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The Best Christmas
By Raymond Greiner
The year was 1930. In the Tennessee hills near the North Carolina border was the village of Wilson Creek, founded by the Wilson pioneer family early in the 19th century. A narrow dirt road gave access to the village connected to a wagon road that leads up the hillside to another road on top of the hill. The village had a one-room school, church, general store, scattered houses, sawmill and water powered grain mill on the creek bank below the village. The sawmill employed ten men and the grain mill employed five, representing the only job sources in the village. The men all resided in the village. Nearby farmers purchased lumber, grain and supplies from the general store. The entire area was rural and the nearest town of any size was thirty miles distance. Local farms used horses and mules since nobody could afford a tractor. The entire area was on the economic edge. Other than village residents a fair number of people live in the hills, gaining subsistence from gardens and hunting game. A few dollars could be made trapping muskrats in the creek or gathering ginseng root, living off the land, building small cabins from natural materials. Woodstoves were usually fashioned from salvaged steel drums.
Kathleen Morris was the schoolteacher, and her husband James worked at the grain mill. They had a more comfortable life than most living in their quaint frame house. Kathleen knew most of the hill families since she taught their children. These kids walked to school each day and some lived six-miles away, a roundtrip of twelve miles, requiring them to leave for school very early. Kathleen organized curriculum according to each child’s age and her perception of the child’s ability. Fifteen students attended her school and she became very attached to them, aware of the difficult lives they endured. She loved these kids dearly, and this love was enhanced because they were poor. These kids had nothing to compare their lives to, yet joyful each day studying and playing together. During warm months they wore no shoes and with calloused feet they could hike all day without discomfort. As cooler weather arrived parents issued shoes. These were “hand-me-down” shoes from relatives and neighbors. It was a fascination to Kathleen since she was a city girl from Lexington, Kentucky and graduated from The University of Kentucky, married James and ended up at Wilson Creek.
As Christmas season neared she worried about her students, wondering how they would celebrate Christmas and how they could ever afford gifts. The last day of school before Christmas break she gave each child a small sack with cookies and hard candy. It broke her heart that she could not do more. The kids were overjoyed to receive these gift and their eyes sparkled with delight.
Christmas day Kathleen and James enjoyed a fine meal and exchanged gifts. They were intensely bonded and especially enjoyed Christmas. It snowed overnight leaving about two inches on the ground. As Kathleen and James were sitting by their fireplace having tea a knocking was heard on the door. It was one of her students. Ten-year-old Richard Matheny, and he was carrying a paper bag. Richard lives four miles distance in a two-room cabin with his parents and sister Ida Mae. He handed the bag to Kathleen and said, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Morris.” Kathleen invited Richard in; the bag contained two loaves of homemade bread and a dozen peanut butter cookies. She could not control her tears.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Richard. Thank you for these thoughtful gifts, and you walked all this way in the snow to present us with these gifts.”
Richard said, “Mrs. Morris, you are the best teacher in the world and I wanted to give you something for Christmas. My Mom made this bread and cookies for you and Mr. Morris. It’s really fun to give gifts at Christmas.”
“Well, Richard, I am flattered. Sit down and tell us about your Christmas.”
“We had the best Christmas. I had so much fun last night. My cousins Billy Ray and Bonnie came over with Uncle Jack and Aunt Millie. We used needles and thread and strung popcorn to decorate our Christmas tree. We laughed so much. We had Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve and exchanged gifts. Aunt Millie gave Ida Mae and me each a big orange from Florida and Uncle Jack gave us wooden flutes he had carved himself. Mom and Dad gave us shoes that were too small for our cousins. Mine are ankle high, perfect for walking in the snow. I tried them out on my way to visit you. My Dad knows how to build a trap to catch turkeys and he caught two, but let one go, saying it was important to take only what we need to allow the flock greater opportunity to multiply. We had turkey with dressing and brown gravy, hot bread rolls, rhubarb pie and peanut butter cookies. Uncle Jack and Aunt Millie also brought fresh churned butter and cream, a jar of sourdough starter, wild honey and a gallon of cider. My Dad said a prayer about Jesus being born on this day. How could a kid have a better Christmas than that”?
Now both Kathleen and James were fighting back tears of joy, sharing this precious moment. James said, “Richard, you are so right. This is the best Christmas.”