Book In Common: Ingalls have a nice Christmas despite the weather – we can have a nice Christmas despite the economy

View of Manzanita Lake and Lassen Peak

The road into Lassen Nation Park has been closed since mid-November, so I got this shot of Manzanita Lake from the webcam today.  I don’t know how I did it, but this shot is live, enjoy it. 

Shiver me timbers!

It’s gloomy here in Chico, dark at 3:00 in the afternoon, storms predicted through the weekend, maybe even Christmas! I’m sure the malls are hoppin’, but I’m glad to be here in my warm house with a cup of coffee and a book.

And all the modern conveniences, that’s worth mentioning. In De Smet, Laura Ingalls and her family have just found out the train is not coming. At all. At least not until “Spring,” and nobody knows when that is anymore. At first they are only disappointed at the loss of their Christmas barrel, sent by friends and relatives back East. Quickly the reality sinks in – no more food, no more coal for heat, no more kerosene for light, nothing. They realize they must do with what little they have left.

At this point the girls are sick of their diet of bread and salt pork and dried goods. Now the last bits of these things all seem very precious. Luckily Pa waded into the hoarding at the store – he grabbed the last 5 lb bag of tea, which they all drink to help them stay alert in the endless dark, cold days.

At times like this, positive attitude is often the only thing between life and death.  When the girls begin to complain, Pa tells them the story of the train superintendent, an easterner who is humiliated by the prairie blizzard. The end of the story is grim – no more trains – but the knowledge that they are tougher and smarter than the Boss Man in his fancy woolen topcoat lifts their spirits and has them all laughing.

Pa plays his fiddle, sings, tells stories, and reads aloud from books and journals to keep their spirits up. One last batch of mail makes it through with a neighbor, and they enjoy letters from relatives and friends, as well as new magazines. As the kerosene runs out, they save it for their nightly reading sessions. When the last of the kerosene burns up, Ma improvises a lamp with a button, a bit of cloth, and some axle grease in a tea saucer.

As Christmas approaches the family keeps a brave face, using their last pennies and their imaginations to root through the house and the local stores for simple presents. Pa comes home with some of the last canned goods from the store, and Ma makes a special dinner, using the last of her flour. The children exchange simple presents, and each girl gets a stick of candy. Baby Grace gets a toy that Pa had found in the store earlier in the year. Every body is positively jolly.

In our house we were always reminded, we weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich either. Christmas was a time of anxiety, our grandparents and parents wanting to make us happy but not spoil us. In those days, people who over-indulged children were considered idiots, flashing wealth was considered stupid and rude, and living beyond your means was suspect. People were losing their farms in Glenn County because they’d built overly fancy houses, loaded with every modern convenience, wants over needs,  and then bought “town” cars instead of making repairs on the combine.

Still, we enjoyed certain rituals, like decorating the tree. Out in the country it is very dark at night, especially when there’s no moon. The yard beyond our porch light was sketchy. Tramping out to the barn or the mail box with one solitary flashlight beam between us, the path was suddenly unfamiliar and fraught with peril. Whenever we’d drive the roads at night, our world would be limited to the scope of our head lights.  Travelling along the river levee, or out over the expanses of rice field and walnut orchard, we felt as though we were in a foreign land. 

Not too many people lighted their houses, but there was usually a tree in the front window.  We’d be driving along, watching the glowing slots in the center of the road,  and there it would be, a solitary window shining out of the utter darkness, with a sparkling tree at center.  

At this time of year, we also searched the skies for the fully lighted Christmas tree erected at the top of grain elevators. There was one right across the road from our house, and others out and around the countryside. We got a kick out of that Christmas tree all the way up there. 

There aren’t very many lights in our neighborhood this year, but my cousin John down the street has made his house what I call, “brave in ribbons.” He’s just strung lights, no fancy displays, no real pattern, just lights. Thanks John, I like your lights. 

My husband put a string of lights along our fence, so I can see them from the windows upstairs. They’re very pretty. There’s just something primal about light this time of year.

So now, like the Ingalls, we are setting up for a storm, watching the skies, gathering supplies, getting ready to bring in the animals. But I’ve wrapped a few presents, I put the Christmas blanket on the table. No matter what, this one day a year, I get what I want – my family, in my house, together.




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