Merry Christmas, Happy Yule and New Year. Here is a short story that takes place after the book “In the Shadow of the Other.” Thank you to Devil Dog Press, my Friends, Fans and Family for your support. For you a little taste of the sequel to come.
Jennifer held out her hand to capture a lone stray snowflake falling from the gray sky. It was, so far, a typical December. The land was cold and hard with frost, but not much real snow. Pup had raced to the barn where Jennifer’s father and Esau were getting the horses ready. George had done a good job building the barn. It had an attached room with a bed and cozy woodstove for the coldest of nights for the stable help—Kurt—or anyone else that might spend the night. The animals were quite comfortable, being out of any bad weather, and with a few barn cats and an owl in the rafters the mice in the barn were under control. Jennifer opened the door to a gentle warmth. Esau and George had already saddled their horses. George broke out a big smile. “Well, there she is, took you long enough! Better get going.”
“Sorry, Pa. Good morning, Esau … Eleanor and Cook are all excited about Christmas.” Jennifer ran to Daisy’s stall. Her horse was all saddled up and munching on some hay.
Esau opened the stall door. “We figured you’d get delayed with all the plans that the ladies were speaking on this mornin’, so we got Daisy ready for you. Kurt has got the cart set up outside.”
Pup leapt onto the back of the cart, making Jennifer laugh and gently scold, “Keeping your paws warm?” Soon the four of them were trotting to the field of evergreens, where George and Esau had planted fifteen trees every year by a small forest so there would always be trees for Christmas and winter firewood without having to go up the mountain.
“So, where will the tree go this year, Jennifer?” George asked. “A six- to eight-footer for the library or a twelve for the family sitting room?”
Jennifer was already off Daisy and running toward the trees when, coming to a dead stop, her eyes locked with Esau’s. He shrugged and gave her a wink. Jennifer turned to her father. “Pa, I want this year a huge tree. One that will fill the bay window, so that’s what we’ll see and smell while we eat all Old Christmas long!”
George and Esau threw each other a look; they totally understood that after all they’d been through in the last year Jennifer wanted to fill that bay window with life and beauty. They got down off their horses. “Okay, Jennifer, you pick your tree. Just remember that we have to pick it up.” Esau chuckled. Jennifer threw them a c’mon, guys look before disappearing into the grove of trees with Kurt and Pup on her heel.
“How about this one?” Kurt called out, standing by a sixteen-foot-tall tree.
“Too skinny,” Jennifer responded. A small blue nuthatch, flitting unnoticed through the trees, seemingly watched the event taking place. “Look at this one, Kurt!” Kurt followed Jennifer’s voice and there she was, her shawl slipping back from her head as she was looking at the top of a tree about eighteen-feet tall. It was perfect in dimension, full and wide at the bottom. “This is it,” stated Jennifer with total satisfaction, and the little blue bird dove into the tree and disappeared.
“I’m not sure if we can keep this on the cart,” stated Kurt, with a furrowed brow. “Or for that matter, carry it there.”
“Don’t you worry none, Kurt,” Esau said as he and George came up carrying a two man saw. “You’re a fine strapping young man and we have plenty of rope to bind the tree.”
It did not take long for the two men to cut the tree down and carefully rope it up, and, much to Kurt’s surprise, for the four of them to easily carry the large tree out. Once at the house, George instructed Kurt to leave it in the cart and to tend the horses with Esau. Jennifer was asked to make and bring him a double helping of hot chocolate while George had a word with Eleanor and Cook, who were still bustling about in the kitchen.
“Ladies,” started George with a nod of his head. “Please sit down for a spell, for I have an announcement to make.” The women glanced at each other with slight concern, but dutifully wiped and dried their hands on their aprons and sat down. George pulled out some papers from his jacket and sat down. “Now you both know that this place would come to a standstill without you. You certainly are not indentured servants, and you mean a hell of a lot more to Jennifer and me than just help. So, I have planned a surprise for you. We’d like you and your families to take the train to Ashville, and then a carriage to a fine inn there, with transportation to the Biltmore Estate for the Christmas festivities.”
