On Hanging a Stocking at Christmas (1920)
by Charles S. Brooks
As Christmas is, above all, a holiday for children, it is proper in its season to consider with what regard they hold its celebration. But as no one may really know the secrets of childhood except as he retains the recollection of his own, it is therefore in the well of memory that I must dip my pen. The world has been running these many years with gathering speed like a great wheel upon a hill, and I must roll it backward to the heights to see how I fared on the night and day of Christmas.
I can remember that for a month before the day I computed its distance, not only in hours and minutes but even in seconds, until the answer was scrawled across my slate. Now, when I multiply 24 × 60 × 60, the resulting 86,400 has an agreeable familiarity as the amount I struck off each morning. At bedtime on Christmas Eve I had still 36,000 impatient seconds yet to wait, for I considered that Christmas really started at six o’clock in the morning.
There was, of course, a lesser celebration on Christmas Eve when we hung our stockings. There were six of them, from mother’s long one to father’s short one. Ours, although built on womanish lines, lacked the greater length and they were, consequently, inferior for the purpose of our greed; but father’s were woefully short, as if fashioned to the measure of his small expectancy. Even a candy cane came peeping from the top, as if curiosity had stirred it to look around.
Finally, when the stockings were hung on the knobs of the mantel, we went up the dark stairs to bed. At the landing we saw the last glimmer from the friendly sitting-room. The hall clock ticked solemnly in the shadow below with an air of firmness, as much as to say that it would not be hurried. Fret as we might, those 36,000 seconds were not to be jostled through the night.
In the upper hall we looked from a window upon the snowy world. Perhaps we were too old to believe in Santa Claus, but even so, on this magic night might not a skeptic be at fault—might there not be a chance that the discarded world had returned to us? Once a year, surely, reason might nod and drowse. Perhaps if we put our noses on the cold glass and peered hard into the glittering darkness, we might see the old fellow himself, muffled to his chin in furs, going on his yearly errands. It was a jingling of sleigh bells on the street that started this agreeable suspicion, but, alas, when the horse appeared, manifestly by his broken jogging gait he was only an earthly creature and could not have been trusted on the roof. Or the moon, sailing across the sky, invited the thought that tonight beyond the accustomed hour and for a purpose it would throw its light across the roofs to mark the chimneys.
Presently mother called up from the hall below. Had we gone to bed? Reluctantly now we began to thumb the buttons. Off came our clothes, both shirts together tonight for better speed in dressing. And all the night pants and drawers hung as close neighbors, one within the other, with stockings dangling at the ends, for quick resumption. We slipped shivering into the cold sheets. Down below the bed, by special permission, stood the cook’s clock, wound up tight for its explosion at six o’clock.
Then came silence and the night….
Presently, all of a sudden, Brrr—! There arose a deafening racket in the room. Had the reindeer come afoul of the chimney? Had the loaded sleigh crashed upon the roof? Were pirates on the stairs? We awoke finally, and smothered the alarm in the pillows. A match! The gas! And now a thrill went through us. Although it was still as black as ink outside, at last the great day of all the year had come.
It was, therefore, before the dawn that we stole downstairs in our stockings—dressed loosely and without too great precision in our hurry. Buttons that lay behind were neglected, nor did it fret us if a garment came on twisted. It was a rare tooth that felt the brush this morning, no matter how it was coddled through the year.
We carried our shoes, but this was not entirely in consideration for the sleeping house. Rather, our care proceeded from an enjoyment of our stealth; for to rise before the dawn when the lamps were still lighted on the street and issue in our stockings, was to taste adventure. It had not exactly the zest of burglary, although it was of kin: nor was it quite like the search for buried treasure which we played on common days: yet to slink along the hallway on a pitch-black Christmas morning, with shoes dangling by the strings, was to realize a height of happiness unequaled.
Quietly we tiptoed down the stairs on whose steep rail we had so often slid in the common light of day, now so strangely altered by the shadows. Below in the hall the great clock ticked, loudly and with satisfaction that its careful count was done and its seconds all despatched. There was a gurgle in its throat before it struck the hour, as some folk clear their throats before they sing.
As yet there was not a blink of day. The house was as black as if it practiced to be a cave, yet an instinct instructed us that now at least darkness was safe. There were frosty patterns on the windows of the sitting-room, familiar before only on our bedroom windows. Here in the sitting-room arose dim shapes which probably were its accustomed furniture, but which to our excited fancy might be sleds and velocipedes.
