18 A Stony Hill Christmas

Things like this only happened in the movies; or so I thought.  It turns out, some of the ridiculous scenes in Christmas films do happen.   Only, I didn’t wake up in a big Victorian with my beautiful wife resting by my side.  There weren’t two mischievous, yet extremely charming children, slumbering down the hall.  There was no stack of silver-and-gold of gifts waiting under the tree.  My life was far less glamorous than that.  I was living alone in a one-bedroom apartment. My family was scattered all across the US.   And, despite the few friends I had still living in New Jersey, I felt alone.  The holidays were just making it worse.

I guess I had seen too many Christmas movies.  I never seemed to bump into an attractive girl, who I had once dated in high school, in town for the weekend.   I never had that harmless fender-bender that led to sharing a warm cup of hot chocolate in a cozy little Diner.  Nor did I have a co-worker, who maybe had too much wine at the holiday party, reveal she had a big crush on me. The holidays it seemed, didn’t hold any special power; at least, not anymore.

As I mentioned, I was living alone in the Stony Hill apartment complex, or “Stony Hell”, as my friends called it. It wasn’t super nice; but it was close to work, just five-hundred bucks a month, and utilities were included!  I should mention that roaches were also included, as well as a pack of rabid squirrels that lived in the attic.

I woke up tired. I hadn’t been sleeping very well lately. All night long I had been haunted, not by three ghosts, but by the fond memories of childhood Christmases past.  Now it was Christmas day and I wasn’t feeling the magic. It was just another Tuesday.  I hadn’t even put up my tree yet, looked like that wasn’t going to happen this year.

As I clicked on the fluorescent lights to my kitchen I heard the familiar pitter-patter of tiny roaches retreating to the cupboard.  But other than that, not a creature was stirring.  Even the squirrels which normally rustled above me must have had holiday plans, because they were strangely silent on that winter morning.  Everything was exactly as I had left it.  The sink was full of dirty dishes.  A forgotten gallon of warm milk and the leftovers from last-night’s dinner rested plainly on the counter.  My advent calendar was still stuck on December second. I grabbed a pack of blueberry pop tarts from the shelf and a can of Coke and started my day.

As soon as I stepped into my living room, I noticed something was wrong.  The box of fake candles I had bought for the front window sat unopened on the couch next to the spot where my Christmas tree was supposed to go. I may not be able to magically produce a Christmas tree and decorate in one day, but I [could] plug in some fake candles to go in the front window.  I quickly dismantled the box and searched for an extension cord. I had to disconnect the fish tank, but I finally found one.

As I approached my front window, I saw the large shadow of a tail in the venetian blinds.  Seconds later, a large squirrel lunged past me, slamming into my prized collection of Bruce Springsteen CDs.  Unlike the furry Hollywood variety, this squirrel clawed and shrieked at me as he leaked feces over the white carpet, like a gumdrop trail from hell.

You never plan for bad things to happen.  I didn’t wake up thinking that my apartment would be invaded by an ill-tempered squirrel.  Like most things in life, it just happened.  I wish I could tell you I rushed to face my attacker with bravery and emerged  victorious. But what really happened was much less glorious. I grabbed my keys, and then sprinted down the stairs to my car wearing only boxers.

The squirrel peered down from my second floor unit me hiding in my car, taunting me as I speed-dialed the superintendent, reaching the answering service.  They took the message but didn’t promise anything.  At that moment, it hit me.  It was Christmas Day.  There was no one coming.  I was on my own.

My limbs froze in my car, while my mind boiled with the thought of the squirrel running wild in my apartment.  I wasn’t going to let some little rodent  steal my home and my Christmas.  I finally got out of the car and ran towards the building. The courtyard was empty except for an old woman walking her dog.  She took one look at me, and headed off in the other direction.

As I climbed the stairs of to my apartment, my breath quickened.  I could hear the squirrel grinding through my living room above.  When I finally made it to the top of the stairs I stopped dead in my tracks at the door.  With my fingers on the cold brass knob, I tried to summons the bravery of the Minute Men from the Revolutionary War who flushed the Red Coats out of New Jersey. But did I really want to spend the holidays getting a round of rabie shots to the stomach?

Before I could turn the knob, my superintendant came bounding up the stairs.  I smelled alcohol on the old guy’s breath as he blew past in a bright red jogging suit.  He could have passed for a Santa, a mall Santa anyway.  Just like the real St. Nick, he went straight to his work.  This pretty much included swatting at a squirrel with a broom stick.  “Open all the windows!” He yelled.

I froze in the middle of the room as the squirrel bounced around the apartment like a pin ball.

“Go on! Open up!” My superintendent screamed loader this time.

Finally, I sprung into action.  With my head down, I plowed through the living room towards the front windows. I jimmied the locks open with the skill of a master locksmith.  Mission accomplished, I swept through the rest of the apartment clearing multiple paths to the outside world, or egress as the military say.

The whole ordeal jump-started my body.  I felt the rush of adrenalin pumping through my veins.  I felt alive again, like I could run a marathon.   I wouldn’t say it was Christmas miracle because those don’t typically happen when you’re naked. But, for the first time in a long while, I had hope that things could only get better.  I would start with the apartment.

14 A Grandfather’s Love

“Mommy?” asked the little green-eyed girl with long piggy-tails, “Why don’t Grandpa and Grandma Smith love us?”

“What do you mean, honey? Of course they love you; they’ll be on their way to visit us in a few days.”

“Really?” Ann’s eyes sparkled with happiness. “They’re really coming for Christmas? They’ve never come before! Yeah!!”

“Hold on a minute Ann. They are coming for a few days but they need to drive back to Idaho before Christmas. They’ll be leaving all of the chores to Uncle Dave and he can’t do them alone for very long. They’ll stay for a few days and then they need to get back home.”

“Oh,” Ann sighed. “So they really do love us less.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, my friend Jacki said that both of her grandma’s come to see her every Christmas. She said that since I never see Grandma and Grandpa Smith for Christmas, it must mean that they love my cousins in Idaho more than me.” Ann looked at her mom with worry and hurt. “I wish they loved me too.”

