“Our Pickle-Jar Christmas,” Ensign, Dec. 1993, 15
When I was a child, it seemed to me that Christmastime always began the day Daddy brought home the Christmas tree. But the year I was five, Christmas for the family began much earlier.
Two months before Christmas on a cold October night, Mama rounded up her six children, including me, and sat us down in the long log room that served as kitchen, living room, and bedroom for the family.
She lifted three-year-old Benny and me onto the high bed with the crazy-patch quilt and gathered the four older children around us.
“Christmas is for surprises,” she began. “How would each of you like to make this a special Christmas by surprising Daddy?”
Everyone agreed, and Benny and I squealed and clapped our hands at the prospect of treating Daddy, since he often had special surprises for us in his lunch bucket at the end of a workday.
“Sh! Let’s talk quietly so Daddy won’t hear. He’s just on the other side of the door, remember.” We could hear Daddy hammering and sawing in the new living room he was adding onto the room we presently lived in. He was working at home on nights when he worked day shift at the coal mine and mornings when he worked night shift, trying to finish the room before Christmas so we could have our Christmas tree there.
“You children know how hard Daddy works for us and how he worries about paying the bills?” Mama asked. The Great Depression was drawing to a close, and though we didn’t understand that, we did know that times were hard. The older children nodded, and taking a cue, I nodded, too, although I had no idea how much Daddy worked or worried. I didn’t even know what a bill was.
Mama bent closer so she could speak quietly and make us all hear. “Since Daddy always makes Christmas so nice for us, I thought it would be fun to make this year Daddy’s Christmas.”
Getting into the spirit of things, we nodded. We loved keeping secrets, especially a Christmas surprise.
“What do you mean, Mama?” asked Sammy, who was two years older than I.
“You may not want to surprise Daddy when you find out what I have in mind,” warned Mama.
“Yes we will!” promised Eva, the eldest and most magnanimous.
Mama continued, “Okay, but you don’t have to decide until I explain.” She quieted us again since we were beginning to fidget. “If this is going to be Daddy’s Christmas, we’ll all have to make a lot of sacrifices.” Benny’s eyes lit up; he loved to make things.
“Number one, none of the rest of us will receive any gifts or give presents to each other.” As Mama watched to see everyone’s reaction to this bombshell, the room became so still the sound of Daddy’s hammer rang with clarity in the next room.
“No presents?” asked Marilyn and Jerry in unison. I watched Marilyn’s tranquil countenance crumble and Jerry’s green eyes enlarge, and I began to catch on.
“That’s right,” said Mama, “nothing under the tree for any of us except Daddy.”
I saw the disappointment among my brothers and sisters, and I would have felt glum, too, except that I was sure Santa would bring each of us a gift on Christmas Eve. Mama’s lilting voice was gentle with understanding. “Remember the Christmas story? How the Wise Men traveled many days and nights to bring presents to baby Jesus?”
I loved all the stories about Christmas and snuggled into Mama’s pillow, waiting to hear another one. “Remember the traditional story of the little shepherd boy who heard the angels singing ‘Glory to the newborn King,’ and gathered a tiny lamb to give as a gift to the King in the manger?”
While firelight danced through the holes in the front of our potbellied stove and Jack Frost painted pictures on the room’s north window, Mama retold the story of the wondrous birth of our Savior.
When she finished, she held her arms as though cradling a child. “Jesus, who would someday make the greatest sacrifice of all, meant enough to the Wise Men for them to give up their greatest treasures to honor him.”
I was enthralled, as I always was when Mama told this story. I looked at the rapture on the faces of the others and felt tingly inside. Sammy asked, “Didn’t the Wise Men get any presents when they went back to their houses?”
“No, dear, only a peaceful feeling inside that made them feel happy.”
“I don’t care about not getting any presents,” declared Eva after a moment, her eyes sparkling. The others agreed, although without complete conviction.
Mama studied our faces in the lamp’s glow. “Does everyone agree, then?” One by one we nodded. “Are you sure you can all keep a secret?” Several looks were directed at Benny and me. “Will you and Benny promise not to tell Daddy?” Our heads bobbed up and down. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
As we listened, the chilly October wind whipped leaves against the windows, but we didn’t care. Mama could make anything sound good.
The next morning, we started saving money for Daddy’s Christmas surprise. Mama made economical foods for the children’s school lunches instead of buying small treats for their lunches. She let Eva, Marilyn, Jerry, and Sammy put the saved quarters and nickels in a small pickle jar, then we all watched as she placed the jar on top of the tall kitchen cupboard in a corner of the room.
“That’s a start,” she said. “We’ll see how fast it adds up.”
And it did add up with each sacrifice we made. Those of us with piggy banks transferred our pennies into the pickle jar. Instead of buying treats with allowances or spending money when we went to town, we dropped our money into the jar.
Jerry and Sammy milked our black cow, Baby, and turned the handle on the separator while milk whirred into one container and cream into another. Then Eva and Marilyn churned the cream into butter to sell.
One Saturday, Mama took us to the livestock auction in our Model-A Ford truck. We sold our six runt lambs, now grown into fat, woolly sheep. Jerry and Sammy also sold their rabbits, dropping crisp dollar bills into the jar that night.
Each night after school, the bigger kids would hurry home to see how much Daddy had done on the new room, avidly watching the chinked railroad-tie walls go higher and higher. Then we would all help Mama with projects designed to help us earn or save money.
We cut quilt blocks while Mama sewed the blocks together on her treadle machine. We helped her make shirts for the boys from Daddy’s old dress shirts and mittens from old woolen coats. We helped put patches on the knees of jeans and ruffles on skirts that were too short. My contribution was clipping thread and treadling the machine when Mama would let me.
Instead of buying new winter coats, Mama handed down what she could to younger ones and made over some old coats she found in a trunk for the others. When the school-age children said they needed new shoes, she asked them if they would rather have new shoes or Daddy’s Christmas. Of course, they opted to polish and patch their old shoes and put the money they saved into the pickle jar.
We were enjoying the sight of the greenbacks and coins adding up. Each Saturday evening after our baths in the round metal tub, Mama would take down the jar from the cupboard, and we would count the money.
When the Sears and Roebuck catalog came a few weeks before Christmas, Mama told us we could each choose what we would like and cut the toys from the catalog to give to our paper dolls. Choosing, she pointed out, was as much fun as having.
Benny and I would save our treats from Daddy’s lunchbox and let Mama send the cakes and cookies with him the next day, thereby saving the money she would have spent on more treats for Daddy. She would let us take pennies from her coin purse and drop them into the pickle jar.
November came and went, with Daddy putting up two-by-fours and planks for a roof on the new living room, then covering the boards with a tin roof. He laid the floor in early December and started plastering the walls two weeks before Christmas.
Making Christmas candy was always a special treat. This year, instead of buying sugar, syrup, canned milk, and nuts, we put the money away and made honey candy. While we stretched the hot candy like taffy, we sang Christmas carols.
Daddy worked almost through the night two nights before Christmas, putting the finishing touches on the new room and bringing in a stove for heat. He was eager to present the finished room to us as his Christmas gift to our family.
The next morning, the family—wrapped in quilts with heated rocks at our feet—loaded into Daddy’s old truck and chugged through new-fallen snow to Clarks Valley to cut a Christmas tree. We chose a fragrant piñon tree with pine cones still clinging to its branches, and Daddy chopped the tree down while we kids romped in the snow and exchanged secret smiles.
All day Daddy quizzed Mama about Christmas gifts for the children, but Mama would just smile and say, “Don’t worry, everything has been taken care of.”
That night we wrapped Daddy’s gift with bright red-and-green paper while Daddy made a stand for the tree. We trooped into the new room behind him as he carried the tree to a corner. In awe, we looked around us. The new living room seemed like a magnificent castle.
We decorated the tree with paper chains, popcorn, and our traditional Christmas angel. We sang Christmas carols and knelt around the tree for family prayer.
On Christmas morning, Daddy woke us with a boisterous, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas! Wake up, sleepyheads, and let’s go see what’s under the Christmas tree.” We rubbed our eyes and smirked and giggled. We knew what was under the tree!
Daddy had put a big log in the stove the night before, and this morning the room was toasty warm and smelled of pine and new plaster.
Mama and her brood of little ones hurried into the room ahead of Daddy, all of us thrilled with the new room he had built, and anxious to see his face when he noticed the tree.
“Whoa!” Daddy exclaimed as he studied the empty floor under the tree, empty except for one gaily wrapped package. “Where are the rest of the Christmas presents?”
“Under the tree, dear,” replied Mama, her eyes glowing like Christmas lights.
“But I don’t understand.”
“Just read what’s on the tag,” instructed Mama, giving him a push.
“Yes, read it, Daddy!” exclaimed Sammy, whose curiosity was getting the best of him. “Read it! Read it! Read it!” shouted the rest of us.
Daddy picked up the gift and read aloud, “To Daddy on your Christmas, from all of us with love. Signed, Ellen (Mama), Eva, Marilyn, Jerry, Sammy, Wilma, and Benny.”
“Surprise!” we shouted when Daddy took the wrapping from the present. Inside was a box, and inside the box was a neat stack of bills—some for building materials for the new room and some for groceries and utilities, bills that had mounted up during the years of the Depression—each marked “Paid in Full.”
As Daddy thumbed through the papers, his eyes misted over, and he hugged and kissed each of us in turn, starting with Mama. “This is the best Christmas I’ve ever had,” he declared. And we all knew it was the best one for us, too.