One little boy makes Christmas a special day for the entire town in this Isabella Alden story first published in 1895.
Christmas was quite over at last, although it had lasted a longer time than usual. In the Crawford family there had been two Christmases, as the children expressed it; at least, there had been two Christmas trees. One at Grandma’s house on Christmas eve, as usual; and then, because Uncle Richard lived twelve miles away and two of his young people had been ill and could not come to the frolic at Grandma’s, all the family went there on Christmas day, and in the evening had frolic number two, with a second tree as much like the first as possible. Even Earle, who was the youngest of the group which gathered at Grandma’s, admitted that perhaps he had had presents enough for once. He could not think of a single “’nother” thing that he truly wanted. Morever, he was quite tired out; so much so, that in the midst of talk in Grandma’s room, after dinner, he curled up in Grandpa’s chair with the down pillow at his head and fell asleep.
And perhaps because they had been talking about the Hunter family just before that, he dreamed of the Hunter family. Never perhaps was there a more vivid dream. Earle’s head bobbed forward quite away from the pillow, although Grandma tried twice to make him more comfortable. His neck was rather stiff when he awoke, much astonished to find that he had been sleeping a long time, and all the family had scattered to their various duties or pleasures; except only Grandma, who sat knitting.
Earle rubbed his stiff neck thoughtfully, busy with his dream. At last his thoughts took shape in a question.
Said Grandma, after a thoughtful pause, “I don’t really know, dearie; I have heard all about it, but I can’t remember the reason. It has been a custom for a long time, and I think it comes from the Germans; but Grandma has forgotten a good many things.”
While she knitted and mused over the unfortunateness of not being able to answer all the questions of all her grandchildren, Earle continued thinking. Then another question:
“Grandma, do they never have afterwards trees?”
“Afterwards trees! What kind would they be, dearie?”
“Why, you know—Christmas is quite gone for a whole year; and so is New Year’s, but couldn’t there be a tree made like a Christmas one, and all trimmed up and everything, if there was a reason for it, any time along through the month?”
Grandma admitted that if there were sufficient reason this might be done; but hinted that the reason ought to be very large, as people were generally tired of Christmas trees after they were all over, and quite willing to wait a year before they got another one ready.
“I’m not tired of them,” said Earle, meditatively; “and, Grandma, I had such a funny dream. I dreamed about Clara and Minnie Hunter, and all the Hunters.”
Grandma remarked that that was not at all strange, as they had been talking about all the Hunters, she remembered, just before he dropped to sleep.
“I know it,” said Earle, “and the last thing I heard was Aunt Kate saying it was a shame the children were not remembered in some way. She said she should never vote again to give up the Christmas tree of the Sunday-school, just on account of people like the Hunters. And then, Grandma, I went to sleep and dreamed that we had a tree at the Hunters’, or for the Hunters; I don’t see where it could have been, because it was in a large room—larger than any they have in their house, but all the things on the tree were for them. Oh, such lots and lots of things, Grandma! Some were queer; I couldn’t tell what they were—I guess they were just dream things—but some of them I knew. I saw Laura’s dollie, Augusta Jane, there, just as plain as day; and my last year’s building blocks, and Jack’s great ball, and Susie Perkins’ transparent slate, and ever so many things! Now, Grandma, why wouldn’t that be a good plan? We might have an afterwards tree just for the Hunters; and we might each put something on it of our own that we did not need any more. We’ve got such lots and lots of new ones.”
That was the way it began. Surely never was a plan made, awake or dreaming, which took hold of the hearts of the people better than this one did.
