Josiah's First Christmas

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Collier's Vol. XLIV No. 12 (December 11, 1909)

I think one of the most pathetic Christmas stories which I have ever heard is that of poor young Josiah Adams's first Christmas, which dates back to the earlier days of New England. Josiah was the youngest of twelve children. When he was born, six of his brothers and sisters had married and set up homes of their own, but he was very much younger, a mere baby to those who still remained under the parental roof. He was at once the pet and butt of the others. He was quick-tempered, and that made him more of a temptation to his older brothers and sisters, who thought it great fun to provoke the little fellow into a fit of baby rage and then coax and cajole him out of it after their amusement of teasing.

It seems that Christmas had never been celebrated in the Adams family, and Josiah had arrived at the age of five years and had never heard of Santa Claus and his reindeer team, nor stocking-hanging, and suddenly one Christmas Eve the knowledge was gained. Josiah had been sent on an errand to a neighbor's, where there was a boy of his own age, and he came home full of excitement.

“Benny White is going to hang up his stocking on the oven door to-night,” he announced, “and Santa Claus will come riding over the roof in a sleigh with reindeer and bells, and he will come down the chimney and fill Benny's stocking with presents.”

Josiah's brother Caleb and his sister Sarah and his mother were in the room. Caleb and Sarah laughed, but Mrs. Adams frowned. She was a sober, overworked woman in a white cap, and she was spinning flax. She opened her mouth to speak, but Sarah clapped her hand over her mother's lips, and Sarah was her darling, the beauty and the sweetest-tempered of them all, although her love of fun often led her into pranks, which her mother feared were ungodly.

“I am going to hang up my stocking like Benny,” announced Josiah, and Sarah cried: “So you shall, Josiah, and we will see what Santa Claus will bring you down the chimney!”

Caleb, who was next in age to Sarah and as full of mischief, echoed her. “Hang your stocking, Josiah,” said he, then he doubled up with laughter, and little Josiah did not know what he was laughing at. His sister Sarah kept a very grave face, although her blue eyes were dancing.

So it happened that poor little Josiah hung up his stocking on the old-fashioned oven door when he went to bed, and Mrs. Adams, for the sake of her darling Sarah, was seemingly oblivious. She spun at her wheel with her back to the fireplace, but Mr. Ozias Adams, who was Josiah's father and a very severe man, noticed the stocking, and inquired concerning it.

“Why is Josiah's stocking there?” said he, and he glared at the little blue yarn stocking through his iron-rimmed spectacles.

Sarah was very quick, and she answered him with a toss of her pretty fair head. “Josiah left it when he went to bed, sir,” said she, “and it would be in the way on the floor.” Caleb coughed to conceal a chuckle, Mrs. Adams trembled as she whirred her wheel.

Mr. Adams nodded gravely, for the explanation seemed very plausible and simple, and the others, Cynthia, Abel, Jonas, and Abigail, paid no attention. They were not yet in the secret. But when the dignified Ozias Adams and his consort were retired for the night, an excited, giggling, whispering group gathered in the great kitchen, around poor little Josiah's stocking, hanging limp as to appearance, but in reality filled with the blooming fancies of childhood. At that very instant little Josiah was lying awake in his hard bed under the eaves, and it had begun to snow, and white stars drifted in upon his counterpane, and he was listening for the sleigh-bells and the fairy clatter of Santa Claus's reindeers' hoofs upon the roof. Finally Josiah became quite sure that he did hear them, but at that time his blue eyes were closed.

His brothers and sisters downstairs were busy for quite a time perpetrating what they meant only for an innocent joke, but it may have been a cruel one. They probably never suspected such a possibility. They were healthy, unimaginative boys and girls, and little Josiah, although of their own blood, was of a different make-up.

The next morning Josiah was downstairs pattering in his bare feet before even his thrifty parents were up and before the ashes had been raked away from the hearth fire. There hung the blue yarn stocking crammed to the brim, and the baby boy knew that he had really heard Santa Claus riding over the roof the night before. Here was proof positive.

