A Yuletide Garland of Stories
This week brings you seven touching and inspirational stories of Christmas, with a barbaric touch. God Bless.
1. "The Christmas Tree"
The young pine tree stood holding his branches out as if in supplication. Indeed, he was soundlessly praying, if a tree can be said to do so, to whatever gods or druids or faeries to which a pine tree would pray. He was praying the harvesters would reach his rank and row today, tomorrow at the latest.
For it is the week before Christmas, and unless he is taken quickly, he will be too late for this season. Perhaps he might have too propitious a Spring and Summer, with much sun and rain and life-giving humus. Then he might grow too large to be considered quite suitable for a Christmas tree. His pith sank at the thought, and he pushed it away and continued his matins to the pine tree Jesus, or Buddha, or whatever Allah the wood-folk present their heart-wood's desire to.
The birds had first explained to him, along with the other saplings in his row, the story of trees that are perfectly shaped and suited. They must be full of foliage and graceful of bough, then chosen, and finally taken into a snug warm home. There they were decorated with streamers and pop-corn and tinsel and beautiful lights and fragile glass ornaments, until they were quite breath-taking in their splendor. Later, when the children were asleep, a red-suited elf would pile treats and presents high beneath the pinetree's benevolent limbs, awaiting the wide eyes and squeals of delight of the good boys and girls come morning. The happy Christmas tree would hold forth while the children screamed for joy and surprise at each gift. Mamma and Papa would tenderly exchange packages, amid tears from Mamma and hurrumphs and throat-clearing from overcome Papa, too manly to cry aloud, but with a tear in the corner of his eye for the presents his little boy and girl have made for him with their own hand. For at least a week after that, there would be jolly games and fun as the children, home from school on Christmas vacation, made merry with their new toys. And over all this the lucky Christmas tree would preside, bearing silent but proud witness to the festive season.
At first the little pine could hardly believe these tales, thinking the jack-daws and crows were mocking the poor wooden-headed infants. But the stately owl, and even some of the does who came to feed in the misty dawn, confirmed all the wonderful stories as quite being true.
The pine tree could not imagine a more wonderful fate than to be chosen for a Christmas tree. He pined (no pun intended.) for a chance to be Sir Tannenbaum, and he was sure he would be a very merry tree indeed, if only given the chance.
From that day on, he strove to grow symmetrically and straight, full on all sides, with no holes in his even raiment. He kept his bark tight and clean, and his needles combed neatly, row on row. He even attempted to taper to a fine point, perfect for a Christmas angel or star.
Now it was December 23rd, and time grew short. The harvesters were far from his rank, and many trees from his row. If only they were not too late. But it did indeed look hopeless. And the poor tree had concentrated all his efforts on peaking in his best condition this year. He was heartsore and hopeless of ever attaining his fondest dream.
Late that afternoon the foreman of the harvesters, an axeman and an older, well dressed gentleman, came walking among the rows. They were talking quietly, considering tree after tree. As they neared, the little pine could hear their murmurs clarify into words.
"I need a very straight, perfect and true tree. No other will do. My little girl is my light and my soul, and I will settle for none but the best for her," said the grey-haired man, whom the pine recognized as the grove owner himself.
The foreman scrutinized each tree for defect, found fault with many, laid hands questioningly on those he found 'up to snuff', but to each candidate the owner shook his head.
"This is no ordinary pine I seek," he snapped, presented with what he considered a most unsuitably twisted conifer. "I need a tree with heart enough to stand guard over my darling, watching over her sleep, overseeing her entire garden of memories. No common Christmas fir will do. I seek a much nobl'er grain of wood than that."
They were on his rank now, and very near his row. The tree drew himself up as straight and proud as he could. He held his limbs gracefully aloft and furrowed his brow to the most pyramidal point, and hoped with all his heart-wood.
"Yes, perhaps," murmured the old gentleman, "let me see the back, nice straight trunk, perfect clean limbs, no diseases, beetles or blights..."
