For a long time, it seemed that Christmas would never come. On Christmas, Uncle Andrew and Aunt Delia, Uncle Wesley and Aunt Lindy, and all the cousins were coming to dinner. It would be the best dinner of the whole year. And a good boy might get something in his stocking. Bad boys found nothing but switches in their stockings on Christmas morning. Almanzo tried to be good for so long that he could hardly stand the strain.
But at last it was the day before Christmas and Alice and Royal and Eliza Jane were home again. The girls were cleaning the whole house, and Mother was baking. Royal helped Father with the threshing, but Almanzo had to help in the house. He remembered the switch and tried to be willing and cheerful.
He had to scour the steel knives and forks and polish the silver. He had to wear an apron around his neck. He took the scouring-brick and scraped a pile of red dust off it, and then with a wet cloth he rubbed the dust up and down on the knives and forks.
The kitchen was full of delicious smells. Newly baked bread was cooling, frosted cakes and cookies and mince pies and pumpkin pies filled the pantry shelves, cranberries bubbled on the stove. Mother was making dressing for the goose.
Outdoors, the sun was shining on the snow. The icicles twinkled all along the eaves. Far away sleigh-bells faintly jingled, and from the barns came the joyful thud-thud! thud-thud! of the flails. But when all the steel knives and forks were done, Almanzo soberly polished the silver.
Then he had to run to the attic for sage; he had to run down cellar for apples, and upstairs again for onions. He filled the wood box. He hurried in the cold to fetch water from the pump. He thought maybe he was through, then, anyway for a minute. But no; he had to polish the dining- room side of the stove.
“Do the parlor side yourself, Eliza Jane,” Mother said. “Almanzo might spill the blacking.” Almanzo’s insides quaked. He knew what would happen if Mother knew about that black splotch, hidden on the parlor wall. He didn’t want to get a switch in his Christmas stocking, but he would far rather find a switch there than have Father take him to the woodshed.
That night everyone was tired, and the house was so clean and neat that nobody dared touch anything. After supper Mother put the stuffed, fat goose and the little pig into the heater’s oven to roast slowly all night. Father set the dampers and wound the clock. Almanzo and Royal hung clean socks on the back of a chair, and Alice and Eliza Jane hung stockings on the back of another chair.
Then they all took candles and went to bed.
It was still dark when Almanzo woke up. He felt excited, and then he remembered that this was Christmas morning. He jerked back the covers and jumped onto something alive that squirmed. It was Royal. He had forgotten that Royal was there, but he scrambled over him, yelling: “Christmas! Christmas! Merry Christmas!” He pulled his trousers over his nightshirt.
Royal jumped out of bed and lighted the candle. Almanzo grabbed the candle, and Royal shouted:
“Hi! Leave that be! Where’s my pants?”
But Almanzo was already running down- stairs. Alice and Eliza Jane were flying from their room, but Almanzo beat them. He saw his sock hanging all lumpy; he set down the candle and grabbed his sock. The first thing he pulled out was a cap, a boughten cap!
The plaid cloth was machine woven. So was the lining. Even the sewing was machine-sewing. And the earmuffs were buttoned over the top.
Almanzo yelled. He had not even hoped for such a cap. He looked at it, inside and out; he felt the cloth and the sleek lining. He put the cap on his head. It was a little large, because he was growing. So, he could wear it a long time.
Eliza Jane and Alice were digging into their stockings and squealing, and Royal had a silk muffler. Almanzo thrust his hand into his sock again and pulled out a nickel’s worth of horehound candy. He bit off the end of one stick. The outside melted like maple sugar, but the inside was hard and could be sucked for hours.
Then he pulled out a new pair of mittens. Mother had knit the wrists and backs in a fancy stitch. He pulled out an orange, and he pulled out a little package of dried figs. And he thought that was all. He thought no boy ever had a better Christmas.
But in the toe of the sock there was still something more. It was small and thin and hard.
Almanzo couldn’t imagine what it was. He pulled it out, and it was a jack-knife. It had four blades.
Almanzo yelled and yelled. He snapped all the blades open, sharp and shining, and he yelled, “Alice, look! Look, Royal! Lookee, lookee my jack-knife! Lookee my cap!”
Father’s voice came out of the dark bedroom and said: “Look at the clock.”
They all looked at one another. Then Royal held up the candle and they looked at the tall clock. Its hands pointed to half past three.
Even Eliza Jane did not know what to do. They had waked up Father and Mother, an hour and a half before time to get up.
“What time is it?” Father asked.
