It’s a tradition for the Hartigan family to volunteer at Christ Church on Salem Street to help serve Christmas dinner to the poor and underprivileged citizens of Boston – a charitable effort driven by the determination and insistence of my warm-hearted father and resisted equally by my head-strong step-mother, Sally.
“The church is doing a fine enough job without my having to get my gloves dirty,” Sally said as we sat around the warmth of the fire in sitting room. “Can’t we just enjoy a quiet and carefree Christmas Eve for once, George?”
“We are blessed beyond measure,” Father said, like he did every year. “Christmas is about giving, and as members of the elite, it’s doubly important that one doesn’t forget those whose lives are a daily struggle.”
Sally wasn’t about to go down without a fight. “Think about Louisa.”
Louisa, who was playing quietly with a porcelain doll, glanced up at the mention of her name.
Sally continued. “Would you have your own young daughter exposed to who knows what ailment. Last year a man stood right behind her and coughed.”
I noticed that Sally had specified father’s young daughter, even though I was also in the room. Clearly, she wasn’t worried that a stranger may inadvertently spew spittle in my direction.
“I do think about Louisa, which is precisely why I insist on going.”
“I’m not sure we’re doing those people much good. They’ll just learn to depend on handouts.”
“It’s Christmas,” I said, siding with Father.
Sally’s nose jutted higher. “They’re immigrants.”
I was aghast. “We’re immigrants!”
Louisa smirked. “I’m not.”
Father was not swayed, and at five o’clock in the evening, the four of us bundled up in our fur-trimmed winter coats, muffs and hats, and rode in our enclosed carriage as our new driver directed the horses to the church hall.
Boston is simply breathtaking in the winter at twilight. With snow falling softly and glowing like fairy lights beneath the gas lamps. The air was crisp and cold and our breaths mingled in curling wisps. Sally sat upright with a pinched face of disapproval as Louisa made chugging sounds with round lips imitating a steam engine with the white puffs of her breath, punctuating it with a loud “toot-toot!”
“Louisa!” Sally snapped. “Please refrain from such childish outbursts.”
“She is a child,” I said in my sister’s defense. “And it’s Christmastime. Allow her a moment to enjoy her imagination.”
Sally snarled at me. “Who are you to tell me how to manage my own daughter?”
“Her sister.” I returned the snarl uncharitably. I confess, it wasn’t my best moment.
“Girls,” father admonished. “Please do try to get along. This is the season of peace and goodwill, after all.”
We rode the rest of the way in silence and I focused once again on the magical world beyond our carriage. The city streets were much quieter than usual, the snow deadening the sound with an etherial peace. Passersby were noticeably friendly, offering smiles and waves and boisterous cheers of Merry Christmas! I soon forgot my spat with Sally and returned the sentiments. “Merry Christmas!”
Oh, how I missed Daniel! I just kept reminding myself how next year at Christmastime I would be a married woman! Maybe even with a little one on the way. Imagining our future family warmed my core and gave me such anticipation for the new year to come.
Not everyone was filled with the merriment and wonder of the season, however. As our carriage traversed further north, the number of vagrants grew, many wearing layers of dirty mis-matched clothing and rubbing cold fingers as they huddled around garbage bins with their contents set aflame. As our horse and carriage plodded by, a woman in black watched carefully, catching and holding my gaze. I wore my wool coat, the latest winter fashion out of Paris—wool with wide fur trimmed collar, cuffs and hem with large buttons that closed diagonally—and sat in the relative warmth of our well-built carriage, while she, in a ratted out-of-fashion coat that narrowed at the waist stood as close to the flames as she could without getting burnt. Her dark and lifeless eyes spoke of much hardship and strife. I was suddenly saddened by the unfairness of it all.
“But by the grace of God,” Father said, “there go I.”
“I really don’t like it when you say that,” Sally said. “Where is the grace of God for them?”
Father responded, “God’s grace is for all and can be found by anyone, my dear. I suspect the least among us have a keener knowledge of that grace.”
“I don’t understand why we have to go to them, Father,” Louisa said. “We have lots of money. Can’t we just give some of that to the church? I’m cold and I want to go home.”
“There’s sense, talking,” Sally stated proudly.
“We could give money, but then were would be the reward?” Father challenged. “It is, after all, better to give, than to receive.”
“As Louisa astutely pointed out,” Sally said, “We can give money.”
Father was undaunted. “But the giving of one’s time and the offering of one’s compassion, is when one receives the true reward.”
Sally huffed. “Even though I always choose my simplest wardrobe, I feel like those people are plotting for a way to strip it off my back. I don’t feel safe, George.”
