Nibsy's Christmas by Jacob A. Riis
It was Christmas Eve over on the East Side. Darkness was closing in
on a cold, hard day. The light that struggled through the frozen
windows of the delicatessen store and the saloon on the corner, fell
upon men with empty dinner-pails who were hurrying homeward, their
coats buttoned tightly, and heads bent against the steady blast from
the river, as if they were butting their way down the street.
The wind had forced the door of the saloon ajar, and was whistling
through the crack; but in there it seemed to make no one afraid.
Between roars of laughter, the clink of glasses and the rattle of dice
on the hardwood counter were heard out in the street. More than one of
the passers-by who came within range was taken with an extra shiver in
which the vision of wife and little ones waiting at home for his coming
was snuffed out, as he dropped in to brace up. The lights were long out
when the silent streets reëchoed his unsteady steps toward home, where
the Christmas welcome had turned to dread.
But in this twilight hour they burned brightly yet, trying hard to
pierce the bitter cold outside with a ray of warmth and cheer. Where
the lamps in the delicatessen store made a mottled streak of brightness
across the flags, two little boys stood with their noses flattened
against the window. The warmth inside, and the lights, had made little
islands of clear space on the frosty pane, affording glimpses of the
wealth within, of the piles of smoked herring, of golden cheese, of
sliced bacon and generous, fat-bellied hams; of the rows of odd-shaped
bottles and jars on the shelves that held there was no telling what
good things, only it was certain that they must be good from the looks
And the heavenly smell of spices and things that reached the boys
through the open door each time the tinkling bell announced the coming
or going of a customer! Better than all, back there on the top shelf
the stacks of square honey-cakes, with their frosty coats of sugar,
tied in bundles with strips of blue paper.
The wind blew straight through the patched and threadbare jackets of
the lads as they crept closer to the window, struggling hard by
breathing on the pane to make their peep-holes bigger, to take in the
whole of the big cake with the almonds set in; but they did not heed
Jim! piped the smaller of the two, after a longer stare than
usual; hey, Jim! them's Sante Claus's. See 'em?
Sante Claus! snorted the other, scornfully, applying his eye to
the clear spot on the pane. There ain't no ole duffer like dat. Them's
honey-cakes. Me 'n' Tom had a bite o' one wunst.
There ain't no Sante Claus? retorted the smaller shaver, hotly, at
his peep-hole. There is, too. I seen him myself when he cum to our
What's youse kids a-scrappin' fur? broke in a strange voice.
Another boy, bigger, but dirtier and tougher looking than either of
the two, had come up behind them unobserved. He carried an armful of
unsold extras under one arm. The other was buried to the elbow in the
pocket of his ragged trousers.
The kids knew him, evidently, and the smallest eagerly accepted
him as umpire.
It's Jim w'at says there ain't no Sante Claus, and I seen him
Jim! demanded the elder ragamuffin, sternly, looking hard at the
culprit; Jim! yere a chump! No Sante Claus? What're ye givin' us? Now,
With utter amazement the boys saw him disappear through the door
under the tinkling bell into the charmed precincts of smoked herring,
jam, and honey-cakes. Petrified at their peep-holes, they watched him,
in the veritable presence of Santa Claus himself with the fir-branch,
fish out five battered pennies from the depths of his pocket and pass
them over to the woman behind the jars, in exchange for one of the
bundles of honey-cakes tied with blue. As if in a dream they saw him
issue forth with the coveted prize.
There, kid! he said, holding out the two fattest and whitest cakes
to Santa Claus's champion; there's yer Christmas. Run along, now, to
yer barracks; and you, Jim, here's one for you, though yer don't
desarve it. Mind ye let the kid alone.
This one'll have to do for me grub, I guess. I ain't sold me
'Newses,' and the ole man'll kick if I bring 'em home.
Before the shuffling feet of the ragamuffins hurrying homeward had
turned the corner, the last mouthful of the newsboy's supper was
smothered in a yell of Extree! as he shot across the street to
intercept a passing stranger.
As the evening wore on, it grew rawer and more blustering still.
Flakes of dry snow that stayed where they fell, slowly tracing the
curb-lines, the shutters, and the door-steps of the tenements with
gathering white, were borne up on the storm from the water. To the
right and left stretched endless streets between the towering barracks,
as beneath frowning cliffs pierced with a thousand glowing eyes that
revealed the watch-fires withina mighty city of cave-dwellers held in
the thraldom of poverty and want.
