The Christmas Child
Christmas is a time to celebrate Jesus' birth, but for Hannah and Robert Jessup, there is no joy, only the crushing sorrow of a childless marriage. Despite Hannah's newfound faith--another source of tension with her husband--she feels the pain of infertility keenly.
When their unmarried maid offers them her unborn baby, Hannah sees it as an answer to prayer, but Robert refuses and banishes Rosa from their home.
Will infertility and a wife's newfound faith crush Robert and Hannah's marriage? How will God answer Hannah’s desperate prayers for a child and her husband’s salvation?
Another month. Another disappointment.
Hannah stared at the small calendar on her desk. After two years of disappointing months, it should be easier, but it wasn’t. The tiny spark of hope that sometimes consumed her like a blazing fire flickered feebly this morning. A certain coolness would soon settle in around her heart until the next month. And the next.
With a swirl of her taffeta underskirt, Hannah left the parlor. Breakfast waited. Robert undoubtedly was already at the table. There would be no child in the Jessup household in 1891 after all.
“Good morning, darling.” Her husband’s cheerfulness almost brought out the tears that threatened to break the surface. But she would say nothing. Their childlessness remained an unspoken subject.
The door from the kitchen swished open as Hannah took her place, Rosa’s timing impeccable as usual. Hannah glanced around the table. Precisely laid dishes, attentive husband, efficient maid. The familiar morning routine. Everything as it should be. Except—no baby.
Rosa’s hands trembled slightly as she poured the tea, and a few drops spilled on the white damask tablecloth. The girl hurried to blot the stain with her apron.
“Leave it for now. I’ll take care of it later.” Hannah’s gaze moved from the mark to her maid’s unusually pale face. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Rosa’s voice, with its mere hint of Italian accent, wavered. “Everything is almost ready.” She hurried out, the smell of bacon on the verge of burning wafting in from the kitchen.
“Well, things are off to a poor start all around today, I’d say.” Robert’s warm gray eyes smiled into hers. “What’s the matter, darling?”
“I’m just a little...off this morning.” She bit her lips and nodded toward the door. “I’m concerned about Rosa, though. She hasn’t been herself for the past week or so.”
“Then you should get to the bottom of it if it concerns you so much.”
“I suppose so.” She reached for the sugar bowl. “But nothing I say or do seems to make any difference to anyone in this house these days.”
A flush crept up Robert’s face.
Hannah instantly regretted her words. Still, at least this was one topic out in the open.
“Hannah, you do a fine job taking care of the house. I meant no criticism.” Robert’s tone remained even. “But I can manage myself quite well, thank you. I’d think you’d be glad that at least I go with you to your new church.”
Hannah stirred her tea. “I do appreciate you accompanying me every Sunday these last months. But this isn’t a passing fancy with me, as you seem to feel.” She took a sip of the steaming beverage. “You’re correct about one thing, though. I’m sorry. I don’t have the right to impose my beliefs on anyone, even you.”
Robert was prevented from answering by the return of Rosa with their meals and the newspaper. Not wanting to press the matter further, Hannah busied herself with eggs and toast, noting that the bacon was only slightly darker than normal.
Robert pulled out his pocket watch. “Look at the time,” he murmured, obviously just as happy to leave the subject alone. He scanned the paper as he hurried through his own breakfast. Ten minutes later, he gulped the last of his tea and pushed back his chair. “Remember, I’ll be home early tonight, since we’re having dinner at the Duffs’ at six then going on to the opera with them.”
Hannah nodded. The evening with the president of the bank where her husband worked and his wife was not something she particularly looked forward to, even if she was curious to see their new home near Central Park. “My outfit is being delivered this afternoon. I just have to go to Mr. Macy’s store to pick up a few things.”
“Ah, so there is a new dress!” Robert bent over her, and Hannah caught her breath. He took both her hands in his. “Have a pleasant day, my love.” Then he gently kissed her palms and was gone.
Hannah squeezed her eyes shut. It wasn’t fair to take out her unhappiness on him. Never once had he said anything about not having children, never hinted that it was her fault. But…did he even care? She wished she knew.
Rosa peered around the dining room door.
“Yes, you may clear away the dishes. I’m finished. On second thought,” she said, rising, “come upstairs with me for a moment.” Now was a good time to find out what was troubling her maid.
The weak sunlight of the early spring day spilled across the parlor’s parquet floor and scattered rugs. This was her favorite place in their modest Fifth Avenue brownstone, steps from Washington Square’s soaring arch. Contrary to current fashion, it wasn’t stuffed with furniture, ornaments, and prints to occupy every inch of space. Not only could the Jessups not afford it, even though they were what was commonly known as “comfortable,” but neither of them wanted it. The room offered her a tranquil serenity, something she badly needed this morning.
