Never were there so many secrets under one roof as in Mother Hubbard’s house the day before Christmas. The fire in the big fireplace crackled and snapped with secrets which it told the chimney throat. Mother Hubbard and her ten little guests had to bite their tongues many times to keep from telling things which no one should know before Christmas day itself.
Every one was up before daylight—even the Ten O’Clock Scholar. He came downstairs just in time for breakfast of steaming porridge and pancakes which they ate by the light of the lamp. Pom and Mary’s lamb went out for a game of tag in the soft white snow and came scampering back just as day broke across the eastern sky in a great silver streak.
Very soon the boys and girls and Mother Hubbard were at work on the Christmas wreaths.
“Let us sing as we work,” said Mother Hubbard.
Mary, who hoped some day to be a great musician, sat down at the organ in the corner of the room and pulled out the stops. Opening a book of Christmas carols, she played one after another while the children sang them merrily.
Little Miss Muffet and Jill made long green ropes from the ground pine and Jack Horner and Boy Blue stretched them from one corner of the room to another. Ten O’Clock Scholar and the other Jack helped Mother Hubbard and Bo-Peep to make wreaths of holly. When they were done, Georgie Porgie tied big bows of red ribbon on them and hung them in the windows.
When a place had been found for every bit of the Christmas greens, the children went into the kitchen and made long strings of cranberries and snowy pop corn for the Christmas tree.
Since Jack Horner and Mary were the largest children, Mother Hubbard allowed them to help her pack baskets for old Mistress McShuttle and other poor people. Into each basket went a pot of the lovely brown baked beans, bread and butter, cake and candies, and some potatoes and jam. To Mistress McShuttle’s basket they added two fine bones for her dog and a big bottle of milk for her cat.
“I want to give her my new mittens,” said Jack Horner. “When I met her in the woods yesterday, she had none on at all. Her poor fingers looked so blue and cold! I will make my old ones do for awhile longer.”
“I will give her my red muffler,” said Jill.
“And she shall have my silk handkerchief with the pink border,” cried Joan, running up the stairs, two steps at a time.
“I have some ear muffs, she might like, poor soul,” the Ten O’Clock Scholar said, pulling a pair from his pocket.
So each child gave something for the bent old lady who lived beyond the hill in the hollow with her dog and cat. And Mother Hubbard covered the top of the basket with a thick gray shawl, which was her gift.
After dinner they started off. Every one was loaded down with food and Christmas cheer for the poor folk that led the way over the hill with a basket on her arm filled with warm stockings and mittens. She had knit these for the boys and girls of the neighborhood. Pom wore a pretty leather collar with shining brass plates. He was taking it to Mistress McShuttle’s dog for a Christmas present. Mary’s lamb had a lovely bow of blue ribbon around its neck. This was for the old deaf cat.
A sudden turn brought them to Mistress McShuttle’s home. It was a very tiny house and it stood in a very tiny yard. Such a funny crooked little chimney ran up the side of the house and such small windows and such a narrow little door! It looked as if it might be picked up and carried away without the least bit of trouble.
“This is the home of your friend, Jack Horner,” said Mother Hubbard, pointing to the strange house. “Look, the good woman must have seen us coming. See, she is standing at the window, waving to us. Come, let us hurry.”
The children raced through the gate shouting, “Merry Christmas, Mistress McShuttle, merry Christmas!”
“To think you would come to see a poor old woman like me and her dog and her cat,” said she opening the door and inviting Mother Hubbard and her flock of merry children into the house. The door was so small that the boys could hardly get the baskets of goodies inside.
There were only two chairs in the tiny sitting-room. The children drew them up before the fire for Mother Hubbard and old Mistress McShuttle to sit in.
Then they unloaded the baskets they had brought for the old lady. They hung the windows with holly wreaths, and covered the mantel-piece and the pictures on the walls with branches of pine and fir. They filled the empty pantry with good things to eat, and laid the Christmas presents in a neat pile on the table.
