Christmas at Plum Creek

“Do you see what the tree’s decorated with?” “Yah. Sexcorn.”

(a recap by Will Kaiser)

Title: Christmas at Plum Creek

Airdate: December 25, 1974

Written by Arthur Heinemann

Directed by William F. Claxton

SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: The Ingallses all get each other stupid Christmas presents. Laura gives Bunny to Nellie to buy Ma a stove that Pa was going to buy for her anyway.

INTRODUCTORY BLATHER: Christmas Day, 1974! I do miss the Twentieth-Century broadcast TV model. Nowadays, we must decide what to watch. In the old days, other people decided for you! It may not sound wonderful, but it sort of was. (I hate making decisions.)

During the holiday season, what this meant was, like it or not, the final episode of a show to air before Christmas usually had a Christmas theme. (I’m sure everyone reading this is old enough to remember, and anyone young enough not to recall isn’t reading. But no matter.)

So, “Christmas at Plum Creek” is not just “the Little House Christmas episode,” but also an artifact of a time when explicit references to religion on television (Christianity anyways) were common in series of all kinds, and were obligatory during the holidays.  (Remember Linus’s long Nativity recitation in A Charlie Brown Christmas.)

Sometimes a nod to Judaism would be included in these specials, usually as just a background reference, in the manner of this famous moment from “The World of Strawberry Shortcake”:

Berry Christmas!

Anyways, Christmas specials of course reflected the dominant American religion of the time. It never occurred to the decision-makers that force-feeding people one cultural “ideal” might prop up walls that would divide us. I think we’re experiencing the fallout from such long-ago decisions in the United States now.

Anyways, like most people, I’m nostalgic for things from my youth that I perceived as good at the time, even if in actuality they weren’t really that great. (I suppose that goes without saying for any middle-aged person who blogs about Little House on the Prairie.)

But at the time I loved Christmas specials, of course, like all good little Christian kids. And to have a favorite show actually air on Christmas Day probably was the most exciting of all for some . . . though I don’t really remember watching TV much on Christmas itself, and I wasn’t born yet in 1974. 

But enough of my opening monologue. Let’s drop anything resembling heavy talk, and just relax and do it!

RECAP: We open on a shocking sight. Someone has bought tons of bagged ice cubes from a grocery store and dumped them out in front of the Mercantile! 

Is it a protest, like when PETA dumped horseshit in front of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in London

No, it’s simply “winter in Minnesota.”

It is pretty funny . . . but you have to admire their crust, trying to pull off a Minnesota winter – filming outdoors, in southern California, on their budget – in the first place.

And while people joke about the leafy trees in this one, in the show’s defense, I’ll point out most trees in the Little House universe are oaks. I won’t try to identify the species (you can learn about California oak trees here).

But I will point out that here in (the real) Minnesota, many oak trees are marcescent, meaning they don’t lose their dead leaves, but instead keep them on the branch the whole winter. So that bit’s not really so far out.

Minnesota marcescence

Claxton is back as director, and this one was written by Arthur Heinemann – quite a distinguished TV screenwriter, apparently. In addition to several other interesting Little House scripts (coming soon), he also wrote a few Star Treks, including the one where Abe Lincoln briefly joins the crew of the Enterprise.

Not a joke.

And fans will like that he wrote an ABC Afterschool Special co-starring Melissa Sue Anderson and Laura’s stuttering friend from one of my favorite Little House stories, “The Music Box.” I’ll have to look that Afterschool Special up someday, probably after I retire.

Well, on we go. As the story begins, we see a sight even stranger than a Minnesota winter in California: Laura and Nellie are doing something fun together! Namely, Laura’s letting Nellie ride Bunny the horse.

But things aren’t all that cozy. Laura is scolding Nellie for not handling Bunny properly, and Nellie is sniffing about Bunny’s lack of saddle. Both refer to Bunny as him, but later we’ll see he’s become a her. Just like the Doctor

And like many other people too. A-OK with me.

“Whoa, what is Laura wearing!” said my daughter Olive.

And indeed, in this one both Laura and Mary wear really elaborate crocheted hats. They elicited praise from my wife Dagny, our resident crochet-ist.

Anyways, the rest of the Ingallses come out of the Mercantile, which is all spruced up (literally) for the holidays.

