It is Christmas Eve in Minnesota, 1875, and Laura Ingalls is waiting for her father to come home.
This is the fourth day since the morning Pa left. Ma, Mary, Laura, and Carrie miss him terribly, though they’ve tried to keep their spirits up, working to make the house shine and playing games to pass the long hours until he returns.
He should have been back the same day he left. He had been so confident that it would not snow—confident that the powerful three-day, whitewash blizzards that had been descending upon them for weeks would not descend that day. He was going to town, he said, for “tobacco for his pipe, and to hear the news,” and “his eyes twinkled at Laura as he shut the door behind him.” She hadn’t realized that the twinkle in his eyes meant he was going to town for more than just tobacco and news. She hadn’t remembered that Christmas was only a few days away.
Ma had sent him with an extra pair of socks, wishing his old, worn coat were warmer. Pa wasn’t worried. “There’ll be no danger,” he’d said, but still he promised Ma he would stay in town if the weather turned for the worse.
Later that day, the dark cloud had blocked the sun, the wind shrieked, the snow whirled, and Pa had not come home. Not the first night, not the second night, not the third night.
Ma’s clothes had iced over when she’d gone out to care for the animals; doing the farm chores in Pa’s stead left her “too cold and breathless to speak,” but she had still managed to smile for the girls, to praise them for their good work, and to rally them for a rousing round of playing “bean-porridge hot.”
“We must not worry about Pa,” she’d told the girls. “No doubt he and Mr. Fitch are sitting by the stove now, telling stories and cracking jokes.” But when Laura had come down late at night, she’d seen her mother sitting up alone, awake, and still; a lamp shining in the window; Ma’s head bowed, her hands clasped.
Now, on Christmas Eve, the storm has let up. Laura breathes on the window and scratches a peep-hole in the ice. Through it, she sees the sun shining and a dark shadow like a bear approaching the house.
The bear comes through the front door, and “Pa’s eyes looked out of its face.” Ma and the girls run to him, crying and laughing. He sits close to the oven while Ma brings him warm broth and pulls off his boots.
When he’s rested and warmed, he tells the story of what happened to him in the blizzard: He’d been caught in it coming home. Providentially, Mr. Fitch had offered him a buffalo coat before he’d left town; without it, he might have frozen. In the blinding storm, Pa had fallen deep into an embankment that protected him like a snug cave—though it buried him under six feet of snow. He hadn’t known where he was, but “the air was good” and he had stayed there, alternately sleeping and waking hungry.
He’d been so starved, he told them, that he ate the oyster crackers he’d brought for Christmas—and later, too hungry to sleep, he finally gave in and ate the Christmas candy he had bought for the girls.
“Oh, Pa,” Laura cries, “I am so glad you did!”
“So am I, Pa! So am I!” Mary says, while the girls hug him hard from both sides.
Pa finishes his story, telling them that when he had finally emerged from the embankment that morning, he’d found himself “on the bank of Plum Creek”—just a short walk from home.
That evening, Pa plays the fiddle, his voice rollicking, Carrie laughing and clapping, Laura’s feet dancing, Ma cooking supper, Mary setting the table for Christmas Eve dinner. Laura thinks to herself that “everything is so good.”
“There would be no presents and no candy,” Laura Ingalls Wilder writes of that Christmas in On the Banks of Plum Creek, “but Laura could not think of anything she wanted and she was so glad that the Christmas candy had helped bring Pa safe home again.”
Another Father Returns
It is Christmas Eve in Maryland, 1985, and I’m waiting for my father to come home.
This happens every Christmas. I’ve tossed and turned all night, hardly able to bear my excitement about the stacks of presents awaiting my seven siblings and me. Like most children, I want to start unwrapping gifts at the break of dawn. In our family, though, we can’t start until 10 a.m. Four excruciating hours to spend waiting for my father.
I bring my younger sisters into my room with a stack of books and read to them for what seems like hours, but only 30 minutes tick by. It’s cruel, isn’t it? Every other family in town must be opening gifts by now, and we’re still waiting upstairs.
Finally, finally, my father returns. My siblings and I scurry down the stairs, smiling at stockings bulging at the seams that hung limply last night, catching our breath at the overflowing presents stacked beneath the twinkling Christmas tree.
The Gift of Sacrifice
Laura, Mary, and Carrie loved receiving Christmas gifts. Yet they were even happier, that year, to have no gifts at all. Their treasured Christmas candy helped save their father’s life. They were truly glad to make this sacrifice. Laura would remember its joy far more than she would have remembered presents and candy.
I, too, loved the many presents in the stockings and under the tree, but I hardly remember a single one. What I remember is the reason my father was late every Christmas morning.
He was late because, as a Catholic deacon whose focus was prison ministry, he spent every Christmas morning (and every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning throughout the year) with the prisoners at the jail.
Every year on December 25, my father gave me the opportunity to sacrifice my own hopes and dreams for Christmas morning, and to think of someone else instead. It was a small offering—but for a child, a hard one.
Unlike Mary and Laura, I was not happy about the sacrifice I had to make. But eventually, years later, I understood. I realized that waiting for my father to return from visiting prisoners on Christmas morning outshined anything wrapped in candy-cane paper.
As the sacrifice Laura and Mary made helped to save their father’s life, the small sacrifice my father asked me to make helped, I hope and pray, to save the souls of the prisoners to whom he brought the glad tidings and great joy of the Child in the manger.
Pa will not come home to the Ingalls family this Christmas, except in books; his last earthly Christmas was in 1901. But I pray that by the grace of God, he is celebrating Christmas with his family in their eternal home, where the Nativity fills their souls with perpetual joy.
My father will not come home this Christmas, either. His last earthly Christmas was in 1996. I pray that he, too, is singing Gloria in excelsis Deo with the angels and saints—and, in God’s mercy, alongside the prisoners with whom he shared Christmas mornings.
Meanwhile, the lesson Pa gave his girls, and the lesson my father gave me, remain in my heart, echoing the wonder of Bethlehem: The wonder of a heavenly Father whose Christmas gift to the world—His only Son—taught His children that the greatest gift of all is the sacrifice born of love.