"This one will be the tree for my child," he said, walking on quickly, leaving the axeman to his work.
The foreman nodded to the axeman, who began to chop at the foot of the young tree, and the chips flew as the burly chopper swung mightily.
The tree felt no pain, but a sad kind of regret as the axe hewed his trunk. He knew that in realizing his dream he must be parted from the Earth, his mother, to grow no more, and eventually wither and die and be discarded. But the honor was so great it transcended the melancholy of his lost vitality.
The axeman finished severing the pine from his life-sustaining roots. The young pine waved his needles in silent farewell to the friends with which he had grown his entire life. They waved back, saddened at his passing but glad for the reflected honor of one of their own chosen for the owner's own child.
The pine was laid in the back of a lorry, and began his trip to his final destination. To a tree who had never moved from one spot in his life, the world flying by in a rush was quite exciting and disorienting. He knew not where he went, careening through the night.
At last they pulled up to and into a large, dark building. In quiet reflection, the pine wondered if he would be decorated that night or Christmas Eve. The axeman lifted him from the bed of the lorry and took him into the building and he was blinded by the lights within. He was laid on a moving table, and after a few seconds all went blank and the little pine knew no more.
"And verily, though the Lord has seen fit in his wisdom, to send his pestilent fever to take his favored child, Rebecca, into his bosom, we the bereft must take consolation that she goes to a better place," intoned the churchman. Mourners in files around the new, raw grave, sobbed silently, cried aloud, stood grim or stern and silent, as was each one's wont and character.
"And although Christmas is a time of rebirth, we are reminded that in the midst of life we are in death. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Man that is born of woman is destined to return to the clay from whenst he came," concluded the churchman.
Most of the mourners turned away, but the owner of the pine grove watched as the workmen cranked the winch, lowering the cable on which swayed the newly milled, bright white wood of the small pine coffin of his only child.
2. Waiting for Santa
Little Bobby was so excited he couldn't even shut his eyes, let alone sleep. The sounds of the night were muffled by the falling snow outside his bedroom window. The silent night was broken only by the soft, sweet breathing of his little brother and baby sister, her crib pushed into their room to make way for uncles, aunts and cousins in the nursery.
Bobby clutched his Teddy tightly, and strained his ears for a jingle of sleigh-bells, a tread of hooves on the roof, a rush and rustle in the chimney stack.
Only this week, that bad boy Danny Rawls had been teasing him and taunting that there was no Santa, that Santa was a lie. But Bobby refused to believe Mommy would tell him such a fib. Santa was too good, too generous, to beautiful and wonderful not to exist.
Still, Bobby had a hard, painful knot in his chest. Maybe Danny was right. Maybe there was no Santa. Maybe Daddy and Mommy laid all the sparkling presents, gay in their wrappings and festive bows, beneath the fragrant and shining tree each year. Maybe when he was older, the magic would end, and there would be no miracles, no beauty, no imagination, no Santa.
Bobby had suffered in silence all Christmas week, too miserable to ask his Mother the questions that tormented his days and haunted his dreams. Perhaps he was afraid of what the answer might be.
Through the interminable hours (we oldsters forget how time drags on for a children, especially waiting for a great event like a Birthday or a Holiday.) Bobby's mind was fevered with doubt, sick with certainty, then alternately wistful with hope.
For in a moment of revelation, when praying in church the Sunday before Christmas, Bobby sent a small, beseeching plea to the large statue of Christ crucified, awesome and holy, to please let Santa be real, and to please Lord, let Santa be revealed to him.
And Jesus had answered him, looking directly at Bobby with his soft brown eyes, so full of understanding and love.
So Bobby was lying in the dark, as wide awake as if it were noon, praying to Jesus to be with him, and show him the great secret. As the night reached the wee hours, Bobby heard the slightest sound downstairs, and he knew the time had come.