Laura tells Nellie it’s time to get off Bunny. Nellie asks if she can borrow the horse at some point, then begs Nels, who’s accompanied Charles and Co onto the porch, to buy him, or her, or them. (Where would the Olesons keep a horse? I guess at Rubberface Dorfler’s livery?) 

Nels wormily asks Laura if she’d sell Bunny for five dollars, or $100 in today’s money. It’s a questionable offer, since the going rate for a good horse in the 1870s was between $150 and $200 (three or four thousand today). 

I don’t know if it matters, but Bunny and their parents Pat/Pet and Patty have consistently been referred to as “ponies” on this show, even though they look like regular enough horses to me.

In True Grit, Mattie Ross sells a group of ponies for $20 ($400) each, and then buys one back for $18 ($360). Now, the ponies in that book are quite run-down (and it’s implied the prices Mattie sets for them are exorbitant). But let’s say a good “pony” like Bunny might bring at least $15 to $20 at 1870s market prices. Nels’s is still a very low offer.

Well, I think the best explanation here is Nels is deliberately offering a pittance – giving Laura a good reason to refuse, in other words. He certainly doesn’t seem awfully interested in pursuing the purchase.

Nellie protests that only fathers can make business deals, but Charles says it’s Laura’s call. 

And refuse Laura does. Nellie protests again, but Nels pushes her inside.

“I hate that Nellie Oleson,” Laura says charitably as she climbs into the wagon. Ma reproves her for such mean thoughts and language. (“Caroline’s so hot and cold,” said Olive. “She hates a lot of people!”)

We cut to Pa in the Little House common room, literally blowing pipe smoke in Carrie’s face while the others mill about. He also seems to be teaching her to play with matches! You wouldn’t see that today. 

Rated 7+ for tobacco use

You know, it occurs to me you’d think Mary would have permanent PTSD after the Unhappy Incident of the History Book in the Barn and freak out every time she saw fire. But if she’s freaking out, she’s hiding it well.

PTSD Mary

They all start joking and chattering about Christmas. “What[’s] Christmas?” slurps Carrie – who was familiar enough with the concept in the pilot, you’ll recall, to mistake Mr. Edwards in his undies for Santa

Pa sets his still-burning pipe down on the table and carries Carrie (as it were) to the window. No wonder Albert burns down the blind school, if this is his role model.

Like father like son!

Pa points out a star and gives Carrie a short recap of the Nativity story, while David Rose and the gang launch into “Away in a Manger” as a twinkly solo on the celesta. (Get ready for holiday favorites galore on the soundtrack this week.)

Ma puts Carrie to bed, and Pa goes back to smokin’.

Later, up in bed, Laura says to Mary, “This is our first Christmas here!” 

Okay, so I know we’re not even five minutes into the episode and I’ve already written 1,500 words and had several digressions. Those of you just interested in the story can skip down to the paragraph below beginning “ANYWAYS!” (under the full-cast picture).

Now, in the pilot, it’s implied, if not directly stated, that it’s 1870. Charles carves the year into the mantel in their Kansas house (the real “Little House on the Prairie”). If the pilot takes place then, it does line up with the Ingalls family’s real-life story time-wise. (Practically the only thing on this show that does).

You’ll recall the pilot features its own Christmas segment (presumably Christmas 1870), and then the family is forced to leave the following year (presumably 1871). In real life, which we’ll call “Timeline A,” the Ingallses returned to Wisconsin, where they had lived before coming to Kansas. There they stayed until February of 1874, when they moved to Walnut Grove.

In the show’s version of events, it’s never stated they came directly to Minnesota from Kansas; but neither is reference ever made to any events occurring between the pilot and the first proper Season 1 episode, “A Harvest of Friends.” This suggests the TV Ingallses did move straight to Walnut Grove in 1871. We shall view this as the beginning of a theoretical timeline called Timeline B.

Alternatively, it’s at least possible the TV family did actually move back to Wisconsin and live there until 1874, just like in real life. They never mention it, but it’s possible. This is Timeline C.

From the stories we’ve seen, we can gather the following events transpired between the move to Walnut Grove (whenever it happened) and this “first Christmas” there. To help break the timelines up, I’ve included the likely season (of the year, not the show) during which each episode is set. (Stories where a season cannot be definitively deduced are indicated with brackets and question marks.)

