We hope you enjoy this Christmas story about a family who discovers the spirit of giving even though they are too poor to buy gifts for each other. This is another true story from the life of Janice Sautter (J. R. Carter) who grew up in Oklahoma and has lived in Flour Bluff since 1968.
We never did have a really big Christmas like some people do, but what we had was enough. My daddy worked in construction, and when the weather was bad, the money was just not there. And in Oklahoma the weather could get real nasty in the winter. My mother worked, too, but her paycheck would only go so far. Women did not earn very much in those days.
All of us kids knew that when the weather was bad, we just didn’t have money for extra things. We were used to it, so we were never upset about it. That was just the way life was. I know our folks felt bad about it, but we kids were fine with it. We just tried to improvise.
Daddy had bought a small tree at the feed store a few days before and had it in a bucket of water to keep it fresh. We started looking for things to make our own gifts, and we certainly came up with some pretty good ideas at times. Mother had already told us that there would be no gifts this year, so we were already getting prepared to get creative. The most important was a gift for our parents. That is what we always started with.
“What are we going to come up with this year, Margie?”
“I don’t know. I thought you would have some ideas.’
“Well, we don’t have much to work with.”
“Let’s look around the house and see what we can find first,” Margie said.
Margie was very creative. She could usually come up with something. She suggested that we look outside for plants that die in the winter. We could still find some that looked pretty and put them in a vase for the table.
“That would be called a fall arrangement,” Margie told me.
Of course I had to be the one to go outside to look. Margie got earaches, so she had to stay in when the weather was bad. I put on my coat and all the other stuff I had to wear out in the snow so I wouldn’t freeze, and out I went. Daddy was home, and he warned me not to stay out too long. It was really cold, and the wind was blowing really hard. I went across the road to a vacant lot and started looking for something that would look good in a vase. I had a paper bag and some scissors that Margie told me to take. The snow was very light, so I could see things pretty well. I found quite a few weeds that looked somewhat pretty, and I stuck them in the bag. Believe it or not, some weeds are pretty even though they are dead and dried up. I found what I thought would be enough and ran back to the house. I was really getting cold. I went in the house, and I told Margie I had a bag full.
“Let me look at what you got,” she said.
“Well, it better be good enough because I’m too cold to go back out,” I told her.
“You’re not going back out, Ruthie. It’s too cold,” Daddy said.
“Good, ‘cause I don’t want to.”
Margie was looking at all the stuff I brought back. Some she put in one pile; some she threw in the trash.
“What’s wrong with that stuff?” I asked.
“It’s just not right, Ruthie.” Margie kept picking over my finds.
“I got real cold looking for that,” I reminded her.
“It just won’t work,” she said.
“Just won’t work?” I thought. “Why not? It all looks like weeds.”
She took what she was going to keep and laid them on the kitchen table. I noticed she had found some pretty ribbon that was Mother’s. She also had some of that paper ribbon that she could make curls out of with scissors. She had used some of that silk fabric left over from our capes to decorate the vase. Mother had a bag with leftover sewing things that came in very handy. She had even found some of the gold braid that Mother used on the capes.
I don’t have any idea how Margie did it, but in an hour or so, I went back into the kitchen and found she had made the most beautiful thing I ever saw for Mother.
“How did you do that, Margie?”
“I don’t know. I just started working on it, and this is what I ended up with,” she said, putting the final touches on the ribbon.
“Mother will love it. We have to find a place to hide it,” I said.
“I have a place in the closet to hide it,” Margie replied.
“I wish I could make things like you do,” I said.
“You can, Ruthie. Just picture it in your mind and put it together.”
“I’ll never be able to do what you can do. You are like Mother. You can make anything, and it always looks so pretty.”
“Now what about Daddy?” I whispered, so he couldn’t hear me.
“I found this box that we can decorate. We will make him a tobacco box,” Margie said.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Well, sometimes he rolls his own cigarettes; he could use a box to keep the tobacco in so it will stay fresh.”
“Where do you get all these ideas, Margie?”
“They are just in my head, Ruthie. And when I need them, they just come out.”
“I can’t do that. The ideas I get in my head always seem to get me a spanking.”
“Yes, you can. I will show you how. First, stop thinking about the things that get you in trouble.”
She got all the things that she had found in the house and put them on the table. She had a cigar box, a button, and a piece of ribbon. The best item was the red, plaid fabric; it looked like Christmas!
