The soft whoosh of runners gliding through deep snow and the gentle, yet joyful jingle of the bells of the horse-drawn sleigh bearing Elizabeth Scattergood and her younger siblings, Tim and Sarah, home from school were the only sounds disturbing the deep silence of Christmas Eve, 1847. Interrupting their journey, the driver, the Scattergood’s hired hand Ben, stopped the sleigh in front of the home of Mr. Kramer, the local shoemaker, and his wife, who helped deliver babies. Bearing a small package, Ben jumped down, landing quietly in the snow.
“I have to run an errand,” he explained.
Ben knocked on the door. Mrs. Kramer, her white hair tied up in a bright red scarf, greeted him. “Guten Abend, Ben! It is good to see you!” “I brought you an ornament for your tree, Mrs. Kramer,” and he handed her the package.
“Oh, Ben, you are so thoughtful!” Then she saw the children in the sleigh. “Children, come inside and have some cider and cookies!” The children went into the house and their eyes popped. In the middle of the parlor was an evergreen tree as tall as Ben. The children had never seen a tree inside a house before. The tree was looped with popcorn strung on a thread and a candle stood on each branch.
“I beg thy pardon, Mrs. Kramer, but why does thou have a tree in thy house?”
“Why, it’s Christmas, of course! This is a Christmas tree.”
She opened the package and took out a star, painted white with gold around the edges. “Oh, Ben, it’s perfect! Would you put it on top?”
Ben took the star, reached as high as he could, and fastened it to the top of the tree.
“Now, children,” Mrs. Kramer invited, “let’s have our Christmas cider and linzertorte.” The beautiful little pastries, with a lattice of dough covering raspberry jam and hazelnuts were delicious, and just right with the cider.
“Thank you, Mrs. Kramer,” all three said, as they stepped back outside with Ben.
“Auf Wiedersehen,” she called after them, waving. As they rode out of town Eliza asked, “Ben, why does Mrs. Kramer talk so funny and why did they have a tree in their parlor?”
“The Kramers are Austrians, and they speak German to each other. Guten Abend means ‘good evening,’ and Auf Wiedersehen means ‘goodbye.’”
“And the tree, Ben?”
“That’s a custom that the Austrians and Germans have. They cut down an evergreen tree, bring it in the house and decorate it. When the candles are lit at night, it’s real pretty.” Soon they came to their farm, and Ben drove the sleigh right up to the front of the house. Their mother met them at the door and said, “Later than usual. What happened?” Eliza told her mother of their adventures and asked, “Why don’t we have a Christmas tree?” Her mother smiled. “That would be a good question to ask thy father at dinner time.” And that’s what Eliza did. After they ate, Eliza asked her father about the tree.
Her father thought about it and said, “Thou knows, Eliza that Friends do not celebrate Christmas.”
“Yes, Father,” she answered, “but I’ve never known why. Other children get presents on Christmas day and sing special songs.”
“Well, in a way we celebrate Christmas every day. It is the life of Jesus that means something to us. He told us that we should love one another, take care of the sick, give clothes to those who need them and welcome strangers. These things we do every day of the year and that should be enough. In fact it is everything. Thou knows that in our meetinghouse there are no altars or crosses or statues of anyone, and that we don’t sing songs. We worship in silence, waiting to hear what the Holy Spirit says to us.”
“Could we have a Christmas tree in our house? It’s not the same as the meetinghouse.”
“Our house is just the same as the meetinghouse because God is everywhere, not just in one building. And besides, can thou imagine putting a tree in this house?”
And that was that. Father’s word was law.
After dinner Father called them all together. “Eliza is right to point out that this is Christmas Eve.” He took up the family Bible and read the Christmas story. Eliza especially liked the part that said:
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
There was a hush in the room, and then Father began praying. They bowed their heads and listened until he said, “Amen.” Then they all said “Amen” together.
“Now it’s time to go to bed,” said Mother. “Thou has school tomorrow and needs thy sleep.”
Just as Eliza’s eyes were closing with sleep, there was a quiet, soft knock on the front door and she knew what it meant. The Scattergoods lived in southern Indiana, not too far from the Ohio River. Just south of the river in Kentucky, farmers owned slaves. Sometimes the slaves would escape over the river and head north, seeking help along the way. The Scattergood’s house was known to give assistance as needed: it was a station on the Underground Railroad.
Eliza leaped out of her bed, put on her robe and slippers, and went downstairs. Father had just opened the door and greeted Abraham Hadley, a member of their meeting. “Friend Scattergood,” Mr. Hadley said. “The train has come to thy station with 17 passengers.”
“17!” exclaimed Father. “Thou has never brought more than 10 at a time.”
“We take what comes. Can thou help out?”
“Of course,” said Father.
Mother and Eliza looked out. It was dark outside, but they could see a large wagon with 17 black men, women and children climbing down.
