“The Christmas Gathering” by Mrs. Joseph Clay Neal (Alice B. Neal)

The Christmas Gathering
By Mrs. J. C. Neal (Alice B. Neal, née Bradley)
From Godey’s Lady’s Book, December, 1849, pp. 440-441

     The people of New England rejoice in their “Thanksgiving;” but we of the Middle States make Christmas the holiday of the year, the anniversary on which long-separated friends meet once again, and families gather together to renew the bond of sympathy by social intercourse.
     They have gone out from the household one by one. The boy, who once hailed this merry morning by shouts and glad wishes, that roused the sleepers from their pleasant dreams, wakes not to hear his own little ones clamoring for a kiss, in return for a like salutation.
     His favorite sister has arranged her own Christmas Tree beneath another roof, and for children that smile with soft, blue eyes, so like her own; and the youngest, the pet, the darling of all, has waited until now to
         “Lay aside her maiden gladness,
         For a name and for a ring.”
     And on Christmas morn, memories will intrude of those who return no more. We should not say intrude, for a tender and softened recollection is ever present, of the dear ones who shared with us the blessings of childhood, who slept with arms entwined by ours, though now, alas, covered by the cold clod of the valley! No, it is not an intrusion, when these gentle spirits return, voiceless and viewless, with a presence felt in our inmost souls. Their seat by the fireside may be filled by another; but in our hearts we can still “keep a niche to hold our idols.”
     Why should such thoughts—for they are mournful, though sweet—rise up when we speak of this merry holiday? There is nothing of sadness, save this, in the gathering of children and children’s children in the old home. No seariness is the mellow light that glows through the cheerful room, that flashes outward from the ample hickory fire, or streams in subdued lustre upon broad mirrors and the gorgeous carpet, from the lofty chandelier. Christmas evergreens, with their shining berries, are wreathed about the picture-frames, and branches of fir loop back the heavy curtains. There sits the grandsire, with the child of his favorite daughter clasped to his heart, even as she had nestled in her babyhood; and the last namesake of his wife has crept to the good lad’s knee, with the confidence of an assured favorite.
     “Bless the child!” says the good dame to the mother, who is complacently listening to the praises of another juvenile member of the group. She can scarce believe that her own Mary is now the sedate, matronly woman, who counsels her young married sister with sage experiences in “teething” and the “whooping cough.” But so it is; and Annie has also little ones growing up beside her, who cling about her neck, or stand quietly at her side, with the shy, half timid air, that grandmamma can so well remember in their mother.
     And no one heeds the lovers. They are as much alone as though only their low whisper broke the silence of the room. And Lillian blushes and looks down, while those fond words are poured into her ear. She is thinking that, when another Christmas arrives, she will be among those who “come home” for its festivities. It is not a sorrowful thought—oh no!—but her heart flutters when she thinks of the bridal veil and the marriage service, and she heartily wishes it were all over.
     Her cousin Marie has also her own reveries, there close to grandpapa’s easy-chair, her favorite station. She knows she is not beautiful, and is less attractive than any of those by whom she is surrounded. But she is young and hopeful, and she is wondering if any one will—can love her well enough to overlook her lack of beauty, and cherish her for the earnest nature hidden under this plain exterior. Ay, dream on, maiden, for the meek and quiet spirit which cheers the lonely hours of old age so unselfishly, is an ornament outshining many graces, and sooner or later it shall have its reward. The orphan shall find a new home, and be loved for herself alone.
     Some one has said: “Christmas may well be the holiday of children, for it is the anniversary of that blessed day when our Lord became as one of them.” Little Alice has heard this, and as she basks in the firelight, with the kitten in her arms, her thoughts are far away from the pet she is caressing, or the gambols of old pussy at her feet. She has been trying to recall all that Aunt Lillian has said about Christmas this morning, and the beautiful tales she read from the large, old-fashioned Bible, with those curious pictures. It is a great thing for the little ones when they are permitted to look into that family relic, where their own birthday is recorded below that of their parents. “How beautiful it must have been,” thinks Alice, softly, “to look up into the sky and see all those angels, who came to tell that our Saviour was born! Oh, how sweetly they must have sun; like Aunt Lillian! I think she must be an angel, sometimes. And then our Saviour was laid in a manger, when my little brother has such a beautiful cradle, with white pillows instead of the hay. I wonder why he was not rich, when he might have been with wishing it!”
     Dear child, she will learn as she grows older, the lesson of our Master’s humility, and that he was the friend and the companion of the lowliest. And perhaps this is the reason why Christian people, on whom heaven has showered the gifts of fortune, feel a deeper sympathy, when this happy morning arrives, for the sufferings of those who “do lack, and suffer hunger,” for the wanderer and the homeless, who, like Him, “have not where to lay their heads.” It may be the remembrance of His poverty that opens their hearts to devise liberal things, to clothe the shivering little ones that have almost lost the image of His blessed childhood in the want and squalidness by which they are surrounded; to comfort the desolate mother who, like Mary of Bethlehem, watches over a new-born babe—though still unlike, inasmuch as she has no joyful hope, no blessed anticipations.
     Ah, yes, it must be this; and those who chide the celebration of this high Christian festival, or pass its social hours without a thought abstracted from the dull routine of business toil, have never felt their hearts beat high with the glow of gratitude and benevolence which such contemplations bring. They gather up the wealth of this world, but lose its keenest enjoyments; and while they forbear to recognize the coming of our Master as a little child, they are likewise in danger of forgetting, while the season brings it home forcibly to other hearts, that He has said, “The poor ye have always with you.”