I was in Grade 3 at the time — too young to know the reasons, but old enough to sense the despair that had settled over our small farming community. Crops had been poor, prices low and the annual school Christmas concert was to be the only highlight of an otherwise bleak winter.
To add to the excitement, the new teacher suggested we draw names for the exchange of gifts. The names we had chosen were to remain top secret, but it didn’t take long for news to spread on the school grapevine. Long before the night of the concert I knew who had drawn my name. He was a boy from a large family that had just recently moved into our community. Their farm with its derelict buildings was located in an area we referred to locally as “the marsh.” In wet years it flooded. In dry years the sandy soil supported some scrub poplars and at best a few head of scrawny cattle.
“Don’t count too much on a present,” my mothered cautioned. Caught up in the excitement of the season, I was in no mood for such pessimism.
The night of the concert was clear, with the mercury hovering at 25 below zero. A blizzard the day before had packed the rural roads with snowdrifts. As we converged that night upon the village schoolhouse, teams of horses stood draped in blankets, their nostrils white with hoarfrost. Those of us who arrived by tractor and trailer covered the motors quickly, hopeful that they would start again later for the long ride home.
The school basement was packed with people. I could smell damp woolen mittens drying on the radiators, and humidity hung heavily in the air. There in the corner stood the Christmas tree in all its glory, the gifts piled high around it.
The buzz of excitement quieted as the bed sheet curtains jerked open and a wide-eyed beginner faltered through a “welcome” recitation. Skits and drills and more recitations followed, with teachers doing the prompting from behind stage. It was made of loose planks placed across sawhorses, and as the various classes filed up and down to perform our songs, the sound of shuffling feet was accompanied by squeaking boards and someone thumping out The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers on the piano. And then a doll cradle placed in the centre of the stage indicated the beginning of the nativity pageant.
A hush settled over the audience as a youthful scribe began to stumble through Luke 2. A cranky innkeeper turned away a tired Mary and Joseph, who resorted to a makeshift stable inhabited by cardboard livestock. A white clad angel wearing a tinsel halo made a dazzling appearance. From behind stage someone imitated a baby’s cry. Rough shepherds wearing burlap gunny sacks lumbered on-stage and knelt at the manger. A tin foil star rose above the curtains, guiding in the three wise men, regally attired in threadbare bathrobes, their terry towel turbans pinned with garish brooches. Young voices began to sing “Silent night, holy night . . .”
As the curtains gently closed on the manger scene, the chair of the school board took the stage. “Have you all been good boys and girls this year?”
A resounding “Yes!” all but drowned out the sound of sleigh bells in the hall, and a well-padded Santa made his way toward the Christmas tree.
The time for which I had waited all evening had come — the distribution of gifts.
I sat in suspense, my heart pounding with anticipation. On every side of me classmates were opening brightly wrapped parcels, any number of things that would have delighted a small girl — perfume, soap, trinkets, costume jewelry. Surely my turn will come soon.
The boy who had drawn my name had received a cap gun. He was aiming it at his friends, planning a game of cops and robbers.
I edged over closer to the tree. There were only three presents under it now. Then two.
I clutched my bag of candies and examined the tree more closely. Maybe my gift was still tucked up there among the branches where nobody could see it.
I tried to be brave as my mother wrapped my coat around my shoulders. I pulled on my mittens and boots. As we stepped outside into the cold winter night, the tears froze on my cheeks.
I hated that boy who drew my name! Hated everything there was about Christmas and celebrating and singing Joy to the World.
The tractor motor fired reluctantly, hesitated, and then jumped to life, startling the horses around us. I was glad it drowned out the sound of their bells. Stupid things anyway!
For a long time I sat in silence, until at last the bitterness inside me exploded. “Why did that boy have to draw my name anyway? I mean, why did he take a name at all?”
“Well,” my mother replied gently, “sometimes it’s very hard to admit you’re poor, even poorer than the rest.” I got the impressions she was speaking from experience. “Maybe that boy wanted to give somebody a present just as much as you hoped to get one.”
As we rode home on that starry December night, she began to elaborate on some of the harsh realities of life. I lay on my back in the straw-filled trailer and listened, while the exhaust from the tractor unfurled like a white plume across the star filled sky.
By the time we reached the warmth of home, the anger and disappointment and bitterness within me had faded away, replaced by a growing sense of compassion for the boy who had drawn my name. I was beginning to realize that what we get out of life is not so important.
The real tragedy is in having nothing to give.
That night I received something of more lasting value than a present. “ . . . insight with understanding” (Dn 9:22).
Barkman is a freelance writer who lives in Winnipeg (almabarkman.com).