“I can’t do this, Margie. You do it, and I’ll just watch.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I am sure. I will mix up the flour and water for the paste.”
I watched her and was amazed at what she could do. She covered the box with the fabric first. Then she trimmed it around the edges with the gold braid. She punched a hole in the front of the box and pushed the shaft of a gold button through and tied it on the inside with string. Then she glued a little loop to the top of the box; that was to slip over the button to keep the box shut. I just sat there and watched her work her magic. She never changed. All of her life she made beautiful things. She was so talented.
“I think it is done,” she said.
“It is so pretty. Daddy will love it!” I squealed.
“I hope so,” she said, turning the box to see it from all sides.
We took it to the closet and hid it with Mother’s gift. Margie and I had made Christmas cards for Mother and Daddy and Junior, too. Thanks to Margie, it was all finished in one day and just a couple of days before Christmas.
It was Christmas Eve, and Mother had promised we could put up the tree after supper. We knew we would have fun stringing popcorn and making paper chains out of newspaper for the tree. Then, on Christmas day, we would have a good dinner.
She came home from work in a taxi that day because it was so cold. Daddy had already started supper. It smelled good in the house. My daddy was a good cook, too, just like Mother. He made the best fried potatoes with onions. Margie and I had set the table, so we were about ready to eat. Mother had to change clothes of course. She never wore her good clothes around the house, and we were not allowed to do that either. We had to change clothes as soon as we got home from school. I had a couple of spankings for breaking that rule.
We finished our supper and washed the dishes. Then, we were ready to trim the tree. We had been waiting all day for that moment. Mother popped the popcorn and got the needles and thread for all of us to string it for the tree. We also had to cut the strips of paper to make the chains. Junior was doing that. We had one string of bulbs for the tree and an angel that Mother had made a long time ago. She got out a white sheet for the tree skirt.
I poked my finger with that needle a bunch of times. I even bled a couple of times. I think we all did that a few times. Mother made paste out of flour and water to make the chains. It was fun making the chains, mainly because there was no needle to poke my finger. When we had finished making all the popcorn strings and the paper chains, we strung them around the tree. We had the one string of lights and some icicles left from the year before. When we had it all finished, it looked so pretty.
“We did a good job on that tree,” Mother said.
“I think it is really pretty,” I said.
“It is beautiful,” Margie agreed.
It was getting late, and we were all tired. Mother said it was time for bed for all of us. So, we got into our pajamas and went to bed. As soon as we were in bed, I started to wonder how we would get our parents’ gifts under the tree.
“Margie, how do we get the gifts under the tree?”
“We have to wait until we think they are asleep,” she said.
“But what if we go to sleep before they do?”
“I won’t. Don’t worry about it,” she promised.
“I’ll try to stay awake.”
I tried hard to stay awake, but I got so sleepy. When I woke up, it was morning. Margie was still asleep. I woke her up to ask her if she put their gifts under the tree.
“Did you stay awake? Did you get them under the tree?”
“Yes, I did, Ruthie. Go back to sleep.”
“No. I am getting up. I want to see what they think about their gifts.”
“Okay. Let’s get up.”
Junior was still asleep, but he wouldn’t get up. Margie and I got up and went into the living room. Mother and Daddy were in the kitchen drinking coffee and talking. We went into the kitchen, and Mother had her gift sitting in the middle of the table. It looked real pretty.
“It looks like Santa came to see me and your Daddy last night.”
“He did come to see you both,” Margie said.
“But Margie helped him make your gifts,” I said.
“Do you like your tobacco box, Daddy?” I asked.
“I do like it. It is real nice.”
“We are sorry that you didn’t get a gift this year. There was just no money for Christmas.”
“That’s all right. We don’t mind,” Margie said.
“It’s okay, Mother. We have a tree, and we will have a big dinner today.”
We really didn’t mind because we knew there was not enough money. That was the only year that we got no gifts for Christmas. We still had a good Christmas though. Ola, Jim, and the three boys came for dinner. Ola brought us paper dolls for Christmas. That was good. We liked paper dolls. They didn’t have much for Christmas that year either. Well, we all survived it, and we had a good dinner that Mother cooked. What could be better than that? That was a happy Christmas in the life of little Ruthie.
Janice Sautter is a great great grandmother who spends her time writing, painting, drawing, and playing video games. She lives with her husband Jim and their two dogs, Daisy and Lilly. She writes under the name of J. R. Carter.