Here we go:

A Harvest of Friends: Charles plants his first crop – SPRING

Country Girls: Mary and Laura start school – SPRING

100 Mile Walk: Charles’s wheat harvest fails and he’s forced to find work – FALL

Mr. Edward’s [sic] Homecoming: Mr. Edwards moves to Walnut Grove [EARLY FALL? LATE SPRING? SUMMER?]

The Love of Johnny Johnson: Laura takes Johnny Johnson fishing – [FALL? LATE SPRING?]

Town Party Country Party: Nellie and Laura host rival parties – [SPRING?]

Ma’s Holiday: Charles and Caroline take their “second honeymoon” – [LATE SPRING? EARLY FALL?]

School Mom: Caroline does her stint as substitute teacher – [LATE SPRING? FALL?]

The Racoon [sic]: Laura adopts Jasper – FALL/WINTER

The Voice of Tinker Jones: The Walnut Grove kids scheme to create a bell for the school – SPRING

The Award: Mary sets the barn on fire – FALL/WINTER

The Lord is My Shepherd: Caroline announces her pregnancy – SPRING

The Lord is My Shepherd: Freddie is born and dies – FALL

Christmas at Plum Creek: “Our first Christmas” – WINTER

Assuming these stories are told chronologically, which seems to be the case because of glancing references to each other, we then have these possibilities.

TIMELINE B (OCCURS FROM 1870 TO 1874): 

The Pilot – 1870-1871

A Harvest of Friends – If I Should Wake Before I Die: 1871

Town Party Country Party – The Racoon [sic]: 1872

The Voice of Tinker Jones – The Award: 1873

The Lord is My Shepherd – Christmas at Plum Creek: 1874

Looks fine on paper. . . but beginning with “Ma’s Holiday,” there are not one but two references to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which happened in the summer of 1876. So the Timeline B theory, which has all the stories occurring in 1874 or earlier, has to be scrapped. (Even if it didn’t, this would be the Ingallses’ fourth Christmas in Walnut Grove, but we’ll leave that for now.)

But let’s try this: a later date for them to arrive in Walnut Grove.

TIMELINE C (OCCURS FROM 1870 TO 1877):

The Pilot: 1870-1871

[GAP YEARS IN WISCONSIN]: 1871-1874

A Harvest of Friends – If I Should Wake Before I Die: 1874

Town Party Country Party – The Racoon [sic]: 1875

The Voice of Tinker Jones – The Award: 1876

The Lord is My Shepherd – Christmas at Plum Creek: 1877

Unfortunately, the Little Bighorn factor means this one doesn’t work either, because in this timeline “Ma’s Holiday,” in which the battle is first mentioned, takes place in 1875.

But what if we spread the events out even further?

TIMELINE D (OCCURS FROM 1870 TO 1878)

The Pilot: 1870-1871

[GAP YEARS IN WISCONSIN]: 1871-1874

A Harvest of Friends – 100 Mile Walk: 1874

Mr. Edward’s [sic] Homecoming – If I Should Wake Before I Die: 1875

Town Party Country Party – The Racoon [sic]: 1876

The Voice of Tinker Jones – The Award: 1877

The Lord is My Shepherd – Christmas at Plum Creek: 1878

This one works out great! Well, except for the characters not aging (Laura would have to be seventeen in “Christmas at Plum Creek” if she was nine in 1870) . . . and except for Laura saying this is their first Christmas in Walnut Grove.

But I think if we listen very closely, we will hear she may actually say “This is our fifth Christmas here!” – not first. 

There is of course one other possibility: that Walnut Grove exists over a rift in the space/time continuum, with the characters constantly going back and forth through a time corridor without realizing. You know, sort of like Brigadoon

This would explain everything, actually.

Well, just pick your favorite from amongst these theories, or some combination, and let’s move on.

ANYWAYS! Laura and Mary are lying in bed talking about Christmas presents. Not the ones they’ll get, since naturally they’re perfect angels and only care about others, but rather the ones they’ll give. But they have a problem; viz., they don’t know what to get anyone, and furthermore, can’t afford much.

Meanwhile, downstairs, Charles counts up some coins he’s hidden in his fiddle case. Caroline comes in, and he quick pretends to be tuning the instrument, which is kind of cute. He goes out to get firewood, and we learn Caroline has her own secret stash in a little tea canister or something.

