“It is a dreadful thing to be poor a fortnight before Christmas,” said Clorinda, with the mournful sigh of seventeen years.
Aunt Emmy smiled. Aunt Emmy was sixty, and spent the hours she didn’t spend in a bed, on a sofa or in a wheel chair; but Aunt Emmy was never heard to sigh.
Canadian author L.M. Montgomery is best known for her novel Anne of Green Gables (and its many follow ups). She published hundreds of novels, short stories, poems, and essays throughout her life — and after.
The text of this story appears on Project Gutenberg in a collection called Lucy Maud Montgomery Short Stories, 1905 to 1906.
“I suppose it is worse then than at any other time,” she admitted.
That was one of the nice things about Aunt Emmy. She always sympathized and understood.
“I’m worse than poor this Christmas … I’m stony broke,” said Clorinda dolefully. “My spell of fever in the summer and the consequent doctor’s bills have cleaned out my coffers completely. Not a single Christmas present can I give. And I did so want to give some little thing to each of my dearest people. But I simply can’t afford it … that’s the hateful, ugly truth.”
Clorinda sighed again.
“The gifts which money can purchase are not the only ones we can give,” said Aunt Emmy gently, “nor the best, either.”
“Oh, I know it’s nicer to give something of your own work,” agreed Clorinda, “but materials for fancy work cost too. That kind of gift is just as much out of the question for me as any other.”
“That was not what I meant,” said Aunt Emmy.
“What did you mean, then?” asked Clorinda, looking puzzled.
Aunt Emmy smiled.
“Suppose you think out my meaning for yourself,” she said. “That would be better than if I explained it. Besides, I don’t think I could explain it. Take the beautiful line of a beautiful poem to help you in your thinking out: ‘The gift without the giver is bare.’”
“I’d put it the other way and say, ‘The giver without the gift is bare,’” said Clorinda, with a grimace. “That is my predicament exactly. Well, I hope by next Christmas I’ll not be quite bankrupt. I’m going into Mr. Callender’s store down at Murraybridge in February. He has offered me the place, you know.”
“Won’t your aunt miss you terribly?” said Aunt Emmy gravely.
Clorinda flushed. There was a note in Aunt Emmy’s voice that disturbed her.
“Oh, yes, I suppose she will,” she answered hurriedly. “But she’ll get used to it very soon. And I will be home every Saturday night, you know. I’m dreadfully tired of being poor, Aunt Emmy, and now that I have a chance to earn something for myself I mean to take it. I can help Aunt Mary, too. I’m to get four dollars a week.”
“I think she would rather have your companionship than a part of your salary, Clorinda,” said Aunt Emmy. “But of course you must decide for yourself, dear. It is hard to be poor. I know it. I am poor.”
“You poor!” said Clorinda, kissing her. “Why, you are the richest woman I know, Aunt Emmy—rich in love and goodness and contentment.”
“And so are you, dearie … rich in youth and health and happiness and ambition. Aren’t they all worthwhile?”
“Of course they are,” laughed Clorinda. “Only, unfortunately, Christmas gifts can’t be coined out of them.”
“Did you ever try?” asked Aunt Emmy. “Think out that question, too, in your thinking out, Clorinda.”
“Well, I must say bye-bye and run home. I feel cheered up—you always cheer people up, Aunt Emmy. How grey it is outdoors. I do hope we’ll have snow soon. Wouldn’t it be jolly to have a white Christmas? We always have such faded brown Decembers.”
Clorinda lived just across the road from Aunt Emmy in a tiny white house behind some huge willows. But Aunt Mary lived there too—the only relative Clorinda had, for Aunt Emmy wasn’t really her aunt at all. Clorinda had always lived with Aunt Mary ever since she could remember.
Clorinda went home and upstairs to her little room under the eaves, where the great bare willow boughs were branching athwart her windows. She was thinking over what Aunt Emmy had said about Christmas gifts and giving.
“I’m sure I don’t know what she could have meant,” pondered Clorinda. “I do wish I could find out if it would help me any. I’d love to remember a few of my friends at least. There’s Miss Mitchell … she’s been so good to me all this year and helped me so much with my studies. And there’s Mrs. Martin out in Manitoba. If I could only send her something! She must be so lonely out there. And Aunt Emmy herself, of course; and poor old Aunt Kitty down the lane; and Aunt Mary and, yes—Florence too, although she did treat me so meanly. I shall never feel the same to her again. But she gave me a present last Christmas, and so out of mere politeness I ought to give her something.”
Clorinda stopped short suddenly. She had just remembered that she would not have liked to say that last sentence to Aunt Emmy. Therefore, there was something wrong about it. Clorinda had long ago learned that there was sure to be something wrong in anything that could not be said to Aunt Emmy. So she stopped to think it over.