“Oh sweetheart,” Mommy reached down and scooped up five year old Ann. “Grandma and Grandpa live far away and it’s hard to drive through all of the snow to get here. They tell me every Christmas how they wish they could be here. They’ll be here in a few days to see you and your brother and sisters. They love you very much.”

“They do?”

“Yes, sweetheart, they do.”

MaryJo and Ann sat perched on the back of the couch looking out the big bay window in the living room. Gazing into the light snow that was falling Ann asked her big sister, “Do you think they will still come?”

MaryJo looked out into the snow that was beginning to cover everything they could see. She sighed and in her best grown-up voice, the seven-year-old said, “Yes. They’ll come. Grandpa can drive in this no problem. Remember Grandma said he used to ride those wild horses in the rodeo?”

“Yes,” Ann replied still a little worried.

“Well, I figure if he was brave enough to do that, then he’ll be just fine driving in a little snow.” MaryJo gave Ann a reassuring hug and they looked out into the snow once more looking for the old red pickup.

“MaryJo, Ann! Come and eat dinner! Daddy, will you find Janice please? She might be upstairs with Bobby and Sharon,” Mom called from the kitchen.

“But mom! You said grandma and grandpa were going to eat with us!” MaryJo said annoyed.

“Yeah! Grandpa will be hungry. We better wait for them.” Ann added.

“No ladies.” Mom said glancing out the window. “Come and eat dinner now please. I’ve saved some for grandpa and grandma so they can eat when they get here. The snow is slowing them down. Come on.”

Mom ushered the girls into the kitchen and they sat at the table waiting for Daddy and the others. Nine year-old Bobby marched in with the toddler Janice.

“Mom! You’ve gotta keep this pest out of my room! She’s gonna break everything.”

“You’re just mad because she found your cars and had one of them in her mouth. Big deal,” sighed almost 12 year-old Sharon.

“Be quiet, big mouth. You…”

“Hey, stop it. Let’s say a prayer. Ann, will you say the blessing please?” asked Dad.

“Okay. Dear Father in Heaven. Thank thee for the food. Thanks for mom making bread and cake for grandpa. Please bless the food so we can be healthy and strong. Help Grandpa drive good in the snow and help Grandma to close her eyes and not be worried about Grandpa’s driving. Bless them to hurry. Amen.”

Mom and Dad smiled at one another and said “Amen.”

MaryJo just rolled her eyes.

“Why aren’t they here yet Daddy?” asked Ann running past the dirty table to her daddy who was loading dished in the dishwasher. “You said they’d be here for dinner and we already ate all the food.”

“Well Ann, the weatherman on TV said that this is a pretty big snowstorm. Most of your grandparents’ drive is in this snow. It’s pretty hard to drive in snow. It’s hard to see and the roads are slippery. I’m sure Grandpa is driving slowly to be safe.”

Putting his arm around Ann, Daddy pointed to the northwest towards the dark sky. “That’s where Grandpa and Grandma are coming from. Those clouds are full of snow, and that snow is slowing them down. But they’ll be here soon.”

“Are they okay?” Ann asked scrunching up her forehead.

“I’m sure they’re fine. Can you go help your sister clear up the table now?” Mom called up the stairs, “It’s time for bed everyone! Go get your jammies on please.”

MaryJo and Ann both ran down the stairs to argue. “But mom! They aren’t here yet! We have to watch for them to make sure they find our house.”

“What do you mean?” Daddy asked walking into the room.

MaryJo rolled her eyes again. “We have our flashlights and we are shining them out the window so Grandpa knows which house is ours. They all look the same in the snow!”

Dad tried not to laugh and Mommy sighed. “Jammies please. Then get into bed.”

MaryJo and Ann ran quickly past Bobby who was making faces at them from the stairs. They raced to get their pajamas on first then ran back down the stairs. “Fine, we have our jammies on now mom. But we need to say our prayers. Did you forget?” Now it was Ann’s turn to roll her eyes. Picking up her kitten she said, “I’ll say it.”

“No way!” argued MaryJo, “You said it at dinner and last night. Remember Dad? She asked for another kitten!”

“Well it worked last time didn’t it?” Ann yelled back, while stroking the kitten’s back. “We have Quick now don’t we!”

“Girls!” Dad called out. “That’s enough. Yes Ann, you can say the prayer. But no more pets. And wait until Bobby gets here.”

“Heavenly Father,” Ann said beginning the prayer a minute later, “Thank you for Mommy and Daddy and Sharon and Bobby and Janice and even MaryJo. Thank you for my kitty. Please bless the prophet and my primary teacher. Please don’t let Grandpa and Grandma get lost in the snow. Please hurry them up so mommy will stop biting her fingernails. Bless Grandma and Grandpa Hansen too. Amen.”

“Daddy?” MaryJo asked quietly at few minutes later, “Why is mommy crying?”

“She’s a little worried, that’s all. Girls, give your mom a hug and kiss. I’ll read to you tonight.”

Ann walked over to where her mom sat by the big window. “Mommy?”


“Grandpa and Grandma are almost here.”

Mommy looked puzzled and asked “How do you know?”

“Well, when I prayed for them to find us and to hurry, I got a fuzzy feeling in my heart. Heavenly Father told me not to worry because they were almost here.”

“I hope you’re right ladybug. I hope you are right.” Mommy gave Ann a big hug and got up to help Daddy read a book to the three younger girls.

“Okay, up to bed now,” Dad said after he finished Dr. Seuss again.

MaryJo and Ann started to argue as they followed Daddy up the stairs. He was carrying Janice who was almost asleep. Half way up the stairs MaryJo yelled, “Be Quiet!”


“I heard something. Be quiet!” She said again.

Ding Dong rang the doorbell. MaryJo and Ann ran down the stairs and flung open the door. It was Grandpa and Grandma! “Yeah!” cheered both of the girls. “You’re finally here!”