We cut then to an exterior shot of the Little House. The camera is zoomed in close enough to capture individual ice cubes in the pile in front of the house.

OLIVE: Oh my God! Look how green everything is!

WILL: I know, but remember, oak trees often keep their leaves – 

OLIVE: I’m not talking about the leaves, I’m talking about the grass!

“I’m not talking about the leaves, I’m talking about the grass!”

Inside, Mary and Ma are folding and ironing. “This is our FIFTH Christmas here,” says Mary. 

Yes, that’s how I heard it.

The two revisit the theme of not having money for presents. Mary also notices the clothes she’s folding are shitty and full of holes. She reacts to this discovery with an evil smile.

The Return of Evil Mary! Yes!

Out in the barn, Laura and Pa are having the exact same conversation while Pa works on that same old fish trap. What the hell he’s doing that for, I don’t know, since both Plum Creek and Willow/Cattail Lake must be frozen if it’s “Minnesota in winter.”

“How’d you learn to make a fish trap, Pa?” asks Laura. “Mm, just kind of picked it up,” says Pa. “Having to do for yourself’s the best teacher there is.” He’s just like my own dad in this scene, minus my dad’s annoyance at having a sissy son who couldn’t magically intuit how to do things like making fish traps. But that’s another story.

The family then heads to town again in the wagon. They pass some kind of little ice house.

ROMAN: That explains where the ice explosion came from. There must have been some kind of disaster at the ice factory.

“There must have been some kind of disaster at the ice factory.”

Inside the Mercantile, there are like a million people we’ve never seen before.

Mrs. Oleson is bustling about, adjusting decorations and the like. The place does look nice. Caroline comes up to sell eggs, and the two have a reasonably civil little exchange.

Then Charles weirdly sneaks up behind Mrs. O. He almost looks like he’s going to goose her (or worse).

“Guess who.”

Charles grouses that everything is more expensive at Christmastime, yet what Caroline gets in exchange for eggs is still the same. (Totally my dad again.)

Behind Mrs. Oleson’s back, he whispers to Caroline that Harriet’s a Scrooge (which reference is just fine since that book was published in 1843).

The family wanders around shopping individually. (“They should all be shoplifting,” said Olive.)

“They should all be shoplifting.”

Pa and Laura both notice Caroline has her eye on a nice cookstove. It’s priced at $7.87 (about $160 today). Quite a steal, considering the average price of a stove in the 1870s was actually $25 ($500). Which seems more like it, truth be told.

Meanwhile, Mary, who’s wearing another quite wacky crocheted hat (this one with a built-in scarf), rummages around the yard goods. Is she sniffing out a present for Ma?

WILL: Is that the only nice thing Caroline ever gets to have? Fabric?

DAGNY: Yeah. And it’s to make clothes for other people.

I remember once on Two Fat Ladies, Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright talked about how in grand houses in Britain in the old days, the family would give the maid cloth from which to make a new uniform for herself, as a horrible, horrible Christmas present. But I’m digressing again.

“Thank you, madam.”

Anyways, Mary singles out a gray tartan pattern as her favorite. 

Meanwhile, Carrie, whose head is wrapped up quite nicely in a scarf, looks at a decorative star covered in tinfoil.

Somebody else pointed out somewhere that tinfoil wasn’t invented until the Twentieth Century . . . though it looks like that might be wrong, and it was aluminum foil that didn’t exist yet in the Nineteenth.

Pa and Laura make separate trips over to the stove to check out the tag. Sadly, a cheap price is only good news if you have enough money to pay it, and this family doesn’t. (Although how Laura imagined she might afford it in the first place is beyond me. Did she think it was going to cost 15 cents?)

(“This blows my mind,” said Dagny. “When I was a kid my sister had a little stove for a dollhouse that looked just like that. I coveted it so hard. She never even played with it.”)

Meanwhile, Ma checks out Mary’s tartan cloth. 

Charles goes into a back room to ask Nels for some powder and lead for his gun. Olive wondered if you could just hunt whenever and wherever you wanted back then. Apparently deer hunting in Minnesota, at least, was regulated as early as 1858, but the rules weren’t really enforced (or obeyed) until the 1920s or so. 

