The dress appeared in the display window of the Smythe-Harris department store right after Thanksgiving. It was so beautiful it took my breath away.
The skirt was full, with a frothy crinoline peeking from beneath the hem. Pearl buttons marched from the lace collar to the wide satin sash, which was tied in an extravagant bow. More pearl buttons accentuated the cuffs on the puff sleeves.
It was crimson, a rich red. I could feel the warmth beckoning through the window, tangible and real, as if it were wishing to enfold me within its velvety embrace.
But, I would never speak of my longing. Father worked hard, his worn overcoat misted with shimmering dew when he arrived home, and he would eat his dinner in silence, as if speaking took more effort than he could afford.
Whenever I went to the market, I stopped at the window, delighting in the sheen of the satin sash, the gleam of each button, and the sumptuous folds of velvet. It had been so long since I’d had anything new, and never anything so lovely. My few dresses were snug, faded, and patched by my unskilled hands. My shoes were scuffed and far too tight. My feet ached, as did my heart, as my desire for the dress astonished and appalled me, for it was nearly covetousness.
Christmas morning arrived, and a dusting of snow softened familiar objects with a pristine blanket. There were two parcels under our bedraggled tree, already wilted and weary when we’d set it in a pail of sand, and my garland of popcorn gave it an air of lopsided gaiety. We ate our porridge, thankful for its steamy goodness, because the wintery beauty also brought damp drafts that coiled around our feet like a frosty kitten.
We slowly wiped the dishes, delaying the moment we’d unwrap the two gifts, savouring the anticipation. But finally, we could wait no longer, and with great ceremony, I gave my father his gift, two handkerchiefs I’d clumsily embroidered with his initials.
“They’re wonderful,” he exclaimed sincerely, and I knew he’d make no effort to hide the inexpert scrawling of my inept needle.
“For my princess.” And he gave me the flat box wrapped in bright paper and tied with string. I almost knew, but did not dare hope.
With wonderment, I opened the box, revealing the crimson dress in its nest of tissue paper. My heart felt as if it would explode. It was a miracle.
“Say something,” encouraged my father. His eyes were bright with love and tenderness.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Quickly, get dressed. We’ll be late for church.”
I slipped on the dress, and when my father tied the sash, he kissed the top of my head. “You’re beautiful,” he murmured. The crinoline rustled exquisitely. I was a princess.
The church was crowded with parishioners and Christmas excitement. I could scarcely breathe for joy at the sight of glowing candles and garlands of greenery on the altar.
I greeted people with a happy smile, then settled back to enjoy the rapturous musical prelude. Slowly, whispers penetrated my elation.
“Appalling and disgusting, that’s what it is.”
“Whatever is her father thinking?”
“Of course, he must be excused, having no womanly guidance.”
“That dress is the colour of sin, I say.”
Were they talking about me? My dress?
“Imagine, coming to church, on Christmas yet, dressed like... a person of ill-repute.”
Ill-repute? Could they see inside me, how I’d wanted the red dress, beyond reason, harbouring wicked wishfulness?
“Cost a pretty penny, no doubt.”
My face flushed, then, as I comprehended my father’s sacrifice. I was, indeed, a person of ill-repute, selfish and prideful. I was mortified. Searing tears fell onto the lovely lace collar.
Any more words of condemnation were stifled, as the pastor unfolded the story of Christ’s lowly cradle and His surrendering to the lowlier cross.
“Christ did it for us. Our sins are as scarlet, but we shall be white as snow. Whiter than the drifts outside. Our joy is complete, our lives abundant,” he added.
My shrivelled heart swelled. My dress was not a sign of wickedness. It showed my father’s love and sacrifice, as surely as my heavenly Father had displayed His love and sacrifice through Christ’s blood. Blood as crimson as my dress.
My tears dried, I jubilantly sang the closing hymn.
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