Outside there was yet hurrying to and fro. Saloon doors were
slamming, and bare-legged urchins, carrying beer-jugs, hugged the walls
close for shelter. From the depths of a blind alley floated out the
discordant strains of a vagabond brass band blowing in the yule of
the poor. Banished by police ordinance from the street, it reaped a
scant harvest of pennies for Christmas cheer from the windows opening
on the back yard. Against more than one pane showed the bald outline of
a forlorn little Christmas tree, some stray branch of a hemlock picked
up at the grocer's and set in a pail for the childer to dance around,
a dime's worth of candy and tinsel on the boughs.
From the attic over the way came, in spells between, the gentle
tones of a German song about the Christ-child. Christmas in the East
Side tenements begins with the sunset on the Holy Eve, except where
the name is as a threat or a taunt. In a hundred such homes the whir of
many sewing-machines, worked by the sweater's slaves with weary feet
and aching backs, drowned every feeble note of joy that struggled to
make itself heard above the noise of the great treadmill.
To these what was Christmas but the name for suffering, reminder of
lost kindred and liberty, of the slavery of eighteen hundred years,
freedom from which was purchased only with gold. Ay, gold! The gold
that had power to buy freedom yet, to buy the good-will, ay, and the
good name, of the oppressor, with his houses and land. At the thought
the tired eye glistened, the aching back straightened, and to the weary
foot there came new strength to finish the long task while the city
Where a narrow passageway put in between two big tenements to a
ramshackle rear barrack, Nibsy, the newsboy, halted in the shadow of
the doorway and stole a long look down the dark alley.
He toyed uncertainly with his still unsold papersworn dirty and
ragged as his clothes by this timebefore he ventured in, picking his
way between barrels and heaps of garbage; past the Italian cobbler's
hovel, where a tallow dip, stuck in a cracked beer-glass, before a
picture of the Mother of God, showed that even he knew it was
Christmas and liked to show it; past the Sullivan flat, where blows and
drunken curses mingled with the shriek of women, as Nibsy had heard
many nights before this one.
He shuddered as he felt his way past the door, partly with a
premonition of what was in store for himself, if the old man was at
home, partly with a vague, uncomfortable feeling that somehow Christmas
Eve should be different from other nights, even in the alley; down to
its farthest end, to the last rickety flight of steps that led into the
filth and darkness of the tenement. Up this he crept, three flights, to
a door at which he stopped and listened, hesitating, as he had stopped
at the entrance to the alley; then, with a sudden, defiant gesture, he
pushed it open and went in.
A bare and cheerless room; a pile of rags for a bed in the corner,
another in the dark alcove, miscalled bedroom; under the window a
broken candle and an iron-bound chest, upon which sat a sad-eyed woman
with hard lines in her face, peeling potatoes in a pan; in the middle
of the room a rusty stove, with a pile of wood, chopped on the floor
alongside. A man on his knees in front fanning the fire with an old
slouch hat. With each breath of draught he stirred, the crazy old pipe
belched forth torrents of smoke at every joint. As Nibsy entered, the
man desisted from his efforts and sat up, glaring at hima villanous
ruffian's face, scowling with anger.
Late ag'in! he growled; an' yer papers not sold. What did I tell
yer, brat, if ye dared
Tom! Tom! broke in the wife, in a desperate attempt to soothe the
ruffian's temper. The boy can't help it, an' it's Christmas Eve. For
the love o'
The devil take yer rot and yer brat! shouted the man, mad with the
fury of passion. Let me at him! and, reaching over, he seized a heavy
knot of wood and flung it at the head of the boy.
Nibsy had remained just inside the door, edging slowly toward his
mother, but with a watchful eye on the man at the stove. At the first
movement of his hand toward the woodpile he sprang for the stairway
with the agility of a cat, and just dodged the missile. It struck the
door, as he slammed it behind him, with force enough to smash the
Down the three flights in as many jumps he went, and through the
alley, over barrels and barriers, never stopping once till he reached
the street, and curses and shouts were left behind.
In his flight he had lost his unsold papers, and he felt ruefully in
his pocket as he went down the street, pulling his rags about him as
much from shame as to keep out the cold.
Four pennies were all he had left after his Christmas treat to the
two little lads from the barracks; not enough for supper or for a bed;
and it was getting colder all the time.