Before the party left, Mistress McShuttle brought out some rich brown chestnuts and gave some to each child to roast.
“I will give each of you one more chestnut for luck. Keep them and remember me and you will be happy,” she said as the children and Mother Hubbard were leaving.
The boys and girls put the chestnuts away carefully in their pockets. All thought that they would try to be as sweet as this old lady who had nothing but her dog and cat and a house no bigger than a coal shed to live in.
Farther down the road they met Jerry perched up on high on the driver’s seat of the old stage coach. He was on his way home from the village but he stopped his horses when he saw the merry group.
“Heigh-ho!” he called. “Good day to you, good Mistress Hubbard and Pom and all the children with you,”
“Good day to you,” they called back, “and a merry Christmas.”
“My wife is in bed with an earache and the children cannot come home for the holidays so I am afraid our Christmas will not be very merry,” he said, “but thank you just the same for the good wishes.”
“My, my,” said Mother Hubbard, “your wife sick with an earache? Let us climb into the stage coach and go to see her. My, my, to think of being sick the day before Christmas!”
So the children piled the baskets and bundles in the stage and tied their sleds on behind. Then, helping Mother Hubbard to a seat, they climbed in beside her.
Jerry spoke to his horses and away they went to Jerry’s house.
“Be very quiet. Mistress Jerry must not be disturbed,” said Mother Hubbard to the children as the stage coach stopped in front of a pretty little white cottage with green shutters.
Around the path by the side of the house to the kitchen door tiptoed the boys and girls. Inside they found Mistress Jerry sitting in front of the stove with a gray cotton rag tied over her ear and under her chin. She was huddled in an unhappy heap before the fire and not in bed as Jerry had said.
“It is not so much the earache that makes me feel sad,” said Mistress Jerry, wiping her eyes. “It is because the children are not coming home for Christmas.”
At this the children got a long rope of ground pine from one of the baskets and wound it round and round her as she sat in her chair. Then they sang as many gay songs that soon she was laughing heartily before she knew it.
Jack Horner and Boy Blue hung a wreath of holly over the pictures of Mister and Mistress Jerry’s grown-up sons and daughters.
Before long old Jerry’s wife was up and about and gave each child a blackberry tart. When it was time to go, every one shook hands with her and wished her a merry Christmas.
Outside, they found Jerry sitting on his seat on the stage coach.
“I am going to take you around,” he said, swinging his long whip over the backs of the plump horses, “jump in.”
One by one, the baskets were emptied, as Mother Hubbard and her guests made the Christmas eve visits in Jerry’s coach. It was now night and the stars were twinkling in the sky when the horses turned their heads towards the road that led to Mother Hubbard’s home. All the way the children sang the pretty Christmas carols they had learned that morning. Many a farm house door was flung open so that the sound of the sweet voices might be heard better.
A bright light shone through the windows of Mother Hubbard’s house and across the snow to welcome the tired, happy children.
In the kitchen was Elsie Marley who had come to help Mother Hubbard prepare the Christmas dinner the next day. She had made a kettle of potato soup and it was ready to be served.
The woodcutter had brought the Christmas tree that afternoon and when the meal was over, the boys carried it into the front room and stood it in the corner. Then what fun there was trimming it and piling the Christmas packages beneath it.
At the very top of the tree, Elsie Marley hung a shining Christmas star, and on the lower branches she fastened candles to be lit the next day. The cranberry popcorn strings, the glittering tinsel, and the beautiful gold and silver ornaments which Mother Hubbard found in a box in the garret, made the green tree too wonderful for words!
“How shall we ever wait until tomorrow?” asked the children jumping up and down in delight.
“You had better go to bed this minute or you will not be ready to get up in the morning when I call you,” said old Mother Hubbard, taking a candle and going up the stairs.
In ten minutes not a creature was stirring—not even a mouse—and Pom and Mary’s lamb were snoring peacefully side by side in Pom’s little bedroom.