“I told you they’d be chomp’n at the bit waiting for us, didn’t I Grandma?” Grandpa chuckled. “Well, here we are. And boy am I hungry.”

“Mom made a cake grandpa! And MaryJo and I helped to decorate it! Let’s go eat it!!” Ann took Grandpa by the hand and MaryJo took Grandma and they led them into the kitchen with their parents and siblings trailing behind.

“Maybe they should eat some dinner first then have some cake.” Mom said giving Grandpa and Grandma a big hug. “I’m glad you made it. I love you.”

“Good morning ladies,” Grandpa grinned early the next morning. “Come and look out the window.”

The two girls ran to the big window and looked out at the snow. “Grandpa!” MaryJo squealed, “I can’t see your truck!”

Grandma walked into the family room laughing. “Come and eat some breakfast girls and maybe you can talk grandpa into making a snowman with you.”

“Okay! What’s for breakfast mom?”

“I made cinnamon monkey bars and orange juice and grandma is making some scrambled eggs. Do you want some too?”

“Yes please.” Ann quickly answered. “Do we have any cantaloupe?”

“Sorry kiddo,” Mom smiled. “We do have bananas though.”

“Okay. I like them too!”

“Oh Grandpa! That’s the best snowman ever!” The girls grinned, with their red noses and shining eyes their excitement glowed. “It’s even bigger than Michael’s isn’t it MaryJo?”

MaryJo nodded. “He didn’t put on any buttons or arms. Our snowman has everything! He has arms and buttons and a hat and scarf. Look! Grandpa is putting the old broom by Mr. Snowman too.”

The children played with grandpa all day long. They played fox and geese outside in the snow after lunch, Bobby even let the dog out and she played with all of them too. They played cards and colored with Grandma after coming in from the snow while Janice napped. It was a wonderful day. It was always fun to visit the farm in the summer and help Grandpa with the cows and pigs, but they had never played in the snow with Grandpa!

“Time to get ready to go see the temple lights,” called mom from the stairs. “Come on and get changed, we’re going to eat dinner downtown and then see the Christmas lights.”

After dinner Ann and MaryJo took Grandma and Grandpa by the hands and led them through Temple Square.

“I’ve never seen the lights before,” Grandma said quietly. “It’s so beautiful.”

“You’ve never seen them before?” asked Sharon shocked. “We see them every year!”

“I know honey. But Grandpa and I live too far away to see them. There’s usually too much snow to drive out here, just like the snowstorm that came yesterday. It was a pretty scary drive.”

“We prayed for you Grandma. I knew you were okay.” Ann replied solemnly.

“We did, Grandma. We knew you would be protected and watched over even though the roads were slippery.” MaryJo added. “Wow! Look at that tree! It’s all blue! That’s my favorite color in the whole world! Dad? Can we have a blue Christmas tree next year?”

“Well, I don’t know honey. I think we need to stick to lots of colors so we all have our favorite colors on the tree,” Dad said while hiding a smile. “Let’s go look at the Christus.”

“What’s that?” asked Ann while reaching down to pick up some snow.

“That’s what the big statue of Jesus is called,” MaryJo answered all knowing.

“Don’t eat that snow Ann,” Mom said as Ann put it up to her mouth.

“But mom, it’s not yellow,” protested Ann.

“Yellow? It’s dirty, please put it down.”

“Oh. Well Bobby said I could eat it as long as it wasn’t yellow. Good job Bobby” Ann then flung the snow at her big brother catching him on the shoulder.

“Okay, let’s stop this and get in and get warm. We can go in that door to go see the Christus.” Dad looked at Bobby and Ann who looked ready for an all out snow war. “Let’s leave the snowball fights at home.”

“It’s beautiful isn’t it grandma?” MaryJo asked. “It’s my favorite part of Temple Square.”

“Mine too,” chimed in Ann.

Grandma stood quietly for a few minutes and then replied quietly, “Yes. It is very beautiful. It’s my favorite part too. The lights are beautiful and fun, but Christmas is about the birth of Christ. Thank you so much for bringing grandpa and I here tonight.” Grandma turned and gave each of the kids a big hug and kiss.

“It’s about time to go kids. Grandma and Grandpa have to get an early start tomorrow.”

“I wish you could stay and see what Santa brings us,” MaryJo mumbled quietly. “I really miss you.”

“We miss you too, pumpkin,” said Grandpa as he leaned down and picked her up. “That’s one reason we decided we needed to come and see you this Christmas season, even with all the snow. We aren’t getting any younger and we just felt that we needed to come down for a few days. But we’ve got the cows and pigs at home that we need to get back to. We love you very much and we just wanted to tell you that.”

“I love you too Grandpa,” MaryJo snuffled hiding her head in Grandpa’s shoulder.

“I love you too!” Hollered Ann from below, not wanting to be left out.
Sharon walked over and gave her grandparents a hug, “We all love you! We’re glad you could come for a few days. Thanks for everything.”

“I wish Grandpa and Grandma Smith didn’t have to leave the other day. It would be fun for them to go to Grandma and Grandpa Hansen’s tonight for Christmas Eve.” Ann looked at MaryJo trying to decide if MaryJo’s costume was okay or not. “You don’t look like an angel MaryJo. You look like a ghost.”

“Oh stop it Ann. I’ll put my halo and wings on at Grandma and Grandpa Hansen’s house.”

Hours later the nativity scene had been presented and gifts passed out; at home the girls raced to change into their new nightgowns. After family prayer was said, the three youngest were tucked together in one room. After all, no one wants to be alone on Christmas Eve! “Night e’ryone,” Janice mumbled as she crawled into her sleeping bag on the floor.

“Night,” MaryJo giggled. Ann and MaryJo talked and giggled as Janice slept on the floor. Soon mom came to the room and said that on the news Santa had been spotted in the neighborhood, that meant they better get to sleep or he wouldn’t be able to stop. Soon the girls joined their little sister sleeping soundly and dreaming of dolls and dishes and games and candy.

“Wake up MaryJo!” squealed Ann kicking the underside of the bunk bed. “It’s Christmas!”

