OUR family's most-told Christmas tale goes back before anybody in Maine paid much attention to Christmas, and it had nothing to do with Christmas anyway. It would be before the Pilgrims came and it must have been before Cap't Argal, the pirate, shot up the French settlers at Mt. Desert Island. Around 1616, perhaps. About the time our Indians first heard about Christianity from the Jesuits. I'm sure the Indian wasn't named Squanto, but that's what he's called in our tale; Squanto was just a name, like John Doe. It was, whenever it was, the year of the famine.
Squanto was a sachem of the Sabattus family of the Abnakis and lived over on the meadow land of the Sabattus River. The Sabattus people hunted and fished but were more settled as farmers than some of our tribes. They planted crops and foraged for berries and nuts and had tight bark-covered buildings for storage. Our family settlers moved in near the Sabattus village and were always on good terms with Squanto and his people. During the next hundred-odd years the friction generated by European foolishness was ignored. And Squanto would visit the camp, and later the cabin, every time he passed, which he did often going to the winter village over on the Cannabais River or to the fishing trips on the Amoscomoggin. Squanto would walk in without notice, push a seat to the fire, and wait for his bowl of stew. He never spoke.
When, later, the cabin got a table, he never sat at it, but retired to the fireside and ate with his hands. Squanto endeared himself to Great-great-whatever-Grandma Nathalie by showing her how to pacify her cranky baby. Squanto liked to eat and meditate in silence, and the baby kept crying. So Squanto brought a blob of porcupine fat on a string of venison skin, and he tied the string to the baby's toe and stuck the fat in the baby's mouth. The baby never cried again. Nathalie showed her gratitude by plentiful bowls of stew.
So things ran along, and as our settlers followed the seasons they had Squanto in and out every so often, and then came the ripping old winter of the famine, when Maine had snow into the spruce tops and cold weather to go with it. It was the year the Salvation Army and the Red Cross should have been around. It was the year Squanto had been alerted to Christmas by the missionaries. And it was on the morning of that Christmas Eve that he came to the cabin of his pale-face friends to bring them tidings of his new-found faith in the White Man's Chief Spirit. He walked in, as usual, took his place by the hearth, and looked up for his bowl of stew. He unlaced his pair of new snowshoes and stood them by the chimney. But there was no stew!
In that year of the famine, food was day by day, and then skip two days. Let's see - that would be about 377 years ago, and it wasn't a matter of stepping down any street to a convenience store. Supplies had simply dwindled, and make-do prevailed.
Squanto, with his willing appetite at bay, didn't take long to size up the situation, and he jumped up from the hearth with an Indian grunt that expressed everything in no uncertain terms. He recovered his new snowshoes, tied the bindings, and with another uncouth grunt climbed the snowdrift outside the door and disappeared into the depths of the dark winter spruce forest. He indicated by his action that it was unlikely that he would ever again visit a home with such meager hospitality.
It was still afternoon when he returned, and as snow is a tight insulator, nobody knew he was back until he burst open the cabin door and flung his new showshoes inside. He held the door, and a moose sled, a sort of Indian toboggan, swooped in. It was followed by three Sabattus women, one of whom picked up the baby's cradle (with a new baby) and moved it out of the way.
Squanto called the orders, and the women went to work! Nobody could ever say just what was on the sled, because it was all Indian food. There was smoked moose and venison, alewives and salmon, many grouse and pigeons, and grains and fruits and berries. What a Christmas feed they had! It was dark before the women had the food ready, so Squanto and the women spent the night, on the floor before the hearth. The women made breakfast before daylight on Christmas morn, and then without a word, the women arranged the sled, and pulled it into the woods - Squanto riding in style with his new snowshoes across his knees.