The stranger had a bushy beard as red as his hair. It was Christmas Eve when he knocked on the door, asking for food. We had not been outside all day. For weeks it had snowed almost every day, soft fluffy feathers that were fun to play in. Now the snow was up to the top of the fence and piled in high drifts, and the wind howled and sang around the corners of the house and under the eaves. Papa said it was a blizzard.
Mama had spent the day making the special food we had only at Christmas, and for days before that, she’d baked bread of all kinds, Christmas bread frosted with white icing, filled bird-shaped rolls, and cookies by the dozen. We had no gaily trimmed tree or other holiday decorations at our house, nor presents waiting to be opened. But the spirit of Christmas was in the air.
Besides Mama and Papa, there were four of us children. We were on our best behavior at this time of year. There was no arguing about toys or books or crayons—who could be grumpy or cross at Christmastime? All that day we watched Mama at the stove, our mouths watering as she fixed Christmas dinner. Christmas Eve was our big feast; there would be no cooking on Christmas Day. That was OK—the cupboard was filled with good things to eat already made.
Best of all was the candy. Instead of only one or two pieces, we could have almost as much as we wanted. There were hard candy that you could suck on for a long time, sweet raspberry-filled candy, candy canes, and homemade chocolate-covered nuts and raisins. In the evening we cracked nuts while sitting by the glowing red heater as the wind howled and slapped snow against the windows.
Grandma and Grandpa were across the ocean in Poland, so there was just the family at Christmas. When the knock sounded on the door as Mama was putting the food on the table, it was a big surprise. Who could be out in such weather on Christmas Eve?
The redheaded stranger stood at the door, and we hid behind Mama’s skirts. He had tattered clothes, and his hands and face were red with cold. Papa asked him to come in quickly and shut the door so as not to let in the cold. The stranger’s coat was covered with snow, and bits of snow clung to his beard.
It was easy to see that he was hungry. Papa told him that we were just getting ready to sit down to eat dinner and that he was welcome to join us. Mama pushed the chairs closer together to make room for him. The stranger’s eyes were watery, like he was crying.
Papa said the blessing, and Mama passed the bowls of soup. We were extra quiet during dinner. Only Papa and the stranger talked, but not very much. The redheaded stranger was busy eating and hardly looked up from his plate.
As I watched him, I wondered why he was out in a blizzard. Didn’t he have a family or a warm house? He didn’t live here, I knew. We lived in a very small town, and everybody knew everyone else, and this fellow was a stranger, for sure.
Papa said we were having a depression. We didn’t understand much about it except that many people had no food and no job. Men wandered from town to town, looking for work, and many passed by our house. We lived between the railroad tracks and the highway, and in the summer we saw them walking by on the road. Some came asking for food, and Mama always gave them something, even if it was only a piece of bread and jelly. She made the best bread in the world, and the jam was from the chokecherries we picked in the summer. They were bitter to eat, but Mama made jelly from the berries, and on pancakes it was better than syrup.
Although he scared me with his red hair and beard, I felt sorry for the stranger. So did we all. Just looking at him made me want to cry. Mama always said we mustn’t stare at people, and I tried not to. It was hard to do.
Our Christmas Eve dinner was splendid, the best food I could think of. After the soup came the boiled wheat—red Durham, grown on the prairie farms around us. It was my favorite part of the dinner, but we could have only one small bowlful. Papa said it would grow inside us if we ate too much. I was pretty sure he was teasing, but I didn’t ask for more, just in case.
Then we had fish—a whole one Mama had baked with stuffing inside. It took a long time to eat because we had to be very careful not to swallow any bones. Next we had stuffed cabbage rolls and small boiled dumplings filled with mashed potatoes. And we had pickles and beets, which had been preserved right from Mama’s garden. For dessert there was Christmas bread as sweet and light as cake.
After dinner, while the redheaded stranger talked with Papa by the stove, we children helped Mama clear the table. I asked Mama where the stranger would go. I knew that he couldn’t stay here overnight. We had a very small house, and when we slept, every corner of it was full. Mama looked at me sadly and said she didn’t know.
I finished helping with the dishes and was going over to sit close to Papa, when the redheaded stranger got up to leave. Papa gave him a pair of mittens for his hands. The stranger said, “Thank you. God bless you. God bless all of you.” I think his eyes showed even more than his words how he felt. Then he left.
I was glad to see that the storm had let up. Only a few snowflakes continued to gently fall. I tried to see where he went, but the windows were covered with frost and I couldn’t. “Where will he go?” I asked Papa.
“He has a cousin who lives on a farm on the far side of the next town. He hopes his cousin will let him stay and work on the farm until times are better.” I hoped so too.
The next day, Christmas Day, was Sunday. The storm was over, and the sun was shining so bright that it hurt your eyes. The snow sparkled like diamonds and crunched under our feet as we walked to church. Looking at the Baby Jesus in the manger in the foyer, I whispered, “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” Then I prayed, “Heavenly Father, thank Thee for a wonderful dinner last night. Please help the redheaded stranger find his cousin and have a good home there. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”