her daughter hurrying toward the door.
“I’ve got to do some shopping, Mother, and I’ve really got to rush if I make it to the party.” Anne opened the door. “I’ll talk to you when I get back,” she flung over her shoulder as she went out.
She hopped into her new cream convertible and eyed it proudly as she started the motor. This was her Christmas present from the family. Of course she had it two months early, but as she told Dad, she’d rather have it at the beginning of school and be able to use it than wait until Christmas, anyway. Christmas was just for kids and Anne was sixteen.
As she drove along the busy streets, her irritation grew. “All these people running around look so foolish!” she thought, “yes, as foolish as chickens with their heads cut off!”
She checked her list – Cuff links for Dad, gun set for little brother Jamie – “I wonder if he still believes in Santa?” she mused – Blouse for her best friend, Gloria, and – Oh dear! She’d have to get something for Carla Mitchell. Carla had given her a compact last year, and Anne hadn’t had a gift for her. It had been very embarrassing. “I’ll get her some perfume,” Anne decided, “and then she probably won’t have a gift for me this year! Oh, well.”
Anne stepped out of the car and pushed her way along the street. The stores were crowded, and she heaved a sigh of relief when she crossed the last name from her list. She started back to the car – then suddenly she remembered, she hadn’t bought a gift for Mother!
“I’ll put these packages in the car, then I’ll go back and get that rhinestone pin in McMonah’s Jewelry.”
Anne climbed the stairs to the attic and unlocked the door. She groped in the dimness and finally found the light switch.
“My goodness, but it’s gloomy up here!” she exclaimed. “Mother ought to have the attic remodeled. It could be rather nice and cozy, but then, she’s only interested in impressing people, not making cozy attics.”
She picked her way past furniture and boxes. “Mother said I’d find Grandmother’s dresses in the big trunk in the corner. Now if I can only get to it. I’m supposed to be dressed as the ‘Spirit of Christmas Past.’ I hope I can find something suitable.”
She climbed over an old table and moved an old chiffonier with creaking casters, and finally reached her goal. The lid was heavy with dust, and Anne couldn’t resist tracing her name with her finger before lifting the lid and delving into the trunk’s contents.
As she lifted each dress, her excitement grew. “Why, these are lovely!” she exclaimed unbelievingly. “I didn’t expect anything like this.” There were filmy summer dresses and odd straight dresses of the ’20’s. Suddenly near the bottom of the trunk she spied a dress of dark green velvet.
The minute Anne lifted the dress, she knew this was the one she wanted. It was a deep rich velvet with a bustle of creamy lace. The top was low on the shoulders, but modestly filled with a high yoke of tucked lace, buttoning up the back with tiny velvet buttons.
“I’ll take it over to Mrs. Morgan’s. She can fit it, then get it pressed while I get my hair done.” She paused in front of the old dresser to admire herself in the mirror. “Yes,” she sighed, “this green really shows my blonde hair off to advantage. I’ll have my hair sprinkled with glistening snow and pin it with a sprig of holly and mistletoe. I really believe I’ll win the prize!”
She held the dress carefully and hurried down the stairs. Once inside her room she shook out the folds of the skirt. As she did so, a small package wrapped in tissue dropped to the floor.
“What’s this?” she said in surprise as she stooped to retrieve it. She opened the tissue, and there lay three nutshells filled with a tiny cluster of delicate flowers. “Oh, how quaint! I wonder how it would look on the dress?”
She eyed it critically. “If I took off the ribbon and tied it with a bit of gold –” She worked quickly, then with a dubious expression held it up to survey the results. Her eye caught sight of the small words printed on the back. On each shell were two words; together they read – To Mama – Merry Christmas – Love Becky.
“Grandma must have given this to her mother for Christmas! Can you imagine! My, how times have changed.” But for a moment she felt a twinge of envy, thinking of the love and closeness that Grandma must have felt with her mother, to give such a simple, intimate gift.
“I can imagine my mother’s face if I gave her nutshells for Christmas! It’s not sentiment that counts anymore, it’s money,” she thought bitterly, then with a mock flippancy added, “and thank goodness, the Osburnes have plenty of what counts!”
She laughed, then dropped the shells into the white box on her dresser. “I’ll lay it in here with Mother’s rhinestone pin so it won’t get broken until time for the party. – On second thought, I won’t wear it. It’s really too silly. I’ll take it upstairs with the dress tomorrow.”
She swept the dress gaily into her arms and hurried out. The clock was chiming four. “I’ve got to run if I’m ready by eight!” she said, “I won’t have time to get my presents wrapped, but I can have the maid do it for me. I’ll go tell her right now.”
Anne opened one sleepy eye and looked at the clock, fifteen minutes to eight, it said. She pulled the covers up over her head. Jamie was shooting it up in the living room with his new guns.
“Why do kids get up at such unearthly hours?” she moaned. “A person can’t get any peace and quiet!”
The gunplay continued.
Reluctantly she sat up and slipped her feet into her scuffs. “Just as well get up. Can’t sleep with Jamie thinking he’s Hopalong Cassidy.” Of course, it was Christmas morning and you had to make some allowances.
She threw her robe over her shoulders and plodded sleepily down the hall. The rest of the family would have their presents open. She wondered how they liked her gifts. As she splashed her face with cold water and gave her hair a quick brush, she pondered on this question.
“I wonder how Mother liked the pin? Of course, it’s only rhinestones, and she should have nothing less than diamonds, but at least it wasn’t shells! I guess she won’t care enough to notice what it is, though – or even wear it.”
She sauntered nonchalantly into the living room. Mother and Dad were on the floor by the tree, and Jamie was brandishing a couple of six-shooters.
“Stick ‘em up! I gotcha covered!” he shouted, crouching at Anne with a fierce scowl. “Boy, Sis! This is just what I needed. Must of cost you a fortune, though. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” she answered with an indulgent smile.
“The cuff links are perfect,” Dad said, holding up the box.
“And the pins were lovely.” Mrs. Osburne’s enthusiasm was genuine. She nodded toward the rhinestones, lying in the white box on the floor. “The rhinestones are very beautiful, but this” – she put her hand to her dress – “this is the sweetest thing you have ever given to me! Where on earth did you find it? It’s enchanting – and I couldn’t be more touched with the words you had inscribed on the back – from Becky! I always wanted you to go by that name, it makes me feel closer to you.”
She came over to Anne and put her arms around her daughter.
Anne’s eyes bulged, and her throat choked up. This was the first time in years that Mother had ever put her arms around her, and there were tears in Mother’s eyes. Cold, aloof Mother, crying for joy – and the pin. Now, there it was on Mother’s dress, tied with a gold ribbon – three nutshells!
Anne felt the tears stinging her own eyes. Maybe Mother did care after all. “Strange,” she thought, “that such a little thing could recover what I’ve been missing all these years – and Mother must have been missing it, too.”
Dad came over to them. Anne noticed that even he seemed to be affected by this “reunion” – his voice seemed a bit husky.
“It looks like we’ve found our Christmas in a nutshell,” he said, and together they walked into the dining room for breakfast.
And Jamie? Why, he was so impressed that he forgot to take his guns to the table!