We groped for a match. There was a splutter that showed red in the hollow of my brother’s hand.
After the first glad shock, it was our habit to rummage in the general midden outside our stockings. If there was a drum upon the heap, should not first a tune be played—softly lest it rouse the house? Or if a velocipede stood beside the fender, surely the restless creature chafed for exercise and must be ridden a few times around the room. Or perhaps a sled leaned against the chair (it but rested against the rigors of the coming day) and one should feel its runners to learn whether they are whole and round, for if flat and fixed with screws it is no better than a sled for girls with feet tucked up in front. On such a sled, no one trained to the fashions of the slide would deign to take a belly-slammer, for the larger boys would cry out with scorn and point their sneering mittens.
The stocking was explored last. It was like a grab-bag, but glorified and raised to a more generous level. On meaner days shriveled grab-bags could be got at the corner for a penny—if such mild fortune fell your way—mere starvelings by comparison—and to this shop you had often trotted after school when learning sat heaviest on your soul. If a nickel had accrued to you from the sale of tintags, it was better, of course, to lay it out in pop; but with nothing better than a penny, there was need of sharp denial. How you lingered before the horehound jar! Coltsfoot, too, was but a penny to the stick and pleased the palate. Or one could do worse than licorice. But finally you settled on a grab-bag. You roused an old woman from her knitting behind the stove and demanded that a choice of grab-bags be placed before you. Then, like the bearded phrenologist at the side-show of the circus, you put your fingers on them to read their humps. Perhaps an all-day sucker lodged inside—a glassy or an agate—marbles best for pugging—or a brass ring with a ruby.
Through the year these bags sufficed, but the Christmas stocking was a deeper and finer mystery. In the upper leg were handkerchiefs from grand-mother—whose thoughts ran prudentially on noses—mittens and a cap—useful presents of duller purpose—things that were due you anyway and would have come in the course of time. But down in the darker meshes of the stocking, when you had turned the corner of the heel, there were the sweet extras of life—a mouth-organ, a baseball, a compass and a watch.
Some folk have a Christmas tree instead of hanging their stockings, but this is the preference of older folk rather than the preference of children. Such persons wish to observe a child’s enjoyment, and this is denied them if the stocking is opened in the dawn. Under a pretense of instruction they sit in an absurd posture under the tree; but they do no more than read the rules and are blind to the obscurer uses of the toys. As they find occasion, the children run off and play in a quieter room with some old and broken toy.
Who can interpret the desires of children? They are a race apart from us. At times, for a moment, we bring them to attention; then there is a scurry of feet and they are gone. Although they seem to sit at table with us, they are beyond a frontier that we cannot pass. Their words are ours, but applied to foreign uses. If we try to follow their truant thoughts, like the lame man of the story we limp behind a shooting star. We bestow on them a blind condescension, not knowing how their imagination outclimbs our own. And we cramp them with our barren learning.
I assert, therefore, that it is better to find one’s presents in the dawn, when there is freedom. In all the city, wherever there are lights, children have taken a start upon the day. Then, although the toys are strange, there is adventure in prying at their uses. If one commits a toy to a purpose undreamed of by its maker, it but rouses the invention to further discovery. Once on a dark and frosty Christmas morning, I spent a puzzling hour upon a coffee-grinder—a present to my mother—in a delusion that it was a rare engine destined for myself. It might have been a bank had it possessed a slot for coins. A little eagle surmounted the top, yet this was not a sufficient clue. The handle offered the hope that it was a music-box, but although I turned it round and round, and noises issued from its body quite foreign to my other toys, yet I could not pronounce it music. With sails it might have been a windmill. I laid it on its side and stood it on its head without conclusion. It was painted red, and that gave it a wicked look, but no other villainy appeared. To this day as often as I pass a coffee-grinder in a grocer’s shop I turn its handle in memory of my perplexing hour. And even if one remains unschooled to the uses of the toys, their discovery in the dawn while yet the world lies fast asleep, is far beyond their stale performance that rises with the sun.
And yet I know of an occurrence, to me pathetic, that once attended such an early discovery. A distant cousin of mine—a man really not related except by the close bond of my regard—was brought up many years ago by an uncle of austere and miserly nature. Such goodness as this uncle had once possessed was cramped into a narrow and smothering piety. He would have dimmed the sun upon the Sabbath, could he have reached up tall enough. He had no love in his heart, nor mirth. My cousin has always loved a horse and even in his childhood this love was strong. And so, during the days that led up to Christmas when children speculate upon their desires and check them on their fingers, he kept asking his uncle for a pony. At first, as you might know, his uncle was stolid against the thought, but finally, with many winks and nods—pleasantries beyond his usual habit—he assented.