Out of the blue, Nels asks Charles where he could get some “buckboard wheels” to fill an order. Long story short, Charles says he can repair some old ones, and the two negotiate a price of $8 – by an amazing coincidence, the same price as the stove!

Later, Charles unloads some broken wagon wheels at home. Caroline asks what they’re for, and Charles tells her Christmas isn’t a time for questions (which is the first of like fifteen times total somebody says it in this episode).

Then we whiplashily cut back to town again, and see Mary and Laura walking from school. The recent precipitation must have fallen quite erratically, since most of the ground is bare, but some spots are covered with two inches of ice cubes.

The pagan sacrifice circle looks nice, though.

This episode doesn’t feature many of our favorite background Walnut Grovesters, but if you’re paying attention you’ll see Mr. Nelson The Gray-Haired Dude, who has really risen to prominence in recent stories, walking some horses by. 

And coming from the school is the Midsommar Kid and a friend I think is Cloud City Princess Leia’s brother Luke (who we know is the Gray-Haired Dude’s son). 

Interestingly, they’re holding hands. They’re not brothers, but I suspect Midsommar Kid is a little orphan the Nelsons have taken in. We know they once babysat for Carrie (so they like little kids). Plus last week the Dude was sitting next to him at church.

Previously on Little House

Meanwhile, some other boys (Not-Albert? Mean Harry Baker? Lice-Infested Arnold Lundstrom?) are playing in the snow. (“They’re not even making snowballs,” said Roman. “They’re just whipping handfuls of ice at each other.”)

“They’re just whipping handfuls of ice at each other.”

Mary says she’s got a secret errand to run. The girls’ hats in this one really verge on macramé. 

Looking back, I see they actually have worn these hats before, in the pilot.

Previously on Little House

Laura notices Nellie staring at her from the Mercantile porch. They stick their tongues out at each other; but the mood is mild.

After the commercial break, we see Pa out on the barn, scraping away at what looks like a table leg. (“Does Charles not know wheels are supposed to be round?” said my stepson Alexander.)

“Does Charles not know wheels are supposed to be round?”

Laura is sulking nearby. She perks up briefly when she sees a mysterious heap covered by a tarp, but Pa makes his ask-no-questions speech again when she tries to peek.

Later, Mary comes home in high spirits. “Guess what!” she exclaims. Ma guesses that she swallowed a mouse, and Laura that swallowed a pig. The latter’s not exactly a fat joke, but not exactly not one either, so I’ll count it as Fat Joke #4 ½.

Mary says she stopped by a Mrs. Whipple’s place and demonstrated her sewing skills. There’s a cute mini-blooper where Melissa Sue Anderson says “I sewed her how I could show” and Michael Landon cracks up. But Anderson corrects herself in character, and it totally works.

Mary tells her parents Mrs. Whipple, apparently the town seamstress, offered her a job to help out with the Christmas rush. Mary’s really a workaholic, isn’t she?

Mary asks Laura if she can cover her chores while she’s on the job.

DAGNY: This bothered me when I was young. They’re always saying they’ll cover each other’s chores, and yet whenever we see them they’re both doing their own.

Laura asks what Mary will be paid, and Pa hits her with his new favorite aphorism.

Then he asks Ma why she’s kept so few eggs this week, and she throws the stupid saying back in his face.

That night, Charles is working on the wagon wheels again. Some Pas stay up late fixin’ wagon wheels, others stay up late bloggin’ about fictional characters fixin’ wagon wheels.

The girls come out to say goodnight. Laura’s still sulky because everybody has come up with a money-making scheme except her. Before going in, she stops to say hi to Bunny.

WILL: They make Bunny stay out all night in the winter?

OLIVE: Actually, people often do. It’s good for horses in some ways, if it doesn’t get too cold.

She once got a joke published in Blaze, the magazine “for horse-crazy kids,” so I believe her.

The next day, presumably, Laura asks if she can ride Bunny to town rather than take the wagon. And Mary asks if she can work “extra-late” at Mrs. Whipple’s. Ma says that’s fine provided she’s home by dark. (In Minnesota in December, the sun sets by 4:30, so this isn’t really all that late.)

The family arrives at the Mercantile, where once again The Gray-Haired Dude is walking his horses. Different horses, in fact. . . . Maybe he works at the livery or something?