“Stop it! You’re going to knock me off the bed! Let’s wake up Janice and Sharon. I bet Bobby’s awake already.”

Mom and Dad heard the children waking up and came to line them up to go find the gifts from Santa. First in line was Janice, then Ann and MaryJo, Bobby and last of all Sharon. The children ran to the living room and soon found where Santa had left their gifts and stockings. Soon all of gifts were opened.

“Before we have breakfast and open the family gifts, there are a few boxes in the garage that Grandpa and Grandma Smith left for MaryJo and Ann. They are too big for Daddy to carry in so get your slippers and we’ll go see what they are.”

Daddy cut the tape off of Ann’s box first and she pulled away the cardboard…A big white cupboard! “It’s a cupboard!” cried Ann wrapping her arms around herself, “Wow! There’s a cabinet on top for my dishes and counter space so I can cook dinner and more space for my dolls underneath!”

MaryJo soon had Dad cutting the tape off of her box as well…A desk! “Where did Grandpa get them from?” she asked examining her new desk.

“Grandpa made them.” Mom smiled, “He’s been working on them for months and planning to bring them to you. He and Grandma really wished they could be here to see you open them, but with all the snow and their farm, well, they really needed to get back home. But I hope you know they love you, every one of you. They left gifts under the tree for you other three. They said to tell you Merry Christmas and that they love all of you very much.”

Ann stepped aside and looked out into the winter wonderland through the garage window. She smiled as she gazed on the melting snowman and whispered “Thanks, Grandpa. I know you love me. I love you too.”


11 Mr. Berlin’s Merry Christmas

The Christmas Fair Committee met after school that day.  “So, we have just about everything ready, except for someone to play Santa,”  said Mrs. Kramer, the advisor.  “Any ideas, folks?”

Jackie snorted and glared over at Steve, the biggest guy in the school.  “How about Steve?”  she asked derisively.

Steve almost choked on his Twinkie.  “No way!” he protested.  “The suit’s too small and sweaty for me.  Besides, I already have to do the dunking booth!”  He glared at Jackie.  She was the biggest bully in the school.  Nellie Olson had nothing on her.

“OK, OK,” Mrs. Kramer said in a warning tone.  “Let me talk to the staff and see if a teacher will do it.  I have someone in mind…”

*  *  *  *

“You’re kidding me, right?  Me?  Santa?”  Mr. Berlin growled.

Mrs. Kramer just stood there, arms crossed, watching him calmly.

“You really want me to spend a Saturday listening to a bunch of kids whining about how they want iPads, XBoxes, and anything else in the dang alphabet?  C’mon, Jayne…”

Mrs. Kramer leaned back again the shop bench, saying nothing.

“Ahh…alright, what the heck.  I’ll do it…it’s Christmas, I suppose,”  Mr. Berlin grumped, but Mrs. Kramer caught the small smile on his face.

“You’re just the guy for the job, Frank.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…HEY YOU!  Get off your butt, get your safety glasses back on, and get back to work!  Your project is due Friday-unless you want me to to drag you in over Christmas vacation…and both of us don’t want that to happen!!”  Mr. Berlin went after the hapless boy.

*  *  *  *

The day of the Medina High Christmas Fair finally arrived.  Jackie ran around, doing basically nothing, screaming out orders others tried not to listen to.  Mr. Berlin sat on Santa’s throne in the Santa suit, his nose twitching as he tried not to sneeze from the cottony Santa beard and moustache.

“Let’s get this show on the road already,” he mumbled.

Jackie walked by and heard him.  “Oh, Mr. Berlin, don’t be such a GRUMP.  We all  have to make sacrifices.  I mean, look at me! I gave up my monthly mani/pedi to be here today and run the show.  By the way, your beard is crooked.”  She quickly jerked it straight and ran off to open the doors to start the fair.

Mr. Berlin sneezed, making the beard crooked again.  “That girl…” He stopped and put on a huge smile as the kids entered the big room and lined up in front of his throne, chattering excitedly to see Santa.  “HO HO HO!”  he bellowed merrily.

Meanwhile, Jackie was throwing a fit.  Steve couldn’t come in to do the dunking booth, as he had caught the flu and was very sick.

“WHAT WILL WE DO?”  she screeched.  “YOU!   MISSY!”  She pointed to a girl hurrying by.  “You’re not that important-you’re going to sit in the dunking booth!”

“No way, Jackie!  Come on!  I have to help with the refreshment stand!”

“Too bad for you.  Get.  In. The. Dunking. Booth,” Jackie hissed through clenched teeth.

Mr. Berlin overheard the whole conversation.  His ears turned red. Jackie was talking to his granddaughter-and Mr. Berlin knew how hard Missy had worked for this fair!  He gently set down the little girl who had been sitting on his knee.  “Just a minute, sweetheart, Santa has to take care of something, OK?”  He then hollered out cheerfully,  “Ho ho ho!  Kids, come with me!”  The kids followed him like the Pied Piper.

He walked up to Jackie and tapped her on the shoulder.  Jackie whirled around.  “WHAT?”

“Ho ho ho!  Boys and girls, Jackie has been a good girl this year, and Santa knows she’d love to help with the fair!  Who would like to see her in the dunking booth?”  He bellowed this out loud enough for everyone in the large room to hear.

After a second of silence, the whole room erupted into one huge cheer.  “There you go, Jackie!”  Santa said.  “You can’t disappoint all these kids and folks.  Don’t be a naughty girl!”

“But…but…” she spluttered.

The cheer became a chant:  “IN-THE-BOOTH!  IN-THE-BOOTH!”

“I’ll help you,”  Santa said, gripping her arm.

Jackie reluctantly climbed the steps to the dunking booth and sat on the plank, protesting fruitlessly.  She couldn’t be heard above all the cheering and chanting.

But all heard her wail, “My haaaaaaair!” as Santa slammed a ball right on target, dunking her into the cold water.  “Merry Christmas!”  Santa belted out with a big grin on his face.

