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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 1 - THE SHIMERDAS
Before Christmas, Jake had intended to go to the country store to make everyone’s Christmas purchases. When the day drew near, the roads were impassable and Grandfather refused to let him try to make it, knowing he would get lost many times over. Jim had planned to buy some picture books for Antonia and Julka. Grandmother helped him make books out of cardboard and cotton cloth. He pasted pictures from family magazines inside. Grandmother made them gingerbread men and the day before Christmas, Jake packed everything up and took it to the Shimerdas. When he returned, he had a tree for Jim. They all decorated it, especially Otto who had been receiving Christmas ornaments over the years from his mother in Austria. When they were finished, the tree looked like a storybook with all the images of the nativity on it.
Jim can still vividly remember them all there by the tree. Jake and Otto are rough looking men. Jim writes, "As I remember them, what unprotected faces they were; their very roughness and violence made them defenseless." He thinks especially of Otto who was even at that point in his life so much of a "case-hardened drifter" that he would never marry and have children despite the fact that he loved children so much.
Cather describes here a country Christmas where the family must make their own gifts and make do with what they have in the surrounding countryside and in their household stores. The members of the household work together to make a Christmas that is probably better than any they could have if they had been able to go to the store. The chapter provides a sense of the love Jim feels for the people of his household and the fondness of his memories of them.
On Christmas morning, Jake and Otto shout "Merry Christmas!" as they come in from their chores outside. Grandfather comes down and reads many verses from the Bible, especially those which describe the birth of Christ. Then he prays a long prayer of thanksgiving. Jim likes to hear his grandfather pray because he is generally such a quiet man that when he is praying, Jim can hear what he has been thinking lately. At breakfast, Jake tells everyone about how happy the Shimerdas had been with their gifts. Afterwards, Otto sits at the table and writes a letter to his mother, his habit of every Christmas. He has trouble writing it because his language is so unfamiliar to him by now.
Later, Mr. Shimerda visits to thank everyone for the gifts. He sits in a rocking chair by the fire and looks perfectly contented. Jim imagines that Mr. Shimerda must have begun to think there was no peace left in the world after spending so much time in the crowded hovel of his home. When darkness falls, Jim lights the candles on the tree and all the scenes of the nativity which form the decorations are lit up. Mr. Shimerda is awe-struck by the tree and kneels in front of it praying devoutly. Grandmother looks worried since Grandfather is so often intolerant of other people’s religious practices, but he only bows his head and prays his own prayer, "thus Protestantizing the atmosphere." They persuade Mr. Shimerda to stay for supper and Jim is again struck at the unusual way Mr. Shimerda looks at him. He feels as if Mr. Shimerda is looking into his future. Later in the evening, he prepares to leave, first bowing over Mrs. Burden’s hand and saying "Good wo- man!" When he is gone, Grandfather tells Jim "the prayers of all good people are good."
Chapters eleven and twelve are quite short, forming the Christmas chapters of the book and functioning to show the deep respect Jim has for the people in his life. In this chapter, Cather brings the religious sentiments of Mr. Burden into the forefront. He is such a quiet man, that it is only in his prayers that Jim learns what he is thinking. For Jim, then, religion serves to show the personality of the people practicing it. He seems to have little religious feeling himself. Mr. Shimerda’s visit to the family to offer his thanks for their presents and their help further fills out Jim’s admiration of him and his sense of Mr. Shimerda’s fragility. When Mr. Shimerda kneels before the Christmas tree and prays, thus violating Mr. Burden’s sense of religious propriety, Cather shows another aspect of Mr. Burden’s admirable character. He quietly prays his own prayer and then tells Jim that "the prayers of all good people are good."