Almanzo looked at Royal. Royal and Almanzo looked at Eliza Jane. Eliza Jane swallowed, and opened her mouth, but Alice said:
“Merry Christmas, Father! Merry Christmas, Mother! It’s—it’s—thirty minutes to four, Father.”
The clock said, “Tick! Tock! Tick! Tock! Tick!” Then Father chuckled.
Royal opened the dampers of the heater, and Eliza Jane stirred up the kitchen fire and put the kettle on. The house was warm and cosy when Father and Mother got up, and they had a whole hour to spare. There was time to enjoy the presents.
Alice had a gold locket, and Eliza Jane had a pair of garnet earrings. Mother had knitted new lace collars and black lace mitts for them both. Royal had the silk muffler and a fine leather wallet. But Almanzo thought he had the best presents of all. It was a wonderful Christmas.
Then Mother began to hurry, and to hurry everyone else. There were the chores to do, the milk to skim, the new milk to strain and put away, breakfast to eat, vegetables to be peeled, and the whole house must be put in order and everybody dressed up before the company came.
The sun rushed up the sky. Mother was every- where, talking all the time. “Almanzo, wash your ears! Goodness mercy, Royal, don’t stand around underfoot! Eliza Jane, remember you’re paring those potatoes, not slicing them, and don’t leave so many eyes they can see to jump out of the pot. Count the silver, Alice, and piece it out with the steel knives and forks. The best bleached table- cloths are on the bottom shelf. Mercy on us, look at that clock!”
Sleigh-bells came jingling up the road, and Mother slammed the oven door and ran to change her apron and pin on her brooch; Alice ran down- stairs and Eliza Jane ran upstairs, both of them told Almanzo to straighten his collar. Father was calling Mother to fold his cravat. Then Uncle Wesley’s sleigh stopped with a last clash of bells. Almanzo ran out, whooping, and Father and Mother came behind him, as calm as if they had never hurried in their lives. Frank and Fred and Abner and Mary tumbled out of the sleigh, all bundled up, and before Aunt Lindy had handed Mother the baby, Uncle Andrew’s sleigh was coming. The yard was full of boys and the house filled with hoopskirts. The uncles stamped snow off their boots and unwound their mufflers.
Royal and Cousin James drove the sleighs in- to the Buggy-House; they unhitched the horses and put them in stalls and rubbed down their snowy legs.
Almanzo was wearing his boughten cap, and he showed the cousins his jack-knife. Frank’s cap was old now. He had a jack-knife, but it had only three blades.
Then Almanzo showed his cousins Star and Bright, and the little bobsled, and he let them scratch Lucy’s fat white back with corncobs. He said they could look at Starlight if they’d be quiet and not scare him.
The beautiful colt twitched his tail and came daintily stepping toward them. Then he tossed his head and shied away from Frank’s hand thrust through the bars.
“You leave him be!” Almanzo said.
“I bet you don’t dast go in there and get on his back,” said Frank.
“I dast, but I got better sense,” Almanzo told him. “I know better than to spoil that fine colt.”
“How’d it spoil him?” Frank said. “Yah, you’re scared he’d hurt you! You’re scared of that little bitty colt!”
“I am not scared,” said Almanzo. “But Father won’t let me.”
“I guess I’d do it if I wanted to, if I was you. I guess your father wouldn’t know,” Frank said.
Almanzo didn’t answer, and Frank got up on the bars of the stall.
“You get down off there!” Almanzo said, and he took hold of Frank’s leg. “Don’t you scare that colt!”
“I’ll scare him if I want to,” Frank said, kicking. Almanzo hung on. Starlight was running around and around the stall, and Almanzo wanted to yell for Royal. But he knew that would frighten Starlight even more.
He set his teeth and gave a mighty tug, and Frank came tumbling down. All the horses jumped, and Starlight reared and smashed against the manger.
“I’ll lick you for that,” Frank said, scrambling up.
“You just try and lick me!” said Almanzo. Royal came hurrying from the South Barn.
He took Almanzo and Frank by the shoulders and marched them outdoors. Fred and Abner and John came silently after them, and Almanzo’s knees wabbled. He was afraid Royal would tell Father.
“Let me catch you boys fooling around those colts again,” Royal said, “and I’ll tell Father and Uncle Wesley. You’ll get the hides thrashed off you.”
Royal shook Almanzo so hard that he couldn’t tell how hard Royal was shaking Frank. Then he knocked their heads together. Almanzo saw stars.
“Let that teach you to fight. On Christmas Day! For shame!” Royal said.
“I only didn’t want him to scare Starlight,” Almanzo said.
