by Laura McLemore
One of the charming elements of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series is the inclusion of at least one Christmas chapter in each of her books. To me Christmas is a unifying theme that ties the books together and gives the reader something special to look forward to when reading a new “Little House” book. On the Banks of Plum Creek, the fourth book in Wilder’s series, contains not just one Christmas chapter, but three. We follow the Ingalls family from their first hopeful Christmas on Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, to a cheery Christmas in town and finally to a thankful Christmas when Pa comes home safely from town after being caught in a sudden blizzard.
It is that second Christmas that has always fascinated me and is always my go-to chapter when I have to choose just one to read at Christmas time. This chapter is entitled “Surprise” and follows a harrowing year of grasshoppers and disaster for the Ingalls family. Pa has been away working and comes home late in the fall. One winter evening he surprises Ma and the girls by taking them into town. Laura does not know it is Christmas. On the way into Walnut Grove, Pa stops the wagon and the family delights in hearing the faint peals of the new church bell. Pa had donated money he had been saving for a new pair of boots so that the brand new Congregational church could buy a bell for its steeple. Pa’s bell can still be seen in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Finally the family arrives at church, all twinkly in the candle light. It is there that Laura sees her very first Christmas tree laden with donated gifts for the impoverished people of Walnut Grove and realizes this must be Christmas. We experience Laura’s wonderment at all of the beautiful gifts. We understand her childish desires for a little fur cape and muff high atop the tree. She hopes, she fears and she finds joy all in one beautiful chapter.
As a collector of “Little House” artifacts and all-things Laura, I have most desired two items from this chapter- a little fur cape and muff and jewel box with a wee tea pot, cup and saucer atop its snowy white lid. I remember the first time I visited Rocky Ridge Farm, home of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, near Mansfield Missouri at the age of 14. I was so delighted to actually see this little china box proudly displayed among the artifacts housed there. Every time I visit, it is the first thing I go to-like visiting an old friend. It isn’t in one piece but the fact that it has survived at all is amazement. These little boxes were usually inexpensive carnival prizes won at county fairs, but to a little girl with very few possessions it was a cherished gift. I’ve recently acquired a child’s fur cape but I’m still looking for a fairy trinket box just like Laura’s. Someday I hope I’ll find one hiding on ebay or in an antique store somewhere. Meanwhile, I guess I’ll just put it on my Christmas list and hope that Mr. Edwards runs into Santa Claus.