Hannah unconsciously trailed a hand over the back of the gilded love seat and scrutinized her small, dark-haired maid. She knew little of Rosa’s background, except that at eighteen, she was surprisingly well educated for being the daughter of immigrants. “You’re usually so cheerful,” she said at last, “but I’ve noticed you look…upset and unhappy lately. Are you ill?”
Rosa balled her fist at her side, and she struggled for composure. “It’s the morning sickness, ma’am,” she said after several moments. “I am with child.”
Hannah’s fingers gripped the sofa’s delicate fabric. “When?” she finally managed to croak out.
“What...will you do?”
The girl gave a short, bitter laugh. “Why do you care?”
There was an element of truth in Rosa’s candid reply. Hannah’s old self would have sent a pregnant maid packing without a moment’s hesitation. The entire household, Robert most of all, was still trying to absorb the changes that the Spirit of God had brought to the mistress of the house. She swallowed hard. “Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself. You’re in trouble: you’re having a baby and you don’t have a husband. Unless you got married and didn’t tell me?”
“No, I am not married, but I am a good girl!”
Hannah rubbed her forehead and sat down. “Perhaps you’d better explain.”
Rosa’s words spilled out in a torrent. “You don’t understand the world I come from. You don’t know us! Have you seen Mr. Riis’ new book, How the Other Half Lives? Sí, he came and took pictures of our homes, and he calls us ‘gay’ and ‘lighthearted,’ but he also says we’re ‘the utterly wretched, the hopelessly lost, on the lowest slope of depraved humanity.’”
She defiantly lifted her chin. “Maybe others, but not me, not mia famiglia! Mia madre e mio padre, they wanted their children to have a better life in America. They were grateful I was born at the hospital at Castle Garden just after they stepped off the boat because that meant I was an American right away. Papa worked at a barbershop. Then there were more babies, and we all squeezed into a small place on Elizabeth Street. Have you ever been to Elizabeth Street?”
Hannah shook her head.
“It is dirty and noisy and crowded, full of children playing, selling newspapers, and sí, even fighting and gambling. But my parents protected us, and even though they didn’t have much school, they insisted I go. I graduated and now I work so my sisters can go, and so I can attend college next year and become a teacher. I even have a scholarship at Barnard, the new school for women at Columbia University. But now...” Rosa faltered. “Now I am...I am...” She buried her face in her hands and wept.
After a moment her crying subsided, and she pulled a handkerchief from the waist of her apron and dabbed her eyes, avoiding Hannah’s sympathetic expression. “But I haven’t told you how it happened,” she whispered. “Mama isn’t well. She had tuberculosis several years ago. She’s better now, but her lungs are no good. I had to do most of the work at home. It was hard, going to classes and taking care of everything, but I did it. I didn’t think I’d be able to go on in school after all, but then I didn’t count on mia migliore amica.
“Caterina is not like me. She doesn’t care much for learning, and she doesn’t care much for her family either. I can work here and earn money while she does my job at home. She does it to help me, but also to escape. Her parents treat her bad while her brother, Vittorio, has everything. On one of my afternoons off two months ago, I went to visit Caterina. She was out, but Vittorio was there. He...” Rosa’s mouth folded into a grim line, and she twisted the handkerchief, her gaze riveted to the floor. “He...had always...liked me, but I had no more use for him than Caterina did. He...tried to kiss me, but I slapped him. That made him angry, so he threw me down and... and...”
Hannah’s nails dug into her palms, and she could scarcely breathe. “He should be in prison!”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Rosa said, her bitterness and anger returning. “La polizia, they don’t care about us. They think we’re all bad, and that any woman that happens to, she must have done something to deserve it. Now, Vittorio is gone. Caterina hasn’t seen him for a while, and her parents are very worried.”
“Do they know?”
“You and Caterina are the only ones I’ve told. Would you like me to leave here right away?” she asked quietly.
“No, at least not yet,” she said. Her voice strengthened as she made up her mind “Of course, you’ll have to take care of yourself and not do any heavy lifting, but I—“
“You don’t have to worry about me.” Rosa looked up eagerly. “Mama carried six babies and worked all the time. Like I told you, I was born after her long voyage from Sicily.”
“Yes, but I’m also thinking of Mr. Jessup. He...won’t look as kindly on your condition, I’m afraid. Not that he’s unfeeling. It’s just that he’s very concerned with appearances and so...” She thought quickly. “Perhaps you could work until you begin to show?”
