Ever since she was a girl, Isabel Crawford had worked to make Christmas a joyful time for others. Now, at age seventy-two, she was no longer making gifts to be given out at the Christmas tree celebration of a Sunday school or a mission, She had prepared and mailed twenty-seven gift packages to friends and relatives, but she did so with an anxious heart. Her beloved sister Emily had died suddenly a few months earlier, and Crawford knew that she would be painfully aware of her loss at Christmas. She was ashamed of her sorrow, and she was determined “to not think & try to be glad.” Late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, she looked at the parcels she had received and wondered about them. Then she lay down for a nap.
When she awoke dusk had fallen, but to her surprise the room was aglow. Then she saw the reason: sitting on the table by her front window was a Christmas tree, its electric lights bringing unexpected cheer to her dark room. Her friend and landlady had slipped in and placed it there as she napped, and so Crawford, at seventy-two, had for the first time in her life a Christmas tree of her own.
On Christmas day, she placed under the tree a carved camel from Palestine and some shells from the Sea of Galilee, and she rejoiced. Isabel Crawford knew the joy of giving, but she also knew when the time had come to receive. The Christmas “that threatened sadness had passed without a tear or sigh. Not because I had determined it should be so but because friends on earth and The Friend in Heaven had cooperated in not letting me fight the battle alone.”
In 1893, the American Baptist women’s missionary society assigned Isabel Crawford to go work among the Kiowa on their reservation in southwest Oklahoma. She carried with her girlhood memories of the annual Christmas tree at the mission her church had opened in a poor section of Woodstock, Ontario. Thus, as Christmas approached on the Oklahoma mission, Crawford made plans for a Christmas tree.
As a girl, Crawford had made gifts for the Sunday school Christmas tree out of odds and ends that she found at home. Here on the reservation, everything serviceable was put into use. There was but one source to be tapped: the missionary barrels. Congregations from churches around the country sent barrels of goods to the missions. The collections were well-intended, yet they often contained items like elaborate bonnets “which should have been burned at the stake before being allowed to enter the missionary field.” But Crawford was well experienced turning odds and ends into something useful, and she went to work. She hunted men’s shirts in the missionary barrel and also crocheted cuffs for the men; she found women’s clothing and she made sewing baskets for the women; and she prepared clothes and toys for the children.
When the great day arrived, the men, women, and children gathered around the tree, which was decorated with black and white skunk tails tied onto its branches. The Kiowa received the gifts with gratitude, but they often did not examine them until after the service had ended and they were seated around their own campfires. For Crawford, Christmas had always been a time of giving, and she taught that spirit to her Kiowa Christian converts. The highlight of the Christmas service for them was the opportunity to bring their gifts as a birthday present for the baby Jesus. They had little, but they brought their coins with gratitude. At first their offerings went to take the gospel to the Hopi on another reservation. As years went on, they began contributing toward the construction of their own church and toward the salary of their interpreter. Crawford had taught them well, and they, too, learned the joy of Christmas giving.
Isabel Crawford was converted when she was ten years old, in 1876, and after her eleventh birthday she was accepted into membership in the Baptist church in Woodstock, Ontario. She was a lively child, and she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to sit and behave during Sunday school. Her solution? She volunteered to teach a class in the mission her church had started in a poor part of the town. No class needed a leader, so she gathered up boys from the area, some about her own age, and formed a class of her own.
As Christmas approached, Isabel thought that the mission ought to have a Christmas tree. We read descriptions of Christmas trees glowing with candles in genteel Victorian parlors, but many people at the time had no gaily decorated tree at home. For them, a “Christmas tree” meant a community celebration at their church. There would be treats and perhaps presents for those who came to join in the festivities, and sometimes parents brought their own children’s gifts to be handed out at that time. There would be few presents in the homes near the mission, however, so Isabel set to work.
Isabel was accustomed to receiving homemade gifts, and as soon as she was old enough, she began making presents for her family members. On her first attempt, she had knit garters for her mother, embroidered bookmarks for her sisters, and hemmed a handkerchief for her brother. So she put her skills to work, using “scraps of nothing and handouts.” The tree and the gifts delighted the families who came to the celebration, and so the tradition grew. When she was fourteen, she made 120 gifts. She had sprained her ankle and could not walk to the mission, so boys from her Sunday school class came to her house and pulled the sled carrying Isabel and a half barrel into which she had carefully packed all the gifts. She had made enough presents for every man, woman, and child at the mission, and after they had been distributed and the festivities had ended, she returned home “supremely happy.” For Isabel Crawford, the joy of Christmas came in giving.