Either that or he’s the most blatant horse thief in Hero Township.

Ma, Mary and Laura rush off, while Carrie slurps hilariously to Charles, “Um, Daddy, I have to go to the outhouse.” Since nobody ever calls him “Daddy” (and since Michael Landon giggles), I think we can assume this is also a little mistake they left in on purpose.

Then we meet a new minor character (and a favorite of mine), Mrs. Whipple the seamstress. A cheerful older lady with a New York accent, we first see her fussing with a tartan dress on a dressmaker’s dummy. (A lot of tartan this season, more than I remembered.)

Also A-OK with me.

The actress, Queenie Smith, was apparently once a famous ballerina who danced at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1910s.

Queenie Smith

Mrs. Whipple’s presence in this story (like Bunny’s) gives it the tiniest whiff of tragedy, given what we’ll see in her storyline down the road.

Coming soon on Little House

Mrs. Whipple hears a knock at the door. It’s Mary . . . and the first thing Mrs. W does when she arrives is direct her to homemade donuts she’s made. 

We see Mary’s been working on a man’s shirt made from the gray tartan fabric she was looking at in the store. They talk about how they have a few more orders to do after that.

“If only my ladies would allow me to work!” Mrs. Whipple says. “Is she talking about her boobs?” said Dagny, but no, she means her customers, who hang around the shop all day chatting.

Anyways, Mrs. Whipple literally commands Mary to eat a donut before she starts working. That is my kind of boss.

Meanwhile, at the Mercantile, we see Caroline secretly buying the same gray fabric from Nels. “You won’t say anything to my husband?” she asks . . . little knowing Nels’s soul burns for her and those words must set his heart racing.

DAGNY: What a tryst.

WILL: Poor Nels.

“What a tryst.”

Caroline comes out of the store. Nels follows her out to chat with Charles about the wagon wheels.

DAGNY: If it’s so cold, why does Nels go out without a hat or gloves?

WILL: Come on, you’re from Canada!

Laura says she needs to talk to Nels privately, and CHRISTMAS IS NOT THE TIME FOR BLAH BLAH BLAH.

Laura and Nels have a brief whispery conversation. Spoiler alert, but she’s going to trade Bunny for the stove to give to Ma.

ROMAN: This really is the beginning of the Tragic Bunny Trilogy.

WILL: I think there are four Bunny stories. More a quadrilogy.

ROMAN: Do you think if not for the events this sets in motion, Bunny would still be alive?

WILL: No. It’s 2021.

Both parties apparently satisfied with negotiations, Laura departs and Nels sings “Jingle Bells” (composed 1857).

He should be singing “Jingle Nels”!

We cut to the Ingallses singing the same song. As others have pointed out, even though Laura rode Bunny to town, she’s now in the wagon with the rest of the family when they leave.

Oops

Commercial. When we return, Laura is running around in the snow in front of the Little House to some wild tootling from the woodwinds. 

The marijuana’s still growing behind the house, though. Minnesota plants are hardy.

She brings a box into the house and asks Ma to help her dye something in it (I can’t tell what) with onion skins.

WILL: Kids, do you remember the year we dyed Easter eggs with onion skins?

ROMAN: Yeah, it was fun.

WILL: Your mom didn’t like the way they looked.

DAGNY: What?

WILL: You didn’t, don’t you remember? You said you didn’t think they looked good. She waited till you went to bed, kids, thank goodness.

DAGNY: You can’t retain what I told you this morning, but you remember other people’s criticisms for the rest of your life.

WILL: The sting was terrible.

How could anyone not like these?

Then we get a musical montage where Laura is shown collecting rags and fooling around with yarn.

Somebody’s in for one hell of a present.

Ma, meanwhile, has secretly put together a tartan shirt identical to the one Mary’s making.

Pa’s still workin’ on his wagon wheels, and Mary is slaving away in the Whipple sweatshop.

And Carrie has found a penny (or perhaps a ha’penny).

Later, Caroline goes out to the barn to check on Charles. In this scene she’s both British and Bed-Headed. Actually, it may be she’s on the laudanum again, or still. In fact, if she has a secret addiction, it goes a long way towards explaining the weird accents she’s had throughout the season. (“She actually sounds kind of Southern here,” said Olive.)

