The Boy Who Loved Christmas
December 23, 2014
WHAT I REMEMBER MOST about Daniel was that he loved Christmas.
He couldn’t wait for Christmas morning to come winding its way through the pine tree forests of East Texas. He was sad to see it leave.
“Maybe we’ll have snow this year.” That’s what he always told me, usually somewhere during the early days of September when we were back in school again and trying to see how long we could go barefooted before the cold weather set in.
Daniel was always looking for a White Christmas. Didn’t see many. But he dreamed about them.
Daniel lived just down the road from me, around two bends and three red clay ditches that time and a little creek had carved into the earth.
Along about the first of December, we would grab my daddy’s handsaw and wander through the countryside looking for a pair of Christmas trees.
Pines, as a rule, don’t make great Christmas trees.
The big ones do.
But we were faced with three crucial problems.
The saw was too short to cut the big ones down.
We couldn’t drag them home if we did.
And there wasn’t a room in either house large enough to hold them.
We picked the small ones.
They were scrawny.
They didn’t have much of a shape.
But hang a few red and green decorations, wrap a strand of lights around the limbs, place a star on top, and they looked like Christmas ought to look down the black oil road that ran from Pitner’s Junction to New London.
I’ll never forget the year when our third grade teacher for us each to bring a toy to school.
“Why?” someone asked.
“We are collecting toys for the poor little boys and girls,” she said.
She saw our puzzled expressions.
“We’ve had some hard years here in East Texas,” she said. “A lot of men are out of work, and money is scarce. If we don’t help a little, then I’m afraid there will be a lot of little boys and girls who wake up on Christmas morning with nothing under their trees. A lot of them can’t even afford trees. It would sadden me a great deal to see a child go without Christmas.”
Daniel wore the biggest grin of all.
“That’s what Christmas is all about,” he told me.
I nodded. I figured he was right.
He was too excited to sit still. “We’re gonna help the poor little boys and girls,” he said. “Everybody should have Christmas.”
Daniel didn’t have the largest home around.
Neither did I.
His hadn’t been painted in years. None of us ever noticed.
His mama was a hard worker. She took in washing and ironing, she scrubbed the floors of the Baptist Church on Saturday afternoon before the services on Sunday, and mopped the hallways of the school the rest of the week.
I never saw his father out of bed.
TB is what my mother said. “You can go see Daniel any time you want,” she said, “but don’t go into the room where his father is.”
I looked in once. He was old and gaunt and fighting for every breath.
Daniel never mentioned him. I didn’t either.
Daniel worked as hard as his mother. He sold Grit magazine and Cloverine Salve door to door in the oil camps.
Nobody read Grit. Nobody used the salve. But what was a dime and quarter when a tow-headed little boy with a grin as broad as the Sabine River came knocking on their doors?
On the way to the camps, Daniel picked up Coca Cola bottles that had been thrown out of car windows. On oil roads, traveled by roughnecks and roustabouts in the oilfield, there were a lot of bottles in the ditches, enough to fill a burlap bag some weeks.
He would take them to the little grocery story on the edge of Jacob’s Community, and Mister Wyche would pay him two cents a bottle.
On some days, Daniel felt rich. On some days, I knew he was rich.
He set aside a few nickels and pennies each week, and when my mother drove us to Overton, he had just enough money to buy a set of Lincoln Logs.
Well, he lacked a dollar, but mother gave him one.
“I’ll pay you back,” he said.
She smiled. She knew he would. Four cans of Cloverine Salve, and they would b even.
On the last day of school before Christmas break, I carried a cap pistol, the kind Roy Rogers might wear, to the front of the room, and Daniel proudly placed his Lincoln Logs among the assortment of toy cars, trucks, and baby dolls.
He was grinning bigger than usual.
“I think my Lincoln Logs are the best toy up there,” he whispered.
I nodded. I didn’t doubt it for a minute.
On Christmas Eve, along about ten-thirty, Daniel was awakened by a knock on the door. It was a chilly night. No snow. But cold anyway. He pulled the quilt up around his chin.
He heard his mother answer the door, and he recognized the sound of a woman’s voice. It belonged to his teacher.
“We have a gift for Daniel this year,” she said softly. “He’s a fine boy, and we wanted him to have a good Christmas.”
Daniel stared into the darkness.
It didn’t make sense.
Why was his teacher bringing him a toy?
Then it hit him.
For the first time in his life, Daniel realized he was poor.
He cried until morning.