It was the strangest thing, almost eerie. It was 2004 and a week before Christmas when I walked into my office to begin penning this weekly outdoor column. A copy of “Sporting Classics” had fallen off the cluttered shelves. Picking it up from the floor it had mysteriously opened to a story titled “A Christmas Rifle, written by an unknown author, sometime around the turn of the century.
Since then I have made it a point to read that article every year about this time and this season was no different. To me, it exemplifies the true meaning of our Christmas season. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
A Christmas Rifle by Unknown
“My dad never had much compassion for the lazy or those who squander their means and then never have enough for necessities. But, for those genuinely in need his heart was as big as the great outdoors. It was from him I learned the greatest joy in life comes from giving, not receiving.
It was Christmas Eve and I was 15 years old and feeling like the world had caved in on me, because there had not been enough money for the rifle I wanted so badly that year for Christmas.
For some reason we finished our chores early that night. After supper, I stretched out in front of the fireplace, feeling sorry for myself. Dad bundled up and went outside again. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing since the chores were already done.
I didn’t worry about it long because I was too busy wallowing in my own self pity. Dad soon came back in. It was a cold, clear night and there was ice stuck to his beard.
“Come on Matt,” he said. “Bundle up good cause its cold out.”
Now I was really upset. Not only was I not getting that rifle, but he was dragging me out into the cold again for no earthly reason. The chores were done and I couldn’t think of anything else that needed doing, especially on a night like this. But Dad was not a patient man, especially at dragging my feet when he asked me to do something.
After getting dressed, Mom gave me a mysterious smile as I opened the door to leave. Something was up, but I didn’t know what.
Ounce outside, I got even more upset. There, in front of the house stood the work team already hitched up to the big sled. Whatever we were going to do wasn’t going to be short or quick. We never hitched up the sled unless we were going to haul a big load. The cold was already biting and I wasn’t happy!
After pulling around to the back of the house Pa got off and went into the woodshed coming out with an armful of wood. The same wood I spent all summer cutting and splitting. Finally, in subdued anger I had to say something. “Pa,” I asked, “what are we doing?”
You been by widow Jenson’s lately?” he asked. “Yeah,” I muttered.
Widow Jensen lived about two miles down the road. Her husband died about two years ago, leaving her with three children, the oldest about eight. Sure I had been by there, but so what, I thought.
“They are out of wood Matt,” was all he said, as he went back into the shed for another armful of wood. We ended up loading the sled so high I began to wonder of the horses could pull it.
Finally, Dad called a halt to the loading and went into the cellar. He came out with a big ham and a slab of bacon. He handed them to me to put in the sled and then told me to wait. When he returned he was carrying a sack of flour in one hand and a smaller sack of something in his other.
“What’s in the little sack,” I asked. “Shoes for the children, I got then some candy too,” he said. “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a little candy.”
We rode the two miles in silence. I tried to think why my dad was doing all this. We didn’t have much by worldly standards either. Of course we used to have a big woodpile until all this. We did have plenty of meat and flour so I knew we could spare that, but we didn’t have much money so why was he buying them shoes and candy? Really, why was he doing any of this? Widow Jensen had other neighbors much closer than us so it shouldn’t have been our concern.
We came in from the blind side and unloaded all the wood as quietly as we could then took the meat and flour to the front door. We knocked. The door opened a crack and a timid voice asked “who is it.”
“Lucas Mills, Ma’am, and my son Matt. Could we come in for a bit?” Widow Jensen opened the door and let us in. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The children were wrapped in another and were sitting in front of the fireplace by a small fire that hardly gave off any heat.
“We brought you a few things,” Pa said, setting down the sack of flour while I put the meat on the table. Pa then handed her the sack that had shoes in it. There was a pair for her and each of the children.
I watched her carefully. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling. Tears soon filler her eyes and started running down her cheeks. She looked at Pa and wanted to say something but it wouldn’t come out.
“We brought you a load of wood too,” Pa said. He turned to me and said “Matt, go bring in enough to last and lets heat this place up!”
“Wow,” I thought. I wasn’t the same person when I went out to bring in that wood. I had a big lump in my throat and as much as I hate to admit it, there were tears in my eyes too.
In my mind I kept seeing those three kids huddled around the fireplace and their mother standing there with tears running down her face, with so much gratitude she couldn’t even speak.
My heart swelled within me and a joy I’d never known before filled my soul. Sure, I had given at Christmas before, but never when it made so much of a difference.
I soon had the fire blazing and everyone’s spirits soared. The kids started giggling when my dad handed them each some candy. Widow Jensen looked on with a smile that probably hadn’t crossed her face in a long time.
“God Bless you,” she said turning to Pa and me. “We new the Lord would send one of his angels to help us.”
Well, my dad was a hard man and I never really thought of him as an angel before. But after Widow Jensen mentioned it, I could see it was probably true. I remembered all the times he went out of his way for mom, me and many others.
Before leaving, Pa took each of the kids in his arms and gave them a hug. They clung to him and didn’t want us to go. I could see they missed their father and I was glad I still had mine.
At the door, Pa turned to Widow Jensen and said, “We want to invite you and the children over for Christmas dinner tomorrow. We will be by to get you at 11. It will be nice having little ones around again, Matt hasn’t been little for quite a while.”
Back out on the sled I felt a warmth that came from deep inside and I never even noticed the biting cold.
Once on our way my dad turned to me and said, “Matt, I want you to know something. Your mother and I have been tucking away a little money all year so we could buy you that rifle you want so badly, but we still didn’t have enough,” he began to explain.
“Then just yesterday, a man who owed me a little money from years past came by to square things up. Your mom and I were real excited thinking we could now get you that rifle. I went into town this morning to do just that. But on the way is when I noticed Widow Jensen was out of wood and saw her oldest scratching around the woodpile, his socks sticking out of worn out shoes. I knew what we needed to do. Son, I spent the money on shoes and a little candy for those children. I hope you understand.”
My eyes again became wet with tears. I understood very well and was glad he had done it. That rifle suddenly seemed pretty low on my list of priorities. My Dad had given me much more. He gave me the look on Widow Jensen’s face and the radiant smiles of her three children.
For the rest of my life, whenever I saw the Jensen’s or split a block of wood, I remembered, and remembering brought back the same joy I felt riding home that memorable night. Yes indeed, my dad had given me much more than a rifle. He gave me the best Christmas of my life!”
To everyone who takes the time to read this column, I want to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas.