A Gift from the Past

A young boy in the 1930s has trouble deciding what to give his family for Christmas.

Written by Jean Mills

Illustrated by Rachel Curtis 

December 8, 2014

Grandma holds up a sweater to Davy.
Davy! Hurry up! It’s the Christmas concert rehearsal this morning!” Emma called. “Wear something warm,” she added, in bossy big-sister fashion.

David Haworth sighed. He had been thinking about last Saturday’s hockey broadcast on the radio, not about school or warm clothes.

At age 10, Davy was growing out of everything, but his mother said they couldn’t buy anything new until after the winter, and maybe not even then.

The last few years of drought and dust storms had brought hard times to the Saskatchewan prairie.

Some neighbours had even left their farms and moved into town. But the Haworths were relying on preserves from their vegetable garden to get them through the winter. Those, and a few skinny livestock that Davy’s father still kept.

“Davy,” his mother said, “Grandma might have something to keep you warm. Go see.” When Davy entered his grandmother’s room off the kitchen, she was already searching through her trunk.

“I have just the thing here!”

She turned to him, holding up a green sweater.

Davy hesitated. It looked too big for him.

“Take it, Davy,” she ordered. “No one in this family is going out into the prairie winter without warm clothes and a full belly. And not even Prime Minister Bennett and his relief plan could find you a warmer sweater.”

She liked to sound fierce, but Davy knew she was very soft-hearted.

He pulled the sweater over his head. Sure enough, his hands disappeared.

“Come here,” his grandma said. She reached for the sleeves and started rolling them. “You know, I knitted this for your Uncle Frank.”

Davy glanced over at the framed photograph of a young soldier on her bedside table. Uncle Frank had gone to France in the Great War, but he had never come home.

“It’s nice that you have things to remember him by,” Davy said, looking down at the sweater.

“Yes, but I still miss his voice, especially his lovely singing. No sweater in the world can replace that,” Grandma said. “Now,” she shooed him out, “off to school!”

* * *

“What are you going to give Grandma for Christmas?” Davy asked Emma as they trudged along the road toward the schoolhouse.

“It’s a secret,” Emma replied.

“What about Mom and Dad, then?”

“Secret.”

“What are you giving me?”

“Nice try!” Emma laughed.

Davy knew what kind of gifts he would receive this Christmas. Everything would be carefully knitted, baked, or hammered together. No ordering from the Eaton’s catalogue anymore — too expensive.

Gifts had to be handmade.

“Come on, Emma, just tell me,” he pressed. “I need some ideas.”

“Oh, all right,” she sighed. “But don’t tell!

I’m drawing everyone a special picture. Just like the ones on the covers of Maclean’s magazine.”

What a good idea, Davy thought. Maybe I could do that, too. But then he remembered that he wasn’t very good at drawing.

What was he good at, anyway? Skating and hockey. Milking the cow. His father said he was good with animals because he had such a soft voice.

His voice! An idea started to form in his mind …

“Hallo there! Anyone need a lift?”

Davy and Emma turned to see their neighbour, Mr. Thomas, approaching in his jumper — a little hut on runners, pulled by a workhorse.

“Sure, thanks!” cried the children. They climbed in to find their friends Sarah and Mike huddled comfortably by the little coal stove.

“We’ll be all warmed up for the concert rehearsal today,” Mike said. “Not that being warm will help my singing any.”

They all laughed, and Emma said, “It doesn’t matter, Mike. Everyone loves the concert, no matter how we sing. It’s just a tradition.”

“Mr. Templeton said they won’t hire him back if he doesn’t put on a good show this year,” Sarah told them. “He said people are counting on it.”

“Then we’ll put on a good show,” Emma declared, “because I think he’s a very good teacher.” Davy agreed. For the rest of the trip to school, he silently practised how he was going to ask Mr. Templeton to help him with his Christmas gift.

* * *

The night of the concert arrived, colder than ever.

“We should be fine,” Davy’s dad said as they gathered blankets to keep everyone warm in the car. It was now hooked up to the family’s two remaining oxen. Like many farmers without money for gasoline, Mr. Haworth had removed the engine and turned his car into a “Bennett Buggy,” named after the prime minister.

“Are you feeling all right?” Davy’s grandmother asked him once they’d settled into the back seat. “You look very pale.”

“I’m fine,” Davy muttered. But he didn’t feel fine. He had hardly been able to eat his supper. He wanted to find Mr. Templeton and back out of the plan before the concert began.

But there was no time. Before he knew it, the show had started. There were Christmas carols in both English and French, a skit about an all-night Christmas bonspiel at the curling club, and a folk dance by some of the Ukrainian kids. Finally, Mr. Templeton beckoned to Davy.

Davy stands at the front of the classroom.

Families, friends, and students,” he said as he and Davy stood together at the front of the schoolroom. “I guess we could all agree that 1933 has been a tough year. But evenings like this help remind us of what we have, not what we don’t have.Thank you for being here, enjoy the holiday season, and I will leave the last word to David Haworth.”
Davy glanced over at Emma, Mike, and Sarah. They were watching him with surprise.

He looked out at the audience. Every family from the whole town of Wilkie was there, waiting for him to speak. He cleared his throat. “I didn’t know what gifts to give everyone this year. I don’t have any money, and I can’t knit or bake.”

Everyone laughed, but Davy saw that they were nodding at each other, too. After it got quiet again, he continued. “So, this is my gift for everyone, but especially for my grandma.”

He started to sing, and to his surprise, everyone soon joined in.

“Silent night, holy night …”

* * *

“Well, who knew you could sing like that?” Emma exclaimed as they crammed into the back of the car for the trip home.

“Sounded just like Frank, didn’t he, Mom?” Davy’s father said.

“Well, Davy,” laughed his mother, “it looks like you inherited more than just your uncle’s sweater.”

Davy looked over at his grandmother, who whispered something so only he would hear. “Thank you, David Frank Haworth, for the best Christmas gift anyone has ever given to me!” 

The Great Depression

A prairie scene during the Great Depression
In the 1930s, most Canadians experienced serious hardship. They suffered through the Great Depression — an economic crisis that lasted from 1929 to 1939. All across Canada, large numbers of people were poor and unemployed during this time. Farmers in Saskatchewan were hit especially hard. Major droughts and dust storms ruined their wheat crops. And what wheat they managed to grow was hard to sell. Many families abandoned their farms. Others stayed and tried to make do. During the holidays, they found simple ways to celebrate the season.

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