Bobby crept down the stairs, Teddy bumping his head on each one as he descended, dragging up the rear. Bobby's eyes became accustomed to the dark, catlike, and he made out a form on the living room sofa. A chubby, jolly form, soft in the shadows, indistinct and hazy, but Bobby knew who it was.
He drew nearer, shyly at first, then as he saw the red fabric covering the seated form he knew his prayers had been answered and reached out his arms to embrace Santa.
Bobby saw a great light, a beautiful red glow, and felt himself leave the Earth, an angel, floating free and light, heard beautiful music and the gates of Heaven, and was happy.
Bobby's Uncle Barry lowered the shotgun and peered near-sightedly through the darkness to see if he his aim had been true, clouded as it was by the many egg-nog brandies he had consumed Christmas Eve. It was a good thing he had stayed up to guard the presents against the Christmas Burglar who skulked into homes after families were fast asleep. By the looks of the shotgun riddled remains at Uncle Barry's feet, the Burglar had robbed his last house. Wait until the family, calling out in alarm at the shot, came in and saw Uncle Barry's handiwork. Then they would be singing a different tune.
3. The Magic Snowman
It was the first real snowfall of the year, one that stuck and piled up drifts. The snowplow raised four-foot ramparts on both sides of the streets, instant forts for children to defend, mountains to brave, great walls of China to explore.
The Babsley twins, looking like panda bears in their goose-down filled snowsuits, toddled after their sister Belinda. She was five and they were only two-and a half, and she was their god, their oracle, their idol.
"Well, if you babies must follow me, then try to keep up. We will miss all the best coasting." she exhorted the mightily struggling mites, who ran as fast as their chubby, padded legs could go to match Belinda's pace.
Behind them they dragged tiny plastic sleds, miniature replicas of the real Radio Flyer Belinda pulled. It was her older brother's cast-off sled. He was in junior high school now, and coasting was beneath him. So Belinda had happily claimed it and was anxious to try it out, before the best hill was rutted and scraped clean of snow, leaving only muddy sleet-snow that made your runners dig into the dirt and didn't coast properly at all.
"Come babies, hurry." she demanded as this thought crossed her mind.
But Belinda worried in vain. The hill was in perfect shape, and hilarious with children. Boisterous boys snowballed each other and girls they liked, who shrieked prettily and ran after them. Tobogganers, sledders, coasters and here and there a snowdisk flew down the variously steep or easy hills and hillocks
Belinda tried first the smaller hills, then the larger, but dared not attempt the biggest. The children called it the Matterhorn, a steep and icy slope that only the larger boys (sometimes with a courageous girl's arms around their waist) would attempt.
Coasting for a bit with the twins on the baby slope, Belinda looked wistfully up at the Matterhorn
She had fallen in love with speed, the wind blowing her hair back, the exhilaration and even the stab of fear when you reached the fastest arc of the hills, and you flew like a bird across the snow. It was freedom. It was danger. It was heaven, and she became intoxicated with the beauty of it all and the adrenaline pulsing through her veins.
The babies were uneasy, for they sensed her yearning, and they wished to help her, but they knew not how.
Belinda did not lack the courage to try the big hill. No, mostly she feared the scorn of the big boys if she even tried to make the ascent. Soon the smaller hills had lost all charm for her, and she sat uncoasting, disconsolately, watching the big boys and the lucky girls who rode with them. She of course was too young for any of the boys to offer her a coast, and she was too shy of them to ask.
Suppertime came, and parents or children whose houses were within shouting distance of the hills were shouted home. The early dusk of Northern late afternoon was setting in, and the grey sky was rapidly darkening. Belinda knew that she and the twins would be missed soon, and her older brother would be sent to fetch her. She had forgotten her parents were dining out that night. Her older brother, employed with the diversions of teen-age boys, might remember the children before morning, perhaps.
Still, Belinda waited as the gaily gadding crowds thinned, and finally the last big boy rode off on one last coast, and continued up the path toward his home.
