Christmas at Auntie Clara's

Auntie Clara was High Church, and our family handled her askance, but she was always bidden to Christmas dinner. She always came. Just what she was to us was obscure -- some called her a buttonhole relation and some said she was a woodpile cousin. She had inherited 400 acres of choice meadowland, a 14-room house, and a 40-cow barn from some distant uncle of ours, and she lived a spinster. She had money. She also kept a man and wife as "help." On Christmas, I was told, her arrival at one of the family homes was a flurry of jingling. Her "hired man" would be reining the horse, and the jaunty cutter would have a bright red ribbon flying from the snapper on the whip. Auntie Clara always brought small gifts for the children, and after the hired man had unloaded her and the bundles he would jingle home to return after dinner.

This went on for many years, and there was talk about how Auntie Clara always came but never offered to entertain in turn. For a few gewgaws, she mulcted a happy holiday and a free feed as everybody else did his part. Auntie Clara refrained. But something of this must have come to her at last, because she sent word that Christmas was to be at her place.

Fine! Because of all the family homes, Auntie Clara's was the best for a Christmas. It had a fireplace in every room! The kitchen still had the original fireplace, meant for cooking and warming, with the brick oven in the chimney, but a range had been set into the flue. The women looked forward to helping make dinner in that fine old kitchen, and brought all manner of goodies. Auntie Clara had a big master gander ready for roasting, and a side table was covered with pies. Some of our very-Low-Church family were awed to find that Auntie Clara had also invited the vicar and his wife, but he was a jolly, bouncy , outgoing sort who soon had everybody at ease. Things were well under way and going fine when the house caught fire.

Probably there was a flaw in the kitchen chimney. The wall behind the range broke out in flame, and before anybody could collect himself it had spread.The women's outcry brought the menfolk from the parlor, where they and the children had been sitting around the tree, and then pails and pans fetched water from the well. There was a busy time before an effect, and then the fire was out.But everything was soaked, smoked, sooty, and the table of pies was a sorry mess. Merry Christmas, indeed. . . .

Then Auntie Clara burst out laughing. A good, ripe, rich, gusty haw-haw. "Look!" she said, and pushing her smoky hair back from her forehead she splashed through the debris toward the range, which was still steaming from the drenching. She reached above to open the iron door on the brick oven in the chimney. There, with everybody looking at it, was a crusty bean pot.

Auntie Clara used her kitchen range for everything except baking beans -- the weekly pot had to be cooked in the brick oven. There is no other way to bake a decent bean. So she had started a pot on Christmas Eve, to mull over the holiday on residual heat and be ready for supper on Boxing Day, which was Saturday. And there the beans were, hot and ready, unharmed by the tragedy that had struck the kitchen.

She found a couple of dry potholders in a drawer and signaled the vicar to perform. He carried the pot into the parlor, to be followed by all as if the pot were the flaming bag pudding of tradition.

The regular dishes were now in the kitchen shambles, so the "tea things" were taken down and the beans distributed among all hands. That was the Christmas dinner that Auntie Clara served to the family, and the only Christmas dinner that she ever did serve to the family.

My grandfather, who was there, told me it was a truly jolly time. Afterward, it took months to clean and restore the kitchen, but that day they just forgot about it and sang carols by the tree in the parlor and cleaned up the pot of beans. "Might as well laugh as cry!" said Auntie Clara.

My grandfather said the vicar hesitated when asked to say grace.Then he held out his plate and said, "Dear Father, bless these beans every one." He said more , but Grandfather couldn't remember what else.

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