Friday, September 29, 2017

THE FIRST LADY OF EVANSTON - Cornelia Gray Lunt - BOOK I, Chapter 3 - The Christmas Message

This is the next installment in the autobiography of Cornelia Gray Lunt of Evanston, Illinois: Sketches of Childhood and Girlhood, Chicago, 1847-1864.  For more about the life and times of Miss Lunt, please see the first installment:                           

Chapter Three
The Christmas Message

December 24, 1849

THE LITTLE GIRL watched her Father.  He sat before the fire in the big chair, his feet stretched out, his eyes fixed on the bright flames.  Why was he so still?  They had made much noise, she thought, at the table. It was her Father's Birthday.  She had been allowed to sit up for late supper.  She was very proud and happy and tried to understand the stories, and why they laughed so hard while the young Aunt said many things and looked so pretty.

"Father, I am glad you had a Birthday" she said and sidled close up to his knee.  "I am glad you had a Birthday Father" she repeated as he looked down and smiled his beautiful smile.  "I will tell my little girl of a more wonderful Birthday" he answered, lifting her to his knee and putting strong arms about her.  But she felt a little pain as he explained slowly that there was no real Santa Claus that came down chimneys, that the pretty piece she had learned about his Reindeer and the bells on the sleigh, and the pack of presents for good children, was all only a picture, made to show little and big ones how lovely it was to give and celebrate the Birthday of The Christ Child by helping to make everybody happy.

So was the sweet and sacred Story of Manger and Infant Jesus and Wise Men travelling far, and the beautiful Star shining and showing the way to where the Young Child lay, gently told me and the Christmas message repeated, - "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men," spoken softly.  Say it dear, "Peace on Earth, Good Will To Men." He told me of an indescribable light that shone on the Child's face, and made the wise men kneel and lay gifts before Him.  And so Christmas was the time for ever to love our friends and give gifts.

"Why it's your Birthday too," I said, "Oh Father you were born with the little Jesus" - "No, Oh no, only on His birthday to learn to love Him more," he answered.  And as his dear eyes met mine they were charged with some message he could not utter, and I was silent with the inarticulate yearning of childhood.

Almost three quarters of a century since the revelations of that Christmas Eve, and I can summon back the new feelings about Santa Claus and the Christ Child as I said my prayers that night, and was put to bed in the small Hall bedroom out of the large one, where I had been moved two years before, when the brother beloved of a life-time first opened his eyes on earth.  Often I had been lonely there, and often frightened.

So far it seemed from Father and Mother and the baby boy who slept in my place.  The Lake made a loud song at night.  Sometimes it shook the bed and called out, and I hid under the clothes, and I heard cries when great waves broke and said angry words in a language I tried to understand.  Voices that Christmas night seemed to come nearer and nearer - "Peace on Earth, Peace on Earth," softer and softer.

All suddenly I awoke from childhood's slumber and dreaming its dreams.  I started up in the darkness - "I must see what Santa Claus brought?"  No there was no Santa Claus only a cold wind blowing in my face, and around me all the mysterious darkness of midnight, its vastness, its silence, its loneliness.  I can recall only my swift action, but I can still feel the cold night air blowing on my face as I saw the white moonlight filtering over the floor.  The sound of waves breaking on snow and ice-banks called to me out of the great waste of waters.  It was my first Christmas message - "Come and see!  Come and see?"

I crept out of bed - Oh, very softly, and softly on hands and knees I crawled stealthily through the ever open door.  I have not forgotten so much as the pattern on the carpet the faint glimmer of the night lamp, but how dark looked the alcove, how long and strange the shadows, and how far to that fireplace where from the mantelpiece hung two stockings.  The low windows let in a faint glimmer, and as he eyes grew accustomed to its wavering shadow, I stood erect both hands outstretched - I must find out what was left for me.  No one woke to be aware of the little daughters search as she felt, in a tremor of delight, the larger stocking.  Yet even as she stood the chill that has no name swept over her.  A clutch at the heart - a fear that made for pause. There must have been a faint stirring, a suggestion of honour or principle that fought with curiosity and desire but could no conquer it. Once again with lingering loving touch she felt the outline of well filled stockings.  Her cold numb feet hitting something solid beneath, she dropped to the floor to feel for the first time in life the joy of handling books.  It was a gloating delight.  She lifted and hugged them.  Those small books were all hers.  All her very own.  She held them tight in her arms until the stir of the sleepers, or the icy chill, sent the little Trespasser shivering to hide under the blankets, and fall happily to sleep.

Was I the victim of an excited imagination?  My intelligence was not advanced for my years, only the power to read had come without conscious effort.  Over a year before, when I was only five, my Mother had taken me to a neighbouring Dame School, and I sat in a little Rocker she had purchased, while all the other little scholars superior in years, if not in attainment, were at desks or on benches.  They seemed many to me - and the Teacher very cross.  I trembled when she sent the noisy or naughty children to stand in corners, and sometimes even put a tall cap on them and made them sit on a high stool before everyone.  I cried sometimes, but, as the very youngest and littlest, she pointed to me often as the child who learned to read so fast and loved all stories.  Oh! that little Rocking chair, from which I saw and felt, and had those first shrinking impressions of discipline and severity!  The inexpressible dread and the vivid interest of those first school days - and the dislike of the loud voiced teacher.

But that Christmas Eve I had found what was left for me.  Yes, while Father and Mother and little Brother slept peacefully, I had found my treasures.  I had not waited - I could not wait.  The burning ardour in me to see, to discover, to enjoy without delay, had fought the icy breath of winter itself.  I have never waited willingly from that day to this,. I have seized my joys.  It was the hope and eagerness in me then, and the long years were to intervene before learning to hold them in check and to conquer impetuous action.

In the morning when I was shaken awake and heard the "Merry Christmas" calls, and saw little Horace playing with rattle and coloured worsted ball I felt no excitement.  Had I been dreaming?  No.  There before the fire hung my stocking and under the window the pile of little books.  And never, never until that moment when I held those little books in the dark night, had I known the rapture of discovery, or the enchanted silence of the night. 

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