The Cobbler’s First Christmas - An Old Story Retold by Brian “Fox” Ellis
This story is available on the CD Prairie Christmas.
From the late 17th through the mid- 20th centuries wave after wave of European Immigrants came to America, bringing their holiday traditions with them. Many of them settled here in the rich farm land of the American Midwest. With the political turmoil of the late 1800’s came the largest wave of eastern European immigrants. They came to work in the factories of Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and Peoria. They came to farm the prairies of Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. There was a time when Peoria had a German Language newspaper and the local Lutheran Schools taught reading, writing and arithmetic in German.
When this building, the Prairie Building, was first built, and for many years after, there was a Lithuanian Tailor who had his shop in the basement. I have had a dozen elderly gentlemen tell me about getting fitted for their first suit here when they were little boys. They always wax nostalgic remembering the wedding or funeral, their first communion or bar mitzvah. You can see the gleam in their eye as they remember how proud they were of that suit… or maybe there is a tear in their eye as they remember their dearly departed youth…
Just down the street there was an old German Shumaker, or cobbler. He had come from the old country when he was just a teenager. His father had been a shoemaker. His father gave him a set of tools when he left the old world, saying, “People will always need shoes! Even in hard times, people will always need shoes, and you, my son, will have a job.”
He eventually set up shop here in downtown Peoria. He married a beautiful woman from the Rhine District and they had five boys. They grew old together and had a good and happy life.
But now, his children had grown up and moved away. His lovely wife had passed away last January. The nation was gripped with The Great Depression and he was not feeling too well himself.
Christmas was coming. It was going to be his first Christmas in 50 years without his wife. His children had sent him pleasant cards with pictures drawn by the grand children, but they were too busy or too far away to visit. It was going to be his first Christmas alone.
On Christmas Eve morning, he awoke early. As was his habit, he put on a pot of coffee and read the morning paper. Though he spoke English like a native born he enjoyed reading in German. He ate some toast and put on a pot of stew for his lunch, and supper if there was enough left over. He now lived in the back of his shop and often ate lunch on his work bench.
Though business was slow, every morning he set to work making a new pair of shoes. The rich folks who had not lost everything would still need shoes. His father was right. Even poor folks who could not afford a new pair would sometimes come to him for repairs. He was grateful that he had a roof over his head and food to eat.
But on this morning, Christmas Eve morning, he was not feeling too jolly. From his basement window he watched the passing feet of the people bustling up and down the street. It was starting to snow. He knew most of the shoes that walked by his window. Many of them he had made or repaired. He liked watching the shoes pass from his basement perch.
Just then he saw a pair of feet he recognized, feet wrapped in old rags for warmth. It was Ol’ Charlie. Charlie was one of the last of the Civil War Veterans here in Peoria. Charlie had marched off to war as a young man and for many years afterward led the parade for the Grand Army of the Republic. Now, Charlie lived off of the generosity of his neighbors, sometimes doing odd jobs like shoveling snow, anything for a bite to eat or to earn a few coins to buy another bottle, to drown his sorrows.
Though it had just started to snow, the Cobbler thought he could entice Ol’ Charlie to sweep the sidewalk and steps down to his shop, you know, so no one would slip on their way in to buy a new pair of shoes. There was still a little coffee in the pot and he could quickly toast another slice of bread. Soon, the two old men were laughing and talking like two long lost friends. The Cobbler looked down at Ol’ Charlie’s rag wrapped feet and said, “You are a size 10 aren’t you?”
“You know that as well as anyone. Why do you ask?” replied the veteran.
“Well, I just finished making a warm pair of boots that might fit you.”
“You know I can not afford a new pair of boots.”
“Who said anything about affording them? You know that old man Triebel just passed away last week. I made these boots for him and he died before I could finish them. They are already paid for and I have no need for them.” The cobbler quickly fabricated a tale based on truth to ease the conscious of Ol’ Charlie, though to be honest it would not take much arm twisting to convince the old man that he needed a new pair of boots.
The boots were a near perfect fit and the old man fairly danced up the stairs out of the cobbler’s shop. And is there any doubt that the cobbler’s steps were the first on the block to be well swept every time it snowed?
The old shoemaker spent the rest of the morning cutting and sewing leather, hammering on heels and punching holes for laces. The day swirled by like a tiny snowflake caught on a playful breeze. He whistled Christmas carols while he worked.
