The spirit of Christmas in 1882
First printed as an award-winning Arm-chair Ponderings in the Magnolia Gazette on 12/16/98.
There he was again peering through the shop window. The young fisherman walked home daily at dusk after a hard day’s fishing on his uncle’s boat. His home was on a small island on the west coast of France. He had paused outside the shop window numerous times during the past two months, just to look up at the top shelf. He would look up at my neighbors, two on one side and one on the other, then usually pausing a few seconds longer, he would look at me. Never seeming to have the time or perhaps enough courage to walk in, he would turn and leave. This ritual continued for several weeks.
One early afternoon in December 1882 my admirer appeared at the widow, his fisherman’s cap perched rakishly over his right ear and his hands thrust deeply in the pockets of his oilskin coat. I thought, what a great day for him to come. It was unusual to see the sun at this time of the year. It shone brightly through the window, reflecting a myriad of reddish hues from my polished copper inside. The contrast between my neighbor’s coarse black surface, turning grey with dust and my glowing essence was bound to be the catalyst that would seal our future together.
This time my fisherman paused at the door; then seeming to muster up his courage, he burst through it almost knocking the entrance bell from its fastenings. The shop keeper glanced up from polishing the copper tea kettle and immediately recognized him as the face in the window of the past few weeks. He smiled a greeting but continued his polishing.
The young man feeling ignored lost some of his bravado but still pointed a finger hesitantly at me and asked timidly, “How much is the beautiful copper cauldron?” The shop keeper without looking up replied, “Are you not Alexandre?” When my fisherman replied “yes” the shop keeper tried to direct him to one of my neighbors. “The black ones are very functional and much less expensive, the copper one is for someone quite wealthy” he said smiling. Alexandre looked deeply in the shop keeper’s eyes, stood up straight and said “My wife Victorine gave me the special gift of a son, Ferreol three months ago, I am wealthy! But she has had to boil his clothes in a kettle patched many times; even now it leaks in the fireplace. I must give her this gift at Christmas.”
The shop keeper stroking his bottom lip with a tobacco-stained index finger, thought, then exclaimed, “Alexandre, your father had a gold watch that chimed, he showed it to me several years ago before he died.” “Why yes. He left it to me.” Alexandre replied proudly, “I wear it and his gold chain every Sunday at church; it is to go to my firstborn son when I die and his son after him.”
“Well Alexandre, I will exchange the cauldron for the watch. I have wanted to leave it to my son when my time comes.”
I lay on the shelf watching this drama unfold. I had been there for three years; many customers looked at me with each of them wanting me I’m sure. But each time they took home one of my less expensive neighbors. The shelf around me had been replenished several times. Being the sage of the shelf was not all it was cut out to be. I did have company for almost a year. One huge fellow that no one in the village could use and I exchanged views on almost everything. Now I thought that it might be nice to be in a home with a baby; I knew that I would have to boil those smelly diapers, but then other times I would be filled with sweet smelling strawberries; Victorine was sure to make jam.
Alexandre agonized for a long time then said, “As much as I want Victorine to have this cauldron, I cannot give you my father’s watch. But I do have some money that I have saved for the last three months.”
“You don’t have enough money, because each time it will be five francs more than you have. You understand? I want that watch!” Alexandre crestfallen turned to leave. The shopkeeper smiled again; “remember, if you change your mind my work of art will be here.”
The day before Christmas came and I had not seen my fisherman. I thought, well I am destined to spend another Christmas on the shelf gathering dust. The weather had been dismal ever since Alexandre walked out without me.Strangely the afternoon sun came through the clouds for a few minutes just as Alexandre walked through the door with a tight smile on his face. He looked up at me still on the shelf, seemingly relieved that I was still there.
This time the shopkeeper didn’t ignore his customer. He said victoriously “Where’s the watch?” knowing that Alexandre had made a most important decision. Alexandre took the watch out of his pocket and began to remove the gold chain. The shopkeeper said “No, no, the chain goes too!” Tears of anguish and remorse streamed unashamedly down, Alexandre’s cheeks. With trembling hands, he placed his father’s watch and chain on the counter.
How exciting! I was finally leaving my shelf. I would spend Christmas in a caring home undoubtedly commanding a place of honor. The shopkeeper climbed up on a tall stool to reach me, as he swung around holding my heavy weight, one leg of the stool broke and we both came crashing down. He swore in pain, his arm broken, and now I had a big dent in my side just under the bail, after having hit the counter.
Alexandre reached for me as the shopkeeper’s wife came out to see about the commotion. Throwing her arms up in the air at the sight, she sent their young son for the doctor. Alexandre seeing that there was nothing he could do with a painfully broken arm, tried to fit me in an oyster sack. I was too large so he split the sack and tied it around me.
Alexandre and Victorine had always gone to Midnight Mass but this year it would be different, they had a new baby. He would be their symbol of Christmas. They arrived home; Victorine’s face was flushed with anticipation. Alexandre said, “I have a wonderful gift for you!” Victorine unable to contain herself, jumped up saying “Me first, me first!” Alexandre agreed. As much as he wanted to be first, part of Christmas was to allow loved ones a chance to express themselves. Victorine reached in the deep pocket of her apron and pulled out a beautifully embroidered watch case for the gold chiming watch. She handed it to Alexandre saying excitedly, “I worked on it all month while you were away, try it on.”
Alexandre turned his head, afraid that tears might flow again. He said, “No, first look at your gift!” as he reached down from under the kitchen table and pulled out the oyster sack. Victorine quickly pulled away my protecting sack. Lovingly she placed her arms around me as she gently placed her face on my surface. She exclaimed, “You have to be the most beautiful cauldron on the island, you will be placed inside the fireplace we never use until I need you. There anyone who comes to visit will admire you.” Already she was talking to me; soon she would understand what I had to say.
Victorine turned to Alexandre, “Now let me see how the watch fits.” Alexandre crestfallen, had to tell her that he no longer had the watch and why. They held each other this time and they both wept.
Christmas morning was another beautiful day; the sun came out again. Baby Ferreol cooed in his cradle while Victorine prepared crepes covered in strawberry jam she had made in the patched cauldron. They had decided that they would have to buy back the watch somehow.
Right after breakfast a knock sounded on the door. Alexandre knew that they had no family in the village; who could it be? As he opened the door he shouted “Joyeux Noel!” then immediately drew back. The shopkeeper stood on the step and humbly asked to come in.
“It is Christmas, even you may come in,” Alexandre said magnanimously. The visitor glanced at me and remarked, “Yes, this is where my work of art belongs!” He then took the watch and chain out of his pocket, placed it on the table saying “I am desolate. My arm is broken, my wife is mad at me and my son became very ill last night. You can pay me a fair price for the cauldron as you earn your pay next year. My fall had to be a message that Christmas is really a time for giving, not a time for taking. Please forgive me!”
Note: Ferreol was my mother’s stepfather, the story is true.