I love love LOVE the Little House Christmas chapters. As far as I can remember, every book has one – even The Long Winter, which Harry agrees is the book “where everything is terrible and nothing good happens”. These chapters are just so lovely; in books that tend to present pioneer hardship in the most idyllic of terms anyway they are uniformly beautiful little vignettes of togetherness and celebration.
Never fear that the Big Woods might not have a white Christmas: the little log house was almost buried in snow … and in the morning when Pa opened the door, there was a wall of snow as high as Laura’s head. Now, granted, Laura was always small, never reaching five feet in height even as an adult, but a conservative guess would say we’re talking more than three feet of snow here. Yeowza.
We then get a couple of pages describing Pa making Ma’s Christmas present – a hand-carved wooden bracket to hold the famous china shepherdess. The bracket sounds very fancy and is described in detail, so I actually find it strange that illustrator Garth Williams never once draws it – not in any of the books, and the bracket is mentioned often over the course of the series. A quick Google search reveals that the bracket is not in any of the many museums dedicated to the Ingalls family. One wonders what happened to it. It was such a treasured object, and mentioned so frequently as surviving all their travels, that for it to just disappear is kind of sad. The Keystone Historical Society in South Dakota claims to have the original china shepherdess figurine – it’s four inches tall and was found in Carrie Ingalls’ possessions after her death, and since Laura always said that Carrie had it, it’s certainly possible. I’ve seen a (very bad quality) picture and it looks nothing like the oft-repeated description, though, so I have my doubts.
Anyway! Ma is very happy with her present, but she barely has time to enjoy it before she’s up to her pioneer armpits in cooking all the things for the holiday. She baked salt-rising bread and rye’n’Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies. She also supervises the girls as they make maple candy.
As a kid I always wondered about the rye’n’Injun bread – is it racist baked goods? so confused – and the vinegar pies, because that just sounded gross. As an adult, we have Google! Here’s a recipe for rye’n’Injun (“Injun” apparently meaning “cornmeal”) and here’s one for vinegar pie.
All of this largesse is because the Ingalls family is expecting company for Christmas – Aunt Eliza & Uncle Peter, and their four children Alice, Ella, Peter, and baby Dolly Varden. (Aside: What is UP with that baby’s name? Oh my.) They arrive on Christmas Eve, and the kids spend the day outside in the yard, falling off of stumps into the snow to make snow angels. Like, the WHOLE DAY. Without benefit of Gore-Tex or nylon. My kids spend twenty minutes in six inches of snow and are begging to come inside.
Both families bunk down for the night, with kids piled up everywhere and the parents sitting talking in front of the fire. Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter steal the spotlight immediately, telling a legitimately terrifying story of The Day Peter Was Gone And His Giant Dog Apparently Went Mad. (Note: only as an adult do I realize that “mad” means “rabid”, making it even scarier.)
Eliza was heading to the spring for water – remember, this is December, folks – leaving the four children alone in the cabin. The dog, Prince, blocks her path, snarling & growling, and when she tries to go around him, he grabs her skirt in his mouth and starts pulling backward, yanking until he rips a piece out of her dress. This goes on until Eliza runs and shuts herself in the cabin. She and the four children are trapped in the house all day WITH NO WATER – the dog won’t even let her open the door long enough to scoop up some snow to melt. Finally in the late afternoon he quiets down, she decides to go for it, and Prince accompanies her to the spring, which is surrounded by the fresh tracks of a panther … as big as [Eliza’s] hand.
Well! There’s a reason to have a dog that I hadn’t considered. Duly noted.
After that restful story, the children fall asleep so Santa can come. And boy, does he come through in a big way! In their stocking each child finds a pair of bright red mittens and a stick of peppermint candy.
AND LAURA GETS A REAL RAG DOLL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! She names her Charlotte and history doesn’t record what happens to Susan the corncob doll after that.
Eliza brings Ma an apple studded with cloves, and Ma in return gives Eliza a needle book. The men also get mittens, but don’t get each other anything, being too manly, I guess.
They have a special breakfast of pancake men, and spend the morning eating their candy and looking at the pictures in the Bible. The main meal is eaten at lunchtime, and although the children are not allowed to speak, Ma and Aunt Eliza kept their plates full and let them eat all the good things they could hold. “Christmas comes but once a year,” said Aunt Eliza.
Preach, sister-friend! If only I could restrain myself to just one day of holiday bingeing, I wouldn’t have gained
five ten fifteen pounds since November.
Right after lunch the visitors bundle up for the sleigh ride home; Uncle Peter says they may just make it home before dark. I’ll bet the romance of a sleigh ride through the winter woods pales just a bit after three or four hours.
In just a little while the merry sound of the bells was gone, and Christmas was over. But what a happy Christmas it had been!
Next up, “Sundays”, otherwise known as “the chapter where Laura gets shack-wacky and a little seasonal affective disorder, and Pa tells an instructive parable about counting your blessings”.