A Miserable, Merry Christmas

Lincoln Steffens, notable muck-raking journalist of the late 19th and early 20th century, was born in San Francisco in 1866 and grew up in Sacramento, where his father owned a prosperous store. There in Sacramento he watched as the city “grew and changed with the State from a gambling, mining, and ranching community to one of farming, fruit-raising, and building.”

One chapter of his autobiography tells the story of his ‘miserable merry Christmas” when he was ten and the family had just moved to a new house. Here’s the condensed version; perhaps it will remind you of the unbearable excitement your own childhood Christmases.

What interested me in our new neighborhood was not the school, nor the room I was to have in the house all to myself, but the stable which was built back of the house. My father let me direct the making of a stall, a little smaller than the other stalls, for my pony, and I prayed and hoped and my sister Lou believed that that meant that I would get the pony, perhaps for Christmas. . . My father, sounded, said that some day we might have horses and a cow meanwhile a stable added to the value of a house. “Some day” is a pain to a boy who lives in and knows only “now.”

My good little sisters, to comfort me, remarked that Christmas was coming, but Christmas was always coming and grown-ups were always talking about it, asking you what you wanted and then giving you what they wanted you to have. Though everybody knew what I wanted, I told them all again. My mother knew that I told God, too, every night. I wanted a pony, and to make sure that they understood, I declared that I wanted nothing else.

“Nothing but a pony?” my father asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“All I want is a pony,” I said. “If I can’t have a pony, give me nothing, nothing.”

Now I had been looking myself for the pony I wanted, going to sales stables, inquiring of horsemen, and I had seen several that would do. My father let me “try” them. I tried so many ponies that I was learning fast to sit a horse. I chose several, but my father always found some fault with them. I was in despair. When Christmas was at hand I had given up all hope of a pony, and on Christmas Eve I hung up my stocking along with my sisters’, of whom, by the way, I now had three.

Christmas morning came, and the children rushed to look at their stockings and gifts. Lincoln’s stocking hung loose and empty, with no pile of presents, like his sisters, sitting on the floor. He went out to the stable — no pony. In despair he sat in the stall, weeping. Nothing could comfort him, not his sisters’ sympathy or his mother’s attempts to soothe him. Then—

After — I don’t know how long — surely an hour or two — I was brought to the climax of my agony by the sight of a man riding a pony down the street, a pony and a brand-new saddle, the most beautiful saddle I ever saw, and it was a boy’s saddle; the man’s feet were not in the stirrups; his legs were too long. The outfit was perfect; it was the realization of all my dreams, the answer to all my prayers. A fine new bridle, with a light curb bit. And the pony! As he drew near, I saw that the pony was really a small horse, what we called an Indian pony, a bay, with black mane and tail, and one white foot and a white star on his forehead. For such a horse as that I would have given, I could have forgiven, anything.

But the man, a disheveled fellow with a blackened eye and a fresh-cut face, came along, reading the numbers on the houses, and, as my hopes — my impossible hopes — rose, he looked at our door and passed by, he and the pony, and the saddle and the bridle. Too much. I fell upon the steps, and having wept before, I broke now into such a flood of tears that I was a floating wreck when I heard a voice.

“Say, kid,” it said, “do you know a boy named Lennie Steffens?”

I looked up. It was the man on the pony, back again, at our horse block.

“Yes,” I spluttered through my tears. “That’s me.”

“Well,” he said, “then this is your horse. I’ve been looking all over for you and your house. Why don’t you put your number where it can be seen?”

“Get down,” I said, running out to him.

He went on saying something about “ought to have got here at seven o’clock; told me to bring the nag here and tie him to your post and leave him for you. But, hell, I got into a drunk and a fight — and a hospital, and — ”

“Get down,” I said.

He got down, and he boosted me up to the saddle. He offered to fit the stirrups to me, but I didn’t want him to. I wanted to ride.

“What’s the matter with you?” he said, angrily. “What you crying for? Don’t you like the horse? He’s a dandy, this horse. I know him of old. He’s fine at cattle, he’ll drive ’em alone.”

Lennie Steffens rode his pony up and down the street, then brought him back to the stable, where he fed him and watered him, and with his sisters’ help, “curried and brushed him, curried and brushed him” over and over.

Happy and now hungry for dinner, he went in to eat.

I could laugh. My mother said I still choked and sobbed now and then, but I laughed, too. I saw and enjoyed my sisters’ presents till — I had to go out and attend to my pony, who was there, really and truly there, the promise, the beginning, of a happy double life. And — I went and looked to make sure — there was the saddle, too, and the bridle.

But that Christmas, which my father had planned so carefully, was it the best or the worst I ever knew? He often asked me that I never could answer as a boy. I think now that it was both. It covered the whole distance from broken-hearted misery to bursting happiness — too fast. A grown-up could hardly have stood it.

Best holiday wishes from me to you, for a Christmas bursting with happiness!

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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