December 24, 1872
A farm outside Plenty, Kansas
“But I have nothing!” Jamie Rich looked around her dingy log cabin. The cabin looked smaller than ever. She didn’t have pictures on the wall, no menageries, no trinkets, nothing extra she could give. Everything she owned was suited for function. The fireplace and the logs beside it, the small table and two chairs, the mattress on the floor – all served to remind her that her father was dead, and anything of value he might have left her was gone to pay debts. How the preacher could come and ask her to be part of the church’s gift exchange was beyond her. She simply couldn’t afford to give away anything she had. She was in need herself, there was nothing to spare.
“Just come, Jamie. But if you look around and think hard enough, I’m sure you can find something to bring to the gift exchange after tonight’s service. We’ll be goin’ to the parsonage for refreshments – and for the exchange. Bessie’s been bakin’ all day and makin’ up some great vittles. Please say you’ll come, Jamie. You never know what God will do.” Pastor Edwards’ eyes were full of sincere appreciation, with a hint of desperation. Why was it so important to him if she came? Wasn’t she the least of anyone in the congregation?
“All right, Pastor Edwards. I’ll come.” She released a great sigh, feeling her chin slump along with her shoulders.
“Great! We’ll see you later then. And thanks, Jamie. Like I said, you never know what God will do. It’s Christmas Eve and miracles can happen.” He put his hand on her shoulder a moment, and then released it.
As he closed the door behind him, Jamie released another breath and slumped down into a chair at the kitchen table and rested her cheek in her hand. What could she give? She glanced up and out at the barren Kansas prairie. It was cold, but there hadn’t been snow for a couple of years. She pulled herself up out of the chair and plodded to the window, pressing her nose to the glass. She peered up at the sun. It looked to be about midday. That meant she had only a few hours to find or prepare a gift to take that evening.
She sat again at the table, putting her cheeks between both fists. She’d been up early that morning, gathering eggs, feeding the few chickens she had left, making sure the cow was milked and the stalls cleaned out.
When Pa died, the pair of oxen had to be sold as well as the plow, and most implements, seed for next year’s crop, most of the chickens, a silver platter, Pa’s watch, and anything else of value the bankers could find. She knew there had been a sale of the items taken.
Wasn’t it enough Pa had died and left her to face all the debt? She wished Ma was still alive. She’d know what to do. Jamie felt abandoned. Out here on the prairie, life was hard, but it was Pa’s dream to bring crops to the prairie. Neither one of them had counted on a freak accident just after Thanksgiving that claimed Pa’s life. The bankers waited a week until December, before swooping in like birds of prey, stripping of her of nearly everything her Pa had worked for. After the first of the year, they were going to come and claim the farm if she couldn’t pay the rest of the debt. She didn’t know where she’d go then, or what she would do.
Hours later, she bundled up and started walking towards the church.
Jamie could hear the music coming from the new white-washed clapboard building from many yards away. “Hark the herald, angels sing…” she heard as she walked towards the church. As she entered, the warmth from the corner woodstove made her cheeks tingle as they thawed. Another hymn began as she removed her coat, hat and gloves.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king…” Jamie felt anything but joy. The weight of life alone on her shoulders was unbearable. In all her eighteen years, she’d never felt this way before, but then Ma and Pa had always been with her, now they were both gone. There were no brothers or sisters – well, there had been, but they’d died too. Everyone she’d ever loved had left her.
She shuffled to the back pew, sitting next to a kindly looking older gentleman, who smiled as he moved over to make a place for her to sit. She looked up just as the hymn ended and Pastor Edwards walked to the pulpit. His eyes met hers and she saw the joy in them. She broke contact and looked at the floor. What would she say to him at the gift exchange? What could she say?
Her mind wandered, so she only caught phrases of what Pastor Edwards spoke of. “And the angels said, ‘Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, good will towards men.’ Let us have good will…”
Good will. Was it from good will that the bankers stripped her of everything? Was it peace she felt in the raging corners of her heart? No! No peace, no comfort, no joy. Not for her. Not this Christmas.
She heard something else. “Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank thee for the gift of Your Son this Christmas…”
Christ was the hope and the gift to the world. She believed it in the bottom of her heart, but wasn’t sure it applied to her life right now. She was barely subsisting on what the bank had let her keep – for now. And she’d been asked to give a gift for Christmas. But she had nothing. To her, that meant she was nothing. Of what value to the world was she? She wouldn’t go to the gift exchange. It would be too embarrassing.