Mrs. Kramer stood behind the booth, her hand over her mouth, laughing quietly.  “Just the guy for the job,” she thought to herself.  She made a mental note to send Steve a box of Twinkies for Christmas.

09 Daryl’s Dear Dog

The spiraling lights were clinging to the tree branches, flashing along to a silent rhythm. Daryl, celebrating his sixth Christmas, was crouched on the floor, chomping away on every piece of candy pulled from his stocking.

“Did you get everything you wanted?” his mom asked as she tossed crumpled wrapping paperinto stray garbage bags.

“No,” Daryl answered, even though he received a new bike, a game system, and a laptop.“I asked for a reindeer. Where’s my reindeer?”

“You don’t need another pet. You have Charlie.”

Charlie, a lanky brown hound, barked upon hearing his name. He nuzzled his snout against Daryl’s hand, but the boy pushed him away, saying, “It’s Christmas and I only wanta reindeer!”

Charlie padded away, his tail curling in between his legs. If his owners wanted nothing to do with him, then he would enjoy the holidays on his own.

Strolling into the empty kitchen, Charlie noticed a dish of cranberry sauce sitting onthe edge of the counter. Lifting his front paws, he latched onto the edge of the table and plopped his snout into the food, enjoying the special treat.

When he walked back into the living room, he noticed Daryl beneath the tree, searching for a certain toy. Hoping to help, Charlie scampered over, but the space was too small for the two of them. Once the tree swayed and toppled over, Charlie’s head was stuck between the branches. He quickly pulled himself free, but two sticks stuck to his head, poking up above his ears like antlers.

“Charlie. You wrecked the tree,” Daryl’s mom said, ready to drag him outside as a punishment, but her son stopped her.

“Mama, look! He turned into a reindeer for me!”

The entire family turned to look at Charlie with his temporary antlers and cranberry sauce nose. He was wagging his tail, excited that all of the humans were smiling at him.

“This is the best present ever,” Daryl said as he walked up the stairs with his deer-dog. “Now let’s see if he can fly!”

08 Missing Santa

Irene W. Smoot was the oldest member of the Spring Valley Ward. That was a fact. Everyone knew it. She lived in the same window-filled house on Spring Valley hill that her husband, Earnest Smoot, God rest his weary soul, had built with his own hands fifty years before. She always arrived at church exactly fifteen minutes early and sat in the pew that may as well have had her name carved on it, the third row from the front on the east side.

It was also a fact that Irene W. Smoot always headed the planning of the Ward Christmas Party. The Bishop never assigned her; it was a role she took on herself. She would just show up at the planning meetings with assignments for food, decorations, program, and clean-up already in hand. No one who had actually been assigned to plan the party really wanted to do it, so Irene’s plans were always unanimously accepted. After a couple years, the role of Christmas Party Planner was officially, and unofficially, hers. And though, over the years, some well-meaning people had attempted to offer suggestions, they quickly learned that Irene W. Smoot takes suggestions from no one.

Irene had always felt that Christmas itself was hers. It had always been her favorite holiday. Her house on the hill glowed brighter with blinking strings of colored lights than any other house in Spring Valley during the month of December. Her ten-foot tall Christmas tree, looming in her front window, put every other Christmas tree to shame. And her collection of Santa Clauses—from ceramic statues with rosy cheeks to a life-size replica made from wire and garland—had no equal.

So beloved was Christmas to Irene, that she took special pleasure in planning the Ward Christmas Party. Each year the party was a roaring success, so much that the ward members, who scarcely changed from year to year in the little town of Spring Valley, had come to look forward to the Christmas Party more than any other ward event. Irene always thought of everything, and pulled everyone in to help, so that everyone felt that they had had a hand in the final product: serving platters overloaded with red and green frosted sugar cookies, decadent fudge, and sweet breads dripping with glaze and streusel; tables draped with snow-white linens and set with the ward members’ best china and silver, decorated with a wintery centerpiece of glittering pinecones, sprigs of holly, ruby-red poinsettias, or a whirling village scene inside a snow globe; and a delicious meal of comfort foods like steaming chicken dumpling soup, honey-glazed ham, creamy mashed potatoes, buttery rolls, and lots of apple cider.

But the highlight of the party was always the dazzling Christmas tree in the corner draped in velvet ribbon and set with all of Irene’s most beloved, antique ornaments. Next to it was a cushioned red and gold velvet chair where, at the end of the night, Santa would rest while the children of the ward clambered for a chance to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.

No one could quite remember a Christmas without Irene’s party.

This year, just a month before Christmas, the long-time Bishop of the Spring Valley Ward was released and, in his place, a newer, much younger bishop was called. Joshua Tiddell was his name, and he was a newcomer to Spring Valley, a relatively unheard-of phenomenon. He was a hard-working young man with a quick smile, a wife, and three small children, and everyone liked him. Although they were somewhat surprised when he was called as Bishop, everyone raised their hands in support of his call and grinned at each other that he would do a good job.

One night not long after his call, Bishop Tiddell approached the brilliantly-lit house of Irene W. Smoot and knocked on her door, the glowing Santa Claus face in the front window making him feel curiously as if he was being watched.

“Why good evening, Bishop,” Irene greeted him pleasantly when she answered the door. “Come in, come in, it’s freezing out there. I just so happen to have a fresh batch of cider on the stove. Let me get you some.”

“Oh, thank you, Sister Smoot, but I can’t stay long…”

“Nonsense,” she insisted, her small hazel eyes snapping, and the bishop made no further protests. He stepped inside the house, which smelled strongly of pine and cinnamon, and wandered into the sitting room as Irene disappeared into the kitchen for the cider. Everything was so ordered and spotless, even the pillows on the couch, that the bishop hesitated to sit down, fearing that his trousers may have hairs on them from the family dog.

Irene appeared in the doorway with two mugs of cider. “Sit down,” she said in a tone that more commanded than suggested, and Bishop Tiddell obediently sank down onto the couch as she pressed a warm mug of cider into his hands.

