Read CHAPTER VIII - CHRISTMAS IN THE SNOWS of A Little Book for Christmas, free online book, by Cyrus Townsend Brady, on

Being Some Personal Adventures in the Far West

The love of Christmas is as strong in the West as it is in any section of the country-perhaps, indeed, stronger, for people who have few pleasures cherish holidays more highly than those for whom many cheap amusements are provided.  But when the manifestation of the Christmas spirit is considered, there is a great difference between the West and the East.  There are vast sections of country in which evergreens do not grow and to which it would not pay to ship them; consequently Christmas trees are not common, and therefore they are the more prized when they may be had.  There are no great rows nor small clusters of inviting shops filled with suggestive and fascinating contents at attractive prices.  The distances from centres of trade are so great that the things which may be purchased even in the smallest towns in more favourable localities for a few cents have there almost a prohibitive price put upon them.  The efforts of the people to give their children a merry Christmas in the popular sense, however, are strong and sometimes pitiful.

It must not be forgotten that the West is settled by Eastern people, and that no very great difference exists between them save for the advantages presented by life in the West for the higher development of character.  Western people are usually brighter, quicker, more progressive and less conservative, and more liberal than those from whom they came.  The survival of the fittest is the rule out there and the qualities of character necessary to that end are brought to the top by the strenuous life necessitated by the hardships of the frontier.  If the people are not any better than they were, it is because they are still clinging to the obsolete ideas of the East.

The Eastern point of view always reminds me of the reply of the bishop to the layman who was deploring the poor quality of the clergy.  “Yes,” said the bishop, “some of them are poor; but consider the stock from which they come.  You see, we have nothing but laymen out of which to make them.”

The East never understands the West-the real West that is, which lies beyond the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Rocky Mountains.  They know nothing of its ideas, its capacities, its possibilities, its educational facilities, its culture, its real power, in the East.  And they do not wish to learn, apparently.  The Easterners fatuously think, like Job, that they are the people, and wisdom will die with them.  Some years since an article in the “Forum” on the theme, “Kansas more civilized than New York” conclusively proved the proposition to the satisfaction of the present writer at least.

Yet I know numberless dwellers in Gotham whose shibboleth is “nothing outside of New York City but scenery,” and they are a little dubious about admitting that.  When one describes the Grand Canyon or the Royal Gorge they point to Nassau or Wall Street, and the Woolworth tower challenges Pike’s Peak!

I sat at a dinner table one day when the salted almonds were handed me with the remark:  “I suppose you never saw anything like these out West.  Try some.”  And my wife has been quite gravely asked if we feared any raids by the Indians and if they troubled us by their marauding in Kansas.  I have found it necessary to inform the curious that we did not live in tepees or wigwams when in Nebraska or Colorado.

Shortly after I came East to live I was talking with a man and a very stupid man at that, who informed me that he graduated from Harvard; to which surprising statement he added the startling information, for the benefit of my presumably untutored occidental mind, that it was a college near Boston!  They have everything in the West that the East has so far as their sometimes limited means will provide them and when they have no money they have patience, endurance, grim determination, and courage, which are better than money in the long run.

The cities and smaller towns especially as a rule are cleaner, better governed, more progressive, better provided with improvements and comforts than corresponding places in the East.  Scarcely a community exists without its water works, electric light plant, telephone system, trolleys, paved streets, etc.  Of course, this does not apply to the extreme frontier in which my field of work largely lay so many years ago.  The conditions were different there-the people too in that now far-distant time.

But to return to Christmas.  One Christmas day I left my family at one o’clock in the morning.  Christmas salutations were exchanged at that very sleepy hour and I took the fast express to a certain station whence I could drive up country to a little church in a farming country in which there had never been a Christmas service.  It was a bitter cold morning, deep snow on the ground, and a furious north wind raging.

The climate is variable indeed out West.  I have spent Christmas days on which it rained all day and of all days in the year on which to have it rain, Christmas is the worst.  Still, the farmers would be thankful.  It was usually safe to be thankful out there whenever it rained.  I knew a man once who said you could make a fortune by always betting two to one that it would not rain, no matter what the present promise of the weather was.  You were bound to win nine times out of ten.

I hired a good sleigh and two horses, and drove to my destination.  The church was a little old brick building right out in the prairie.  There was a smouldering fire in a miserable, worn-out stove which hardly raised the temperature of the room a degree although it filled the place with smoke.  The wind had free entrance through the ill-fitting window and door frames and a little pile of snow formed on the altar during the service.  I think there were twelve people who had braved the fury of the storm.  There was not an evergreen within a hundred miles of the place and the only decoration was sage-brush.  To wear vestments was impossible, and I conducted the service in a buffalo overcoat and a fur cap and gloves as I have often done.  It was short and the sermon was shorter.  Mem.:  If you want short sermons give your Rector a cold church or a hot one!