The Hunters belonged to that class of whom our elders say when they talk about them, that they “have seen better days.” They were not wretchedly poor; that is, they lived in a fairly comfortable house, and managed by great care to have enough very plain food to eat each day. But the winter had been, thus far, one of the hardest of their lives. Mr. Hunter had begun it by being ill, and losing his place in the Iron Works. When he was ready to work again, after three months’ time, he had to take a different place in the Works, and receive less pay. Then Robbie had broken his leg and suffered no end of pain, and caused much expense. Last of all, the baby had the scarlet fever and lay for days so near death that the school children hushed their voices as they passed near the corner, and wondered if that baby was alive yet. Baby was alive and doing well; but her long illness made heavy bills; not only to the doctor and druggist, but at the grocer’s as well; for Mrs. Hunter and her oldest daughter, Mary, who were used to sewing steadily all day and every day to help support the family, had not been able to do a thing since Robbie broke his leg.
There were other troubles, too. Mr. Hunter’s brother who owed him fifty dollars, could not pay one cent; and the man of whom he bought feed for his cow was determined to have his pay. All things considered, the Hunters had never come to such a dreary, discouraged place before in their lives. Mr. Hunter, who was a good man, tried to be brave; but he could not help being quieter than usual, and saying occasionally, even before the children, that he did not know what was to become of them if the Iron Works shut down, as there were rumors that they would, for a few weeks. They would have to beg, or starve, he was afraid.
Mrs. Hunter sewed steadily, trying to make up for lost time; but she often wiped away tears, and Mary’s eyes, when she came downstairs after doing the morning work, sometimes looked red. Of course there had been no Christmas tree nor Christmas dinner nor Christmas gifts of any sort, except for Baby. Robbie went out on his crutches for the first time since the accident, and bought a rubber doll for her; and she eagerly sucked the red paint from its cheeks in less than five minutes thereafter. This was the only attempt at gifts. The children, even the younger ones, Clara and Minnie, had been very good; they had not once wished before their father, that they could have a Christmas like other girls; but they had looked sober over that and other things, more than once. Perhaps they would have looked more sober still, had they been able to realize just how hard a struggle their father and mother were having.
So now you are made acquainted with the family about which Earle Crawford dreamed. His “afterwards tree” was hailed by father and mother and aunts, uncles and cousins, as “just the thing.”
The members of the Sabbath-school class to which Clara and Minnie Hunter belonged, all took hold of it with a will; the A-Division of the graded school where Clara went, said they should be delighted to help; and the grammar school to which Robbie Hunter belonged, heard of it and offered to join.
Dr. Holland heard his boy describing what was to be done, and asked a few questions, and said that was a bright thought, he would help it along; the Hunters were worthy people who meant to do their best.
Old Mr. Ames, who owned the house in which the Hunters lived, heard of it, and laughed and said it was the best “afterwards” he had ever known of, and he would write them a letter to put on the tree. To be sure, Earle Crawford looked grave and a bit troubled over this, and said he did not believe the Hunters would care for a letter from old Mr. Ames, and he wanted only real nice things on the tree; but his father advised him not to worry. At last the “afterwards” was ready.
It was delightful to think how things “happened” just right for their plans. Only the day before the tree was to be dressed, and while they were still planning where they should stand it, Mr. Hunter came to Mr. Crawford with a request. Mrs. Hunter’s mother was an old woman, and a lame one. She lived five miles away in the country; and had been used for thirty years to have her children come to spend her birthday with her. Tomorrow she would be eighty-three years old, and her son-in-law had sent for them all to come, as usual; he had only half-time now at the Works, and his wife had no sewing for tomorrow; so they could go if they could get a wagon. Old Billy, the horse at the Works, could be had for the day, but the wagon was in use elsewhere. Would Mr. Crawford be so kind as to lend his old farm wagon? They could all pile into it, and they were rather anxious to go, because the children had gotten along without Christmas this year. They usually went up on the train, but it cost ten cents apiece, and there were eight of them, and—well, they couldn’t this year.
Never was a man more pleased to lend his wagon. He could hardly wait until evening to tell Earle the delightful news. When they heard it a shout went up at the Crawford tea-table. The Hunters were to take themselves off early in the morning. What was to hinder planting the tree in their own little front room, then closing the house and leaving them to discover it as best they might when they reached home?