On the sidewalk in front of the notion store a belated Christmas
party was in progress. The children from the tenements in the alley and
across the way were having a game of blind-man's-buff, groping blindly
about in the crowd to catch each other. They hailed Nibsy with shouts
of laughter, calling to him to join in.
We're having Christmas! they yelled.
Nibsy did not hear them. He was thinking, thinking, the while
turning over his four pennies at the bottom of his pocket. Thinking if
Christmas was ever to come to him, and the children's Santa Claus to
find his alley where the baby slept within reach of her father's cruel
hand. As for him, he had never known anything but blows and curses. He
could take care of himself. But his mother and the babyAnd then it
came to him with shuddering cold that it was getting late, and that he
must find a place to sleep.
He weighed in his mind the merits of two or three places where he
was in the habit of hiding from the cops when the alley got to be too
hot for him.
There was the hay barge down by the dock, with the watchman who got
drunk sometimes, and so gave the boys a chance. The chances were at
least even of its being available on Christmas Eve, and of Santa Claus
having thus done him a good turn after all.
Then there was the snug berth in the sand-box you could curl all up
in. Nibsy thought with regret of its being, like the hay barge, so far
away and to windward, too.
Down by the printing-offices there were the steam gratings, and a
chance corner in the cellars, stories and stories underground, where
the big presses keep up such a clatter from midnight till far into the
As he passed them in review, Nibsy made up his mind with sudden
determination, and, setting his face toward the south, made off down
* * * * *
The rumble of the last departing news-wagon over the pavement, now
buried deep in snow, had died away in the distance, when, from out of
the bowels of the earth there issued a cry, a cry of mortal terror and
pain that was echoed by a hundred throats.
From one of the deep cellar-ways a man ran out, his clothes and hair
and beard afire; on his heels a breathless throng of men and boys;
following them, close behind, a rush of smoke and fire.
The clatter of the presses ceased suddenly, to be followed quickly
by the clangor of hurrying fire-bells. With hooks and axes the firemen
rushed in; hose was let down through the manholes, and down there in
the depths the battle was fought and won.
The building was saved; but in the midst of the rejoicing over the
victory there fell a sudden silence. From the cellar-way a grimy,
helmeted figure arose, with something black and scorched in his arms. A
tarpaulin was spread upon the snow and upon it he laid his burden,
while the silent crowd made room and word went over to the hospital for
the doctor to come quickly.
Very gently they lifted poor little Nibsyfor it was he, caught in
his berth by a worse enemy than the cop or the watchman of the hay
bargeinto the ambulance that bore him off to the hospital cot, too
Conscious only of a vague discomfort that had succeeded terror and
pain, Nibsy wondered uneasily why they were all so kind. Nobody had
taken the trouble to as much as notice him before. When he had thrust
his papers into their very faces they had pushed him roughly aside.
Nibsy, unhurt and able to fight his way, never had a show. Sick and
maimed and sore, he was being made much of, though he had been caught
where the boys were forbidden to go. Things were queer, anyhow, and
The room was getting so dark that he could hardly see the doctor's
kindly face, and had to grip his hand tightly to make sure that he was
there; almost as dark as the stairs in the alley he had come down in
such a hurry.
There was the baby nowpoor babyand motherand then a great
blank, and it was all a mystery to poor Nibsy no longer. For, just as a
wild-eyed woman pushed her way through the crowd of nurses and doctors
to his bedside, crying for her boy, Nibsy gave up his soul to God.
* * * * *
It was very quiet in the alley. Christmas had come and gone. Upon
the last door a bow of soiled crape was nailed up with two tacks. It
had done duty there a dozen times before, that year.
Upstairs, Nibsy was at home, and for once the neighbors, one and
all, old and young, came to see him.
Even the father, ruffian that he was, offered no objection. Cowed
and silent, he sat in the corner by the window farthest from where the
plain little coffin stood, with the lid closed down.
A couple of the neighbor-women were talking in low tones by the
stove, when there came a timid knock at the door. Nobody answering, it
was pushed open, first a little, then far enough to admit the shrinking
form of a little ragamuffin, the smaller of the two who had stood
breathing peep-holes on the window pane of the delicatessen store the
night before when Nibsy came along.
He dragged with him a hemlock branch, the leavings from some
Christmas tree at the grocery.
It's from Sante Claus, he said, laying it on the coffin. Nibsy
knows. And he went out.
Santa Claus had come to Nibsy, after all, in his alley. And Nibsy