“Shut up!” said Royal. “Don’t be a tattle-tale. Now you behave yourselves or you’ll wish you had. Go wash your hands; it’s dinner-time.”
They all went into the kitchen and washed their hands. Mother and the aunts and the girl cousins were taking up the Christmas dinner. The dining-table had been turned around and pulled out till it was almost as long as the dining-room, and every inch of it was loaded with good things to eat.
Almanzo bowed his head and shut his eyes tight while Father said the blessing. It was a long blessing, because this was Christmas Day. But at last Almanzo could open his eyes. He sat and silently looked at that table.
He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth. He looked at the fat roast goose, the drumsticks sticking up, and the edges of dressing curling out. The sound of Father’s knife sharpening on the whetstone made him even hungrier.
He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly, and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melting butter trickling down it. He looked at the heap of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips.
He swallowed hard and tried not to look anymore. He couldn’t help seeing the fried apples’n’onions, and the candied carrots. He couldn’t help gazing at the triangles of pie, waiting by his plate; the spicy pumpkin pie, the melting cream pie, the rich, dark mince oozing from between the mince pie’s flaky crusts.
He squeezed his hands together between his knees. He had to sit silent and wait, but he felt aching and hollow inside.
All grown-ups at the head of the table must be served first. They were passing their plates, and talking, and heartlessly laughing. The tender pork fell away in slices under Father’s carving- knife. The white breast of the goose went piece by piece from the bare breast-bone. Spoons ate up the clear cranberry jelly, and gouged deep into the mashed potatoes, and ladled away the brown gravies.
Almanzo had to wait to the very last. He was youngest of all, except Abner and the babies, and Abner was company.
At last Almanzo’s plate was filled. The first taste made a pleasant feeling inside him, and it grew and grew, while he ate and ate and ate. He ate till he could eat no more, and he felt very good inside. For a while he slowly nibbled bits from his second piece of fruitcake. Then he put the fruity slice in his pocket and went out to play. Royal and James were choosing sides, to play snow-fort. Royal chose Frank, and James chose Almanzo. When everyone was chosen, they all went to work, rolling snowballs through the deep drifts by the barn. They rolled till the balls were almost as tall as Almanzo; then they rolled them into a wall. They packed snow between them and made a good fort.
Then each side made its own little snowballs. They breathed on the snow and squeezed it solid. They made dozens of hard snowballs. When they were ready for the fight, Royal threw a stick into the air and caught it when it came down. James took hold of the stick above Royal’s hand, then Royal took hold of it above James’ hand, and so on to the end of the stick. James’ hand was last, so James’ side had the fort.
How the snowballs flew! Almanzo ducked and dodged and yelled, and threw snowballs as fast as he could, till they were all gone. Royal came charging over the wall with all the enemy after him, and Almanzo rose up and grabbed Frank. Headlong they went into the deep snow, outside the wall, and they rolled over and over, hitting each other as hard as they could.
Almanzo’s face was covered with snow and his mouth was full of it, but he hung on to Frank and kept hitting him. Frank got him down, but Almanzo squirmed out from under. Frank’s head hit his nose, and it began to bleed. Almanzo didn’t care. He was on top of Frank, hitting him as hard as he could in the deep snow. He kept saying, “Holler ’nuff! holler ’nuff!”
Frank grunted and squirmed. He rolled half over, and Almanzo got on top of him. He couldn’t stay on top of Frank and hit him, so he bore down with all his weight, and he pushed Frank’s face deeper and deeper into the snow. And Frank gasped: “’Nuff!”
Almanzo got up on his knees, and he saw Mother in the doorway of the house. She called:
“Boys! Boys! Stop playing now. It’s time to come in and warm.”
They were warm. They were hot and panting. But Mother and the aunts thought the cousins must get warm before they rode home in the cold. They all went tramping in, covered with snow, and Mother held up her hands and exclaimed:
“Mercy on us!”
The grown-ups were in the parlor, but the boys had to stay in the dining-room, so they wouldn’t melt on the parlor carpet. They couldn’t sit down, because the chairs were covered with blankets and lap robes, warming by the heater. But they ate apples and drank cider, standing around, and Almanzo and Abner went into the pantry and ate bits off the platters.
Then uncles and aunts and the girl cousins put on their wraps, and they brought the sleeping babies from the bedroom, rolled up in shawls. The sleighs came jingling from the barn, and Father and Mother helped tuck in the blankets and lap robes, over the hoopskirts. Everybody called: “Good-by! Good-by!”
The music of the sleigh-bells came back for a little while; then it was gone. Christmas was over.