“Then Caterina could come, while I go back home. If that is all right with you.” Rosa obviously had thought things through.
“It will have to do.”
“I’ll handle my husband. You do your work and take care of yourself.”
“How will you tell your family?”
“They will believe me because they love me, and they know Vittorio.”
“And...what about the baby?”
Question 1: Proverbs 30:15-16 says, “There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ‘Enough!’: the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, “Enough!’” Christmas Child concerns itself with the second thing, the barren womb. How is it like the other three?
Answer 1: Not being able to give birth to a child is an ache that never completely goes away. Death (the grave) is an ongoing process; people are always dying, so “death” is never satisfied. Land constantly thirsts for water. Fire consumes greedily, always wanting more to feed upon.
Question 2: Christmas Child touches upon the theme of adoption. Adoption still carries a stigma in most societies. Why is that?
Answer 2: Answers vary. Possible ones include adopted children perhaps don’t look like their adoptive parents, there’s the element of the unknown in their background (as opposed to those born to parents), the idea that there’s something wrong with the parents because they can’t produce a biological child of their own.
Question 3: What does Scripture have to say about adoption?
Answer 3: Biblical adoption is a redemptive act of God that places the believer in His family and makes us His children and heirs (John 1:12; Rom. 8:15-17; 2 Cor. 6:18; Gal. 4:5-7, 26; Eph. 1:5; 1 John 3:1; Rev. 21:7)
Question 4: Rosa Angeleri, from an Italian immigrant family, mentions how others look them down upon. How do we see this in America today?
Answer 4: The controversy over immigration, racial tensions, etc.
Question 5: Christmas Child mentions Jacob Riis’ book, How the Other Half Lives, an exposé of New York City’s appalling tenements and their lower-class (and often immigrant) inhabitants. What modern day parallels can you think of between the haves and the have-nots?
Answer 5: Answers vary. Possible ones include the shrinking middle class, first versus third world countries and economies, different regions in the U.S.
Question 6: In Christmas Child, evangelist Dwight L. Moody speaks, in quotes taken from his book, The Overcoming Life. He says he find one of the “sweetest promises of all” is Matthew 11:28-30: “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” He then goes on to list places where he would not go to find rest—wealth, pleasure, politics, and learning. Why aren’t these areas conducive to the kind of rest Moody and the Scripture refer to?
Answer 6: Answers vary. Possible ones include the accumulation of wealth usually leads to thirst for more and wealth doesn’t shield people for sorrow; the pursuit of pleasure is never completely satisfied, meaning it’s a constant quest; politics means division; learning doesn’t always lead to satisfaction; in other words, all involve a never-ending striving instead of rest.
Question 7: Robert Jessup’s boss and his wife, the Duffs, regard church attendance as a duty, and dismiss Hannah’s faith as perhaps just a passing fancy. How do we see this in today’s society?
Answer 7: Answers vary. Possible ones include our society seems to be even less indulgent and polite about those who follow biblical Christianity, church attendance isn’t a barometer of faith, Christianity is just one of many truths, those who believe Christianity as truth are intolerant.
Question 8: A minor character in Christmas Child, Elvira Murray, says, “[N]one of us is ‘good,’ none of us follows God’s rules completely all the time. We are seeking quite the opposite, our own pleasures and comfort…And the Lord calls that sin.” How have you seen this in your own life?
Answer 8: Answers vary.
Question 9: Hannah, Christmas Child’s heroine, is amazed to discover the story of another infertile Hannah in 1 Samuel. She briefly wonders whether it’s appropriate to pray for a child, but is encouraged by her biblical namesake’s own petition. What kind of things do you struggle to pray about?
Answer 9 Answers vary.
Question 10: Romance novels usually have happy endings. In real life, though, not every difficulty is resolved satisfactorily, and therefore romances sometimes are knocked for being unreal fantasies. How would you counter that attitude? Why do you read romances?
Answer 10: Answers vary. Possible ones include fiction (even romances!) help us realize we’re not alone in our problems; we enjoy reading about happy endings, especially when we’re going through our own struggles; we learn about different times and places while being entertained; we’re sometimes stimulated to see solutions for our own difficulties; most fiction reading is relaxing escapism, no matter what the genre!
About the Author
Penny is a freelance writer with credits in several national publications and a B.A. in Theatre. She combined those two interests by writing and performing a one-woman show while Artist in Residence for the National Park Service. Her book, Life Lessons from the National Parks: Meeting God in America’s Most Glorious Places, won a 2017 Excellence in Editing award.