The twins were cold, and their feet were wet, and they wanted their dinner and some hot chocolate. But their worship of Belinda forbore them from asking her to go home. They could sense she was waiting for something.
Bracing herself up, Belinda trudged up the Matterhorn, slipping back a step here and there, but manfully making way to the top. The babies watched from the foot, out of danger to the side beside a giant lop-sided snowman some children had built and christened. Their gazed upward at their sister's ascent, mouths open in wonder and astonishment. Even as Belinda climbed on, their infant minds could not comprehend she meant to coast the monster, the Everest, the Matterhorn.
Belinda, reaching the starting point at the furthest peak, just where the hill flattened at the top, took a moment to enjoy the anticipation, then kicked off.
As if in slow motion, the sled began down the mighty hill, seemingly holding itself back, gathering itself, then with a rush like a springing panther, Belinda was suddenly hurtled ten times faster than any hill she had tried that day.
Far from being frightened, she was elated, excited, full of a fierce joy and the rush of speed and wind. She let out a triumphant whoop of victory as she hit the fastest, iciest part of the slope, nearing 30 miles an hour (a quite prodigious speed on a sled, do not think it is not.) as she flew like a bird across the well-packed snow. Her light, frictionless weight and the constant slickening of the snow by the many riders that day made it a faster run than anyone, even the high-school boys with their highly-polished runners, had taken.
The twins were agog at the spectacle. They sat pop-eyed and stunned at Belinda flying down the hill, and their eyes fairly bugged out of their heads as the sled left the contact with the ground, hydroplaning out of control, then spinning, then rolling, then crashing toward them. Belinda, now petrified with fear and hysterical with terror, felt a sickening jolt of pain as she spun into the twins, throwing them all into a thick oak, bouncing off the barrel of fire the children had used to warm themselves, careening off a concrete bench and finally coming to rest halfway buried in the lop-sided snowman.
Belinda felt warm blood run down her foot, and was sick to see she had broken her leg above the knee. One of the twins was lying twisted unnaturally to one side, crying loudly and screaming for Mama. The other was beneath Belinda, and though mute with fright and shock, appeared unhurt.
The pain was almost more than Belinda could comprehend, but her overarching fear for the safety of the twins gave her a burst of strength, and she dragged herself out of the snowpile she had erected in her willy-nilly slide and gathered the stricken toddler to her.
His arm was broken, and maybe his collarbone as well, but he was too far in shock to realize the pain. The other twin sobbed and hiccoughed forlornly, sucking her thumb. Belinda felt her feet going numb, and the pain, only slightly dulled by the intense cold as the sun disappeared, began to warm her until it began to scald, and she moaned with despair and misery.
"Don't cry, everything will be all right," said a kind, deep voice.
Belinda was too relieved to be startled, and grasped the straw of security the voice offered.
"Please help us. I am hurt. Where are you?" Belinda gasped out.
"I am here. I have always been here." It was the large snowman, whose coal eyes glowed with concern and strength. "Do not worry, I will watch over you until help arrives. I will ease your pain for now."
Belinda was not even amazed to see the snowman gather up the injured twin in his arms and lay his great snowy paw on the toddler's arm, setting it right. The baby stopped crying and smiled up at the gentle, snowy face looking down upon it. The other twin stopped sobbing and crawled closer to the snowman, putting his little arms around Snowy and burying his head in the snowman's shabby greatcoat.
"And now you, Belinda," said the Snowman kindly.
He slightly shifted his great bulk, and somehow came up under her, lifting her onto his great snowy lap. Belinda was not surprised he was not cold at all, but warm and comforting. He engulfed her in his arms and her pain lessened, then disappeared completely. She cuddled her head to his breast, and sighed with relief. The babies were both asleep, and all three of them were held easily in the Snowman's strong and gentle arms. He sang softly as he rocked them into a peaceful slumber.