I rolled my eyes and my father’s lips twitched as he held in a smile. We’ve both grown accustomed to Sally’s emotional tirades.
Reverend Wilson greeted us with enthusiasm, taking time to shake hands with each of us, even Louisa.
“God bless you for volunteering at such a meaningful time as this,” he said sincerely. “Christmas can be such a difficult time of year for a lot of folks, especially for those who are already down and out. Do come in!”
Father and I helped in the kitchen while Sally and Louisa “helped” serve coffee and cut cake after the meal was over. Mostly they just hovered, grimacing with disapproval.
The guests weren’t eager to return back to the cold and many of them lingered about the fire as they sipped hot coffee. I recognized the lady from the street. Up close she looked frail with boney fingers and dark circles around her eyes. Even thought the blaze in the hearth and the numerous bodies had warmed up the room, she’d never taken off her winter coat. I was alarmed to find her shivering and it became clear to me that her coat was thread bare and could in no way ward off the biting Boston wind and cold.
Immediately I went to the back room where the staff kept their things and retrieved my winter coat, and hurried back to hall. At first I couldn’t spot the woman, and my heart sunk, but then a larger figure moved aside and she was there.
I approached her and introduced myself.
“Hello, I’m Miss Ginger Hartigan.”
“Ma’am. My name’s Mrs. Gladys Parker.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Parker. I hope I’m not being too forward, but I wondered if you’d like this?”
I held up my coat.
Mrs. Parker stared back with bewilderment. “What’cha mean?”
“It’s a Christmas present. For you,” I added.
Mrs. Parker eyed my jacket with longing. I wondered when the last time was that she felt truly warm.
“Please, try it on,” I coaxed. Without removing her own outer wear , Mrs. Parker extended a thin arm, but before she could shuck the coat on, Sally rudely interrupted.
“Ginger Hartigan! What on earth are you doing?”
I stared at my step-mother with steely reserve. “I’m going to give this lady my coat.”
“Well, stop it this instant. It’s brand new from Filenes!”
I answered defiantly, “I’ll just get another one.”
“She’s right,” Mrs. Parker said a she pushed the coat my way. “I couldn’t accept your charity.”
Sally scoffed. “Of course you could. Isn’t that the way of your type? Living on the handouts of others.”
It was my turn to protest. “Sally!”
“Well, it’s true,” Sally said, unruffled. “You can’t just give every impoverished person the coat off your back.”
“I’m not giving it to everyone. I’m giving it to Mrs. Parker.” I pressed the coat back in Gladys Parker’s arms.
Sally’s stubbornness had no bounds. “She’s just going to turn around and sell it.”
I could be just as obstinate. “It’s now hers to do as she pleases.”
“This is ridiculous. I’m telling your father this instant.” Sally strode across the hall in her pompous style and I watched as she spoke rapidly with my father, her eyes blazing with indignation.
Mrs. Parker’s dark eyes studied me with admiration. “I’da got slapped upside my head if I’d ever spoke to my ma like that, God bless her soul.”
“Thankfully, that lady’s not my mother.”
Mrs. Parker held my jacket out to me. “You should take this back.”
“No,” I insisted. “I’ve given it to you. It’s yours to enjoy how ever you wish.
“I can’t thank you enough, miss. I promise to do good to someone hurting’ more than me, as soon as the opportunity arrises, miss.” I smiled as I watched her put it on and fiddle with the large buttons.
“It’s so fancy!” She proclaimed with a childlike glee. For the first time that evening I saw her smile. She was wise enough to leave before Sally came back with my father in tow. I let out a defeated sigh at the sight of them strolling slowly toward me.
“Ginger,” my father began. “Am I to understand you’ve given away your new winter coat?”
“Even though it’s new from Filenes?”
“And that the recipient might sell it for food or lodging and not even wear it at all?”
His face broke into a grand smile. “Oh, Ginger, my love. I’m so proud of you.”
“George!” Sally sputtered, obviously expecting a different response. “What is she supposed to wear home?”
“I believe there’s an extra horse blanket in the carriage.”
Sally’s eyelashes fluttered in disbelief. “You’re really going to let your daughter wear a horse blanket? In public?”
“Of course not. She will have my coat and I will wear the horse blanket.”
“George, you can be so infuriating!”
“Perhaps,” Father said genially. “Our good saviour had even less on the night he was born. I will survive it.”
My heart burst with love for my father in that moment. I threw myself into his arms and hugged him tightly. I really couldn’t imagine life without him.