The women’s mouths hung open in shock.
“Here I have a list for what I need done today and tomorrow. The first half of the Christmas season will be kind of a vacation for you, but do not worry, we will be back together for New Year and Old Christmas.
“That is so grand of you, Mr. George,” sputtered Cook. “But what of you and Jennifer?”
“Between all the pies and other food all put away in the pantries, plus this list, we will be more than fine. And we have some places to be, as well. Please, say nothing yet to Jennifer, for I have some surprises planned for her.”
The next two days were a flurry of cooking and baking. Jennifer and Kurt brought out boxes and trucks filled with decorations. They also ran into town to add to their card supply fixings. Esau had already whittled some new wood decorations. They had to hunt for the giant Christmas tree stand, but all came together in fine order. Eleanor, Kurt, and Cook and family were packed up and taken to the train. Kurt would also be checking out some schools while he was out there.
Those departing waved Jennifer, George, and Esau a goodbye and the three rode back to the farm.
“Well, Pa, without Eleanor and Cook’s help we have lots to do.” Jennifer frowned. “With the tree being so tall, we’re going to need extra decorations. We have supplies, but we need more hands.”
“Good point. Esau is taking care of the cart and I will deal with the horses. There’s a box of pinecones out back; why don’t you bring those in. We can gild some and the others will smell good in the fireplace.”
“Why sure, Pa.” Jennifer and Pup ran off.
George and Esau looked each other and smiled.
* * * *
Jennifer ran around to the shed by the barn. She was thinking about all the Christmas activities when she came to a stop, looking at the distant hills and pondering about the mountains beyond. Jennifer was sure if they all applied themselves they would have everything ready for Christmas. Yet, with Eleanor, Cook, and Kurt gone, and the ranch hands mostly with their families, Jennifer was hit with a wave of loneliness. In her mind’s eye, she saw the blue lake of Grandfather Mountain and the faces of her friends. She was a little startled when some birds flew closely over her head and a shiny black feather landed on the ground before her. Pup started barking as if he were announcing someone he knew. Jennifer looked up to see two crows in a tree. Her face exploded into a bright smile and she called out to them, “Really! Is it you?” The two crows flew to her feet, and there appeared Awani and Notivci, the young shapeshifting brother and sister from Grandfather Mountain. The two hugged Jennifer, laughing. Pup was beside himself with happiness, as well, but Awani and Notivci were soon shivering as they each were wearing only long-johns. “Oh my! We have to get you out of the cold breeze,” Jennifer announced, pulling them into the shed. Though not as warm as the barn, being in the shed was still better than standing outside.
Awani looked about. “There should be clothes in a box somewhere.”
“I was here to look for pinecones,” Jennifer said. “How could your clothes be here?”
Notivci zeroed in on the box right away and handed Awani her clothes. “It was all worked out with your father and Enisi. Enisi told your father what to have ready for us here, including what you call socks and boots!” Those objects he held up triumphantly from the bottom of the box.
“What do you think, Jennifer?” Awani asked, turning around. “You think we look ordinary enough, if people just happen to see us?”
“Well, not without coats and shawls and hats in this cold weather,” Jennifer responded.
“Those have been provided, as well.” Notivci nodded toward a wall. There in the dim light hung two warm coats, shawls, and hats. These were quickly and gratefully slipped on.
The three headed toward the house. On the way, Notivci threw sticks for Pup, as fetch was his favorite game. Once in the house they made their way to the library. There, Esau and George sat reading the paper and having a brandy by a cozy fire.
“Ahh, I see you found some friends,” said George cheerily
Jennifer rushed over to him. “Oh, Papa. Thank you so much.”
“This is your Christmas surprise, hon, so give your guests some hot cocoa or hot tea, and get to work on making Christmas happen.”