She sat across from him in an oversized recliner with a plush footstool that she did not use. Setting her mug, untouched, on the end table, she asked bluntly, “What brings you over, Bishop? You’re not going to give me a new calling, are you? Ward Librarian is quite enough for me.”

He took a sip of his cider, fearing to dismay her if he didn’t, and felt the hot liquid scald his tongue. Swallowing quickly, he replied, “No, no. Actually, I’ve come to talk about the Ward Christmas party.”

Irene raised her pencil-drawn eyebrows. “Bishop Drew never talked to me about the party. He trusted my plans and showed up to carve the ham.”

“I know, I know,” Bishop Tiddell replied, nodding so emphatically he almost spilled his cider. “I trust your plans, Sister Smoot. You do throw a lovely party. My family was there last year. The kids talked about Santa all week long.”

Irene nodded shortly, settling back into her chair. “You see? I know all about Christmas, Bishop. Fourteen boxes of ornaments I have. Five boxes of tinsel. Twenty-five boxes of lights. Two boxes of Christmas dishes. Eight reindeer, six wreaths, and so many Santa Clauses I can’t count them all.”

Bishop Tiddell didn’t know what to say, so he took another swig of cider. It burned all the way down his throat.

“My husband and I cut our own Christmas trees until the day he died, rest his soul. Now my trees are artificial. But I have one for the living room, one for the dining room, one for the upstairs loft, and one for the playroom for when my grandchildren come to visit.”

“They’re lovely trees,” Bishop Tiddell agreed.

“The month of December, I spend so much time baking in my kitchen I might as well set up a cot and sleep there. All of my neighbors get fresh-baked Christmas cookies…”

“That’s wonderful,” the bishop interrupted when she paused to take a breath. “You are quite the expert on Christmas and I would never dream of taking the responsibility of planning our ward party away from you. I have just one request, though.”

“What’s that?” Irene asked, steepling her long, bony fingers.

“I’d like to be in charge of Santa Claus.”

Irene blinked. “In what way, exactly? Brother Ruppert always plays the role. I just make sure to remind him to trim his beard a little and to give his shoes a good shine, and he puts on the costume.”

“I hear he’s not very thrilled with playing the part.”

Irene shrugged. “I manage to talk him into it every year, give him a good guilt trip about the children looking forward to it. He would never say no to me.”

Bishop Tiddell swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing beneath the skin of his throat. “Well, I’d like to take over that part, if it’s all right with you.”

“What do you plan on doing? Playing Santa Claus yourself?” She laughed shrilly. “You don’t have enough meat on your bones.”

“I have some ideas,” the bishop said quietly. “Nothing final yet. I just wanted to, um, get your blessing.”

Irene just stared at him. No one took over part of her party without her instructing them to do so. She felt inclined to tell him no right there. But he was the bishop, chosen of the Lord. Was telling him no even an option? She pursed her lips, choked down her protests, and muttered, “All right, Bishop. But if no one likes your ideas, I take over again next year, you hear?”

“Fair enough.” Bishop Tiddell set down his mug, slapped his hands against his thighs, and rose to his feet. “It’s been lovely talking with you, Sister….”

“Where do you think you’re going?” she clucked at him. “You haven’t finished your cider yet.”

The weeks flew by in a blur of preparation, and soon enough the day of the party arrived. Sister Smoot and her band of helpers labored at the church building all day, and when the ward members started arriving at seven o’clock sharp, they were not disappointed.

The cultural hall was hung with green garland and sprigs of holly, each snow-white table decorated with a vase of glittering pinecones tied with a red ribbon. And the food—the smells alone were divine. The adults hurriedly grabbed their plates and got in line while the kids dashed around, oohing and ahhing over all the decorations but very careful—from previous experience with Sister Smoot’s scoldings—not to touch anything.

The party was going wonderfully. Sister Smoot wandered about, mingling with the ward members, noting how full the cultural hall was, listening to the praises of the decorations and the exclamations over the food. She smiled to herself as the Ward Organist sat down at the piano and started playing some Christmas music, right on schedule.

She looked around for Bishop and spotted him at one of the tables, eating with his family. He looked very ordinary and un-Santa Claus-ish; she supposed he planned on changing after dinner. She hoped so. His part of the program was coming up soon. As if he felt her eyes on him, he glanced up in her direction and smiled. She smiled back, tightly, and went to find the Primary children who had been hand-picked to perform a musical number.

Half an hour later, as the applause died down after the last musical number, Irene glanced around the room again for Bishop Tiddell. She found him sitting where she had last seen him and looking unchanged—no white beard, no red and white hat. Clenching her teeth in annoyance, she gestured to him. “You’re up, Bishop.”

He scraped his chair away from the table and stood up, tossing his napkin next to his plate. The ward members watched as he approached the front of the cultural hall, sensing the tension in the air and wondering when Brother Ruppert was going to loll through the side doors, rubbing his belly and hollering, “ho, ho, ho!”

Bishop Tiddell took the microphone from Irene and cleared his throat. “Good evening, brothers and sisters. What a beautiful evening it’s been. How about a round of applause for all of Sister Smoot’s hard work?”

Applause scattered through the room. Glances were thrown toward the side doors.

“Christmas certainly is a festive time of year. With the lights and the trees and the gifts, not to mention the delicious food, there is so much to enjoy. And also, so much to get caught up in. So much, that we forget what Christmas is really about.” He cleared his throat again, nervously. “The lights and trees and gifts are nice, and certainly enjoyable. Santa Claus is a wonderful symbol of selflessness and giving. But even he is not what Christmas is all about. It’s not about the lights or gifts or any of those things. It’s about our Savior, Jesus Christ, who condescended to come to earth as a tiny, humble baby, in order to save us all.”

