Following is an excerpt from “Christmas Carols in my Heart,” my new Christmas book just out this fall.
I love stories. The words “Once upon a time…” make my ears perk up. This song (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”) begins like a story: “It came upon the midnight clear…”
Who knows whether the setting was really midnight, but it could have been! When I was nine years old, I wasn’t worried about theology or philosophy–I simply absorbed the story and enjoyed singing the words that etched themselves into my heart for later perusal. The real night referenced in the song very well could have been a night like the one when I, along with several of my brothers and sisters, took a very special Christmas Eve walk.
My two playmate brothers (the other three had already left home by then) had been building a small house in our woods that fall of 1951. They had allowed five-year-old Suzanne and me to help…up to a point. As soon as the house was “dried in” and ready to be enjoyed, they put us out. We were forced to find our own amusement. Hopeful that the hammering and sawing we heard might mean the boys were making us a present, we tried to think of something we could give them in turn. Mamma helped us hem handkerchiefs after we gave up on our efforts at pottery and aircraft construction.
Christmas Eve finally, finally, arrived. Mamma and Daddy banned us from the Hall (main room at Stone Gables with living area on one end, dining on the other) about five o’clock that afternoon so they could bring in the Christmas tree and decorate it. We could hear swishing and sliding as they wangled the tree in and Daddy instructed Mamma, “All right, now, up she goes.” Mamma then apparently eyed the tree’s straightness and replied, “No, to the right, little to the left, there–that’s good. Here’s the string. Catch!” We knew Daddy was tying the tree to the balcony rail.
Even the oldest girls, Pat and Ginger, home from college, were not to see the tree until the candles were all lit and Daddu blew the trumpet. Instead, they were in charge of feeding the rest of us supper. But no one was hungry except Stan, who was never full.
Suddenly, instead of prodding us to eat our bread and milk, Pat put on her big coat, fluffing her hair out over the collar. She grabbed coats for Suzanne and me too. Everyone else started moving and preparing themselves in turn. Somehow, Suzanne and I seemed to be the only ones who didn’t know what we were doing.
“Oh, Suzanne, where are your mittens?” asked Ginger.
“They’re in my coat pocket,” I said. “Suzanne’s coat doesn’t have pockets. Anyway, our mittens are so full of holes our fingers are sticking out.”
“Well, that’s a good thing,” said Pat, helping Ginger fit them on us. “If it weren’t for the holes they’d be too little. Hmmm…too bad you two don’t have new mittens. That’s a shame.” She sounded as if she was telling a joke, but I wasn’t getting it.
It was a moonlit night with a dome of stars overhead. The sky was so clear it felt almost as if the lights above were pulling my eyes right out of my head. Someone started singing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” as we trailed down Sunny Lawn, across Sand Flat, and crunched in the frozen ruts of an old road that wound around Tulip Hill. I could almost imagine one of those angels appearing in our path and “bending near,” especially when Pat said in a hushed voice, “There! Do you see that one bright star?” We followed her pointing finger and, sure enough, the brightest star actually did have a shining longer tail like the stars featured on Christmas cards.
Suzanne and I were so intent on studying the stars that we didn’t notice Stan, Charlie, and Jackie running on ahead, leaving us far behind. The cold crept into my holey mittens and I fisted my hands to warm them. It had gotten pretty dark in the deeper woods, and I stayed close by Pat’s side, glad when she took one of my hands in hers. At least that one could be warm. Then, in the most startling voice, Ginger said, “Halt! Look through the trees! What is that?”
For the tiniest second, I thought, The angel has come down! Then I took a deep breath of cold air and realized the light before me, like a tiny pinpoint through the trees, was coming from exactly where that little house was–the one from which Suzanne and I had been exiled weeks before. I let go of Pat’s hand and, suddenly fearless, dashed ahead.
The Little House, as we began to call it, had been furnished and decorated by Jackie and our brothers. It was the most fantastic playhouse anyone could have imagined. There was wallpaper, a stove, a quilted doll-sized bed, and a window adorned with curtains above a sill on which a candle gleamed. Fifty years later, I remember the pounding excitement in my chest when I took it all in. The Little House was a gift of love that would last long after the walls caved in and the shingles disintegrated.
It was time to hurry back to our home, Stone Gables, and line up for the Christmas tree. I can still taste the piece of hard candy I ate, feel the warmth of my new mittens, and smell the tantalizing scent of my brand-new book.
Christmas Carols in my Heart is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com and, locally, at Center Drugs, Miss Myrt’s, Rayann’s, and the Bookshelf. I’m also going to have a table at Mistletoe Market, downtown Cairo, on Saturday and will be hosted at a tea at Roddenbery Memorial Library, December 12, 4:00-6:00. I would love to have a chat with you!