The Christmas Spirit

by Trish Humphrey
December 1, 1979

I wrote this little story of Christmas when I was a mere 14 years old, so please forgive the childlike simplicity of the complex issues in the story. At 14, I barely knew how to sort these things out. I wrote the story not long after my parents’ divorce. They had each remarried other people by then, and my relationship with my father was tenuous at best. I both missed him terribly, and missed the idea of him, more than the man himself. I wrote this story as a way of expressing my feelings about him and gave it to him for Christmas. I don’t think he really got it, though he appreciated the story on some other level. At least the kid in me wants to think so.

I don’t consider myself any more Christian these days than I do a person who embraces the principles of multiple faiths… and yet, I can appreciate the need for simplicity at Christmas. To me now, as someone who was 14 far too long ago, this story is more about the simplicity of Christmas. I hope you enjoy it.

The Christmas Spirit

old photograph of farm house in the snow

old photograph of farm house in the snow

The snow had fallen with an unusual dullness earlier that morning, so when Elizabeth woke she was surprised to see the white velvet covering the world outside her window. For a single moment she stared in complete joy and satisfaction.

Her wonderful thoughts were shattered, however, when she looked back into her old, shabby house. She found it impossible to see how a world so full of beauty could be ruined by a small building that was so aesthetically offensive.

Her eyes slowly scanned the dark room, and she detested what she saw. The room was tidy, but not clean. Her curtain was terribly torn, and her once white bed linens were now yellow and ragged. She looked across the room and saw the saddest sight of all – her younger sister, Erin.

Elizabeth’s silent thoughts were suddenly broken by the familiar call of her mother’s voice. “Bethy! Wake your sister; it’s time for breakfast!” Without a word she walked over to Erin’s crib and shook her gently. The two of them walked slowly into the kitchen, which already seemed to be buzzing full of life.

Their mother was already up, dressed, and cooking when they came in. Elizabeth stopped for a moment to study her mother’s face – a picture lined with worry. But she saw, somewhere underneath all of the tiny wrinkles, a beautiful woman. Elizabeth smiled and hoped that someday she would grow up to be truly lovely, like her mama.

“You’d best stop day-dreamin’, Bethy! Your Uncle Ned will be here in two hours to take you girls to find a tree. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, do you remember?”

Truthfully, she had forgotten, and she was surprised to see that her mother remembered. “Of course, Mama, I knew that,” and she offered a shy smile.

Uncle Ned would be there soon, and neither of the girls were ready. After finishing their breakfasts, the two girls began their chores. Actually, they were Elizabeth’s chores; Erin just watched.

After the chores were completed, Elizabeth rummaged through her closet for an immaculate dress. She chose the best she could find – a brown calico. She then ran a comb through her thick, blonde curls. She stepped back to gaze at herself in her old cracked looking-glass. “What do you think, Erin?” she questioned.

“Pretty,” the child said. “No, byoo-tee-ful!”

In the living room she heard the familiar voice of her Uncle Ned. Because he was not much older than herself, she rather enjoyed his company. He was quite nice-looking, Elizabeth thought. He was tall and strong. He didn’t have a girl in his life, or if he did, Elizabeth didn’t know about her.

Elizabeth helped Erin on with her shawl, and proceeded to button her own. The two girls eagerly walked out to greet their uncle, who was waiting for them in the doorway. “Hey kids, let’s go!” He was cheerful this morning, Elizabeth could tell, and she was glad. “Hey, Lizzy,” he said, “How’s your schoolwork?”

“It’s okay, I suppose.” Elizabeth could never understand why school was always mentioned in every conversation. Uncle Ned picked Erin up, and they left.

All of them were unusually solemn, for only two years ago, this annual trip was made with Elizabeth’s father along. Not much more than a year ago, he was killed at war, leaving his wife alone with two daughters. Oh, she missed him! Last year, there was no Christmas tree at all. This year, the trip was only depressing.

Uncle Ned broke the silence. “Try to cheer up, Lizzy. I can understand what you’re going through, but face up to it for your mama’s sake.”

Elizabeth said nothing.

By dusk, they returned with the biggest pine Uncle Ned’s wagon could carry. Mama had their supper ready and waiting, and they all ate, except for Erin. She was too excited.

Trimming the tree, Elizabeth found, wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. But Erin was happy, and Elizabeth had a certain responsibility to keep her that way. It was getting late, so they all turned in. Tomorrow’s day would start early.

Mama and Uncle Ned were up before the dawn; Elizabeth could hear them in the kitchen. They weren’t talking of happy holiday things; Mama was crying. In between the sobs, Elizabeth heard her mother:

“Really, Ned, I don’t know what I’m going to do. The war left us with nothing. It ruined our house, and left us with no money. It took your brother.”

“I know that, but life marches on, whether you choose to or not.”

“Yes, but the holiday is so lonely without Frank. I’ve managed to get a couple of things for the children, but it’s not the same. It’s not much.”

“Look, they’re not expecting anything. Erin was excited enough just to see the tree decorated.”

“And Bethy?”

“Lizzy just needs a little time.”