Irene was staring at him so intently she could have burned holes into his skin. He glanced at her, briefly, and cleared his throat a third time. “Like Santa Claus, the Savior gives us gifts. Everyday He blesses us with His grace, His love, His tender mercies. And He gave us the greatest gift of all, eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’

“We will not be having a Santa Claus this year,” he announced, speaking so fast it took the ward members a second to realize what he had said. He continued without pausing for breath, as if afraid to give Irene a chance to interject. “I thought, this year, instead of asking Santa Claus to give us gifts, we could make Christmas more meaningful by contemplating the gifts we would like to give the Savior. How will we show our gratitude to Him? I’ve put a box under the Christmas tree, along with some pens and slips of paper. I would like each of you, as you feel inspired, to write on those slips of paper what you would like to give Jesus for Christmas this year. And I would urge you to think on that gift, not just during this Christmas season, but all year long, and see how it changes your life.”

He handed the microphone back to Irene, who was fairly rigid with disbelief and anger. No Santa Claus! Had he procrastinated too long and just threw something together at the last minute? She gaped at the bishop as he turned and walked away from her. This was the highlight and joy of her entire Christmas party. And he had snatched it away and replaced it with…a box?

She stared at the ward members sitting around their tables and they stared back. Nobody moved. A child whimpered, “But I wanted to see Santa!” Irene clutched the microphone until her knuckles turned white, refusing to participate in the bishop’s shoddy handiwork.

The minutes ticked by with agonizing slowness. Someone coughed. Forks scraped against china plates as the remnants of dinner were finished. Bishop Tiddell wrote down his gift and put it in the gold-wrapped box under the tree, then returned to his seat. No one else stood. Irene W. Smoot contemplated what exactly she would say to Bishop after the party, the words she would use to shame him for ruining everything.

Finally, to break the silence, the Ward Organist began playing more Christmas music. The strains of “O Holy Night” eased the tension in the room. Abruptly, someone stood up, an older man who lived alone on the outskirts of the ward. As he reached the tree and scribbled on his slip of paper, other ward members started to get up and make their way to the Christmas tree. Soon there was a line, slowly growing in length. And yet the cultural hall stayed near-silent, filled with something much deeper and more meaningful than the jolly laughter of Saint Nick. As Irene watched, children excitedly stuffed their gifts into the box, adults wrote slowly and contemplatively, and some ward members turned from writing down their gift with gleaming, tear-filled eyes.

One sister came up and squeezed her hand, the one that didn’t have a death-grip on the microphone. “Beautiful, Sister Smoot. Just beautiful. I didn’t think you could ever top last year, but you certainly did.”

“I…” Irene tried to tell her that it had been the bishop’s idea, not hers, but the woman was gone before she could. And before she knew it, other people were coming up and telling her the same thing, so fervently and gratefully that her grip on the microphone loosened and, as the line to the Christmas tree dwindled, she made her way toward it, grabbed a pen, and, swallowing deeply, wrote down her own gift to Jesus.


05 The Candy Cane Carnation

In Memory Of My Father, Ernest J. Orgar Sr.

The little boy heard the door slam and his father’s heavy footsteps thud through the living room into the kitchen.

“What you mean my supper ain’t ready?  Fool!  You know I like a hot dinner when I get home!”  The boy shuddered up in his bedroom as he heard a pan clatter to the floor, a heavy, meaty thump, and a cry from his mother.  Then more footsteps and the door slamming again as his enraged father stormed out.

The boy snuck down the stairs, took his coat off the hook, and slipped outdoors.  He walked next door to the flower shop.   The night was dark, and the store windows glowed warmly with Christmas decorations and silk flower arrangements.  He walked in, inhaling the comforting Christmas smells of fresh pine and eucalyptus. Christmas music played softly from a radio on the ribbon shelf.

The shop was almost ready to close for the day.  The sales clerks nodded and smiled at him as they vacuumed the rug, added up sales receipts, and straightened the silk arrangements on shelves.   The boy came in often;  they knew him well.

The boy walked to the greenhouse entryway, quietly drinking in the greenhouse chock full of thousands of red, white, and pink poinsettias.  He took comfort in the humid warmth and damp, earthy smell of clean moist soil.  He looked up and could faintly see stars gleaming through the panes of greenhouse glass that wasn’t covered with crisp white snow.

He turned and peeked into the workroom.  Floral designers chatted as they worked on holiday arrangements for last minute deliveries.

The owner, Ernie, spied his little neighbor and waved.  The boy waved back, then went to the show room to look in the flower cooler.  The floor of the cooler was filled with green buckets of colorful carnations.  Ernie came out and stood behind him.

“How ya doin’?”  Ernie asked.

“OK…”  The little boy drew his breath in sharply.  “Wow-hey-look at that flower!”  He pointed his stubby finger against the glass.  A single red-and-white striped carnation was all that was left in one of the buckets.  “It’s striped!  Just like a candy cane!  A candy cane carnation!”  He looked up at Ernie and asked,  “Could I buy it for my Mom?”

“You sure can.”  Ernie opened the cooler door and took the carnation out.  “It’s one dollar.”

The boy went to the counter and, tongue between his teeth, pulled out some stray coins from his coat pocket, leftover from his school lunch money.  Ernie counted the coins for him. “Twenty-five…fifty…sixty…sixty five…seventy five…”

The boy’s eyes widened.  “That’s all I have!”  He tried not to cry in front of Ernie.

Ernie rolled his eyes.  “Oh, hey, know what?  I was so busy in the back of the greenhouse all day, I forgot!  The ladies told me carnations were on sale today.  They’re only seventy-five cents!”

“So I have enough?”  the little boy asked, hope lighting his brown eyes.

“You made it,” Ernie smiled.  “Let me wrap it for you.  Flowers don’t like cold, just like us.”  He took the carnation with him into the workroom and came back out a few minutes later.  The carnation, some greens, and a sprig of baby’s breath were stuck in a water tube, the whole thing wrapped in a clear cellophane wrapper.

“Thanks, Ernie!”  the little boy breathed, as he took the package.

“You and your Mom have a nice Christmas,”  Ernie said as the little boy turned and left.

The little boy ran home and walked in quietly.  His Mom was just setting a hamburger and a glass of milk on the table.  Her eyes were swollen, and there was a big red mark on her cheek.

“There you are,”  she said, her breath hitching as she tried to smile.  “Were you at the flower shop again?”

