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Country Life in America 11:177-183. December 1906

AN OLD-FASHIONED BOY'S CHRISTMAS

By JOSEPH C. LINCOLN
Photographs by Frances and Mary Allen

IT WAS coming. Already the breath of it was in the air. When you went clown to Baker's after a pound of currants and a quarter pound of citron— you and Gyp—you could feel it in the wind, blowing across the snow-covered fields and over the frozen salt meadows. The breakers, 'way off yonder along the outer bar, where the white ice-cakes ended and the deep blue water began, sang it to you. The rows of little icicles strung along the apple-tree limbs like the fringe on grandma's Cashmere shawl— the one pa brought home from sea and which she kept in the spare room bureau drawer, packed in camphor, because it was too nice to wear—clicked against each other as the boughs swung back and forth, and sounded like the sleigh-bells you used to dream about before you grew up and knew what was what concerning Santa Claus. It was coming! You had to stop in the snow and grin for sheer joy.

There are several photos in the original, which reproduced too poorly to include here.

boy and dog in a snowy landscape

"You had to stop in the snow and grin for sheer joy"

Down at Baker's it was very much in evidence. The real store was over at Orham, five miles off, but Cap'n Baker wasn't so old or near-sighted as not to see his duty and do it, after a fashion. The candy jars on the counter were filled with brand-new striped sticks. The cover was off the big box of prunes just in from Boston. Where the case of O. N. T. cotton used to stand, by the end of the pipe and tobacco show-case, a space had been cleared, and there was a collection of jack-knives and thimbles and "housewife's companions," and monkeys on sticks that jumped up and down when you worked them, and tin horses and carts, and some baby dolls for ten cents, and—and—lots more.

And further on there were some tidies that Aunt Tryphosa Baker had knit, and some splint-work photograph frames that Susie T. had made—splint-work was so pretty and so easy to do—and more really expensive things, including two plush books with "Album " in tin letters on the covers. The albums weren't new, however; Cap'n Baker had bought them three years before and hadn't yet been able to sell them. No wonder! they cost a dollar and a quarter apiece. Who wanted to spend that much money here at home, when you could go to Orham and have such a big assortment to choose from ?

"You tell your folks," says Cap'n Baker, adjusting a pair of specs—he used two pairs, one "nigh-to" and the other "fur-off"; "You tell your folks to home that when they want to buy their Christmas presents this year they ain't got to hitch up no team. Tell 'em to come and see me. You tell 'em that, now, will you ? Keep your hands out of them prunes."

Grandma was in the kitchen when you got back. The breath of the coming was there, too, and its odor was spicy and warm and sweet. The cookstove was red-hot, pretty near. When you wanted a quick, hot fire you put in pine. When you wanted a fire to keep, and to bake with, you started with the pine and then loaded in the heavy oak chunks. You knew all about it. Why shouldn't you ? Didn't you have to fill the oilcloth-covered wood-box every morning ? And who, if not you, piled the double rows on each side of the potato cellar ?—pitchy, sticky pine on one side, and oak, with the moss on the bark, on the other.

Grandma was making fruit cake. When it was done, she would frost it with some stuff like sugared cement or wall plaster, and put the loaves in the tin box in the parlor closet.

"Gramma."

"Well, Jimmie, what is it ? Don't bother me more'n you have to. I'm awful busy."

"Can I have just one currant ?"

"No, you can't. Well, just one then. Land sakes! Is that what you call one ? Clear out of this kitchen, quick."

"Aw, there ain't nowheres to go." It was Saturday, and therefore "no school."

"Why don't you go skating ? I saw the other boys going; Eddie Rogers and all."

"Aw, my skates ain't any good."

"No good ? Why, Jimmie Snow, how you talk! You ain't had those skates but two year, and——"

"Yes, but they don't wear that kind of skates any more. Old heelplates! Always have to be digging 'em out. Oak-legs—I mean Sammie Consodine—has got a pair of Ice Royals. Ain't they bully, though! Just have to put 'em against your shoe and push a thing in—a little mite of an iron thing—and they're on. No heelplates, nor screws, nor straps, nor nothing. Say, Gramma!"