Clorinda puzzled over Aunt Emmy’s meaning for four days and part of three nights. Then all at once it came to her. Or if it wasn’t Aunt Emmy’s meaning it was a very good meaning in itself, and it grew clearer and expanded in meaning during the days that followed, although at first Clorinda shrank a little from some of the conclusions to which it led her.
“I’ve solved the problem of my Christmas giving for this year,” she told Aunt Emmy. “I have some things to give after all. Some of them quite costly, too; that is, they will cost me something, but I know I’ll be better off and richer after I’ve paid the price. That is what Mr. Grierson would call a paradox, isn’t it? I’ll explain all about it to you on Christmas Day.”
On Christmas Day, Clorinda went over to Aunt Emmy’s. It was a faded brown Christmas after all, for the snow had not come. But Clorinda did not mind; there was such joy in her heart that she thought it the most delightful Christmas Day that ever dawned.
She put the queer cornery armful she carried down on the kitchen floor before she went into the sitting room. Aunt Emmy was lying on the sofa before the fire, and Clorinda sat down beside her.
“I’ve come to tell you all about it,” she said.
Aunt Emmy patted the hand that was in her own.
“From your face, dear girl, it will be pleasant hearing and telling,” she said.
“Aunt Emmy, I thought for days over your meaning … thought until I was dizzy. And then one evening it just came to me, without any thinking at all, and I knew that I could give some gifts after all. I thought of something new every day for a week. At first I didn’t think I could give some of them, and then I thought how selfish I was. I would have been willing to pay any amount of money for gifts if I had had it, but I wasn’t willing to pay what I had. I got over that, though, Aunt Emmy. Now I’m going to tell you what I did give.
“First, there was my teacher, Miss Mitchell. I gave her one of father’s books. I have so many of his, you know, so that I wouldn’t miss one; but still it was one I loved very much, and so I felt that that love made it worthwhile. That is, I felt that on second thought. At first, Aunt Emmy, I thought I would be ashamed to offer Miss Mitchell a shabby old book, worn with much reading and all marked over with father’s notes and pencilings. I was afraid she would think it queer of me to give her such a present. And yet somehow it seemed to me that it was better than something brand new and unmellowed—that old book which father had loved and which I loved. So I gave it to her, and she understood. I think it pleased her so much, the real meaning in it. She said it was like being given something out of another’s heart and life.
“Then you know Mrs. Martin … last year she was Miss Hope, my dear Sunday School teacher. She married a home missionary, and they are in a lonely part of the west. Well, I wrote her a letter. Not just an ordinary letter; dear me, no. I took a whole day to write it, and you should have seen the postmistress’s eyes stick out when I mailed it. I just told her everything that had happened in Greenvale since she went away. I made it as newsy and cheerful and loving as I possibly could. Everything bright and funny I could think of went into it.
“The next was old Aunt Kitty. You know she was my nurse when I was a baby, and she’s very fond of me. But, well, you know, Aunt Emmy, I’m ashamed to confess it, but really I’ve never found Aunt Kitty very entertaining, to put it mildly. She is always glad when I go to see her, but I’ve never gone except when I couldn’t help it. She is very deaf, and rather dull and stupid, you know. Well, I gave her a whole day. I took my knitting yesterday, and sat with her the whole time and just talked and talked. I told her all the Greenvale news and gossip and everything else I thought she’d like to hear. She was so pleased and proud; she told me when I came away that she hadn’t had such a nice time for years.
“Then there was … Florence. You know, Aunt Emmy, we were always intimate friends until last year. Then Florence once told Rose Watson something I had told her in confidence. I found it out and I was so hurt. I couldn’t forgive Florence, and I told her plainly I could never be a real friend to her again. Florence felt badly, because she really did love me, and she asked me to forgive her, but it seemed as if I couldn’t. Well, Aunt Emmy, that was my Christmas gift to her … my forgiveness. I went down last night and just put my arms around her and told her that I loved her as much as ever and wanted to be real close friends again.
“I gave Aunt Mary her gift this morning. I told her I wasn’t going to Murraybridge, that I just meant to stay home with her. She was so glad—and I’m glad, too, now that I’ve decided so.”
“Your gifts have been real gifts, Clorinda,” said Aunt Emmy. “Something of you—the best of you—went into each of them.”
Clorinda went out and brought her cornery armful in.
“I didn’t forget you, Aunt Emmy,” she said, as she unpinned the paper.
There was a rosebush—Clorinda’s own pet rosebush—all snowed over with fragrant blossoms.
Aunt Emmy loved flowers. She put her finger under one of the roses and kissed it.
“It’s as sweet as yourself, dear child,” she said tenderly. “And it will be a joy to me all through the lonely winter days. You’ve found out the best meaning of Christmas giving, haven’t you, dear?”
“Yes, thanks to you, Aunt Emmy,” said Clorinda softly.