Pauline was finishing the washing-up after breakfast while watching with amusement the bullfinches and blue birds quarreling in the garden over the crumbs of bread she had just thrown out of the window.
It was almost as cold in the kitchen as it was outside, but despite everything she was happy, as she usually was. She was twelve years old, sensible, brave and always cheerful. Although these last few months had been anything but easy.
First her father had lost his job in the summer and had still not found another one. Then her mother had fallen ill shortly afterwards and had to stay in the hospital. Her father had just left to visit her.
When she had finished putting away the bowls and spoons, Pauline felt a cold chill. She would have lit a fire in the hearth but there was no wood left. “I’ll see to it later,” her father had said, hoping that the month of December would be mild, but unfortunately the weather had turned colder and by morning on this Christmas Eve, it was actually freezing.
Then the little girl made up her mind. Instead of staying shivering in the house, she might just as well go for a walk. Walking would warm her up. And then she had an idea: she would find something in the forest with which to decorate the house for a Christmas that seemed likely to be miserable, without her Mom and with the fridge empty.
She dressed in the warmest clothes she could find and set off, carrying a basket.
After walking through the village, she made her way to the edge of the forest and was immediately struck with wonder.
The wild roses, whose shy flowers she loved in the springtime, still had their oblong fruit, in bunches of three or four on the ends of spindly stems. The brilliant red rose hips, shiny as if they’d been polished, brought a note of gaiety in the midst of the bare branches. She cut off a few sprigs, not without difficulty.
In the wood her eye was caught by lichens in various shades from gray to dark green, and even some brown, with flashes of bronze, and others almost white. They stood out so well against the surrounding grayness and were so delicate and beautiful that Pauline hesitated for a moment before removing them from the bark of the trees; she pulled them off very carefully, laying them gently in her basket.
Further away, some recently cut fir trees gave her some abandoned branches and a great quantity of pine cones.
Her basket was getting heavy and she decided to go home, on the way picking up a creeper of wild clematis with feathery fruits, which was every bit as lovely as the prettiest of garlands.
Before she left the forest, she caught sight of a holly bush, which was surely making up for having stayed quiet throughout the summer. It was the only bush still with foliage, with beautiful blueish green leaves, shiny, spiky, and brightened by a multitude of little red balls. It was like a Christmas tree in itself.
Pauline felt her heart beating. Without holly, the decorations would not be complete.
When she reached the village, she walked alongside an abandoned house whose wall was covered in ivy. It bore black berries standing out on their tough, deep green leaves. Pauline made some into a bouquet.
She arrived back in the village heavily laden. It was a far-flung little place in the depths of the country. You had to travel a long way to get to a town and, because of its isolation, it had kept all its stores. It was the woman who ran the bakery who noticed her first.
“Where did you find all those treasures, Pauline? That’s fantastic! Wouldn’t you like to give me a few pine cones for my store window?”
“Of course,” replied Pauline, “I’ll go and fetch some more, there’s plenty in the woods!”
And she gave her all her pine cones, plus a few fir tree branches.
“Thank you,” said the baker, “You are kind. Let me give you a chocolate log for your trouble. Which kind do you like best, dark or milk chocolate?”
The little girl chose a milk chocolate one and continued on her way home, very happy.
But she hadn’t reckoned with the butcher who also shouted a greeting to her when he saw her going past with her basket overflowing with holly.
“Pauline, you’ve come at just the right time. I’ve been looking for something to decorate my window display. Could you give me a few branches of holly? And those wild rose sprigs are very pretty too.”
And Pauline, being a generous girl, offloaded her treasures again. The storekeeper, very happy, gave her a plump chicken in exchange.
A bit further on, it was the lady at the fish store who exclaimed in delight when she saw the garland of wild clematis. She also chose a bunch of ivy and gave Pauline a large piece of smoked salmon to take home.
As she was nearly there, and just passing Matthew’s farm, Matthew himself came out to greet her.
“Hello Pauline, wasn’t your father supposed to be coming to fetch some wood? Has he forgotten?”
“No,” replied Pauline, “but we can’t at the moment. He’ll come and fetch some in the New Year, if you don’t mind.”
“Whatever suits him best,” said Matthew.
And, just as he was going in, his wife caught sight of Pauline, came up to give her a hug and saw the pieces of birch bark, the lichen and the holly in her basket.
“This lichen is amazing!” she exclaimed. “These are the flowers of the winter. I would really like to decorate my Christmas table with them and they would go so well with the holly. Could you possibly let me have some, Pauline? Matthew will bring you a load of logs for your trouble.”
The deal was done, there and then.
Back home again, Pauline carefully put the food away and, just as she was getting ready to go back into the woods, she saw Matthew bringing the logs as promised.
She went back to her picking with a light heart.
When she had once again gathered enough to make the house beautiful, she thanked the forest for its gifts and set off for home as it was starting to get dark.
Home again, she first lit a good fire, then decorated the house with holly, garlands of clematis, and butcher’s broom, and adorned the table with lichen, ivy, pine cones and rose hips. Then she got busy in the kitchen, put the chicken in the oven, surrounded by chestnuts she had kept from one of her autumn walks.
She had just lit some candles when she heard her father’s car, and she rushed to open the door. Imagine her delight when she saw he was accompanied by her mother whose health had improved so much they had let her out of the hospital!
Her parents also got a big surprise when they found the house so beautifully decorated. After they had all stared at each other in amazement and given each other no end of hugs, they sat down at the table and ate a feast of smoked salmon, roast chicken with chestnuts and chocolate log, warmed by the glowing fire in the hearth.
They had no gifts to give each other other than the best one in the world: the love that they each had for each other.
Translated by Wendy Cross