What follows is my second favorite Christmas story of all time. My favorite is, of course, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, which I try to read at least once a year. But Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl Buck runs it a close, close second.
I love this story so much because I’ve lived at least part of it. When I was a boy my grandparents lived on a 40 acre farm in the Missouri Ozarks. The farm had no running water and no inside plumbing. We drew our water from a well right outside the kitchen door. My grandfather’s day consisted of getting up at dawn, milking the cows (all of which were waiting for him at the barn door), slopping the hogs, and gathering eggs. Every day he would shlep milk cans full of fresh milk from that morning’s milking and that of the evening’s before down to the dirt road running in front of the farm. Later the milk truck would chug by on its route and pick them up.
When I stayed there, which was often, I would shadow my grandfather during his daily routine. Like all kids of that age, I wanted to do everything, which I’m sure was a major pain to him since he could do it all about ten times faster than could I. But he indulged me. I drew the water from the well and ‘helped’ by carrying my own small buckets of feed and slop to the various animals and filling my little basket with eggs.
I tried my hand at milking when I was young but didn’t have the finger strength or coordination to squeeze more than a little dribble into the bucket, although I did get better with age. I didn’t badger my grandfather to let me milk like I did with the other chores, mainly because whenever he let me, the cows knew something different was up. The one I was milking would lift its head from munching hay and stretch it around to look at me with its giant eyes about two feet away. Which always spooked me a bit as I always felt I was about a hairsbreadth from being gored if I made a wrong move.
I well remember, though, how cold it was at milking time in the winter and how I was freezing by the time we crunched across frozen, water-filled cow tracks to the barn in the early morning. It was toasty to get in between the rowed up cows and draft off their heat. I would loll in the warmth and listen to the milk hit the bucket as my grandfather milked. Swish, swish, swish, swish… I can still hear it now. When I got warm enough and came out from amidst the cows, the white (there is nothing whiter) frothy milk was irresistible. My grandfather would ladle me out a cup, and I would swill it right there in the barn. It was fresh and cow temperature, which made it perfect on an icy day.
Maybe it is these childhood experiences that make this Christmas story affect me as it does. I know what Rob went through to give his gift.
Merry Christmas to all!
Christmas Day in the Morning
by Pearl Buck
He woke suddenly and completely. It was four o’clock, the hour at which his father had always called him to get up and help with the milking. Strange how the habits of his youth clung to him still! Fifty years ago, and his father had been dead for thirty years, and yet he waked at four o’clock in the morning. He had trained himself to turn over and go to sleep, but this morning it was Christmas, he did not try to sleep.
Why did he feel so awake tonight? He slipped back in time, as he did so easily nowadays. He was fifteen years old and still on his father’s farm. He loved his father. He had not known it until one day a few days before Christmas, when he had overheard what his father was saying to his mother.
“Mary, I hate to call Rob in the mornings. He’s growing so fast and he needs his sleep. If you could see how he sleeps when I go in to wake him up! I wish I could manage alone.”
“Well, you can’t, Adam.” His mother’s voice was brisk. “Besides, he isn’t a child anymore. It’s time he took his turn.”
“Yes,” his father said slowly. “But I sure do hate to wake him.”
When he heard these words, something in him spoke: his father loved him! He had never thought of that before, taking for granted the tie of their blood. Neither his father nor his mother talked about loving their children–they had no time for such things. There was always so much to do on the farm.
Now that he knew his father loved him, there would be no loitering in the mornings and having to be called again. He got up after that, stumbling blindly in his sleep, and pulled on his clothes, his eyes shut, but he got up.
And then on the night before Christmas, that year when he was fifteen, he lay for a few minutes thinking about the next day. They were poor, and most of the excitement was in the turkey they had raised themselves and mince pies his mother made. His sisters sewed presents and his mother and father always bought him something he needed, not only a warm jacket, maybe, but something more, such as a book. And he saved and bought them each something, too.