Charles works late into the night, then comes in. Caroline rushes to get him some coffee, but he’s already fallen asleep – a gag repeated from “A Harvest of Friends.”

WILL: They’re already running out of ideas.

ROMAN: Yeah, that’s why the show only lasted another ten years.

While he sleeps, the orchestra plays Brahms’s Lullaby.

Brahms sez: “Ho ho ho, merry Christmas!”

The next morning, the girls take off. Mary says she’s working all day, so either it’s Saturday or they’re on Christmas break already.

In the Mercantile, Mrs. Foster is pressing a garment against Nels’s body (!). I suppose this is not too surprising, since already this season we’ve seen her chew up two lovers, The Gray-Haired Dude and the Studly Bearded Stranger.

“Think he should have something warmer, for the winter days?” Mrs. F asks, though whether she’s intending to give this “something warmer” to the Dude, Studly, someone else altogether, or is just being suggestive to turn Nels on, is a matter of conjecture.

Nels looks uncomfortable. After all, he is a professional shopkeeper, plus his heart belongs only to Caroline.

He backs off, but Mrs. Foster lunges at him again with a tartan shirt. The whole scene has a sort of Miss Hannigan/Daddy Warbucks vibe.

Fortunately, he’s rescued from her clutches by the arrival of Laura and Carrie.

Carrie holds forth her penny or ha’penny and slurps, “Star!” Nels pulls down the tinfoil star, but Laura says Carrie doesn’t have enough to buy it.

Nels, that old sweetheart, says the price has been mismarked and Carrie has just the right amount. I don’t know where Mrs. Oleson is through all these Nels scenes, but I bet he doesn’t miss her much.

And I’m sure he makes up the difference from his own pocket.

Nels turns back to Mrs. Foster and asks if she wants him to wrap up the shirt. She touches it to his chest again before saying she never intended to buy it, but was planning to do her shopping in Mankato the whole time anyway. She’s a little kookier/kinkier than I remember from past viewings.

Laura, who’s just a kid but clearly recognizes what Foster was after, smirks at Nels as she and Carrie depart.

Later that night, Nels is still in the Mercantile as a wicked wind blows outside.

DAGNY: What’s Nels doing in the shop so late?

ALEXANDER/OLIVE/ROMAN/WILL: He lives there.

Charles arrives to deliver the wagon wheels and says in exchange he’d like the stove for Caroline. Nels gulps and says it’s already been purchased. He tries to get Charles to buy an ugly lamp, a cuckoo clock or a “knickknack shelf” instead.

WILL: These are terrible suggestions.

OLIVE: Of course they are, he’s trying to break them up.

But Charles won’t have it, and says he’ll just order the stove, even if it means it won’t arrive by Christmas. He flips through Nels’s catalog, then tears out the stove page and says he’ll put it in a Christmas card to give to Caroline. (“Nels really should say something at this point,” said Olive.)

Later, we see Charles tromping through a (real) snowy landscape to shoot a turkey. They must have gone up into the mountains to film it.

Then we are treated to an awesome sight: The Little House, recreated full-size on a snowy soundstage!

WILL: They built this indoors, huh? It looks good.

DAGNY: Yeah, they spent some money on that.

ALEXANDER: It even looks cold.

Inside, the girls and Ma are baking pies. It’s now Christmas Eve, apparently. We see that the fireplace has a built-in oven, which Ma implies works poorly.

To the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in the orchestra, Charles returns with his turkey. He enters in a nifty shot where it really looks like not only is it snowing, the landscape outside is also covered with snow. I’m not sure how they did it, quite.

Even the mountain is snowy.

“You get a turkey, Pa?” asks Laura.

OLIVE: He’s got it in his hand, stupid. Are you blind?

That night, Pa fake-fiddles a reel (I’d give Michael Landon about a D+ on this occasion) while the others dance.

WILL: Do you see what the tree’s decorated with?

DAGNY: Yah. Sexcorn.

Dances With Sexcorn

In case you’re wondering, Christmas trees were quite well established in American culture by this point.

They’re interrupted by a knock at the door. It’s Nels, dressed in his Inspector Lestrade getup again. He and a flunky deliver a big crate, a present for Caroline.

Charles follows them out to the wagon, asking how Nels managed to get him the stove. Nels just wishes him a merry Christmas. Charles returns the greeting both to him and to the flunky, whom he addresses as “Carl.”

