Pioneer Christmas

By Susan Billings Mitchell

Listen Download Print Share

God sent us this loving baby
From his home in heav’n above,
And he came down to show all people
How to help and how to love
(Children’s Songbook, page 41).

“Waste not, want not,” her mother always said, but Mary was tired of scrimping and scraping and going without. Ever since her family had arrived in this dry desert valley, life had been difficult for them. Blinking back snowflakes, she looked up at the foothills, now white, where she had stood just months ago when they first glimpsed the Salt Lake Valley. It will take a miracle to make this place “blossom as the rose,” she thought.

It wasn’t that Mary didn’t like the valley. She was happy here with her family. She loved the gospel and read the Book of Mormon every day. But she was worried that this year there would be no Christmas. There were no stores. There was no money. So many things had been left behind. Mary wished for a real Christmas celebration, more for her younger sister, Betsy, than for herself.

Mother jumped up as Mary and the snowy wind came through the cabin door. “You’re back early,” she said with a smile.

“It was too cold to be slow today,” Mary replied, noticing that Mother had quickly pulled her apron around her lap work, as if to hide it. A knitting needle had fallen to the dirt floor, and Mary handed it to Mother. As she did so, she saw a strand of brown crinkly yarn curling from beneath the apron. It looked as if it had been unraveled from something familiar. What was it?

Weeks passed, but the snow didn’t. It kept falling and drifting. Mother worked late and got up early. Mary caught glimpses of the brown yarn again and again. Mother was up to something—probably mittens for everyone. That was good, but Mary longed for a Christmas doll. She would be too old for one next year. … She could bear not getting one, though. She was old enough to understand about such things. But little Betsy was not. Maybe Mary could find a way to make a doll for Betsy’s Christmas surprise.

There wasn’t much to work with. Mary tied sticks and rags together for a body. When she approached Mother for quilt scraps to make doll clothes, she was also given three brown crinkly yarn scraps to use for hair, and buttons for eyes. It wasn’t a very beautiful doll, and Mary knew it. But, as Mother always said, “It’s the thought that counts.” Mary hoped the thought would count enough for Betsy to like her present.

It was hard to fall asleep Christmas Eve. Mary wasn’t excited, really, but she wasn’t tired, either. She lulled Betsy to sleep with Christmas stories, but her own mind was not ready to rest. Father was asleep—she could hear him snoring—but from her loft bed, she could see the flickering light of candles still burning below. “Mother,” she called in a whisper, “are you awake?”

“I am,” Mother answered, “but why are you?”

“I can’t fall asleep. I’ve tried and tried. Is there anything else I can do?”

In her nightgown, Mother started up the ladder steps. “Oh, Mary.” Her soft voice was excited. “I’ve had a fun idea, and I think you’re old enough for Christmas secrets. Do you want to come down and help me?”

The two of them whispered and giggled by candlelight deep into the night. Mother’s idea was perfect. She had tightly rolled a big rag (as long as a ruler) and tied the top part of it like a head. This was tucked into the top center of a pillowcase and tied again. Mary held a piece of lace in place around the face like a bonnet while mother tied that with a pretty ribbon. Then Mary held on to the corners of the pillowcase as Mother tied them into little hands. At the shoulders, they gathered the pillowcase into arms. Soon, trimmed with lace and stitched flowers, the pillowcase had become a soft baby doll with a long, fancy skirt. No face was added to the practical doll—someday it could be a pillowcase again. But for now it was a Christmas doll.

Christmas morning was glorious. There were three new dolls—two of them for Betsy. “Now my dolly has a doll!” she squealed. The third doll was a pillowcase doll for Mary. Mother smiled when Mary pretended surprise.

There were new brown mittens for everyone too. “These will match my old brown sweater,” Pa declared.

Mother blushed. “I wonder what happened to that old thing?” was all she said. Mary thought she knew.

The little family sang carols and talked about Jesus Christ. Mary knew that they were in the right place at the right time. She was happy as she and her new pillowcase doll climbed to the loft to take a nap.

Note: You can make a pillowcase doll too. See Christmas Workshop, pages 40–41.

Illustrated by Shauna Mooney Kawasaki