She’d gone to shop for presents for the whole family—but she hadn’t counted on seeing that doll that looked straight at her and smiled.

Oh, what should she do?

* * * * *

The year was 1908. As was our custom, each Christmas Eve our father hitched the horses to the sleigh, that is, if there was snow. That year there was—deep and white and beautiful.

It was my very first trip into town to shop for gifts for the others. I felt very grown-up and it was hard to stand still while Mama bundled me into my warm coat. She smiled as she buckled the sturdy overshoes and smoothed my hair. Then she brought out my new white stocking cap. It had a long tail with a red ball on the tip. I felt quite elegant and hoped it would swing as I walked and that everyone would notice.

I was given a quarter tied in the corner of my handkerchief. My sisters received fifty cents and we all felt rich.

Our little town was just a mile away. Our frosty breath mingled as we sang the old, sweet songs of Christmas, and we nudged closer together against the cold.

All at once we were there. Papa drove the team around the little square until he found a space and a hitching rack. People were everywhere, laughing and calling to one another. Lights came from every store window.

Our stop was “Rohrig’s Racket Store.” Mr. Rohrig was a tall, thin, Ichabod Crane-type of man. His wife was the exact opposite. She was a plump and rosy and bustling sort of person.

The air inside the store was heavy and hot. The rank smell of kerosene mingled with that of oranges and leather, tobacco smoke and soap. Papa moved to the back of the store where the men had gathered around the stove. Suddenly I was alone. My sisters had hurried away. Papa’s last words to me were, “Now, honey, take your time. Don’t buy the first things you see.”

I looked around. What a beautiful world I was in! Tinsel and bells and colored-paper chains were hung about in bright profusion. Counters were heaped with a strange assortment of boots and pans, washboards and dolls. Oh! The dolls! I could not see them all because the counter was too high for a five-year-old to reach. But above my head was strung a wire and fastened to it were dolls of every description. Some had china heads, tin heads or bisque. I remember they had benign smiles on their faces looking straight ahead. One looked straight at me and smiled. I know she did!

My heart began to pound. I tried to look away, to remember that I was there to buy gifts for my sisters. I saw pencil boxes and ribbons and tiny lanterns filled with heavy perfume, but I kept going back to the doll.

Mr. Rohrig must have noticed me and his stern face softened as he asked, “Do you like that doll?” My answer was “How much is it?”

“Just a quarter,” he said—and the thing was done!

I watched as he took it down. It had yellow, straw-like hair. Its body had notches cut at the elbows and knees so it would bend. Its dress was of cheap, stiff cheesecloth but the ribbon sash made it the most beautiful doll in the world. Mr. Rohrig tore off a strip of green paper, rolled the doll in it, and tied it with red and white string. I hugged it and for one delicious minute I was the happiest child in the whole world.

Then my sisters were there by me, tired, flushed, but happy. Their arms were filled with small, mysterious packages. Papa saw us and asked if we were ready to go home—and we all were but for different reasons. They were to laugh and whisper and wrap their treasures; I to hold and caress and love my doll.

As I watched them, I suddenly felt sad and alone. They glanced my way but said nothing. When we got home Mama asked if I needed help. She was a wise mother and said nothing as I unwrapped the doll. She said it was pretty and stood it up by the white pitcher on the little washstand beside my bed.

I don’t know how, but Christmas morning did finally come. There were the usual “ohs” and “ahs” and “Thank you’s.” They had all bought gifts for me—pencils and tablets, a french harp, and even chalky marbles in a candy-striped sack. And I had nothing for them. But they didn’t seem to notice. What a wonderful family I had!

Suddenly my grief and guilt were too much to bear and I ran sobbing to Mother. I didn’t go near the doll until evening, and when I did, she had changed. Her smile was not sweet anymore. She had the same silly smirk the other dolls had. She seemed to taunt me. None of my family had accused me but she did.

She was never included in my play and I never knew what happened to her. She just disappeared, but the lesson she taught is as bright today as ever. As another Christmas comes, I know I will spend too much and perhaps buy useless things for those I love, but I’ll be happy and at peace with myself. And for that, I can thank the lesson I learned on my first Christmas shopping trip.

“Christmas Shopping Trip,” by Kathryn Buckley. Published in Christmas in My Heart® 25. Used by permission of Joe Wheeler, editor/compiler, and Pacific Press Publishing Association.