That was another mild winter without much snow. It was still grasshopper weather. But chill winds blew, the sky was gray, and the best place for little girls was in the cosy house.
Pa was gone outdoors all day. He hauled logs and chopped them into wood for the stove. He followed frozen Plum Creek far upstream where nobody lived and set traps along the banks for muskrat and otter and mink.
Every morning Laura and Mary studied their books and worked sums on the slate. Every after- noon Ma heard their lessons. She said they were good little scholars, and she was sure that when they went to school again, they would find they had kept up with their classes.
Every Sunday they went to Sunday school. Laura saw Nellie Oleson showing off her fur cape. She remembered what Nellie had said about Pa, and she burned hot inside. She knew that hot feeling was wicked. She knew she must for- give Nellie, or she would never be an angel. She thought hard about the pictures of beautiful an- gels in the big paper-covered Bible at home. But they wore long white nightgowns. Not one of them wore a fur cape.
One happy Sunday was the Sunday when the Reverend Alden came from eastern Minnesota to preach in this western church. He preached for a long time, while Laura looked at his soft blue eyes and watched his beard wagging. She hoped he would speak to her after church. And he did.
“Here are my little country girls, Mary and Laura!” he said. He remembered their names.
Laura was wearing her new dress that day. The skirt was long enough, and the sleeves were long, too. They made her coat sleeves look shorter than ever, but the red braid on the cuffs was pretty.
“What a pretty new dress, Laura!” the Rever- end Alden said.
Laura almost forgave Nellie Oleson that day. Then came Sundays when the Reverend Alden stayed at his own far church and in Sunday school Nellie Oleson turned up her nose at Laura and flounced her shoulders under the fur cape. Hot wickedness boiled up in Laura again.
One afternoon Ma said there would be no lessons, because they must all get ready to go to town that night. Laura and Mary were astonished. “But we never go to town at night!” Mary said.
“There must always be a first time,” said Ma.
“But why must there be, Ma?” Laura asked. “Why are we going to town at night?”
“It’s a surprise,” said Ma. “Now, no more questions. We must all take baths and be our very nicest.”
In the middle of the week, Ma brought in the washtub and heated water for Mary’s bath. Then again for Laura’s bath, and again for Carrie’s. There had never been such scrubbing and scampering, such a changing to fresh drawers and petticoats, such brushing of shoes and braiding of hair and tying on of hair ribbons. There had never been such a wondering.
Supper was early. After supper, Pa bathed in the bedroom. Laura and Mary put on their new dresses. They knew better than to ask any more questions, but they wondered and whispered together.
The wagon box was full of clean hay. Pa put Mary and Laura in it and wrapped blankets around them. He climbed to the seat beside Ma and drove away toward town.
The stars were small and frosty in the dark sky. The horses’ feet clippety-clopped and the wagon rattled over the hard ground.
Pa heard something else. “Whoa!” he said, pulling up the reins. Sam and David stopped. There was nothing but vast, dark coldness and stillness pricked by the stars. Then the stillness blossomed into the loveliest sound.
Two clear notes sounded and sounded again and again.
No one moved. Only Sam and David tinkled their bits together and breathed. Those two notes went on, full and loud, soft and low. They seemed to be the stars singing.
Too soon Ma murmured, “We’d better be getting on, Charles,” and the wagon rattled on. Still through its rattling Laura could hear those swaying notes.
“Oh, Pa, what is it?” she asked, and Pa said, “It’s the new churchbell, Laura.”
It was for this that Pa had worn his old patched boots.
The town seemed asleep. The stores were dark as Pa drove past them. Then Laura ex- claimed, “Oh, look at the church! How pretty the church is!”
The church was full of light. Light spilled out of all its windows and ran out into the darkness from the door when it opened to let someone in. Laura almost jumped out from under the blankets before she remembered that she must never stand up in the wagon when the horses were going.
Pa drove to the church steps and helped them all out. He told them to go in, but they waited in the cold until he had covered Sam and David with their blankets. Then he came, and they all went into the church together.
Laura’s mouth fell open and her eyes stretched to look at what she saw. She held Mary’s hand tightly and they followed Ma and Pa. They sat down. Then Laura could look with all her might.
Standing in front of the crowded benches was a tree. Laura decided it must be a tree. She could see its trunk and branches. But she had never be- fore seen such a tree.
Where leaves would be in summer, there were clusters and streamers of thin green paper. Thick among them hung little sacks made of pink mosquito-bar. Laura was almost sure she could see candy in them. From the branches hung pack- ages wrapped in colored paper, red packages and pink packages and yellow packages, all tied with colored string. Silk scarves were draped among them. Red mittens hung by the cord that would go around your neck and keep them from being lost if you were wearing them. A pair of new shoes hung by their heels from a branch. Lavish strings of white popcorn were looped all over this.
Under the tree and leaning against it were all kinds of things. Laura saw a crinkly-bright wash- board, a wooden tub, a churn and dasher, a sled made of new boards, a shovel, a long-handled pitchfork.
Laura was too excited to speak. She squeezed Mary’s hand tighter and tighter, and she looked up at Ma, wanting so much to know what that was. Ma smiled down at her and answered, “That is a Christmas tree, girls. Do you think it is pretty?”
They could not answer. They nodded while they kept on looking at that wonderful tree. They were hardly even surprised to know that this was Christmas, though they had not expected Christ- mas yet because there was not enough snow. Just then Laura saw the most wonderful thing of all. From a far branch of that tree hung a little fur cape, and a muff to match!