The kids ran to the kitchen for steaming mugs and cookies. Jennifer then led them to the large dining-room. There, both Notivci and Awani’s jaws dropped at the sight. Notivci walked up to the huge undecorated tree in its heavy stand. “You have cut a tall young tree and put it in your house,” he said, with a questioning look. “This takes lots of work and is difficult, and in a few weeks the little leaves will fall everywhere. Why have you done this?”
“It’s called Christmas,” Jennifer responded. “That is a Christmas tree.”
Awani looked over. “Is not Christmas the celebration of the birth of a special child born in a stable in a desert near the country where Esau’s mother is from?”
“Well, yes, but it is also about other things, like Yule, and first and second Christmas.” Jennifer pointed. “And decorating that tree … and all kinds of fun stuff.”
Notivci looked the tree up and down. “Another difficult job that will take much time, but we are guests, so we will help you with this fun.”
Esau walked in, his hands full of holly sprigs. “There are many traditions that the people all over the Carolinas practice, and customs that come from all over the world. They have many meanings. Now I know, Jennifer, you are all fired to tell about many of these customs. So, I thought I would first share a few of mine and ours that we do up in the mountains.”
“Well, of course, Esau,” Jennifer agreed.
Esau pulled up a chair and started speaking:
“The Christmas holiday starts for us a few days before what the ancient people of the British Isles and the Druids call Yule. Yule is the celebration of the longest night and the shortest day. For us, it is also the beginning of the New Year, so it is very special and sacred for us. At this time, we tell the stories of creation. We have a thankful heart to be alive. We cut a spruce tree and cut off four large branches to clean the four directions in the home. This helps make sure our home is clean of not just old or dirty things, but also free of sad or bad thoughts of yourself or others. We then burn the tree like a Yule log, for it means the same thing. Old fires are stamped out and our Yule log starts the fires for the New Year. For four days before this happens, we have each been making a prayer stick, and by all that we put into it by our art, mind, and heart, we give it as our private prayer to the Great Spirit. On the day of the solstice we plant our prayer sticks by the largest tree near us to guard and watch our prayers. You can do this alone if you are out hunting, but usually the tribe sings and dances for the ancestors and the gods, asking for wisdom, health, and peace in the New Year.” Esau handed out holly sprigs to each of the three. “Holly is green, the color of life, yet the leaves end in these very sharp points, so with these we ask for protection for the New Year, and let the released energy of the plant protect us from evil spirits by throwing it in the fire.” He looked meaningfully at Jennifer, then stood and threw his sprig in the roaring fire. The kids followed suit.
George walked in and asked, “Well, any plans yet?”
“I was thinkin’ a little early collard stealing!” Jennifer jumped in.
“The Cherokee plant those plants, too. They grow all year. Why would you want to steal them?” asked Awani, while Notivci raised his eyebrows, a this should be good look in his eyes.
George cleared his throat. “Well, here in these parts, we do have some unusual ways. Collard stealing is usually done by young folks like yourself who will spend hours on a cold December night walking the dirt roads and trails to play tricks on people, or to help out those in need. Collard stealing is done here around the celebration of Old Christmas, which is Christmas Eve till January 6th. This constitutes the twelve to fourteen days of Christmas celebrated in the old countries of Europe. During this time, the coldest part of the year, there are all kinds of things that folks do to keep themselves busy. Around here, people exercise the custom of helping out the elderly and the sick. In the spirit of the season, I happen to know that old widow Daniels is feeling a bit poorly, and there is a basket that Cook left in the kitchen with some supplies. I’m sure some stolen collards would make her smile.”
Jennifer jumped out of her chair. “Well, we better head right out then.”
Everyone left the room, no one noticing the cheeky little blue bird that flew from the tree to the table, quickly eating up seeds and crumbs, and taking a few sips of tea before hiding in the tree once more.
“Do you have collards in your garden?” asked Notivci as he put on his coat and boots.
“Of course we do,” answered Jennifer while she showed Awani how to wrap the scarf about her head and then have her hat hold it in place.
“Then why not just use the collards from your garden?” Notivci asked.
“Well, then, it would not be stealing, now would it,” shot back Jennifer.