There the conversation ended. Elizabeth’s mind played for a while on what she had heard. True, she did need more time, but was she being selfish? For the first time she had heard her mama speak the real truth, no hesitations. She now knew that Mama was as scared and lonely as she.

Soon, she heard the same old familiar call, “Bethy, wake your sister. It’s time for breakfast.

When the two of them entered the kitchen, Mama looked the same as usual, and Elizabeth wondered if her mother had spent many early mornings as she had this one. Probably…

But today was different from most. It was Christmas Eve, which only comes once a year. Tonight, Mama, Uncle Ned, Elizabeth, and Erin would dine on a feast of turkey, and maybe Mama would bake a cake. Mama was making a special attempt to be cheerful. Elizabeth knew that this wasn’t going to be easy for her, but God bless her for trying.

Erin didn’t seem to experience any of their frustration. Elizabeth knew that the poor child wasn’t even three, but it still annoyed her that her sister was always looking on the brighter side of things. Maybe she did know about hurt and loneliness, and was hiding it. She seemed so happy.

By mid-afternoon, all of the pretense of this holiday spirit was getting to Elizabeth. Mama looked as though she might go insane at any moment. It wasn’t right for them to hide their true feelings. They must talk, no matter how hard it would be.

When the two of them were alone, Elizabeth opened the conversation. “Mama, please stop.”

“Stop what?” She stuttered.

“Stop pretending you’re happy. I know you’re not.”

“That’s nonsense, child,” she answered. “It’s Christmas Eve, and of course I’m happy. Where’s your spirit?”

“Mama, I know you miss Daddy. I do, too. But we’ve got to try harder to make the best of things. If you can’t handle this holiday, then don’t try.”

Mama hugged her daughter, brushed a tear aside, and walked away. Elizabeth could see the pain in her eyes, and she was trying so hard to hide it. It wasn’t fair.

Mama was working busily in the kitchen for the remainder of the day. It kept her mind off things. The turkey smelled so good; Mama was quite a cook. Dinner would include biscuits, gravy, sweet potatoes, corn, and sweet cranberry sauce. For dessert, there would be a pumpkin cake. Elizabeth couldn’t wait to eat; she was sure they’d be dining like royalty.

Erin was excited about all of this activity, and she was scampering about the house like a little angel. She had learned from Mama about a jolly old man who left goodies under the Christmas tree for all of the good boys and girls. Erin knew she was good.

Still, as Elizabeth looked around the house, there were many things to be done. The floor needed a good sweeping, so she proceeded to get the broom from its corner. Then she cleaned the ashes from the hearth, and continued to stir the coals in the old pot-belly stove.

By now Erin was getting fidgety, so Elizabeth had to find a way to keep her busy. She went to her father’s old desk and removed a pair of scissors and a few sheaves of paper. “Come look and see what I’ve got,” she called to her sister.

Erin crossed the room and peered over her sister’s shoulder in amazement. Elizabeth folded the paper in half twice, and began to cut shapes out of it. When the paper was unfolded, it presented what looked like a snowflake.

Erin clapped her hands and squealed with glee; she had never seen anything like it before. “More!” she demanded. Elizabeth cut the remaining paper, making each one unique. Then the two girls went around the room hanging them up.

By now the sun was sinking into the horizon, and supper would be ready shortly. Uncle Ned came indoors cradling a bundle of logs for the evening fire.

The table did look lovely. Mama always set out the china for special occasions, and this was indeed special. There were candles, and even real silverware.

They were seated at the table, and Uncle Ned offered the blessing. Almost nothing was said during the entire meal; the four of them were busy eating. The silence bothered Elizabeth; she could tell that Mama was wishing Daddy could be there, and so was Uncle Ned. Erin didn’t seem to care. Elizabeth was stuck in the middle.

After supper the dishes were cleared, and the four of them went into the living room to relax for awhile. Erin climbed into Mama’s lap. “Bethy,” Mama said, “please get me your father’s Bible.”

Elizabeth did as she was told, and retrieved the Good Book from the old desk. She handed it to Mama, who turned to the Book of Saint Luke, Chapter Two. She began:

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyre’ni-us was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, (because he was of the house and lineage of David,)
5 to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Mama closed the book and smiled at Erin, who was fast asleep on her lap. “Time you should be getting off to bed yourself, Bethy,” she whispered. Elizabeth returned the Bible to its spot, and carried her sister into the bedroom. It had been a beautiful evening.

Elizabeth thought for quite some time about what her mother had read. She thought that her father must be among the multitude of angels now, watching over them. She also knew that Christmas was a day of joy, no matter how poor or lonely they might seem to be. Actually they were very fortunate to have each other, and they were fortunate to know that God cared for them. It was then that Elizabeth remembered another verse, “For God so loved the world, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The snow was falling quietly now, and Elizabeth dozed off to sleep.

The years passed. Elizabeth grew older, and every Christmas Eve, she told her children, and in turn, her grandchildren, of the Christmas that she was scared and lonely without her daddy, and learned from her mother the true meaning of Christmas. She told them of their grandfather in heaven, and how he loved them all. He would be pleased to see that they were all together and happy.