The winter of ’34 in the valley below the Gravely Spur was an especially hard one. A Christmas snow had blanketed the valley, making travel through the mountain passes treacherous, even if taken by foot.
With one false step, even those who knew the routes by heart could find themselves slipping into a snow drift hiding a potential fall.
However, for most of the children of the valley the snow turned it into a winter wonderland. Pearl, Ruby and the Wood boys were finding whatever they could ride to go sledding down Turner’s gorge. At the bottom of the gorge lay a pond formed from Frog Leg Creek which was covered in a thick coat of ice almost strong enough for skating. No one had any skates so they would simply slide across on the soles of the new shoes they received when the crops were sold.
While the children were unaware, most of the parents of the valley knew that the reality of the year had left them all in dire straits.
Toys at Christmas were largely a luxury in the valley. Even the well-to-do families were having trouble this year. The customary apple, banana or piece of peppermint stick candy that most of the children found in their stocking might be missed this year.
Pearl had sensed the concerns of her parents and with six children and four share-cropping families to help, she knew her father was doing all he could that year.
The unexpected snow however made it difficult for anything not already on hand to be brought into the valley.
Still Pearl hoped that she might find a little something for her Christmas morning that she could call her very own.
As she was sliding on the ice, she listened as the Wood boys laughed about what happened to what they got the year before.
“I can’t believe what George did to our present last year,” Woody said. “We got a whole string of firecrackers to split between us boys and he nearly run us out of the house with them.”
“He got up early Christmas morning and found them. They had this long string running through connecting them, so he took that loose and was counting them and splitting them up so we all had the same amount,” he said. “He threw that long piece of string in the fire. That thing jumped back out right in the middle of his pile. You should have seen George when those firecrackers started going off in every direction. They even jumped up in the bed with the rest of us and got everybody up in the house.”
But in spite of the snow, Santa would be making his usual stops at the Gravelly Spur no matter what. Because of the terrain, this year he would only make one stop in the valley and all the neighbors would go by Christmas morning and pick up what he had brought for the valley children.
Santa’s helper in the valley was Rev. Ben Smathers, who waited patiently Christmas Eve for Santa’s arrival. As the families came to Big Lick Church Christmas morning, he would then, one by one, distribute the gifts and the community would then gather for a celebration of Christ‘s birth.
Christmas morning, Pearl was up early, anxious for the trip to the church. In her stocking she found an orange and a stick of candy. When the family arrived at the church, she joined the other children in line at the tree and stepped up to Rev. Smathers. He placed in her arms a little blonde doll in a woven basket lying upon a blue cotton pillow.
“It is so beautiful,” she said. “Is she really mine?”
“Yes, just for you my dear,” he said. “So you take good care of her.”
As she looked in the eyes of her new friend, Pearl beamed with the joy of Christmas.
It was not stacks of gifts which made her eyes glimmer and her face shine with the light of the season. It was one simple gift of her very own given by the heart of a pastor who knew without his help many children would do without that Christmas.
This Christmas story is from the book “A Mountain Pearl: Appalachian Reminiscing and Recipes” by Randall Franks and available at randallfranks.com.
(Randall Franks is an award-winning musician, singer and actor. He is best known for his role as “Officer Randy Goode” on TV’s “In the Heat of the Night” now on WGN America. His latest CD release, “Mississippi Moon,” is by Crimson Records. He is a member of the Independent Country Music Hall of Fame. His latest book is “Encouragers I : Finding the Light.” He is a syndicated columnist for http://randallfranks.com/ and can be reached at email@example.com.)