Cora sat quietly in her rocking chair, stringing freshly popped corn with wooden beads. Her youngest children eagerly brought escaped pieces back to her. Together they created the garland which would be wrapped around the tree which Adam, her oldest son, had gone to fetch.
"I hope Adam finds the biggest tree in the forest!" Henry said gleefully as he chased a fallen bead across the floor.
"Don't be silly," Sarah scoffed. "The biggest tree wouldn't fit in our house."
"Well, it could if we cut the top off."
"What's the point of bringing it then?"
"Please don't squabble, children," Cora said sternly. She softened her tone as she continued, "It's Christmastime, a time to be charitable and kind."
They quieted and soon went back to making paper ornaments and tying strings on dried pieces of orange.
Cora could hardly blame them if she were honest. The past two years had been challenging at best. Ever since her husband's passing, she and the children had made do on their small farm alone. Adam had needed to grow up far too soon, taking on many of the roles which her husband had filled. Even the other children had in their own ways. Rachel stood in the kitchen kneading dough for rolls while Luke split wood. Once again she wished things could have been different, that her children wouldn't have to work so hard. Despite knowing that other children in the region worked as hard, and harder, she wished she could give her children more time to play and laugh. She hadn't heard Adam truly laugh in ages.
A knock at the door drew everyone's attention. "Please go see who that is, Henry."
Little chest puffed with pride at the perceived responsibility, the boy scampered to the door and opened it wide, allowing a draft into the farmhouse. "Hello Mr. Wickers."
Cora nearly knocked over the bowl of popcorn in her haste to stand. She righted it quickly before smiling. "Come inside, and Henry, we don't need to let all that cold air into the house."
Henry slammed the door behind Thomas Wickers while the man gave a soft chuckle and ruffled the boy's hair. One which had stirred Cora's heart more than once over the last several months. "Good afternoon, Cora," he said, his deep voice rumbling across the room. "I wondered if perhaps your family might be interested in a goose for Christmas. I was out hunting this afternoon and caught more than I need to feed myself. I know times are hard."
Eyes widening, Henry said, "You have a goose for us?"
"I do indeed, if your mama wants it."
Henry ran to his mother's side and tugged on her skirt. "Mama, tell Mr. Wickers that you desperately want the goose. We really do need it."
Cora laughed at the child's antics, though she made note to discuss with him proper etiquette later. "A Christmas goose does sound wonderful. Thank you, Thomas."
"If you'd also be so inclined," he said, "I'd be pleased to have you join me for Christmas services at the church. My wagon can carry all of you."
She hesitated. While it was likely no secret in town that Thomas Wickers had been calling on her over the last several months, going with him to church would create expectations in the community. The last thing Cora wanted was for the town gossips to start wagging their tongues, especially if those expectations were not met. Henry and Sarah both looked up at her pleadingly. They hadn't been able to repair the wagon they owned, which meant long miles walking to church services. At length, Cora smiled. "We'd be pleased to join you, Thomas. Thank you."
"I'll be here to pick your family up promptly at nine o'clock." He smiled. "I'll go get that goose for you, and let you and your children continue your Christmas preparations."
"Why don't you stay?" Sarah asked.
Thomas laughed. "I would, but I have some Christmas preparations of my own to finish. I'll be back tomorrow, and I thank you for the invitation."
Through the remainder of the afternoon, Cora and the children readied their simple home for the holiday. Adam brought home a small, but sturdy tree which they promptly decorated. When the children had gone to bed, Cora sat in her rocking chair by the furnace, using the candlelight to see her projects. She'd completed the new doll for Sarah, an apron for Rachel, and wool mittens for the boys. Now she worked to finish the heavy winter coat for Adam. He'd outgrown his last, but was not quite large enough for the ones left by his father. It wouldn't be long though, and Cora knew it. With the last stitch in place, Cora rose and stretched. She filled the children's stockings with nuts, apples, and one orange each. As much as she might have wished for a more bounteous Christmas, this was all she'd been able to do. And that would have to be enough.
Early the next morning, Cora woke to the sound of bells jingling. She wasn't expecting any guests, and certainly not at this hour. She rose and peeked out the window, but saw no one. Sure she'd heard something, she went to the front door.
"Mama, did Santa come?" Henry asked gleefully. "I heard his bells. I know I did!"
Cora smiled. "Why don't we wait for your brothers and sisters before we find out?"
Henry disappeared to wake his siblings. Curious, Cora went to the door. If Henry had heard bells, than the jingling hadn't just been her imagination. She peeked outside and her hand went to her mouth in surprise. Six small baskets sat on her front porch, filled with fruits, nuts, candies, socks and mittens, and a card baring each individual's name. Tears pricked her eyes. The children might not recognize the scrawl, but she did.
She carried the baskets inside as the children came into the parlor from their bedroom. Their eyes widened with glee and they soon were exploring all the new gifts. Adam stood next to her. He lowered his voice so the younger children wouldn't hear him. "Mama, I know there's not a Santa. How did you do this?"
She smiled. "We have our own personal Santa this year. There's still some Christmas magic in the world."
Adam's countenance lightened and a smile broke across his face. "He must really love you, Mama."
Heat rushed into her face. They finished opening their gifts and soon there came a knock at the door. Henry threw the door wide and rushed at Thomas with his new wooden horse. "Oh, Mr. Wickers, Mr. Wickers, look what Santa brought me! Isn't it the finest horse you ever saw?"
The man ruffled Henry's hair and smiled. "That is a fine horse indeed, young man. Very fine." He walked to Cora's side and winked. "I take it the children have had a good Christmas."
She smiled and kept her voice low. "Thanks to you. I can never thank you enough for this, Thomas. Never in a hundred years could I have made this happen for them."
Thomas took her hand in his and brought it to his lips. "Your family deserves all the happiness life can offer. Which is why I have one more gift to give."
He knelt before her. "Cora, I would be most honored if you would be my wife. I promise to love you with every breath I take, and love your children as though they were my very own."
Tears filled her eyes once more as he pulled from his pocket a filigreed gold band with a small diamond. "Yes, Thomas, I'll marry you."
The children cheered and Thomas gave her a gentle kiss.
Henry hopped onto Thomas' leg. "Does this mean I have a papa again?"
"Well, once the preacher makes it official," Thomas said, lifting the small boy in his arms. "Do you think I'd make a reasonable papa."
"I think you'll be a great papa," the boy said, hugging him.