Just before lunch he stepped out for a breath of fresh air, his daily walk around the neighborhood was the secret to his vibrant health. As he came back around the block he saw a young girl sitting in his stairwell. She was huddled down trying to get out of the blowing cold. She was holding an infant child. It must be her little brother was his first thought. But as he came closer he saw the way she nuzzled the baby. She was too young to have a child, he protested to himself.
As he stepped around her to come down the steps he noticed her ragged clothes and dirty face. Clearly, she was homeless and poor. She looked hungry, too. The cobbler knew immediately what to do.
“Come in, Come in,” he said. “You can warm your bones by my fire.”
“But, but I must go,” she said, “and, and I am not interested in a pair of shoes.” Her refusal was weak. She allowed herself to be lead into his shop.
“I am sorry to say that I probably do not have a pair of shoes to fit you. But I do have a warm fire and a soft chair for you rest in.” The cobbler nudged her towards the fire as he pulled forward an overstuffed chair. He grabbed two bowls from the shelf and served her a piping hot bowl of stew with a crust of bread. She did not bother with another feigned protest or even a thank you, but the hearty way in which she devoured the stew gave the cobbler all the gratitude he needed.
As he ate his own lunch, he offered a small prayer of thanks; grateful that he did not have to eat alone, grateful that he could be of help in these cold, dark days. After she had wiped the bowl clean with her last bite of bread. She discreetly began to nurse her baby. The cobbler wondered to himself if her lack of food meant that she was having trouble nursing. He turned away, back to his work, but out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw a faint light glowing from the mother and child. He thought of Mary and the infant Jesus, a poor mother nursing her child as she fled across the deserts of Egypt, fleeing the edict of King Herod.
The mother and baby stole a nap. The cobbler did repair work on a few pairs of shoes that required less noise, sewing, no hammering. He hummed carols quietly to himself, instead of whistling. When the young mother awoke an hour later she seemed disoriented. She stumbled out of the chair, towards the door. The old man noticed his wife’s wool shawl hanging by the door.
“You look cold. Please take that shawl and keep your baby warm.” When he saw her stutter, as if to refute him, he added, “Consider it an early Christmas present. Besides, you would be doing me a favor. My wife passed away last winter and where she is always warm, I no longer need that shawl. Please, I do not wish to gaze upon it”
The young woman must have thanked him a dozen times as she wrapped the shawl around her and her baby, slipped out the door and up the stairs.
Just as the cobbler sat back down to work he saw a pair of bare feet pass his window. This was too much! On a cold, snowy, blustery day no one should be in bare feet! He jumped up and fairly flew up the stairs. There was a young boy, no more than ten, wrapped in a blanket begging for hand-outs. The cobbler recognized him immediately as the son of a once prosperous merchant who had lost everything in the great crash of the stock markets. It pained him that parents often sent their children out to beg. Whether they were too embarrassed or thought that a child looked more deserving it just wasn’t right. But who could say no to the charming eyes of a child in need?
“Franklin! That is your name isn’t it?” barked the cobbler. “Come here this instant.” The boy looked at his feet as he humbly approached. The cobbler picked up the boy and carried him into his basement. Sat him down by the fire and rubbed his blue feet until they were warm. “That tickles!” the boy laughed. The cobbler put a thick pair of new socks on the boy’s feet and then gave him a pair of shoes one size too big so he could grow into them.
As it dawned on him what was happening, the boy looked at the old man amazed. His jaw dropped, a huge smile crept across his face. He looked at the white hair and beard of the shoemaker and burst out, “Are you Santa Claus? My pa said, Santa wasn’t coming to our house this year and I didn’t believe him. Ma always said that angels were everywhere, you just have to believe!”
With this the cobbler laughed so hard he nearly fell over. His belly did roll like jelly and his little German cheeks were flushed red with embarrassment. He laughed so hard he could not speak as he escorted the boy back up the stairs.
The cobbler closed the shop and wandered to the back. After supper he opened the bible as he did most every night. By candle light he let the book fall open and read whatever passage his eyes fell upon. On this night, Christmas Eve, the Bible fell open to Mathew 25:35 “When I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, when I was naked you clothed me, I was a stranger, and you took me in… I say unto you, in as much as you have done for the least of these, you have done for Me.”
As the old man fell into a deep and peaceful sleep, he knew that he would never spend Christmas alone.