"Um-hum."

"Say, Gramma! Gramma !"

"Well, well! What is it?"

"Won't you and Grampa get me a pair of Ice Royals for Christmas ? Aw, please."

"No, no. Course not. How many times are you going to ask that?"

"Aw, say, Gramma! Sammie Consodine's got 'em, and Snuppy Rogers's folks are going to give him some, and——"

"I can't help it. Tim Consodine's made money out of his cranberries this year, and your gran'pa's bogs didn't bear hardly anything. That kind of skates cost two dollars and a quarter; and that's a lot of money these hard times."

" Please, Gramma. I won't ask for a thing else if you'll only get them. Not one least little mite of a thing. Aw, please."

"No, no. Run along out of here."

"But Oaks and Snuppy'll have 'em. Please do, Gramma. I won't ask——"

"Well, well! we'll see. Do clear out and let me alone. I don't know whether I've put pepper or cinnamon into this cake; I snum if I do!"

You "hooked" another fistful of currants and departed, feeling, on the whole, hopeful. "We'll see," was encouraging. And besides, how did she know what the skates cost, if——

Grandma called alter you as you were leaving. She wanted to know if you wouldn't find the Twins and see what they were up to. She "cal'lated" they were over at the Rogers's. And would you be sure and ask Clorinda Rogers not to forget to send her the receipt for the pudding sass. Any time before Tuesday night would do.

The Twins were at the Rogers's. They were watching Mrs. Rogers—Snuppy's ma—make evergreen wreaths for the church. There was to be a Sunday School Christmas concert on the very next evening. That showed you how close at hand was the coming. Only one—two—three— four more days—and then!

You were to speak a piece at that concert, you remember. "In the solemn midnight," was it? Or "Somebody's Mother" ?

"The woman was old and ragged and gray,
And bent with the chill of the winter's day."

Perhaps that was it. And one of the Twins was to speak, "Hang up the baby's stocking."

The children were not to take part in the regular morning service that Christmas. The year before, when the new minister was very new, they had done so. The girls, all in their "Sunday-go-to-meeting" gowns, and happy, were in the gallery on one side of the organ, and the boys, in hated starchy collars and a generally wretched and rebellious state, were on the other side. And when it was very still, after the prayer, the girls piped up shrill and clear,

"Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of glory are."

And the boys answered back with,

"Traveller, o'er yon mountain height,
See that glory beaming star."

And so on.

All the fathers and mothers and the Sunday School teachers, who were in the secret, thought it "so cute" and "perfectly lovely." But old Deacon Mayo, who hadn't known it was coming and was asleep, jumped half out of his pew and made even the minister laugh. The Deacon all but called a parish meeting in consequence. "'Twas a healthy state of things if divine service was to be made a show of by a lot of play-acting young ones."

That evergreen smelt more Christmassy than anything else—more, even, than Grandma's kitchen. You and Snuppy had gathered it, up in the pines by Scudder's pond. You knew the place, of course, and you scraped away the snow and there it was, fresh and bright as could be. And you brought home "hog cranberry" vines with berries on them, and maybe a little holly from a bush you knew of. But holly was scarce.

Snuppy's ma—your own ma had died when the Twins were born; just before your pa was lost at sea—said that Eddie, which was Snuppy's dressed-up name, had gone skating. So, alter a while, you took the Twins on your sled and went up to find him.

And there, where the melting snow had made a long string of puddles among the stubs of last year's cornstalks, were Snuppy and "Oaks" Consodine and "Peeler" Davis, and more of the "gang." And the talk was all of the coming.

"I was over to Orham with Pa yesterday," says Oaks. "And Mullett's store's full of the rippingest things. Just heaps and heaps of 'em. And there's the bulliest magic lantern, with pictures to show. You hang up a sheet, and—

Aw, it's great! And I teased Pa, and I bet I'll get it for Christmas."

"Get out! Bet you don't. Why magic lanterns cost barrels of money! You won't get that, Oaks; don't be trying to show off."

