Christmas, A Long Time Ago

by Terry Hogan

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago. It was Christmas Eve. It was in the middle of the Civil War, perhaps 1862, or 1863. Perhaps not. It happened in small prairie towns. Just small islands of humanity in a sea of prairie grass. And it happened amongst the soldiers.

Times were hard this particular December. Snow was heavy. Weather was bitterly cold. The snow blew sideways as the wind howled across the prairie. Barns, houses, and even split rail fences caused drifts to rise and break the monotony of the flat land. Rabbits sat tight and hunkered down in the nightly bitter cold. Birds took shelter in woodpiles. Birds perched on the chimney tops, taking warmth from the fire. Foxes didn't even venture out to hunt. Barns steamed with the heat and breath of the cattle, sheltered from the worst of the cold. Horses dreamed of warmer days, the feel of prairie sod under their hooves. Barn cats burrowed into the straw. Rural roads ceased to become distinguishable from the adjoining farmland. It was a winter, full of cold and bleak whiteness- one that encouraged dispair. And in this particular year, despair needed little encouragement.

Fathers, brothers, and sons were off to fight in the war. Many kitchen tables had empty chairs where husbands and fathers used to sit. The chairs remained empty at each and every meal, waiting for the soldiers' return. The farms suffered with the loss of the skilled strong hands, now learning a new job, a new skill. Farming, shopkeeping, or working on the railroad had provided little preparation for the tasks they now performed.

Mothers and older daughters were left to do their household roles and the farm jobs left by the men. Money was tight, on the farm and in the villages, as well. The war cost everybody. Husbands and fathers and brothers went off to war. Food, clothes, medicines, and money followed to support those who fought to keep the nation one.

Mothers had cautioned their children. Father and brother would not be home for Christmas. Santa, or St. Nick, had been busy too, and the Christmas morning gifts would likely be less, perhaps much less, than in years past. This was despite the fact that Christmas was not an overly abundant day, particularly by current standards. Christmas remained primarily a religious event, with gifts tended to be few and practical. Even for those who could afford more, more was seldom given, to avoid being ''showy.''

But children are children, during war or peace. They could not do other than hope for father's or brother's return. They could not do other than hope for a new doll, new books, or new shoes. Mothers and wives knew it could not be, but wished and worried about those away from home. Are they safe, well, warm? Will they even know that Christmas is at hand? Will there be peace on this most peaceful day?

Fathers and sons, hundreds of miles away, had their own thoughts. Thoughts were of home. Thoughts were of things that used to be, and perhaps were still, back home. Thoughts were of the shattered routine of work in the barn, or the shop. Thoughts were of the taken-for-granted family at home. The touch of his wife's hand on his shoulder, as she poured him a second cup of coffee, before leaving. The noise of his children, or his younger brothers and sisters. These were thoughts shared by men and boys, that night, differing in particulars, but not in substance. For many, the war had lasted longer than any had imagined possible. They had seen too much, traveled too far. They were ready to greet peace and try to regain normalcy. Wives, children, parents, the security of home beckoned them that night, no matter their specific circumstances. It was Christmas Eve.

Small campfires twinkled on hills, in valleys, and in small clearings in the woods. Some warmed those from the North, others from the South. There was no formal truce, no written or oral agreement that night, but things were calm. Sentries were on duty, but there were no shots. Instead, there was heard, at first, a few voices, and then more, male voices singing songs of Christmas and Christmas Eve. There were even a few songs of home, ladened with unashamed longings.

It is told that in some places, soldiers stopped being soldiers, momentarily, and ventured forward. They exchanged items with those facing the other direction. Food, coffee, newspapers, writing paper, perhaps a few blankets traveled from one to another. In a few cases, stories are told of questions and answers, resulting in the temporary family reunions of fathers and sons, brothers, or cousins that had gone off to war in different directions. It was Christmas Eve. Peace broke out. No shots were fired. Soldiers shared their common conditions, not their differences. It was a night of miracles.

Far to the north, in small islands on a prairie sea, another miracle was in the making. A strange, and unscheduled train, moved quietly down the tracks. The locomotive's light was red and the train moved slowly. The locomotive pulled a mix of railcars through the snowy night. As it traveled, small hands, small arms, and short legs moved briskly and efficiently, handing down the contents of the cars to those below. Small sleds, pulled by uncommon creatures, pulled the loads easily through the snow to the small villages and farms, silhouetted in the winter's night. All was done silently. The skis on the sleds made no noise, the harnessed animals made no sound. Their tracks, to and from the slowly moving train, were quickly brushed away by the blowing powdery snow. Nothing was left to show their brief sorties, except for the small packages left behind. Despite the constant flow of packages from the railcars to the sleds, there appeared to be no reduction in supply.

Small packages appeared at farmhouse doors. Small hands gave fresh hay to hungry livestock in barns. Warm milk was set out for the barn cats. Kittens received small balls of twine. Mothers and wives found letters from their soldiers, inexplicably placed upon the kitchen tables. Each letter wished them happiness and love on this special day. Children received a little of what they needed, and a little of what they wanted. Sometimes the gifts were for items wished for, but never spoken of. In some homes, a ham, or a chicken was found on the stove, ready to be prepared for Christmas dinner.

This special train continued down the line. It moved slowly, but never seemed short of time. The small sleighs came and went and came again. From farm to farm, and from village to village, the sleighs traveled. No villages or towns were skipped- Bishop Hill, Galva, Wataga, Knoxville, Galesburg, Abingdon, all were visited by these silent hands. The task was daunting, but it was done with ease. Some things are puzzling and cannot be, but were.

In these small islands of the prairie, Christmas morning was more than it could have possibly been. Gifts for man and beast. Letters from the soldiers, assuring safety, health, and love.

Far away, Christmas Eve and Day were calm. The soldiers gave each other the best gift possible- a day of peace, free from the risk of harm.

Such is the story told by mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters, in these small prairie islands, a long, long, time ago. Perhaps in 1862 or 1863. Perhaps not. Perhaps it all happened. Perhaps only some.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online December 20, 2000

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