After service I went to dinner at the nearest farm-house.  Such a Christmas dinner it was!  There was no turkey, and they did not even have a chicken.  The menu was corn-bread, ham, and potatoes, and mighty few potatoes at that.  There were two children in the family, a girl of six and a boy of five.  They were glad enough to get the ham.  Their usual bill of fare was composed of potatoes and corn-bread, and sometimes corn-bread alone.  My wife had put up a lunch for me, fearing that I might not be able to get anything to eat, in which there was a small mince-pie turnover; and the children had slipped a small box of candy in my bag as a Christmas gift.  I produced the turnover which by common consent was divided between the astonished children.  Such a glistening of eyes and smacking of small lips you never saw!

“This pie makes it seem like Christmas, after all,” said the little girl, with her mouth full.

“Yes,” said the boy, ditto, “that and the ham.”

“We didn’t have any Christmas this year,” continued the small maiden.  “Last year mother made us some potato men” (i.e., little animal and semi-human figures made out of potatoes and matches with buttons for eyes; they went into many stockings among the very poor out West then).

“But this year,” interrupted the boy, “potatoes are so scarce that we couldn’t have ’em.  Mother says that next year perhaps we will have some real Christmas.”

They were so brave about it that my heart went out to them.  Children and no Christmas gifts!  Only the chill, bare room, the wretched, meagre meal.  I ransacked my brain.  Finally something occurred to me.  After dinner I excused myself and hurried back to the church.  There were two small wicker baskets there which were used for the collection-old but rather pretty.  I selected the best one.  Fortunately I had in my grip a neat little “housewife” which contained a pair of scissors, a huge thimble, needles, thread, a tiny little pin-cushion, an emery bag, buttons, etc.  I am, like most ex-sailors, something of a needleman myself.  I emptied the contents into the collection basket and garnished the dull little affair with the bright ribbon ties ripped off the “housewife” and went back to the house.

To the boy I gave my penknife which happened to be nearly new, and to the girl the church basket with the sewing things for a work-basket.  The joy of those children was one of the finest things I have ever witnessed.  The face of the little girl was positively filled with awe as she lifted from the basket, one by one, the pretty and useful articles the “housewife” had supplied and when I added the small box of candy that my children had provided me, they looked at me with feelings of reverence, as a visible incarnation of Santa Claus.  They were the cheapest and most effective Christmas presents it was ever my pleasure to bestow.  I hope to be forgiven for putting the church furniture to such a secular use.

Another Christmas day I had a funeral.  There was no snow, no rain.  The day was warm.  The woman who died had been the wife of one of the largest farmers in the diocese.  He actually owned a continuous body of several thousands of acres of fine land, much of it under cultivation.  She had been a fruitful mother and five stalwart sons, all married, and several daughters likewise, with numerous grandchildren represented her contribution to the world’s population.  They were the people of the most consideration in the little community in which they lived.  We had the services in the morning in the Methodist church, which was big enough to hold about six hundred people.  As it was a holiday, it was filled to the very doors.  One of my farmer friends remarked as we stood on the front steps watching the crowd assembling: 

“My, doc, all of them wagons gatherin’ here makes it seem more like circus day than a funeral.”

I had been asked to preach a sermon, which I essayed to do.  The confusion was terrific.  In order to be present themselves the mothers in Israel had been obliged to bring their children, and the most domestic of attentions were being bestowed upon them freely.  They cried and wailed and expostulated with their parents in audible tones until I was nearly frantic.  I found myself shouting consoling platitudes to a sobbing, grief-stricken band of relatives and endeavouring to drown the noise of the children by roaring-the lion’s part a la Bottom.  It was distracting.  I was a very young minister at the time and the perspiration fairly rained from me.  That’s what makes me remember it was a warm day.

When we got through the services after every one of the six hundred had, in the language of the local undertaker, “viewed the remains,” we went to the cemetery.  I rode behind a horse which was thirty-eight years old.  I do not know what his original colour had been but at present he was white and hoary with age.

“I always use him for funerals,” said the undertaker, “because he naturally sets the proper pace for a funeral procession.”

“Mercy,” said I, “I hope he won’t die on the road.”

“Well, if he does,” continued the undertaker, “your services will come in handy.  We can bury him proper.  I am awful fond of that horse.  I shouldn’t wonder if he hadn’t been at as many as a thousand funerals in his life.”

I thought that he had all the gravity of his grewsome experiences, especially in his gait.  The Christmas dinners were all late on account of the funeral but they were bountiful and good nevertheless and I much enjoyed mine.

Another Christmas I was snow-bound on one of the obscure branches of a Western railroad.  If the train had been on time I would have made a connection and have reached home by Christmas Eve, but it was very evident, as the day wore on, that it was not going to be on time.  Indeed it was problematical whether it would get anywhere at all.  It was snowing hard outside.  Our progress had become slower and slower.  Finally in a deep cut we stopped.  There were four men, one woman, and two little children in the car-no other passengers in the train.  The train was of that variety known out West as a “plug” consisting of a combination baggage and smoker and one coach.

One of the trainmen started on a lonely and somewhat dangerous tramp of several miles up the road to the next station to call for the snow-plough, and the rest of us settled down to spend the night.  Certainly we could not hope to be extricated before the next evening, especially as the storm then gave no signs of abating.  We all went up to the front of the car and sat around the stove in which we kept up a bright fire,-fortunately we had plenty of fuel-and in such circumstances we speedily got acquainted with each other.  One of the men was a “drummer,” a travelling man for a notion house; another was a cow-boy; the third was a big cattle-man; and I was the last.  We soon found that the woman was a widow who had maintained herself and the children precariously since the death of her husband by sewing and other feminine odd jobs but had at last given up the unequal struggle and was going back to live with her mother, also a widow who had some little property.

The poor little threadbare children had cherished anticipations of a joyous Christmas with their grandmother.  From their talk we could hear that a Christmas tree had been promised them and all sorts of things.  They were intensely disappointed at the blockade.  They cried and sobbed and would not be comforted.  Fortunately the woman had a great basket filled with substantial provisions which, by the way, she generously shared with the rest of us, so we were none of us hungry.  As the night fell, we tipped up two of the seats, placed the bottoms sideways, and with our overcoats made two good beds for the little folks.  Just before they went to sleep the drummer said to me: 

“Say, parson, we’ve got to give those children some Christmas.”

“That’s what,” said the cow-boy.

“I’m agreed,” added the cattle-man.

“Madam,” said the drummer, addressing the woman with the easy assurance of his class, after a brief consultation between us, “we are going to give your kids some Christmas.”

The woman beamed at him gratefully.

“Yes, children,” said the now enthused drummer, as he turned to the open-mouthed children, “Santa Claus is coming round to-night sure.  We want you to hang up your stockings.”

“We ain’t got none,” quivered the little girl, “‘ceptin’ those we’ve got on and ma says it’s too cold to take ’em off.”

“I’ve got two new pair of woollen socks,” said the cattle-man eagerly, “which I ain’t never wore, and you are welcome to ’em.”

There was a clapping of little hands in childish glee, and then the two faces fell as the elder remarked.

“But Santa Claus will know they are not our stockings and he will fill them with things for you instead.”

“Lord love you,” said the burly cattle-man, roaring with infectious laughter, “he wont bring me nothin’.  One of us will sit up anyway and tell him it’s for you.  You’ve got to hustle to bed right away because he may be here any time now.”

Then came one of those spectacles which we sometimes meet once or twice in a lifetime.  The children knelt down on the rough floor of the car beside their improvised beds.  Instinctively the hands of the men went to their heads and at the first words of “Now I lay me down to sleep,” four hats came off.  The cow-boy stood twirling his hat and looking at the little kneeling figures; the cattle-man’s vision seemed dimmed; while in the eyes of the travelling man there shone a distant look-a look across snow-filled prairies to a warmly lighted home.

The children were soon asleep.  Then the rest of us engaged in earnest conversation.  What should we give them? was the question.

“It don’t seem to me that I’ve got anything to give ’em,” said the cow-boy mournfully, “unless the little kid might like my spurs, an’ I would give my gun to the little girl, though on general principles I don’t like to give up a gun.  You never know when you’re goin’ to need it, ’specially with strangers,” he added with a rather suspicious glance at me.  I would not have harmed him for the world.

“I’m in much the same fix,” said the cattle-man.  “I’ve got a flask of prime old whiskey here, but it don’t seem like it’s very appropriate for the occasion, though it’s at the service of any of you gents.”

“Never seen no occasion in which whiskey wasn’t appropriate,” said the cow-boy, mellowing at the sight of the flask.

“I mean ’taint fit for kids,” explained the cattle-man handing it over.

“I begun on’t rather early,” remarked the puncher, taking a long drink, “an’ I always use it when my feelin’s is onsettled, like now.”  He handed it back with a sigh.

“Never mind, boys,” said the drummer.  “You all come along with me to the baggage car.”

So off we trooped.  He opened his trunks, and spread before us such a glittering array of trash and trinkets as almost took away our breath.

“There,” he said, “look at that.  We’ll just pick out the best things from the lot, and I’ll donate them all.”

“No, you don’t,” said the cow-boy.  “My ante’s in on this game, an’ I’m goin’ to buy what chips I want, an’ pay fer ’em too, else there ain’t going to be no Christmas around here.”

“That’s my judgment, too,” said the cattle-man.

“I think that will be fair,” said I.  “The travelling man can donate what he pleases, and we can each of us buy what we please, as well.”

I think we spent hours looking over the stock which the obliging man spread out all over the car for us.  He was going home, he said, and everything was at our service.  The trainmen caught the infection, too, and all hands finally went back to the coach with such a load of stuff as you never saw before.  We filled the socks and two seats besides with it.  The grateful mother was simply dazed.

As we all stood about, gleefully surveying our handiwork including the bulging socks, the engineer remarked: 

“We’ve got to get some kind of a Christmas tree.”

So two of us ploughed off on the prairie-it had stopped snowing and was bright moon-light-and wandered around until we found a good-sized piece of sage-brush, which we brought back and solemnly installed and the woman decorated it with bunches of tissue paper from the notion stock and clean waste from the engine.  We hung the train lanterns around it.

We were so excited that we actually could not sleep.  The contagion of the season was strong upon us, and I know not which were the more delighted the next morning, the children or the amateur Santa Clauses, when they saw what the cow-boy called the “layout.”

Great goodness!  Those children never did have, and probably never will have, such a Christmas again.  And to see the thin face of that mother flush with unusual colour when we handed her one of those monstrous red plush albums which we had purchased jointly and in which we had all written our names in lieu of our photographs, and between the leaves of which the cattle-man had generously slipped a hundred dollar bill, was worth being blockaded for a dozen Christmases.  Her eyes filled with tears and she fairly sobbed before us.

During the morning we had a little service in the car, in accordance with the custom of the Church, and I am sure no more heartfelt body of worshippers ever poured forth their thanks for the Incarnation than those men, that woman, and the little children.  The woman sang “Jesus Lover of my Soul” from memory in her poor little voice and that small but reverent congregation-cow-boy, drummer, cattle-man, trainmen, and parson-solemnly joined in.

“It feels just like church,” said the cow-boy gravely to the cattle-man.  “Say I’m all broke up; let’s go in the other car and try your flask ag’in.”  It was his unfailing resource for “onsettled feelin’s.”

The train-hand who had gone on to division headquarters returned with the snow-plough early in the afternoon, but what was more to the purpose he brought a whole cooked turkey with him, so the children had turkey, a Christmas tree, and Santa Claus to their heart’s content!  I did not get home until the day after Christmas.

But, after all, what a Christmas I had enjoyed!

During a season of great privation we were much assisted by barrels of clothing which were sent to us from the East.  One day just before Christmas, I was distributing the contents of several barrels of wearing apparel and other necessities to the women and children at a little mission.  The delight of the women, as the good warm articles of clothing for themselves and their children which they so sadly needed were handed out to them was touching; but the children themselves did not enter into the joy of the occasion with the same spontaneity.  Finally just as I got to the bottom of one box and before I had opened the other one, a little boy sniffling to himself in the corner remarked, sotto voce

“Ain’t there no real Chris’mus gif’s in there for us little fellers, too?”

I could quite enter into his feelings, for I could remember in my youthful days when careful relatives had provided me with a “cardigan” jacket, three handkerchiefs, and a half-dozen pairs of socks for Christmas, that the season seemed to me like a hollow mockery and the attempt to palm off necessities as Christmas gifts filled my childish heart with disapproval.  I am older now and can face a Christmas remembrance of a cookbook, a silver cake-basket, or an ice-cream freezer (some of which I have actually received) with philosophical equanimity, if not gratitude.

I opened the second box, therefore, with a great longing, though but little hope.  Heaven bless the woman who had packed that box, for, in addition to the usual necessary articles, there were dolls, knives, books, games galore, so the small fry had some “real Chris’mus gif’s” as well as the others.

After one of the blizzards a young ranchman who had gone into the nearest town some twenty miles away to get some Christmas things for his wife and little ones, was found frozen to death on Christmas morning, his poor little packages of petty Christmas gifts tightly clasped in his cold hands lying by his side.  His horse was frozen too and when they found it, hanging to the horn of the saddle was a little piece of an evergreen tree-you would throw it away in contempt in the East, it was so puny.  There it meant something.  The love of Christmas?  It was there in his dead hands.  The spirit of Christmas?  It showed itself in that bit of verdant pine over the lariat at the saddle-bow of the poor bronco.

Do they have Christmas out West?  Well, they have it in their hearts if no place else, and, after all, that is the place above all others where it should be.