Christmas Surprises

by Warren Fenske

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    Peter Hagen sat at the kitchen table in their small cabin and watched his mother remove four loaves of bread from the oven. Usually the smell of freshly baked bread made him feel happy, but today he was worried.

    “Will we have a Christmas this year?” Peter asked his mother.

    “Of course we will,” Mother replied. “We’re not in Ohio anymore, but I think our Christmas will be just as good as if we were. You’ll see.”

    Already Peter missed the gaily decorated Christmas tree, wrapped presents, delicious cookies, and the friends with whom he’d spent so many happy hours.

    It was just ten months ago that ten-year-old Peter, his five-year-old sister, Ruthie, and their parents had journeyed west from Ohio by covered wagon to settle on the plains of the Dakota Territory. Peter couldn’t understand how his father could think that living on a farm in such a lonely area was worth leaving their comfortable home in Ohio.

    “How can Christmas be the same?” Peter asked his mother. “There aren’t any stores where we can buy presents, or any friends to enjoy shopping with even if there were stores.”

    “Well, Peter, there are many kinds of gifts we can give besides the ones we buy in a store,” answered Mother.

    That evening at supper Peter was still worried about celebrating Christmas in their new home. “Dad, will we at least have a Christmas tree this year?” he asked.

    “We’ll have a tree,” Father said as he smiled at Peter and Ruthie. “We couldn’t bring our tinsel and glass ornaments with us, so we’ll have to depend on you to make the decorations for our tree.”

    “That might be fun,” said Peter. He noticed Ruthie was smiling too.

    “I’d like a doll for Christmas,” Ruthie said suddenly. “A big doll with a pretty dress.”

    “Maybe, Ruthie,” Mother answered finally. “But don’t count too much on it.”

    Oh, I hope she can have a doll, Peter thought. I still wish we were back in our old home where there were stores so we could buy things.

    “What would you like for Christmas, Dad?” Peter asked.

    Father thought a moment and answered, “I suppose a new saddle for our horse.”

    “And what do you want, Mom?” Ruthie asked.

    “I would like a piano just like the one we left behind,” Mother replied. “I do miss my music.”

    Peter couldn’t help but join in with a wish for himself. “I’d like some ice skates. It’s not easy to skate on the pond in my boots.”

    After supper Peter and Ruthie started making Christmas decorations. Mother showed them how to carve stars out of yellow lye soap. They tied bows out of different colored ribbons and cut yarn into short strips.

    “The yarn can be our tinsel,” Peter told Ruthie. “I can hardly wait to see our tree!”

    The new ornaments were stored on a shelf until Christmas Eve, when it was the family tradition to decorate the Christmas tree.

    As Christmas drew near, Ruthie continued to talk about a new doll and Mother hummed some of the songs she used to play on her piano. It made Peter feel sad to think that each one couldn’t have the gift he or she wanted most.

    Peter went to his room and pulled out a wooden box from under his bed where he kept his most prized possessions. He opened the box and took out a pocketknife given to him by his best friend back in Ohio, some stones he found in a stream along the way to Dakota, two drawing pencils, a pair of scissors, a spelling award he won last year in the fifth grade, and an old catalog.

    As Peter slowly turned the pages of the catalog, he noticed a page full of pictures of saddles. An idea flashed into his mind. They’ll have to use their imaginations, Peter thought, but I can make sure everyone will have a special Christmas present this year!

    On Christmas Eve Peter and his father brought in a small evergreen tree and placed it in the center of the kitchen on a wooden stand. Ruthie hung the soap stars and bows on the tree while Peter draped the yarn tinsel over the branches. Then Peter hung some oddly shaped paper ornaments on the tree. One had a dark brown picture on it.

    “What have we here?” asked Father as he turned the picture over so he could look at it. “Why, it’s a saddle!” he declared.

    “It’s your Christmas saddle, Dad. Now all you need is a paper horse,” Peter said with a big smile.

    Peter handed Ruthie a picture he had neatly cut out of the catalog. “Here’s your doll, Ruthie. It’s only a paper picture, but she’ll be part of our wishing game. Maybe next year you’ll have a real doll.”

    Ruthie held the picture gently in her hands and said, “She’s pretty. If we put her on top of the tree, she can be our angel.”

    Father picked Ruthie up, and she hung the doll on the top of the tree.

    Mother could see a picture of a piano dangling near the saddle ornament. “And I have my piano,” she said as she hugged Peter.

    “I wanted us to have what we each wanted most for Christmas,” Peter said. He held up a picture of a pair of skates and hung it on the tree. “And here are my ice skates.”

    “Well, Peter, I think we’re having a nice Christmas. After all, Christmas is in our hearts, and as long as we’re together, we’ll always have the same good Christmas we used to have back in our old home,” his mother said.

    “Next year we’ll probably have some of those gifts sitting under the tree instead of hanging on the tree,” Father laughed, but Peter thought that Father seemed to have a sudden hoarseness when he spoke.

    “Are you all ready for popcorn?” Mother asked.

    “Popcorn!” cried Peter and Ruthie. That was a real Christmas treat!

    Ruthie and Mother seemed happy as they roasted the popcorn. And Father was getting ready to read the story of the first Christmas from the Bible.

    Peter smiled and looked around. The tree was gaily decorated, and there were presents—even if they were only paper ones.

    It is a nice Christmas, he thought. Suddenly he knew just what his mother meant when she said, “After all, Christmas is in our hearts!”

    Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn