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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007 03:23 am

The legend of the ungiven gift

Nearly 70 Christmases have passed, but the boy still has hope

Untitled Document The Frenches walked everywhere from their home in the hollow. They had walked the two miles up the west hollow to Uncle George’s and Aunt Daisy’s for Thanksgiving dinner. Dave walked miles on his trap line every other day. It was an easy walk through the timber to Frank Warner’s for eggs, even in the wintertime. It was 1939, a time when shortages and the doing-without of the Great Depression were very much a part of recent memory. At the same time there was an uneasiness as nations came closer and closer to a major war.
It was in the depth of December. Dave and Marie had told the kids that tonight was the night for the Christmas program at Hickory Church, just over the hill a mile or so. The kids were eager and soon were dressed in their Sunday best. They put on their overshoes. Dave carried the lantern; Marie carried the youngest child. The older boys were big enough to walk on their own. It was cold enough to see your breath. They began their walk over the hill. The people of Hickory precinct had a strong faith, and they gathered here in this hillside church a few evenings before Christmas to sing praises and celebrate the season and the birth of the baby Jesus. The Frenches walked into the churchyard. Dave blew out the lantern and set it by the church door. The light shining through the stained-glass windows helped make it a magic evening. The bell rang and rang in the winter air, and soon there was singing louder than anyone had ever heard. The well-to-do, the poor, and the in-between all stood shoulder to shoulder, praying, giving thanks, and singing that December night. The great Christmas tree, some 10 feet high, was trimmed and lit with electric lights. Many of the homes in the community were without electricity, so it was a sight to behold for those bright-eyed children. There was the usual program with Mr. Schaad, the superintendent, speaking in his strong, gravelly voice. “Recitation by Paul Kirchner.” “Recitation by Betty Lou Kissinger.” “A musical number by Leona Jane Tibbs.” And “A Recitation by Jackie David French.” And so the evening went on, till the magic moment when sleigh bells could be heard outside. Soon good old St. Nick would come bursting through the door shouting, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” He had gifts for all of the children. Santa, with a few helpers, began calling out children’s names and handing out gifts. Some were wrapped in fancy papers and tied with ribbons and bows of all colors. He soon emptied his bag, and the big pile of presents under the tree began to dwindle till finally all the name tags had been read. With a “Ho! Ho! Ho!” old St. Nick wished everyone assembled a Merry Christmas, waved goodbye, and started his journey back to the North Pole. But one boy of 6 years had gone unnoticed. He had no gifts. Of all the names called, none was his. He couldn’t believe it. Tears as big as raindrops welled in his eyes. He had studied hard in school; he had given his recitation in the best manner he knew how. He thought that he had been a good boy. But no gifts. The only thing he had was a lump in his throat so big he couldn’t even eat from the package of candy that everyone received. He and his family — Mom, Dad, and assorted brothers — left the church and started their walk home. Dad carried the lantern and the youngest child. Everyone had hold of someone else’s hand as the family sloshed along over the half-frozen, muddy road. It was then that Mother began to ask, “Well, what did you get?” to one child and then another. One child, through quivering lips, replied, “Nothing.” “What?” she said, “Nothing? Well, what on earth? Here, your brother got two things; he can’t read and you can, so take his book. Is that OK?”
The book was Thornton W. Burgess’ Old Mother West Wind. The boy had finally received a gift, but it just wasn’t the same. A few days later, the family celebrated their own Christmas with gift-giving and a wild-game dinner and a generally good and happy time. But the boy kept thinking: “Somewhere in that valley is a gift that wasn’t given. Somewhere a gift was wrapped and ready but somehow has been misplaced. Maybe it was lost before it got to the church, but where could it be?”
Now World War II is over, and the Great Depression of the 1930s is only mentioned in history. Thornton W. Burgess’ Old Mother West Wind, received that December night, rests on a shelf not far from Hickory Church. The families of Hickory precinct have grown and scattered, but somewhere near there is still an ungiven gift.
Roy L. French has written a Christmas story for Illinois Times for many years. He is a writer, photographer, and man of many hats. He lives in Virginia, Ill.


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