“Eliza,” said Mother. “Build up the fire in the kitchen stove and put on lots of water. I’ll help the older people in and show them their rooms while Father takes the rest to the barn. I’ll come help thee in a minute.”
Eliza went back to the kitchen, put wood on the embers in the stove, filled up several kettles with water and set them on the stove. When she went back to the front room, Mother was leading the five fugitives upstairs. As they passed a window, they could see the other twelve going into the barn, led by Father and Mr. Hadley.
Then Mother said, “I’ll make the coffee, Eliza, and thou will get bread, butter and jam from the pantry.”
Eliza’s brother Tim came into the kitchen sleepy-eyed. “Go and get warm clothes on,” said Mother, “and help thy sister take this food out to the barn.”
The two children lugged the urn and the food outside to the barn where the warm air and smell of the cows were in a way homey. Father called out to a tall, strong, black man. “Jake! Here’s some food and hot coffee. Let’s put those boards over those sawhorses, and we’ll have a table.”
Father introduced them. “Jake is the leader of this group. These are Eliza and Tim, two of my three children.”
Jake shook their hands. “Thank you, children. We haven’t eaten since yesterday before we crossed the river.”
“Yesterday! They must truly be hungry,” Eliza thought.
“Friend Scattergood?” It was Mr. Hadley. “I’d better take the wagon and go on into town.”
“At this hour and in the dark?” said Father.
“In case we were followed by slave-catchers, I don’t want it to look like everyone stopped here.”
He climbed up on his wagon and slowly rode away.
Back inside the house, the Scattergoods heard hoof beats approaching their home. Father opened the door to see three white men ride up and dismount. “Come in, friends,” he said, “and warm thyself up. What brings thee out on a cold night like this?”
“Escaped slaves. They came this way. Did you see them?”
Father looked thoughtful. “A few hours ago a wagon did roll up. There were many people on it, but I don’t know if they were escaped slaves or not.”
Eliza thought. Was Father telling a lie? No, all Mr. Hadley had said was that the train had arrived.
The leader of the men said, “The wagon tracks come right up to your house.”
“Yes,” said Father, “as I said, the wagon came here. They were hungry, so we gave them some coffee and bread. And then the wagon went on.”
Eliza thought. That was true. We did give them coffee and bread. The wagon did go on. It just didn’t go on with the slaves on it.
Father continued. “It is a cold, dark night. Won’t you stay with us until the morning? You may have to sleep on the floor in the parlor, but we can provide blankets.”
The men looked suspicious. One of them said. “You’re a Quaker, ain’t ya? I’ve heard that Quakers are against slavery.”
Father shrugged. “It is true that we have no slaves. But neither does anyone else north of the river.”
“Let’s go, Al,” said one of the men.
Eliza could hear them riding away.
Just as they started to go up the stairs to their bedrooms, there was another knock on the door, a quiet knock. Father opened the door, and Jake stepped in.
“Everything all right?” asked Father.
“My wife is having a baby.”
“I’ll come this time,” said Mother, pulling on boots and throwing a shawl over her shoulders. She followed Jake, carrying the lantern.
In a minute she was back. “The baby’s not coming immediately,” she said, “but her birthing pains have begun. Father, we need to get the midwife.”
“I know it’s late, but I think it would be best.”
“Can I come with you, Father?” said Eliza.
Father glanced at Mother, who nodded. “I suppose so. Get dressed warmly, and I’ll hitch up the sleigh.”
The moon was bright, and they followed Mr. Hadley’s wagon tracks. But just before they arrived in town, suddenly they were surrounded by the same three men who had stopped by their house.
“Good evening, Mr. Scattergood, Out for an evening ride?” Eliza could smell the whiskey on his breath. “Or are you trying to warn someone that we are coming?”
Father said, “I am trying to warn no one.”
“Will you swear to that?”
“Friends do not swear. But I affirm that it is so.”
“Then what are you doing?”
Father thought a moment, and then he said, “Has thou ever heard of Christmas trees?” Eliza blinked.
The three men looked perplexed. “No, don’t reckon we have. What are they?”
“Come with us, and thou will see.”
The men rode behind the sleigh into town. Father stopped in front of the Kramers’ house. Through the front window Eliza saw the most beautiful thing that she had ever seen. The Christmas tree was all alight.
Father walked up and knocked on the door. Mr. Kramer opened it. “Guten Nacht, Mr. Scattergood! Have you come to see our tree? Come in!”
“Eliza,” said Mrs. Kramer, “will you come help me in the kitchen?” They both left the living room. “Now,” she whispered, “what is going on?”
Eliza explained everything. “Ah,” said Mrs. Kramer.
After everyone ate cake and drank cider, Father said, “Thank you for a fine evening, but now we must go to get our own Christmas tree.” Eliza blinked again.
After shaking Mr. Kramer’s hand, the three men followed Father.