But down in your envious heart you bet that he would get it. Why couldn't Grandpa's cranberry bogs bear as well as other people's It shook your confidence in religion, somehow. Grandpa was a "professor" in prayer meeting, and Oaks's pa swapped horses and didn't go to church, and even played with cards—or so it was reported. The kind of cards gamblers use, too; not those with letters on them, like your Logomachy set.

So you talked and speculated and wished all the war home. And so you did the next day, during the sermon. And when Grandma asked you for the text, you had forgotten it, and she begged to know what end you thought you were coming to.

When Sunday, concert and all, was over, and you went to school on Monday morning, it was just the same. The general atmosphere of hot stove, wet rubbers, and damp slates was much as usual, but in through the windows poured the December sun, cutting long, gold-powdered lanes through the dusty air. Just like the glory from heaven that streamed down upon the shepherds, as it was pictured in your "Story of the Bible." And girls and boys fidgetted, and whispered, and absent-mindedly missed in their lessons. And teacher didn't scold, for she, too, was absent-minded. There was that young man who came over from Harniss on Sundays; the one with the lavender trousers and black "Clay diagonal," who drove the fast horse. What would he bring her for this, the last Christmas before——

Even the "Injun camp" up in the scrub back of Peeler Davis's barn was corrupted by the disturbing influence. You had a fire there, and boiled potatoes in a tin kettle—really boiled 'em, just as Dick Lewis or Old Bob Kelley, the trappers, might have done. Bars and buffler! think of it. But now, instead of burning any one at the stake, or following rabbit tracks and pretending them to be those of grizzly bears, you stood around the fire and mused and guessed and hoped.

There was precious little fun in scalping a fellow, when he interrupted the operation to observe:

"Oh, say, Tinker! Did you hear what Ben Sears is going to have ? An air gun. Yes, sir! One that shoots shot. We must let him join the tribe; then maybe we can take it sometimes. Aw, cracky! Don't you wish you was him ?"

You and the other noble redmen strolled home through the dusk, bragging about the wonders that were to be yours, and loudly pitying little innocents, like the Twins, who didn't know any better than to believe in Santa Claus.

But the Twins didn't need any pity. They gloried in their ignorance and shouted demands and supplications up the fireplace, sure that Santa, listening at the chimney top, would hear and take notes. They sat, wide-eyed, as Grandma read them how:

"He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, And away they all flew like the down on a thistle."

They heard the sleighbells and the prancing hoofs already. Your lofty air of condescending superiority was entirely wasted on the Twins.

Grandpa came home from Orham on Tuesday, just before dark. The sleigh was filled with brown paper parcels. Most of these were intrusted to you to carry to the house.

"And don't you touch a thing, sonny; understand ? And go in the front door so 's the Twins won't hear you. Put the bundles on the bed in our room and send Grandma up there right off."

"But, Grampa, this ain't all. What's those others ? And what's that big one you've got under your coat ?"

boy in an icy landscape pulling a sled with 2 toddlers

"You took the Twins on your sled and went up ... among the stubs of last year's cornstalks"

"Never you mind. Trot right along. And see here! don't you tell Gramma you see me with anything else. If you do I'll—I don't know 's I won't skin you."

So you went tip-toeing in at the front door, the door so seldom used that to open it seemed strange even to you. And when you had disappeared, Grandpa hurried to the tool box in the back kitchen, where he deposited the big package, the heavy shawl that Grandma had long coveted but didn't "feel right to afford," and the little box containing the jet earings shaped like daisy blossoms. And meanwhile Grandma, upstairs in the bedroom, was hastily locking up the almost finished "double knit driving mittens" that were to keep Grandpa's toil-roughened hands warm later on.

