It was Christmas Eve, 1899. Lucy Parker sat alone at the table in the little two-room log cabin. Little Johnny and Mary were asleep in their bedroom up in the loft. Tomorrow was Christmas Day but they would not be celebrating.

Her husband, Matthew, had been away for several months, working at a logging camp back east. Though he hadn't wanted to leave her and the children alone, they needed the money. Lucy had insisted that they would be fine, and they had been. They had managed to do the chores and get the last of the fall crops in.

Matthew was due home the day after tomorrow and Lucy knew he would be very pleased. She had told the children that they would keep Christmas until then.

‘Tell me again, how Christmas will be late, Mama,’ Mary had said as she got ready for bed.

‘And how will Santa know?’ asked four-year-old Johnny.

Lucy put an arm around each child, drawing them close, as she sat down. ‘Papa will be home the day after tomorrow,’ she told them. ‘Then we will all go out in the field and we'll cut the prettiest Christmas tree we can find. We'll bring it home and decorate it with strings of popcorn and cranberries.’

‘With Grandma's Angel on top,’ said Mary, in all her six-year-old wisdom.

‘That's right.’ Lucy thought of the white lace angel that Matthew's mother had given them when they moved west. ‘Take a bit of the east with you, my dear,' she had said to Lucy, ‘and we'll never be far from each other in our hearts.' And Grandma's Angel had become an important part of their Christmas celebrations.

‘What about Santa?’ Johnny insisted.

‘Well now,’ Lucy said. ‘You know the Preacher brought a letter from Papa last week. Well, it seems that your Papa made a special deal and Santa is going to leave the gifts with him.’

‘So Papa will bring the gifts from Santa.’ As long as he knew the gifts were coming, Johnny was satisfied.

Matthew's letter, written four weeks earlier, had said that he was offered an extra two weeks' work. It meant that he could buy the horse and wagon they needed so badly. He would drive home and would stop in Calgary to pick up Christmas gifts for the children. He had remembered that Johnny wanted a red sled and Mary wanted a baby doll.

He would also bring the winter supplies and maybe a few special holiday treats. He would be home by Boxing Day, he said, and then they would celebrate together. Matthew said she was not to worry, that nothing would stop him from being there in time to spend the most of Christmas with her and the children.

‘But tomorrow is the birthday of the Baby Jesus,’ Mary said quietly. ‘We can't change a birthday, can we?’

‘No, and we will read the story in the Bible, and sing some Christmas carols,’ Lucy assured her. ‘Then we will do it all over again when Papa gets home. Now, off to bed, both of you, and get some sleep. Santa's elves are still watching you.’

Lucy sat there quietly, knitting and thinking. They were just young children. What if Matthew didn't get home on time? What if he had trouble with the horse, or something broke down on the wagon? Or he could run into stormy weather, perhaps even be delayed for several days. It was not safe to travel in winter storms.

What could she do to make Christmas Day special for the children? It would have to be something simple, something quick and easy to do for she didn't have much time. But what? Suddenly, she smiled, as an idea came to her. She put on her coat and eased open the door. It was a frosty night but the moon was bright and she wouldn't be gone long.

Her little plan was simple but it made her feel good to be doing something cheerful, a surprise that might be greeted with smiling faces in the morning. As she worked, she prayed, asking God to please bring her husband home safely and in time to celebrate this joyous occasion with them.

Christmas morning was cold but sunny. When Mary and Johnny came down from the loft, their eyes opened wide in surprise. Lucy smiled. Her plan appeared to be working.

‘It's a Christmas Bough,’ she said quietly. ‘Something to look a little bit like Christmas for you, and also to welcome your father when he comes.’

There, on the wall above the fireplace, was a perfectly shaped evergreen bough, not much more than a foot high. It was decorated with red and white bows tied from narrow strips of cloth. There was a big, gold satin bow at the bottom and a white paper star on top.

Although she knew they wouldn't fully understand it, Lucy explained it all to them. "There are twelve bows on the bough to thank God for bringing us safely through the twelve months of the past year. Each bow also represents one of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The twelve bows also represent the twelve disciples who gave up everything to follow Jesus.

‘The white bows are for peace. They represent the birth of Jesus, which is why it all started and we should never forget that. The red bows are for love and fun. Christmas is a time to share with the people we love. Red is for Santa Claus and the spirit of giving gifts.

‘The white star at the top is for Jesus and the Star of Bethlehem that shone so bright the night He was born. The gold bow at the bottom is because Jesus was God's gift to us all, a gift worth more than all the gold in the world. It ties everything together with love, the most precious gift you can give.’

‘It's beautiful, Mama,’ Mary said softly. ‘Just a little bit of Christmas.’

‘Yeah, Little Christmas,’ Johnny echoed.

Lucy laughed as she picked him up in her arms and swung him around. Then she prepared breakfast of eggs and fried bread for them all.

They read the Christmas story, sang carols, and Lucy made a special treat of molasses candy for them. When the chores were all done and the animals fed, they stayed outside and tried to make a snowman, but the snow was too dry. Instead, they made snow angels, then threw handfuls of the powdery white flakes at each other.

It was two tired, but happy children who went to bed that night, anticipating the real Christmas yet to come.

‘I like Little Christmas,’ Johnny said as Lucy kissed him good night.

‘Me too,’ Mary added. ‘I can't wait to tell Papa all about it.’

Lucy sang softly to them until they fell asleep, and then crept down the ladder.

Matthew got home late that night, earlier than he had expected. When Lucy explained the bough to him, he said they should make it a part of every Christmas from now on. Just a little reminder that the most important thing of all is being with the people you love.

So Lucy's Little Christmas became part of every Parker family Christmas from that time on. And Lucy never told anyone but Matthew, the real reason she had done it; that each bow she tied represented a special prayer for her husband's safe and speedy journey home to his family. And she always believed in prayer.

© 1999, F. Herridge
(Published December 1999, CANADIAN STORIES)

Fiction
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