Therefore in the early darkness of the day, the child came down to find his gift. First, probably, he went to the stable and climbing on the fence he looked through the windows for an unaccustomed form inside the stalls. Next he looked to see whether the pony might be hitched to the post in front of the house, in the manner of the family doctor. The search failing and being now somewhat disturbed with doubt, he entered his nursery on the slim chance that the pony might be there. The room was dark and he listened on the sill, if he might hear him whinny. Feeling his way along the hearth he came on nothing greater than his stocking which was tied to the andiron. It bulged and stirred his curiosity. He thrust in his hand and coming on something sticky, he put his fingers in his mouth. They were of a delightful sweetness. He now paused in his search for the pony and drawing out a huge lump of candy he applied himself. But the day was near and he had finished no more than half, when a ray of light permitted him to see what he ate. It was a candy horse—making good the promise of his uncle. This and a Testament had been stuffed inside his stocking. The Testament was wrapped in tissue, but the horse was bitten to the middle. It had been at best but a poor substitute for what he wanted, yet his love was so broad that it included even a sugar horse; and this, alas, he had consumed unknowing in the dark. And even now when the dear fellow tells the story after these many years have passed, and comes to the sober end with the child crying in the twilight of the morning, I realize as not before that there should be no Christmas kept unless it be with love and mirth.
It was but habit that we hung our stockings at the chimney—the piano would have done as well—for I retain but the slightest memory of a belief in Santa Claus: perhaps at most, as I have hinted, a far-off haze of wonder while looking through the window upon the snowy sky—at night a fancied clatter on the roof, if I lay awake. And therefore in a chimney there was no greater mystery than was inherent in any hole that went off suspiciously in the dark. There was a fearful cave beneath the steps that mounted from the rear to the front garret. This was wrapped in Cimmerian darkness—which is the strongest pigment known—and it extended from its mouth beyond the furthest stretch of leg. To the disillusioned, indeed, this cave was harmless, for it merely offset the lower ceiling of the bathroom below; yet to us it was a cave unparalleled. Little by little we ventured in, until in time we could sit on the snug joists inside with the comfortable feeling of pirates. Presently we hit on the device of hanging a row of shining maple-syrup tins along the wall outside where they were caught by the dusty sunlight, which was thus reflected in on us. By the light of these dim moons the cave showed itself to be the size of a library table. And here, also, we crouched on dark and cloudy days when the tins were in eclipse, and found a dreadful joy when the wind scratched upon the roof.
In the basement, also, there was a central hall that disappeared forever under an accumulation of porch chairs and lumber. Here was no light except what came around two turns from the laundry. Even Annie the cook, a bold venturesome person, had never quite penetrated to a full discovery of this hallway. A proper approach into the darkness was on hands and knees, and yet there were barrels and boxes to overcome. Therefore, as we were bred to these broader discoveries, a mere chimney in the sitting-room, which arose safely from the fenders, was but a mild and pleasant tunnel to the roof.
And if a child believes in Santa Claus and chimneys, and that his presents are stored in a glittering kingdom across the wintry hills, he will miss the finer pleasure of knowing that they are hidden somewhere in his own house. For myself, I would not willingly forego certain dizzy ascents to the topmost shelves of the storeroom, where, with my head close under the ceiling and my foot braced against the wall, I have examined suspicious packages that came into the house by stealth. As likely as not, at the ringing of the door-bell, we had been whisked into a back room. Presently there was a foot sounding on the stairs and across the ceiling. Then we were released. But something had arrived.
Thereafter we found excitement in rummaging in unlikely places—a wary lifting of summer garments laid away, for a peek beneath—a journey on one’s stomach under the spare-room bed—a pilgrimage around the cellar with a flaring candle—furtive explorations of the storeroom. And when we came to a door that was locked—Aha! Here was a puzzle and a problem! We tried every key in the house, right side up and upside down. Bluebeard’s wife, poor creature,—if I read the tale aright,—was merely seeking her Christmas presents around the house before the proper day.
