Petersen: A Christmas poem
This is a true story adapted from a diary entry that appears in Pioneer Memories, a book of early times in Sweet Grass County, Mont., in 1881. While I have offered it here a couple of times over the years, I recently had a request to see it again. Merry Christmas and good tidings to you and yours.
She vowed she would not cry this Christmas,
but it was hard to be strong,
For the freighter in that winter of ’81
was late — what had gone wrong?
Their place was the depot for all the ranchers from 80 miles around,
They expected their goods on Christmas day,
how she hated to let them down.
When a rough old cowhand who stayed with them
(Old Eb was all of his name),
Said, “things’ll turn out, don’t worry, Ma’am,”
she raged, then felt ashamed.
Eb swore a lot and seemed so cross,
she never knew just why,
But he was polite; John trusted him,
so she kept her thoughts inside.
The day before Christmas, she made ten pies
with venison, apples and raisins,
Plus one extra for husband, John,
who grinned and sang her praises.
The cookstove consumed great stacks of wood
as she roasted, boiled and baked
Antelope steaks, big pieces of venison,
two snow geese, and cake.
Things were ready for all the guests,
but there were no presents or tree,
Or gifts they’d chosen from the wishing books,
dreaming how Christmas would be.
Then a stomping of horses she heard without —
“The freighter! He’s here!” she cried,
“He’s here!” She ran to open the door.
And laughing, brought him inside.
She could have kissed the grizzled driver,
and maybe he thought she might,
For he back-tracked out of her warm bright kitchen
as if he’d taken fright.
The freighter and John unpacked the goods,
marking each neighbor’s belongings;
She envied Daisy’s packet of needles,
and gazed at them with longing.
But later, one came back to her
in a handmade Christmas card;
In greetings for women, Daisy threaded a needle;
for men, a pencil starred.
There were bright shiny cups for the children,
and popcorn still on the cob;
She and John rubbed off the kernels,
and John said he’d make them pop.
She made red coloring and dipped the corn
for the children to thread on strings;
Old Eb and the freighter brought in boughs
laden with cones like wings.
Half a day’s travel the freighter had lost
to gather those boughs and that tree;
And everyone helped hang garlands of corn,
it was pretty as a tree can be.
Then shyly, Old Eb brought in some rum
and said that he’d be glad
If she would make toddies for all the folks,
for this was all he had.
She passed cups ‘round, steaming hot,
and John raised his and declared,
“Merry Christmas!” but Eb, he stomped his foot,
then glowered, grumped and glared.
“That ain’t’ no way to do it,” he said,
(he added a lot of swearing),
“Bow your heads, and I’ll say what’s fittin’.”
(She knew that she was staring).
“Dear Lord,” said Eb, “here we all be,
we’re just a bunch of critters
Out here in the hills, but we got us some meat
and fixin’s for Christmas dinners.”
“And we’re gonna remember tomorrer about
the manger and the Babe —
Now then, folks, drink ‘er down.”
Eb tossed off his with a wave.
She sipped her toddy, then said she ought
to find her mouth-harp player —
For music during the Christmas carols —
in her room, she said a prayer.
And had that crying spell after all
for misjudging Eb in her mind,
And because she was happy, too, and so grateful
the freight had arrived in time.
John came in and hugged her tight
and held her a moment or two,
Then went to greet a sleigh-load of guests,
And she, she got busy, too.
It was a lovely Christmas.❖