He nodded and  handed her the candy cane carnation.  “For Christmas,” he whispered.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,”  she said, her eyes filling with tears.  But her smile was real this time as she bent down, held him tight and whispered in his ear,  “We’re gonna be OK.”

04 Black Socks

Jarvis trudged through the snow with a scowl, thinking about how much he hated Chrismas. As he neared the shopping center, he tried to remember what was on his blasted Chrismas list . . .  Ah yes, some black socks. Well, now was a good time for new socks, that much at least was true.

He entered the store, the bell ringing as the door shut behind him. A salesperson grinned at him.

“Last minute shopping, sir? We have all your last minute Chrismas needs and desires! Let me know if I can be of assistance in any way!”

Jarvis just shrugged the salesperson off. He tried to ignore the silvery, sparkly, annoying decorations that seemed to press in on him from all sides, snagging at him and fluttering against his forehead and blocking his way through the narrow aisles. Why was he here again?

Socks. Black socks.

He found the menswear aisle and grabbed the first pair he could find. They looked warm enough; most socks were this time of year. After scanning the purchase into his phone, he clicked ‘complete’ and closed down his Chrismas List for the season. Then he headed to the gift-wrap counter.

On his way home, he was half-tempted to open the box he had just purchased and put the new socks on his feet over the ones he was already wearing. It was so cold and his boots just didn’t keep out the moisture. But he didn’t do it. What would Lorreinna say?

When he reached the house, he stomped his feet at the door. “Hey, we’ve all been waiting for you!” said Lorreinna, after yanking the door open with excitement. “You ready to celebrate Chrismas or what?”

She just laughed when she saw his tired, resigned expression. “Lighten up, Jarvy. Everyone loves Chrismas but you, you silly man.”

They all gathered around the Chrismas tree then, ready to sing. Lorreinna went first. “I’d like to sing Jingle Bells,” she said. Everyone laughed and then started singing together. Jingle Bells was always the easy first choice.

Lorreinna’s mother, who was sitting on the other side of Lorreinna, was next. “Oh, I pick Santa Baby,” she said. Everyone laughed again. Another easy one. Jarvis realized that he would be the very last person to choose. Why did this always have to happen to him?

To his growing discomfort, every last Chrismas song he knew was being picked, one by one. Baby, It’s Cold Outside, White Chrismas, Walking In A Winter Wonderland, Last Chrismas I Gave you My Heart, It May Be Cold But You Keep Me Hot, My Day My Way, Spend Spend Spend…

And then suddenly it was his turn. One of his cousins smirked at him and he heard someone snicker. All eyes were on him. And he had drawn a blank.

“Just pick a song, Jarvis,” Lorreinna said impatiently. “We all want to open our presents!”

Jarvis blinked. “Frosty,” he finally sputtered. “Frosty the Snowman.” As everyone joined in, speeding up toward the end to finish quicker, Jarvis sat back and mouthed the words. He couldn’t believe no one had picked that one yet. Off the hook.

Then, it was time for the Gifts. “I’ll start!” Lorreinna called out.

“No way,” said Jarvis’ friend Melville. “It’s my turn. You started last year.” The bickering was beginning. Just another part of Chrismas that Jarvis hated. He tried to tune it out until someone yelled, “Enough!” It was Lorreinna’s daughter, Kylinesma.

“I’ll go first since I’m the youngest,” she said, ripping the wrapping paper off of one of her gifts before anyone could argue. Inside was a sparkly pink necklace.

“Thanks to me!” she called out gleefully. “I finally get to wear this! I’ve had it for months and you can’t even imagine how much self-control it took not to open it a moment sooner! Oh I love it! Don’t you love it?” She turned to Lorreinna with a satisfied smile and Lorreinna helped her clip it on.

“It’s beautiful, darling,” Lorreinna said. “You have great taste. But then, we all knew that.” Kylinesma beamed and then it was the next person’s turn.

Stevenson, Jarvis’ uncle, opened a long box to reveal a new golf club. “So glad I finally get to use this!” he crowed. He stood up to swing it a few times and show it off to everyone. “It took me months to save up for it and I can finally go to the Greens now and show off my best swing!” Everyone laughed and clapped him on the back, congratulating him.

When it was Jarvis’ turn he opened his gift. “Black socks,” he said sheepishly, holding them up for everyone to see. “They look warm. I–I didn’t have any black ones.” A few people murmured approval but then it was on to Lorreinna’s turn. She was much more showy and fun to watch than Jarvis ever was.

“Eeeee!” she squealed as she ripped open the smallest package in front of her. “A DIAMOND RING!” The room was full of shouts of congratulations and excitement as she slid the mass of sparkly diamonds and gold onto her finger.

Lorreinna glanced at Jarvis with an affectionate smile. “Everyone knows how much I’ve wanted this ever since Jarvy and I got together five years ago. Well, I finally have it. I’ve saved for sooo long and I finally have it.” She leaned over and gave Jarvis a kiss before getting up to show it off to the other women in the room. Only a few of the women looked openly envious.

Jarvis sat back, watching. The ring was so big. He should have known her ring would look like that, and yet for some reason he was a little sad now that he had seen it. He thought a smaller ring, with just one diamond to crown it, would have been much more beautiful. But he was glad that she finally had what she’d wanted for so long.

Jarvis was now, thankfully, eliminated from the circle of gift-openers since he’d only bought himself one gift. He got up to get a soda and watch from afar as the others continued with their merry-making. He finally wandered outside, despite the fact that it had started snowing again, and gazed out into the street behind the house.

No, he really couldn’t get the hang of Chrismas. The holiday traditions of everyone he knew, carried on the shoulders of the department stores, sports stores, entertainment stores, and toy stores, just sickened him every year. At least his family and friends weren’t religious. He knew that in some of the smaller villages, people still worshipped the ancient Snow King, Santaclaus. That would have made Chrismas truly unbearable.

Whoever Chris had been, and for whatever reason this holiday had started so many, many years ago, Jarvis was ready for it to be over. At least he had some black socks now. He went back inside to put them on.