“Is not stealing wrong with your people?”
“Not when everybody is doing it for a good reason, I guess.” Jennifer laughed.
* * * *
It was not long before they were sneaking through old Fred Hawkins’s garden in the dim light of the late afternoon. They found a good-sized plant with broad big leaves. All three took turns trying to pull the plant roots and all from the ground. The collard hung unto its spot, stubbornly breaking them all into giggles and laughter, which they tried to muffle. “We are not very quiet thieves,” Awani said. “What will we do if we get caught?”
Jennifer stood up, hands on her hips. “Then we run, but don’t worry, that’s tradition, too. I mean, after all, they will know it’s me.” She grinned, waving her long white braid.
Notivci gave the collard another manly tug, which resulted in him falling on his back to even more laughter.
“It is time to go to plan B,” said Jennifer, handing over a stout knife to Notivci, who shot Jennifer a now you give this to me look. Still, he took the knife, and in short order Jennifer and Awani each had an armful of the large green leaves. They all noticed a light come on in Fred’s house, so they dashed off. Once they were at the old widow Daniels’s house, Awani and Jennifer filled the edges of the large basket with the collard leaves, placing the food in the middle.
“Are you sure she can lift this?” questioned Notivci as he picked up the basket.
“Pa said she was feeling poorly, not bedridden. Knock. We can run to those bushes and hide. Knock loud!”
Notivci looked resigned.
The girls quickly added, “We will go with you.”
Then they all tip-toed up the porch stairs to knock on the front door, before taking off for the bushes and waiting.
An elderly lady wrapped in a shawl opened the door and saw the basket. She called, “Merry Christmas to you! Mind how you knock on them doors … about stopped my heart, darlings!”
Jennifer clapped her hands over her mouth, then whispered, “Oh my, I never thought of that.”
By the time they made it back to the house, dinner had been made by George and Esau, and they all ate heartily, including Pup. Over dinner, Awani and Notivci told tales of Grandfather Mountain and their own adventures since they and Jennifer had parted company. When the diners retired to the library, they sipped hot apple cider while both George and Esau explained various lore and customs of the season that the visitors might not be aware of, as well as one lore or custom which they were curious about, the difference between Old Christmas and New Christmas.
“The Old Christmas date is observed in churches as a day called Epiphany, this is thought to be the day the three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. From Europe to the mountain people here, they tell the tale that at the birth of Jesus the stable animals had knelt to honor the virgin birth and the Christ child. Now here the mountain people tell the tale that on the twelfth night, animals in the barn can be seen kneeling, and elderberry bushes will bloom in the cold.
“Part of what Old Christmas is all about goes back to the year 1582 in Europe, when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Catholic Gregorian calendar. At the time England came around to adopting the new calendar in 1752, they were eleven days off from the rest of Europe. The eleven days were dropped, and Christmas was moved back from January 6th to December 25th. Some people believed the eleven days had been stolen from them. There was also the matter that many still practiced the pagan customs that lasted from Yule to January 6th.
“The colonists living in North Carolina did not hear of these changes until well after 1752, and even after they heard about the date change, they were still celebrating on the old Christmas day, choosing to ignore the new date. So here, over the long years, many traditions and ways have been done together from many people and tribes that celebrate the birth of the Holy Child called Jesus, and those that honor the turning of the year that brings the birth of spring. Consequently, in these next few days, we will do all kinds of things, from decorating the tree, making cards and wreaths, to making Christmas foods and singing Christmas carols.”
Jennifer chuckled. “Do not worry, Notivci, no more running in the cold and stealing vegetables.”
* * * *
The little blue nuthatch had become very skilled at not being seen. The house cat was fortunately older in years, so her senses were not so keen, and neither was Joe’s, the older dog. The wolf dog, though, was a problem, and the bird had to be very careful not to move around when Pup was in the house. The bird could, however, get out any morning when the embers were low by flying out one of the chimneys. Yet, here it was warm, and with good food to steal, and such interesting stories and conversations.