She looked up and saw people rising, with Pastor Edwards speaking about the gift exchange. She didn’t want to hear it. She wouldn’t be there. “And, please come to the gift exchange, even if you came tonight bringing nothing, please come.”
Her head snapped up and she looked Pastor Edwards directly in the eye. She glared at him, then looked at the floor, stumbling along with the others to get her coat.
Only a moment later, it seemed, she heard his voice behind her speaking softly. “Please come, Jamie. There’s a reason I asked you specifically to come, and it’s important that you be there.” She turned and slowly looked up to his eyes. Those kind, gentle eyes. They overflowed with sincerity, and she again saw that desperation in the background. She didn’t understand it.
She lowered her head and shook it. “All right. I’ll come.”
He smiled the broadest smile she could ever remember seeing. “Why don’t we walk together?” His voice seemed to echo. She looked up again. They were alone. How had she missed that? She was so preoccupied in her own grief and embarrassment, and trying to see how she could just slink away home, she hadn’t noticed people leaving.
After they finished getting on their coats, hats, mittens and scarves, Pastor Edwards extinguished the candles in the wall sconces and they left.
For a few minutes, there was silence, then Pastor Edwards began babbling away about Bessie’s treats. “She made gingerbread cookies, a couple of pies, a couple loaves of braided fruit breads, and hot apple cider. I think she may also be making a hot chocolate drink for the children.”
Jamie practically snorted in a very unladylike manner. “She surely didn’t make all that today.”
He laughed. “No, she started yesterday with the batters and dough. She stayed up half the night and got up early this morning to get the oven warm. When she does all this baking, we don’t even light the fireplace because the oven warms the whole house.”
As they reached the parsonage, Jamie could hear hushed voices as people were talking with one another. Pastor Edwards opened the door and led Jamie in. All was normal. No one seemed to even notice their host had joined them, let alone her.
As they removed their outer garments, Pastor Edwards leaned in and spoke softly. “Let me guide you through this maze of people. Bessie would like you to help her with something.” They weaved their way towards his wife. When she saw her husband, she smiled and gave him a kiss. Then she turned to Jamie.
“Welcome, Jamie. Thank you so much for coming. Could you help me arrange the gifts under the tree?”
Jamie swallowed hard. Could she hide her embarrassment because she hadn’t brought anything? Looking down, she nodded and followed Bessie to the tree. At that moment, Pastor Edwards ahem-med and got everyone’s attention.
“Hello everyone – thanks so much for coming to our gift exchange. My wife Bessie, with the help of Jamie Rich, will be passing out the gifts. Hope you all tagged them correctly.”
Laughter rose from the partygoers. “You made sure we did, Pastor!” Most echoed that sentiment.
Pastor Edwards raised his hands for silence. “Well you all know how important it is that everyone gets the right gift. Jamie, would you pick out a gift and read the tag?”
She reached down and picked up medium-sized gift wrapped in green calico with a red ribbon on top. She searched for a name, but couldn’t find one. She looked up questioningly at the pastor.
His grin took up his whole face. Dead silence reigned in the room.
“Who’s this for? There’s no name.”
Bessie leaned in and whispered in her ear. “It’s for you, dear.” She gestured down to the rest of the gifts under the tree. “They’re all for you.”
“Wh-what?” Jamie clutched the gift with one hand, the other flying to her mouth. “Me?” Her voice sounded more like a squeak.
Bessie put her arm around her. Tears welled up in her eyes. She swallowed again.
Pastor Edwards came to her other side, and tilted her chin towards him. “Jamie, we know how hard this has all been for you. We want you to know that you are not alone in this. We are with you. We will take care of you and make sure your needs are met. We know how much was taken from you, and we want to give as much back as we can. We all attended the sale, and bought back most of your things. You’ll find them under the tree as you open them up.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks. “B-but I didn’t bring anything. These can’t all be for me. I brought nothing to exchange.”
Pastor Edwards smiled again. “You brought yourself, Jamie Rich. That’s all we wanted. You – are a gift to us. We wanted to be a gift to you.”
© Donna L.H. Smith 2014