The First Christmas
Abigail looked up from her Bible. Rather than struggling to stay upright as it had for the last several hours, the flame on her candle stood tall. The wind had finally stopped. Abigail no longer heard snow attacking the canvas that covered the small windows of the sod house.
She stood up, stretched her arms above her head, and added a log to the fire. Josiah’s gentle snoring could be heard from beneath the pile of blankets on his bed. There was silence from Bethy’s corner of the room. As usual, Charles’s deep rhythmic rumble assured Abigail that her husband was sleeping. She envied him; as soon as he lay down each night, he was sound asleep.
A year ago, Abigail and her family were asleep in their own rooms, in soft beds, warmed by fireplaces and comforters. They would have come home from a beautiful Christmas Eve service at church, eaten a traditional meal of roast beef with baby potatoes, carrots, and pumpkin pie. Her father-in-law would have read the story of Christ’s birth. They’d sing a few Christmas carols, and send the children up to bed. That’s what Christmas Eve should be.
This year, instead of being surrounded by family and friends in the comfort of a large home, Abigail and her family were freezing in a dirt house on the God-forsaken prairie of the newly established Weld County of Colorado Territory. She glanced over at the quilted lump that was her husband. This was his dream, not hers.
With a sigh, she sat back in the stiff wooden chair and strained her eyes to follow the words describing Mary and Joseph’s journey. Although she was enormously pregnant, Mary had ridden on the back of a donkey to follow Joseph to his hometown. Abigail could well imagine how miserable Mary had been. For months, Abigail had been jostled on the wooden seat of the buckboard as it bumped along the trail from Saint Louis. She remembered her relief when Charles had decided to head south along the South Platte River. She was relieved to know her journey was almost at an end.
It was several more weeks before they reached the site of their homestead. Charles and Josiah immediately went to work cutting the prairie sod to assemble their house. As soon as the walls and roof were complete, Charles left Abigail the rifle and headed to Denver to file their claim. Twelve-year-old Josiah thought this was a grand adventure; Abigail and Bethy were terrified.
Abigail could remember Bethy melting to tears as Charles rode off in the wagon. “Ma,” she sobbed, “what if the Indians come?”
“We’ll be fine.” Abigail assured her. “I can shoot the rifle as well as your pa.”
“I can, too!” chimed in Josiah. “Besides, Pa says the Arapaho are friendly.”
“I miss Pappy and Grams. I miss my friends!” Bethy continued to wail.
Abigail knew exactly what Bethy was feeling. She missed her in-laws, her friends, her church, real wood houses, linen tablecloths, her piano, and her soft bed. But there was no use wallowing in the past.
“Come along, children, there’s work to be done,” Abigail said.
They were alone for a week before Charles returned. He’d spent $200 for their homestead, but he was giddy when he showed them the map that outlined their claim.
“In five years, this is ours free and clear. This here,” he pointed to the river south of their soddy, “is the Thompson River. To the west are the Rocky Mountains. Our claim goes from here, to here, to here, and back here.” His finger traced a large rectangle on the map. “Josiah, we’ll get some winter wheat into the ground this fall. That and our soddy are the first ‘improvements’ to our claim. Next spring, we’ll plant potatoes and beets. Abigail, you can put in a vegetable garden. Denver is booming! We’ll have a great harvest, sell our crops in Denver, and build a big, beautiful farmhouse with glass windows and wallpaper!” He had picked Abigail up and swung her around. His excitement was contagious.
They’d taken turns walking behind the steel plow, carving rows into the hard-packed prairie. The wind often destroyed their hard work, obliterating the rows before the seed could be planted. Charles didn’t seem to mind. He said plowing a second time was good for the earth. Eventually, the wheat seed was in. Then they prayed for moisture. Finally, the fierce wind brought some rain. The days grew shorter, the nights grew longer, and the wind grew colder.
Using wood from the large trees along the river, Charles built a corral for the livestock. Next, Charles and Josiah built a soddy for the four horses, the cow, and the chickens. Abigail thought it was ironic that the animal soddy was larger than the family’s soddy. As the fall months drifted into December, Charles announced that they were ready for their first winter in their new home.
Abigail returned to the story of Mary and Joseph. Mary had followed her man; Abigail had followed her man. Mary knew she had a good husband; Joseph had married his fiancé knowing she was with child. He must have loved Mary beyond measure. Abigail lifted her eyes from the book and looked at Charles. Then her eyes drifted to Bethy’s sleeping form. Abigail knew Charles loved her beyond measure as well. So why did she feel so angry at him for bringing her to this horrible place?
Tears filled her eyes as she attempted to find her place in the Bible. She impatiently swiped the moisture off her cheeks. Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem, but there was no room for them. No place but a smelly barn. How brave Mary must have been to give birth in a stable. At least, Abigail thought, her own children had been born at home, and she’d had the support of her mother-in-law and a midwife. But now, home was a dirt and straw house, with a dirt floor, buffeted by the ever-present wind.
As she finished reading about the birth of Jesus, some of her bitterness melted away. The Savior of the world had been born in a place of dirt and straw. He was loved by his family regardless of his circumstances.
It was after midnight when Abigail added another log to the fire and blew out her candle. She quietly lifted the edge of the comforter and slid next to her husband. Grateful for his warmth, she slipped an arm around his waist and whispered, “Merry Christmas, Charles.”
She left his lips move softly on her hair as he said, “I love you, Abigail. Merry Christmas.”