The children of a friend of mine, however, have been brought up to a belief in Santa Claus, and on Christmas Eve they have the pretty custom of filling their shoes with crackers and scraps of bread by way of fodder for the reindeer. When the shoes are found empty in the morning, but with crumbs about—as though the hungry reindeer spilled them in their haste—it fixes the deception.
But if one must have a Christmas tree, I recommend the habit of some friends of mine. In front of their home, down near the fence, is a trim little cedar. T—— connects this with electric wires and hangs on it gayly colored lamps. Every night for a week, until the new year, these lights shine across the snow and are the delight of travelers on the road. The Christmas stars, it seems, for this hallowed season have come to earth.
We gave the family dinner. On my mother fell the extra labor, but we took the general credit. All the morning the relatives arrived—thin and fat. But if one of them bore a package or if his pockets sagged, we showed him an excessive welcome. Sometimes there was a present boxed and wrapped to a mighty bulk. From this we threw off thirty papers and the bundle dwindled, still no gift appeared. In this lay the sweetness of the jest, for finally, when the contents were shriveled to a kernel, in the very heart of it there lay a bright penny or common marble.
All this time certain savory whiffs have been blowing from the kitchen. Twice at least my mother has put her head in at the door to count the relatives. And now when the clock on the mantel strikes two—a bronze Lincoln deliberating forever whether he will sign the Emancipation Bill—the dining-room door is opened.
The table was drawn out to prodigious length and was obliquely set across the room. As early as yesterday the extra leaves had been brought from the pantry, and we had all taken part in fitting them together. Not to disturb the larger preparation, our supper and breakfast had been served in the kitchen. And even now to eat in the kitchen, if the table is set before the window and there is a flurry of snow outside, is to feel pleasantly the proximity of a great occasion.
The Christmas table was so long and there were so many of us, that a few of the chairs were caught in a jog of the wall and had no proper approach except by crawling on hands and knees beneath it. Each year it was customary to request my maiden aunt, a prim lady who bordered on seventy and had limbs instead of legs, to undertake the passage. Each year we listened for the jest and shouted with joy when the request was made. There were other jests, too, that were dear to us and grew better with the years. My aunt was reproved for boisterous conduct, and although she sat as silent as a mouse, she was always warned against the cider. Each year, also, as soon as the dessert appeared, there was a demand that a certain older cousin tell the Judge West story. But the jest lay in the demand instead of in the story, for although there was a clamor of applause, the story was never told and it teases me forever. Then another cousin, who journeyed sometimes to New York, usually instructed us in the latest manner of eating an orange in the metropolis. But we disregarded his fashionable instruction, and peeled ours round and round.
The dinner itself was a prodigious feast. The cook-stove must have rested and panted for a week thereafter. Before long, Annie got so red bringing in turkeys and cranberry sauce—countless plates heaped and toppling with vegetables and meats—that one might think she herself was in process to become a pickled beet and would presently enter on a platter.
In the afternoon we rested, but at night there was a dance, for which my maiden aunt played the piano. The dear good soul, whose old brown fingers were none too limber, had skill that scarcely mounted to the speed of a polka, but she was steady at a waltz. There was one tune—bink a bunk bunk, bink a bunk bunk—that went around and around with an agreeable monotony even when the player nodded. There was a legend in the family that once she fell asleep in the performance, and that the dancers turned down the lights and left the room; to her amazement when presently she awoke, for she thought she had outsat the party.
My brother and I had not advanced to the trick of dancing and we built up our blocks in the corner of the room in order that the friskier dancers might kick them over as they passed. Chief in the performance was the Judge West cousin who, although whiskered almost into middle age, had a merry heart and knew how to play with children. Sometimes, by consent, we younger fry sat beneath the piano, which was of an old square pattern, and worked the pedals for my aunt, in order that her industry might be undivided on the keys. It is amazing what a variety we could cast upon the waltz, now giving it a muffled sound, and presently offering the dancers a prolonged roaring.
Midway in the evening, when the atrocities of dinner were but mildly remembered, ice-cream was brought in. It was not hard as at dinner, but had settled to a delicious softness, and could be mushed upon a spoon. Then while the party again proceeded, and my aunt resumed her waltz, we were despatched upstairs.
On the bed lay our stockings, still tied with string, that had been stuffed with presents in the dawn. But the morning had now sunk into immeasurable distance and seemed as remote as Job himself. And all through the evening, as we lay abed and listened to the droning piano below, we felt a spiritual hollowness because the great day had passed.