“We began to make ready for Christmas.”
Words from Mary Breckinridge’s memories of 1925 evoke primitive snow-globe images of mule-drawn farm wagons, filled with mountain families, arriving at the unfinished “Big House” of logs that would become the home of the Frontier Nursing Service at Wendover in Leslie County.
Though the logs were still unchinked, there was warmth around the large fireplaces, and the Christmas air, sweet with the scents of baking hams and pies, mingled with the chatter of children around a mountain of gifts under the big Christmas tree.
For weeks, toy donations had been hauled from Hyden in wagons, and women had been holding sewing bees to make clothing for babies and dolls.
All of Leslie County was invited to this Christmas dinner, and 500 showed up. Breckinridge was determined that every child would have candy and a gift. Each one was led to the tree to choose a present.
“This was terribly hard on the boys as they stood with dazzled eyes in front of balls, harmonicas, little red trucks. As for the girls, there was not one but wanted a doll and there weren’t enough dolls to go around.”
Every child had a toy, but some girls who wanted dolls had to settle for a make-believe one.
“The doll of one such little girl was a piece of old blanket, tied around the middle with a string, with a stone fastened at one end for a face. But she loved it, with that creative instinct older than recorded time, which springs up anew in every girl baby. Why must she needs mother something, with the first outreaching of her tiny hands…?
“When Christmas comes we understand a little less dimly. The Light of the World could only come to his own through a woman’s body. Only a woman held the mysteries of his Advent and pondered them in her heart.”
A group of Hyden schoolchildren sang Come All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Silent Night, and after a prayer Breckinridge dedicated a bronze plaque on the chimney to her two children, whose deaths—one at birth and the other at age 4—had caused her to turn to nursing.
The plaque, which reads, “To the glory of God and in memory of Breckie and Polly, Dedicated Christmas 1925,” is still on the fireplace in the Big House, which now serves as a bed and breakfast and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also one of 30 National Historic Landmarks in Kentucky.
More than 20,000 births would be attended by Frontier Nursing Service midwives in Leslie, Clay, and Perry counties in the decades after that first Christmas. And though Breckinridge died in 1965, her legacy to life continues through Frontier Nursing University in Hyden.
I wonder what Breckinridge and the little girl with the doll made with a blanket, a stone, and a piece of string would think today of what has become of Christmas.