An early coaster was out just as the sun was breaking the far hills the next morning. He was horrified to see the ice covered faces of the three children, blue, peaceful and smiling, their bodies half-covered with snow, sticking out the the remains of a lop-sided, ruined snowman.
4. Christmas Candy
They were very poor. The mother worked very hard, but somehow there was never enough food for the little girl, let alone the mother.
Even the rats and roaches that tormented their first months in the shabby room had left them alone now, for there was nothing in the house to eat.
The mother looked at her child's hunger-drawn face, and felt despair at ever having enough to fill out those cheeks, bring light to those beautiful eyes. She herself had not had a real meal in over a year. And now it was Christmas, and she had no job, and no food, and they were starving.
The young mother decided she could no longer stand to see the child dying before her eyes. Something must be done, and she would do it.
"Well, do you know what day it is, my darling? It's Christmas." she said with a great attempt at gaiety, hoping to cheer the child.
The child said nothing, just looked back with eyes so hunger-filled, their was no room for hope, for love, for imagination, for play, for cheer. Only hunger.
"And since its Christmas, I have decided we must have a Christmas goose. And I am going right out to select a fat one now." said the mother, wrapping her thin, ragged shawl around her shoulders and stepping into her broken shoes. "Now you get the table ready, and I will bring back a Christmas supper such as which you have never seen."
She kissed the child and left the hovel.
The child did not, in her heart of hearts, believe her mother was coming back with a goose. Still, she was so starved it eased the pangs to move about, so she began setting the places for a dinner she had not had since she could remember. She had always been hungry
She set out the cracked cups, and the mismatched plates, one with a sunflower, faded and spidered with cracked glaze, another with a moon and stars. She laid their two bent spoons and the sole fork, the only one they had. Optimistically she set out the chipped creamer and hatless butter plate as well. There was no sugar bowl.
Perhaps they would need the teapot, long unused in the top cupboard. She stood on a chair, piled a book, then an upturned wastebasket until she could reach far back into the topmost cupboard shelf.
She pulled out the pot, then behind it she saw a gay red bit of color. Her unbelieving eyes widened as she saw it was a bag of striped candy bobs. Afraid it was a only a hunger induced mirage she reached out her hand slowly and touched the bag. They were real. She pulled them down, in her haste almost toppling the tottering tower of chair, book and wastebasket
The little girl laid them on the table, not daring to tear the bag open. Her mother must have hidden them there as a Christmas treat after their dinner. Now she truly believed in the feast to come, for why else would Mother hide these sweet, sugary treats and let her go hungry unless she was to eat all her meat, vegetables and pudding first, then have a bon-bon.
It was very hard not to open the bag, but she was a good, obedient girl, and she waited, not patiently but panting and in agony to open the bag and taste the sweetmeats within.
She did wait a good long time, by her own lights, but a youngster's hunger is unknown to adults, a body eating itself alive trying to stretch her growing bones. It gnawed with an insistence that overcame her stolid, good-hearted will to obey her sweet mother.
At last she could wait no longer, and tore open a tiny corner of the bag and cozened out one bon-bon. Even then she hesitated, then in one gulp, swallowed the treat whole. Then another, then another, then on the fourth, she left it on her tongue to savor the sweetness. It was so good and satisfying the sugar tasted almost bitter, almost like almonds. Then she felt a pang, then twisted in a rictus of agony. She fell, convulsing, staring and foaming at the mouth, then quickly, mercifully dead. She had eaten cyanide-laced bon-bons, thought hidden safely out of her reach by her mother, there to kill the rats which until lately had tormented them so.
And there she lay - poor starved body and cruelly tortured eyes staring unblinkingly at the door- awaiting the return of her widowed and sickly mother who, when she opened that wooden door and took off her shawl, would find - oh, too sad for words. Thank God the mother was spared that most heart-breaking of scenes.
For the mother hadn't planned on ever coming back anyhow.