“Follow me!” called Father, and they all rode through the deepening snow for a mile or more until they came to a grove of pine trees. Father got out of the sleigh and pulled a hatchet out of a tool bag.
“Which tree would be best?” asked Father.
The men began arguing with each other. One wanted a tall tree, another a short tree; one wanted a fat tree, another a skinny tree. Finally Father said, “We’ll let my daughter pick out the tree.”
Eliza walked around the grove. She looked over every tree and picked carefully. Father handed Al the hatchet, and in a few minutes, the tree was down. Father loaded it into the back of the sleigh. “We’ll have to go a little slower so we don’t lose it,” he said, and they were off, back to the town, and then on the trail back to their farm.
Overhead the stars shown brightly, but one was brilliant. “What is that star, Father?”
“That is the planet Jupiter,” he said.
Eliza thought, “A bright star in the sky and a Christmas tree for the house. What a Christmas!”
Soon they reached their house. The men brought the tree in through the front door and stood it up in a corner. Father came in and said, “Mother, we need some popcorn to put on a string to decorate the tree.”
As the popcorn popped in a big kettle in the kitchen, the men took swigs from their whiskey bottle. Finally Motherbrought in a large bowl of the popcorn and three needles and thread. “Here you are,” she said to the men. “Get busy, and we’ll soon have it finished.”
It was comical to see the men try to thread the needles. Mother had to do it for them. They stabbed the popcorn to get it on the thread, but most of the time they stabbed themselves. They started to get angry, but finally they fell asleep on the floor next to the tree.
In the meantime Father had put all the horses in the barn. When he returned, he saw the men and laughed quietly. Then he said, “Come, Mother. Come, Eliza.” They walked through the lightly falling snow to the barn. Father opened the door for them. In the barn they saw Jake standing, a blanket around his shoulders. Mrs. Kramer was sitting on a stool next to a young woman, who was lying in the straw. In her arms was a tiny baby wrapped in a flannel sheet. Behind them they saw Mr. Kramer. Mookey, their Guernsey cow, looked on, and a sheep poked its head around Mr. Kramer’s legs.
“Is everything well, Mrs. Kramer?” asked Mother.
“We have a fine baby and a fine mother.”
Jake said, “This is my wife Miriam,” Miriam didn’t take her eyes off the baby. Then Jake added, “Mr. Scattergood, what is your name?”
“Joshua,” said Father. “It was my grandfather’s name.”
“Then my son’s name is Joshua too.” He stepped forward and shook Father’s hand. Mookey mooed.
As the Kramers and the Scattergood family left the barn, Father asked Mr. Kramer if he would fetch the sheriff in the morning.
“Ja, I will wake Sheriff Johnson, and we will return at first light.”
“Then I think it’s time we all got some sleep.”
Early the next morning Sheriff Johnson arrived. “Rise and shine, boys!” he called out to the sleeping men. They groaned, stretched and then nearly jumped out of their skins when they saw the sheriff with his pistol drawn.
“What’s up?” said Al. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You are slave catchers. Do you have warrants for anyone?”
“Ya don’t need warrants. The legal stuff will be done back in Kentucky.”
“That may go in Kentucky, but not here in Indiana. Get your boots on, and we’ll ride into town and see the judge.”
The men groused, but did as they were told. Father had already saddled up their horses for them. As they mounted, Al looked puzzled. “Mr. Scattergood, I can’t figure out what you are. You fed us and gave us a place to sleep, but I have a feeling that you know more about this business.”
Father said, “As the Scriptures say, ‘I was a stranger, and thou took me in.’”
After the sheriff and slave catchers left, what a breakfast they had! All the food was on the table: ham slices and sausages, cottage fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, toast and jam, and another urn full of coffee. But first, they all stood and held hands. “Jake,” said Father, “will thou say the blessings?”
With bowed head Jake prayed: “Our Father, thank you for guiding us out of the Land of Darkness into the Land of Light. When we prayed to you to show us the way, you led us to the house of these fine people, and you spread your cloak over us all to protect us from Evil. Help us in the coming day. We ask it in the name of your son, who was born this very day. Amen.” And they all said, “Amen.”
“How long will our guests stay with us, father?” asked Eliza. “Friend Hadley is making the arrangements with the next station, which is in Fountain City with Friends Levi and Katy Coffin. But now it’s time for thee to get ready for school.”
Eliza grinned. “But what about the Christmas tree? Will we leave it in the house?”
“We will not.” Father paused. “But it is a beautiful tree. We will put it in the yard with strings of popcorn and suet balls for the birds.”
Rob Collard is a member of Charleston (West Virginia) Friends Meeting, but regularly attends Friends Meeting of Washington, D.C. Retired from the Foreign Service, he continues work at the Dept. of State part time. Rob is married to Pam for forty years, with four grown children.