(This is a reprint of my very favorite Christmas story. It still makes me cry every time I read it. Now, put on your jammies, snuggle up by the fire, and read about the gift of true, selfless love.)
He waked suddenly and completely. It was four o’clock, the hour at which his father had always called him to get up and help with the milking. Strange how the habits of his youth clung to him still. Fifty years ago, and his father had been dead for thirty years, and yet he waked at four o’clock in the morning. He had trained himself to turn over and go to sleep, but this morning, because it was Christmas, he did not try to sleep.
He slipped back in time, as he did so easily nowadays. He was 15 years old and still on his father’s farm. He loved his father. He had not known it until one day a few days before Christmas, when he overheard what his father was saying to his mother.
“Mary, I hate to call Rob in the mornings. He’s growing so fast and he needs his sleep. If you could see how he sleeps when I go in to wake him up! I wish I could manage alone.”
“Well, you can’t, Adam.” His mother’s voice was brisk. “Besides, he isn’t a child anymore. It’s time he took his turn.”
“Yes,” his father said slowly. “But I sure do hate to wake him.”
When he heard these words, something in him woke: his father loved him! He had never thought of it before, taking for granted the tie of their blood. Neither his father nor his mother talked about loving their children – they had no time for such things. There was always so much to do on a farm.
Now that he knew his father loved him, there would be no more loitering in the mornings and having to be called again. He got up after that, stumbling with sleep, and pulled on his clothes, his eyes tight shut, but he got up.
And then on the night before Christmas, that year when he was 15, he lay for a few minutes thinking about the next day. They were poor, and most of the excitement was in the turkey they had raised themselves and in the mince pies his mother made. His sisters sewed presents and his mother and father always bought something he needed, not only a warm jacket, maybe, but something more, such as a book. And he saved and bought them each something too.
He wished, that Christmas when he was 15, he had a better present for his father. As usual, he had gone to the ten-cent store and bought a tie. It had seemed nice enough until he lay thinking the night before Christmas, and then he wished that he had heard his father and mother talking in time for him to save for something better.
He lay on his side, his head supported by his elbow, and looked out of his attic window. The stars were bright, much brighter than he ever remembered seeing them, and one was so bright he wondered if it were really the star of Bethlehem.
“Dad,” he had once asked when he was a little boy, “what is a stable?”
“It’s just a barn,” his father had replied, “like ours.”
Then Jesus had been born in a barn, and to a barn the shepherds and the Wise Men had come, bringing their Christmas gifts!
The thought stuck him like a silver dagger. Why should he not give his father a special gift, too, out there in the barn?
He could get up early, earlier than four o’clock, and he could creep into the barn and get all the milking done. He’d do it alone, milk and clean up, and then when his father went in to start the milking, he’d see it all done. And he would know who had done it.
At a quarter to three, he got up and put on his clothes. He crept downstairs, careful of the creaky boards, and let himself out. The big star hung lower over the barn roof, a reddish gold. The cows looked at him, sleepy and surprised.
“So, boss,” he whispered. They accepted him placidly, and he fetched some hay for each cow and then got the milking pail and big milk cans.
He had never milked alone before, but it seemed almost easy. He kept thinking about his father’s surprise. His father would come in and call him, saying that he would get things started while Rob was getting dressed. He’d go to the barn, open the door, and then he’d go to get the two big empty milk cans. But they wouldn’t be waiting or empty; they’d be standing in the milk house, filled.
The task went more easily than he had ever known it to before. Milking for once was not a chore. It was something else, a gift to his father who loved him. He finished, the two milk cans were full, and he covered them and closed the milk-house door carefully, making sure of the latch. He put the stool in its place by the door and hung up the clean milk pail. Then he went out of the barn and barred the door behind him.
Back in his room, he had only a minute to pull off his clothes in the darkness and jump into bed, for he heard his father up. He put the covers over his head to silence his quick breathing. The door opened.
“Rob!” his father called. “We have to get up, son, even if it is Christmas.”
“Aw-right,” he said sleepily.
“I’ll go on out,” his father said. “I’ll get things started.”
The door closed and he lay still, laughing to himself. In just a few minutes his father would know. His dancing heart was ready to jump from his body.
The minutes were endless – ten, fifteen, he did not know how many – and he heard his father’s footsteps again. The door opened and he lay still.
His father was laughing, a queer sobbing sort of a laugh. “Thought you’d fool me, did you?” His father was standing beside his bed, feeling for him, pulling away the covers.
“It’s Christmas, Dad!”
He found his father and clutched him in a great hug. He felt his father’s arms go around him. It was dark, and they could not see each other’s faces.
“Son, I thank you. Nobody ever did a nicer thing–”
“Oh, Dad, I want you to know — I do want to be good!” The words broke from him of their own will. He did not know what to say. His heart was bursting with love.
“Well, I reckon I can go back to bed and sleep,” his father said after a moment. “No, hark– The little ones are waked up. Come to think of it, son, I’ve never seen you children when you first saw the Christmas tree. I was always in the barn.”
He got up and pulled on his clothes again, and they went down to the Christmas tree, and soon the sun was creeping up to where the star had been.
Oh, what a Christmas, and how his heart had nearly burst again with shyness and pride as his father told his mother and made the younger children listen about how he, Rob, had got up all by himself.
“The best Christmas gift I ever had, and I’ll remember it, son, every year on Christmas morning, so long as I live.”
They had both remembered it, and now that his father was dead he remembered it alone, that blessed Christmas dawn when, alone with the cows in the barn, he had made his first gift of true love.