Josiah, although the great kitchen was very cold, did not shiver in his homespun night-gown. His big blue eyes blazed, his round cheeks glowed with roses, his mouth widened deliciously with joy. He seized upon the stocking and pattered back to his own freezing little nest under the eaves, and then he explored. It was a tragedy of childhood, and one of the tragedies which might have been spared the child. So often the comedies of older people are the tragedies of babyhood, and should never be acted. Poor little Josiah Adams found in his stocking a most wonderful assortment of Christmas presents, collected from the odds and ends of the household stores. There were old nails, a broken back-comb of his sister Abigail's, a discarded front piece of his mother's, and old scratch wig which had belonged to his grandfather Adams, one little red slipper which had belonged to his married sister Dorcas, a knife which his brother Caleb had contributed, utterly destitute of blades, a faded knot of blue ribbon which Sarah had worn in her hair, and, crowning insult, done up carefully in the blue paper in which the sugar loaves of the day came wrapped, the little stick with which his father had chastised him when guilty of childish misdemeanors. That was the very last thing in the stocking, that poor parody of a Christmas stocking, which was never seen again by any of the Adams family for many years, not until Josiah's name, with appropriate texts and funereal verses, had been rudely carved on a rude stone, for the little boy departed this life at an early age. On that Christmas morning Josiah came downstairs with only one stocking on, and his mother's admonitions and his father's stern reproofs and chastising with another little stick were entirely ineffectual to make him reveal the whereabouts of the other with its sorry load of Christmas presents. Mr. Adams never knew about the presents; neither his wife nor children dared tell him, but he did know that Josiah was disobedient, and he commanded and chastised as he esteemed his duty until forced by the singular obstinacy of his little son to give it up.

Josiah seemed to forget all about his attempt at celebrating Christmas. He was sweet-tempered, although quick, and, while possessed of a strong will, not sulky. He seems to have been as happy as most children until he passed away at an early age, although he was never strong and always more sensitive than was good for him. The little stone had stood over his grave for two years before the Christmas Eve when Caleb came in with his arms full of wood for the hearth fire and a very sober face. One of his coat pockets was bulging. That was the winter when Mrs. Adams was laid up with the rheumatism. Mr. Adams had died the year after Josiah, and of the brothers and sisters there were only Caleb and Sarah at home. The others had married during the two years. After Caleb had heaped more wood on the fire and stacked up the rest on the hearth, he turned and looked at Sarah, who was knitting stockings. “What is that in your pocket and why do you look so sober, Caleb?” said she.

Caleb slowly drew from his pocket little Josiah's Christmas stocking. “Found it under the wood-pile,” he stated laconically, but his face worked.

Sarah laid down her knitting. “So that was where he hid it,” she said in a quivering voice.

Caleb nodded.

“It has been there all the time; poor little Josiah,” said Sarah.

She began to weep. Caleb put the stocking away in a drawer of the highboy and stalked out of the room. Sarah wept softly lest her mother hear. She was alone in the great firelit room. A pot of rose geranium, all in flower, stood on a little table under a south window, and a delicate breath of perfume came in Sarah's face when she finally dried her eyes and looked up. Nobody would ever know how sorry she was about Josiah's Christmas stocking. It no longer seemed at all funny to her. She was older and had had trouble, and she understood better the heart of a child.

The tall clock ticked, the fire glowed and snapped, and the rose geranium in the window gave out its sweetness. Sarah began to wonder where Caleb was, for it was nearly supper-time. Suddenly she rose and stole softly across the room to the door of the bedroom where her mother lay. Sarah peeped in. Mrs. Adams was fast asleep. Then Sarah muffled herself quickly in hood and shawl, and ran softly across the room to the rose geranium; then she went out, closing the door softly. The room was still faintly scented with the blossoms, but the green plant stood robbed of its pink crown.

When Sarah reached the graveyard and little Josiah's headstone, she started at the sight of her brother Caleb. He had just finished planting a tiny perfect evergreen tree on the snowy mound. Sarah, without a word, placed her bunch of geraniums in the close-set greenness of the tree, which seemed suddenly to bloom. Then the brother and sister went home. Sarah looked up at a great planet burning out in the violet gloom of the sunset sky, and said in a voice which was sad, yet sweet with a timid hope: “How bright that star is.”

“Real bright,” assented Caleb. Then neither spoke again all the way home.