He wished, that Christmas when he was fifteen, he had a better present for his father. As usual he had gone to the ten-cent store and bought a tie. It had seemed nice enough until he lay thinking the night before Christmas. He looked out of his attic window, the stars were bright.
“Dad,” he had once asked when he was a little boy, “What is a stable?”
“It’s just a barn,” his father had replied, “like ours.”
Then Jesus had been born in a barn, and to a barn the shepherds had come…
The thought struck him like a silver dagger. Why should he not give his father a special gift too, out there in the barn? He could get up early, earlier than four o’clock, and he could creep into the barn and get all the milking done. He’d do it alone, milk and clean up, and then when his father went in to start the milking he’d see it all done. And he would know who had done it. He laughed to himself as he gazed at the stars. It was what he would do, and he musn’t sleep too sound.
He must have waked twenty times, scratching a match each time to look at his old watch — midnight, and half past one, and then two o’clock.
At a quarter to three he got up and put on his clothes. He crept downstairs, careful of the creaky boards, and let himself out. The cows looked at him, sleepy and surprised. It was early for them, too.
He had never milked all alone before, but it seemed almost easy. He kept thinking about his father’s surprise. His father would come in and get him, saying that he would get things started while Rob was getting dressed. He’d go to the barn, open the door, and then he’d go get the two big empty milk cans. But they wouldn’t be waiting or empty, they’d be standing in the milk-house, filled.
“What the–,” he could hear his father exclaiming.
He smiled and milked steadily, two strong streams rushing into the pail, frothing and fragrant.
The task went more easily than he had ever known it to go before. Milking for once was not a chore. It was something else, a gift to his father who loved him. He finished, the two milk cans were full, and he covered them and closed the milk-house door carefully, making sure of the latch.
Back in his room he had only a minute to pull off his clothes in the darkness and jump into bed, for he heard his father up. He put the covers over his head to silence his quick breathing. The door opened.
“Rob!” His father called. “We have to get up, son, even if it is Christmas.”
“Aw-right,” he said sleepily.
The door closed and he lay still, laughing to himself. In just a few minutes his father would know. His dancing heart was ready to jump from his body.
The minutes were endless — ten, fifteen, he did not know how many — and he heard his father’s footsteps again. The door opened and he lay still.
His father was laughing, a queer sobbing sort of laugh.
“Thought you’d fool me, did you?” His father was standing by his bed, feeling for him, pulling away the cover.
“It’s for Christmas, Dad!”
He found his father and clutched him in a great hug. He felt his father’s arms go around him. It was dark and they could not see each other’s faces.
“Son, I thank you. Nobody ever did a nicer thing–”
“Oh, Dad, I want you to know — I do want to be good!” The words broke from him of their own will. He did not know what to say. His heart was bursting with love.
He got up and pulled on his clothes again and they went down to the Christmas tree. Oh what a Christmas, and how his heart had nearly burst again with shyness and pride as his father told his mother and made the younger children listen about how he, Rob, had got up all by himself.
“The best Christmas gift I ever had, and I’ll remember it, son every year on Christmas morning, so long as I live.”
They had both remembered it, and now that his father was dead, he remembered it alone: that blessed Christmas dawn when, alone with the cows in the barn, he had made his first gift of true love.
This Christmas he wanted to write a card to his wife and tell her how much he loved her, it had been a long time since he had really told her, although he loved her in a very special way, much more than he ever had when they were young. He had been fortunate that she had loved him. Ah, that was the true joy of life, the ability to love. Love was still alive in him, it still was.
It occurred to him suddenly that it was alive because long ago it had been born in him when he knew his father loved him. That was it: Love alone could awaken love. And he could give the gift again and again. This morning, this blessed Christmas morning, he would give it to his beloved wife. He could write it down in a letter for her to read and keep forever. He went to his desk and began his love letter to his wife: My dearest love…
Such a happy, happy Christmas!
Image at top from Flickr