Rain streaked like tears down the panes of the one glass window in the cabin. Elnora tried to peer between the streaks, hoping to see snow-covered peaks in the distance. But the slanting rain was like a filmy curtain, shutting out all but their little valley.
Suddenly figures approached out of the mist. It was Father and Thomas coming from the small log barn after their chores.
Elnora turned to finish breakfast preparations, while Mother took the bucket of milk and set about straining and pouring it into pans for the cream to rise.
“I wish it wouldn’t keep raining,” Elnora said to her father who had just come in. “At least not right now.”
Father looked at her and said, “You might not feel so now, but we can all be mighty grateful for storms.”
“But not rain!” Elnora exclaimed. “Not at Christmastime. It should be snowing. This constant, drizzly Oregon rain isn’t like Christmas at all.”
“Aw, Nora,” Thomas teased, “you’re a silly goose. You think that if everything isn’t just like it was in Vermont, it isn’t any good.”
“I can’t help being homesick,” Elnora defended, “especially when everything is so different. Here it is Christmastime, and that pesky rain keeps on and on.”
“Constant raining can get on a person’s nerves sometimes,” Father admitted. “But if you keep thinking about the good of the land, Nora, the rain won’t seem quite so bad.”
“And Christmas isn’t just snow and sleigh bells and outward things,” Mother reminded the family. “We have so much to be grateful for.”
“Oh well,” Elnora sighed. “At least we can have a Christmas tree, the way we always—”
“Tree?” Thomas questioned, looking at Father. “Where does she think she’s going to get a tree?”
“A tree, Nora?” Father asked more gently.
“Well—sure.” Elnora looked at the others hesitantly and then went on, “There’s that bunch on the west side of the homestead between our place and the Rigby’s. They’re a little scrubby, but one of those would be better than nothing.”
“Nora, I guess I haven’t told you about the agreement that I made with the other settlers in the valley,” Father said sympathetically. “It’s been agreed that no trees in the valley are to be cut for any purpose.”
“B-but they’re ours—partly. And there are lots of them,” Elnora interrupted.
“Not many, really,” Father said. “The valley was once full of trees, but man and nature have destroyed all but the few clusters that are now left.”
Father put his hand over hers on the table. “It’s sort of like a trust, Nora. We’ve eleven families in the valley now. If every family cut a tree each Christmas, in a very few years the valley would be barren of trees. What do you think the valley would be like without any trees?”
Elnora was quiet for a moment. She remembered the treeless desert wasteland they had crossed the year before. Then she said, “I can see what you mean, but without any snow or a tree it won’t seem at all like Christmas.” Tears moistened Elnora’s eyes. All these months she had counted on at least a Christmas tree like the ones they always had back home.
“Think how soon a tree would be dead and ugly,” Father reminded her. “It would bring only a brief pleasure. But if it’s left outside, it can keep right on growing and growing. Trees mean there will be birds in the valley. They’d go right on past if there weren’t trees in which to build their nests. And think of spring.”
Elnora swallowed her tears and nodded as an idea began to form in her mind. “Father, are there birds now, like the snowbirds back home?”
“I believe I saw some birds in the willows along the creek bank just yesterday,” Father said. “And I heard some chirping around the barn before this latest rain set in.”
“Then we could trim a live tree,” Elnora explained shyly, “and still keep it growing for later. We could make strings of popcorn and put them on a tree for the birds. Everybody else in the valley who wanted to could do the same. We could even make it like a party.”
Father kept nodding agreement as she talked. When her words ran out, he smiled.
“That we can, Nora. And this afternoon you can ride with Thomas to tell the other folks your idea. I know some will want to come.”
“And if they don’t,” Mother said, “we’ll have a party all by ourselves.”
Some of the families seemed surprised at the idea, but all the children were excited and anxious to string popcorn for the birds.
Soon after Father and Thomas had gone out to do the chores on the morning of Christmas Eve, the sun broke through the clouds. And at the grove a few hours later, Elnora could hardly believe what she saw. Every family in the valley was there.
One of the settlers, Mrs. Empey, said to Elnora and her mother, “My boys thought it was silly to celebrate on the frontier. But I told them we’d help the little lady keep Christmas if we had to wade through snow to our middles. It’s folks getting together in friendship and caring about each other that helps make Christmas. Where you happen to live at the time doesn’t really matter.”
Mrs. Empey said best what Christmas really means, Elnora thought. More than anything else Christmas means caring and sharing.
Each family chose a tree, and there was much talk and laughter and teasing as the popcorn strings were placed on the branches.
“Let’s do this every year!” said Thomas. “We could even keep the same trees.”
There were shouts of approval.
“And when the men go to the mountains to fetch wood,” Mother suggested, “they could be on the lookout for seedling trees to plant near our cabins. In a few years, the valley will be a lovely spot.”
Mrs. Empey came to stand beside Elnora and waved her arms to get everyone’s attention. “I think we should meet here at the grove every Christmas Eve,” she declared, “and Elnora should have the job of reminding us to be ready each year.”
“Oh, I will!” the happy girl promised. And everyone let out a cheer.
When they started toward the cabin, Elnora turned to look at the trees. Already two birds had found the popcorn. It’s good, she thought, to preserve the Christmas grove for other times.
Elnora reached for her father’s hand.
“I didn’t know that all of our neighbors were so nice,” she said, “but they are. Now our valley seems almost like home.”