That night, the celesta plays “The First Noel” while Caroline and Charles are in bed. She (rather flirtily) asks him what her present is, but he won’t tell. He gets up to throw another log on and finds Carrie staring at the fireplace.

She’s worried Santa will get “all burned up” when he comes down the chimney. Pa reassures her that’s not the case, and takes her back up to bed.

OLIVE: Michael Landon’s laugh is so real when he’s acting with Carrie.

WILL: I know, you can tell he loved her.

DAGNY: Yeah, he’s probably the only person who could stand her. Them.

It’s still snowing hard Christmas morning. The family’s up and exchanging gifts. The girls are wearing their Sunday dresses with goofy knit vests over them, and in a cute touch, Jack the dog has his hair in ribbons.

We see Laura has knit Pa a scarf, and Pa’s giving Mary some sort of crude fur cape. (Apparently this a detail from On the Banks of Plum Creek, only in the book it’s Laura who gets a fur.)

Furry Mary

Laura puts a necklace on Carrie. It looks like it has seashells on it. Did Nels make a buying trip to Polynesia or something?

Nels Oleson in Polynesia, by Paul Gauguin

Now we get to the ruefully ironic gift exchange segment. (I’ll just mention this schtick is obviously borrowed from O. Henry‘s “The Gift of the Magi,” a story we had to read in school but the kids had never heard of.)

O. Henry as a young dandy

(On the other hand, On the Banks of Plum Creek, while actually featuring multiple Christmas scenes, doesn’t have much in common with this episode, except for the fur cape and some fiddling. A blogger named Karen gives a very nice rundown, with commentary, of all the Christmas scenes in the book series, if you’re interested.)

So here we go. Mary has made Pa the same gray tartan shirt as Caroline. Embarrassed, Ma surreptitiously hides her own present for him under the tree skirt.

OLIVE: She should throw it in the fire.

WILL: Do you think she could sell it back to the Mercantile?

DAGNY: Not if Harriet’s working.

Well, be that as it may, I’m not worried. My forecast is 100 percent chance of Caroline and Charles eating popcorn in bed later and laughing about the mixup. And then having sex.

Pa gives Laura a big chonky gift.

DAGNY: What is it, a typewriter?

ROMAN: Yes, Charles invented it.

But no, it’s a saddle for Bunny. Laura stares at it in shock for a while, then hugs Pa.

Then Caroline pries open the crate. It’s the stove! But when she opens the card, it’s from Laura, not Charles.

Right on cue, Nels and Nellie arrive to claim Bunny. Nels reveals Laura’s plan.

OLIVE: How could Nels go along with this? That horse is worth more than eight dollars.

WILL: I know. If I were Charles, I’d be furious.

But Charles simply smiles and shakes Nels’s hand. Laura takes Nellie out to hand her the keys to Bunny. Caroline is upset, but Charles says Laura has the right to do what she wants with her own horse. For as patriarchal as this show is, he certainly does give Laura full autonomy here.

Outside, Nellie promises to take good care of Bunny. We shall see how that goes, of course.

Laura comes back in. She’s crying, not because she’s lost her horse, but because Pa’s saddle will now go to waste. Pa just smiles and hugs her.

WILL: He’s proud because his children are making stupid selfless decisions.

DAGNY: Yes, he’s raising a bunch of terrible businesspeople, just like himself. Well done, Pa.

Carrie announces she has a present too. Now this might be a bit of a stretch, but I swear I caught the scent of “Valet Will Ich Dir Geben,” a hymn tune I recall singing during the Advent season, in the score at this point.

Carrie’s present is the tinfoil star. Everybody smiles, Carrie slurps “Happy birthday, Baby Jesus!”, and with “Joy to the World” ringing on the soundtrack, we can call this Christmas cashed. Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum!

THE VERDICT: Not as funny as it might be, perhaps, but it’s light and very likeable, with all the principals at their best. Nels gets a nice part it it, too.

It’s unclear why Charles doesn’t just take the $8 Laura saved him from spending on the stove and buy Bunny back, however.

UP NEXT: Family Quarrel

Published by willkaiser

I live in the Upper Midwest. My name's not really Will Kaiser, but he and I have essentially the same personality.

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