The Reverend Alden was there. He preached about Christmas, but Laura was looking at that tree and she could not hear what he said. Every- one stood up to sing and Laura stood up, but she could not sing. Not a sound would come out of her throat. In the whole world, there couldn’t be a store so wonderful to look at as that tree.
After the singing, Mr. Tower and Mr. Beadle began taking things off it, and reading out names.
Mrs. Tower and Miss Beadle brought those things down past the benches and gave them to the per- son whose name was on them.
Everything on that tree was a Christmas present for somebody!
When Laura knew that, the lamps and people and voices and even the tree began to whirl. They whirled faster, noisier, and more excited. Someone gave her a pink mosquito-bar bag. It did have candy in it, and a big popcorn ball. Mary had one, too. So did Carrie. Every girl and boy had one. Then Mary had a pair of blue mittens. Then Laura had a red pair.
Ma opened a big package, and there was a warm, big, brown-and-red plaid shawl for her. Pa got a woolly muffler. Then Carrie had a rag doll with a china head. She screamed for joy. Through the laughing and talking and rustling of papers Mr. Beadle and Mr. Tower went on shouting names.
The little fur cape and muff still hung on the tree, and Laura wanted them. She wanted to look at them as long as she could. She wanted to know who got them. They could not be for Nellie Oleson who already had a fur cape.
Laura did not expect anything more. But to Mary came a pretty little booklet with Bible pictures in it, from Mrs. Tower.
Mr. Tower was taking the little fur cape and the muff from the tree. He read a name, but Laura could not hear it through all the joyful noise. She lost sight of the cape and muff among all the people. They were gone now.
Then to Carrie came a cunning little brown- spotted white china dog. But Carrie’s arms and her eyes were full of her doll. So, Laura held and stroked and laughed over the sleek little dog.
“Merry Christmas, Laura!” Miss Beadle said, and in Laura’s hand she put a beautiful little box. It was made of snow-white, gleaming china. On its top stood a wee, gold-colored teapot and a gold-colored tiny cup in a gold-colored saucer.
The top of the box lifted off. Inside was a nice place to keep a breastpin if some day Laura had a breastpin. Ma said it was a jewel-box.
There had never been such a Christmas as this. It was such a large, rich Christmas, the whole church full of Christmas. There were so many lamps, so many people, so much noise and laughter, and so many happinesses in it. Laura felt full and bursting, as if that whole big rich Christmas were inside her, and her mittens and her beautiful jewel-box with the wee gold cup- and-saucer and teapot, and her candy and her popcorn ball. And suddenly someone said, “These are for you, Laura.”
Mrs. Tower stood smiling, holding out the little fur cape and muff.
“For me?” Laura said. “For me?” Then everything else vanished while with both arms she hugged the soft furs to her.
She hugged them tighter and tighter, trying to believe they were really hers, that silky-soft little brown fur cape and the muff.
All around her Christmas went on, but Laura knew only the softness of those furs. People were going home. Carrie was standing on the bench while Ma fastened her coat and tied her hood more snugly. Ma was saying, “Thank you so much for the shawl, Brother Alden. It is just what I needed.”
Pa said, “And I thank you for the muffler. It will feel good when I come to town in the cold.”
The Reverend Alden sat down on the bench and asked, “And does Mary’s coat fit?”
Laura had not noticed Mary’s coat until then. Mary had on a new dark-blue coat. It was long, and its sleeves came down to Mary’s wrists. Mary buttoned it up, and it fitted.
“And how does this little girl like her furs?” the Reverend Alden smiled. He drew Laura between his knees. He laid the fur cape around her shoulders and fastened it at the throat. He put the cord of the muff around her neck, and her hands went inside the silky muff.
“There!” the Reverend Alden said. “Now my little country girls will be warm when they come to Sunday school.”
“What do you say, Laura?” Ma asked, but the Reverend Alden said, “There is no need. The way her eyes are shining is enough.”
Laura could not speak. The golden-brown fur cuddled her neck and softly hugged her shoulders. Down her front it hid the threadbare fastenings of her coat. The muff came far up her wrists and hid the shortness of her coat sleeves.
“She’s a little brown bird with red trimmings,” the Reverend Alden said.
Then Laura laughed. It was true. Her hair and her coat, her dress and the wonderful furs, were brown. Her hood and mittens and the braid on her dress were red.
“I’ll tell my church people back east about our little brown bird,” said the Reverend Alden. “You see, when I told them about our church out here, they said they must send a box for the Christmas tree. They all gave things they had. The little girls who sent your furs and Mary’s coat needed larger ones.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Laura. “And please, sir, tell them thank you, too.” For when she could speak, her manners were as nice as Mary’s.
Then they all said good night and Merry Christmas to the Reverend Alden. Mary was so beautiful in her Christmas coat. Carrie was so pretty on Pa’s arm. Pa and Ma were smiling so happily, and Laura was all gladness.
Mr. and Mrs. Oleson were going home, too. Mr. Oleson’s arms were full of things, and so were Nellie’s and Willie’s. No wickedness boiled up in Laura now; she only felt a little bit of mean gladness.
“Merry Christmas, Nellie,” Laura said. Nellie stared, while Laura walked quietly on, with her hands snuggled deep in the soft muff. Her cape was prettier than Nellie’s, and Nellie had no muff.