The old house was filled with secrets. Closet doors were locked and bureau drawer keys had flown. It was all mysterious and creepy and—splendid.

 boys around a campfire

"At the 'Injun Camp' up in the scrub back of Peeler Davis's barn ... you stood around the fire and mused and guessed and hoped"

Down at the post office—which was Baker's store under its other name—the crowd waiting that evening for the mail to be sorted was larger than usual; and it had to wait longer, too. When the depot wagon drove up to the door and the carrier entered with the bulging leather sack, Cap'n Baker resigned the tidy and album trade to Aunt Tryphosa and disappeared into the little room behind the frames of letter boxes. Occasionally you caught glimpses of him, holding a small package to the light, and peering doubtfully at the address through his "nigh to" glasses.

"Now hold on, all hands!" commands the Cap'n, pushing up the slide of the distributing window. "Don't everybody shove and holler. There's a whole mess of these 'ere bundles."

He proceeds to read the names on the wrappers, stammering and hesitating and stopping occasionally to wipe his spectacles. One by one the packages are claimed. "Oaks" Consodine gets one and leaves in triumph. The schoolteacher's name is called and her young brother steps forward to receive a neat oblong box tied with red ribbon. You get three; one for yourself and one for each of the twins. The post-mark was Eastboro—Aunt Susan's folks, of course.

And at last, it was here, the night when "all through the house"—and the rest of it. The Twins, wild with excitement, were packed off to bed. To sleep ? Well, not for the first hour, at any rate.

Half-past eight. You took the candlesticks from the kitchen mantel.

"Good night, Gramma. Good night, Grampa."

"Good night, Jimmie. Shut your door tight, and go right to sleep."

horse-drawn sleigh on a snowy street, towing a child on a sled, with several other children near

"Grandpa came home from Orham on Tuesday"

It was cold, mighty cold, up in the little bedroom with the window under the eaves and the painted bunches of flowers on the bedstead and bureau and washstand. The feathers felt soft and snug beneath you, and blankets and the "log cabin" quilt warm above. The wind talked and whimpered around the window. Outside it was all white and shiny and still. You must go to sleep quick because that would bring the morning. But you simply couldn't sleep. Why was it necessary tor the night before Christmas to last a million years ? How about those sheep jumping the wall ? "One—two—three .... twenty-six—twenty-seven. . . . forty-one—forty-two .... for——"

sleigh with packages and driver, in a farm-yard, with 2 children near

"The sleigh was filled with brown paper parcels. Most of these were intrusted to you to carry to the house"

You know now—you didn't know it then—that, down in the dining-room, the brown paper packages were piled on the floor and Grandpa was cutting the strings. The stockings—not the Twins' own stockings: oh no! they were too small; but a pair of Grandma's—were hanging by the mantel.

Little by little they grew warty and dropsical and shapeless. Grandpa undoes another package. Grandma, standing with the candle in her hand—she is just about to light it—looks on.

"He'll be awful tickled, with them skates," says Grandpa, musingly. "Land sakes! he'd ought to be; they cost enough."

"Yes, I know," replies Grandma. "But I'm so glad you got 'em for him. Seems to me that—that 'twould have pleased James so. He set such store by that boy."

"Maybe he knows about it, Mary. Maybe he does."

"Maybe so."

A silence, and then the candle was lighted and the door closed. The old house shut its eyes. The wind sang and whistled. The icy sleigh-bells on the apple-tree boughs clinked and chimed. The stars shone bright and clear, just as they must have shone over Bethlehem.

"Gramma! Gramma!"

"Well, what is it ? I can't hardly hear myself think, them children make such a racket."

"Gramma, sit down a minute and let me show you. See; it's just like I said: all you have to do is put it against your foot and push in this little lever thing. There!"

"Do you like 'em ?"

"You just bet!" There is a little shake in your voice, a quiver of pure, unadulterated happiness, such as comes not too often in a lifetime. Grandma hears it, and her spectacles grow misty. Her boy's boy! She takes off the spectacles and wipes them.

Your own eye-glasses grow misty, now, as you think of it.

Ah, hum. . . . Well. . . . Merry Christmas!


saltbox house with lit windows, surrounded by tall trees, in the snow

"A silence, and then the candle was lighted and the door closed. The old house closed its eyes"


posted June 2004 by CapeCodHistory.us