The next day was spent making wreaths and garlands. The garlands were made with popcorn (of which some was dyed), gilded walnuts, and cranberries. Before Eleanor left, she’d brought some red and white poinsettias into the house. As they carefully strung together the garlands, Jennifer told another Christmas tale:
“This story I first heard in school. Sometimes they tell it in the Catholic churches. It is an old Mexican legend about poinsettias and the reason they are thought of as the Christmas flower. Anyway, there was once a poor little Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present to give the baby Jesus at Christmas Eve at her church. As Pepita was feeling very sad about this, her cousin, who was a sweet boy, tried to cheer her up. ‘Pepita,’ he said, ‘I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves the Christ child as much as you do, will make Jesus happy.’
“Pepita didn’t know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed that this was all she could do for the baby Jesus. Still, as she walked through the chapel to the altar, she held on to what her cousin had said. She began to feel better, knelt, and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them knew they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night. The shape of the white poinsettia flower-like leaves are sometimes thought of as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Wise Men to Jesus, and are a symbol of the holy child’s purity. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ.”
* * * *
It took two ladders and a lot of skill to hang the garlands. Since the tree was standing in front of the huge bay windows, it could be seen on both sides, so even though there were decorations in boxes, this was a very large tree, so more needed to be made. Sugared ginger snaps, sugar cookie angels, candy canes and toffee, paper cut-outs, sugared pinecones, and all kinds of lovely things made from straw. While all this was going on, the nuthatch had moved itself to the very top of the heavy curtains and snuggled within, while listening and waiting for the chance it could safely nibble a little popcorn or cookie treat. Finally, it was Christmas Eve. The whole house was decorated and what was left were a few of the fanciest bulbs and Esau’s wooden hand-carved figures to be hung.
The dogs lay comfortable by the warm fire, but Pup raised his head. Something had caught his attention as Jennifer stated, “It seems like we have told every kind of Christmas story told to man in these last few days.”
“And there are always more,” said a male voice by the doorway.
“ENISI!” the kids cried out, running into his arms.
After Enisi had some food and hot mead to drink, Jennifer asked him a question. “Enisi, why did you say that there are always more stories about Christmas? I mean surely there must be an end someplace.” Jennifer was surprised when Enisi, her father, and Esau all broke out chuckling.
Enisi grinned. “For one, the Christmas story, in all its forms, is very old. Secondly, the world is full of miracles and magic, so people will always have something to say. This especially around Yule and Christmas, because around this time people tend to be more thoughtful and a little kinder.”
“Why is this so?” Notivci broke in.
“Partly, I believe, when the world gets all white and frozen over, we have more time to think. Their Christmas tree becomes an expression of the art of the wonder of existence itself, and all that we have to be thankful for. This tree of life gives so much to humankind, from shelter to food to medicine to shade. Moreover, humankind does not understand that green is its color. White is the color of snow, the sleep and rest of the earth until the white clouds of spring bring the rains … so white is life in purity. Then we have red, the color of the blood that runs in the veins of all animals … including us. All these colors shed into something else. Trees lose their leaves. Pine trees are cut down, snow melts, clouds change, and blood is spilled one way or another as we learn our lessons here on this earth. Look at your carvings and all the symbols they are, from stars to angels to birds to animals, and all the things of food. All to remind us of how wondrous life is. What we have to be thankful for each and every year. All people know this, but in the course of our years, we must be reminded, and because people always need reminding, the stories must always be told in many different ways.”
“Do we have a Yule log in the barn, Pa?” asked Jennifer.
“Why, surely, I believe we do,” answered George with a wink to Esau.
“Then let us light it. Have a bonfire to warm us and to send prayers up to the Great Spirit of all the things we have to be thankful for. I mean it is kinda like lighting a candle at church, only bigger.”
“I think that is a very good idea,” agreed Awani.
Everyone, including the dogs, went outside and the room was soon quiet, allowing the nuthatch to poke its little beak between the branches and fly to the table for a few treats. It then waited for the flames in the fireplace to dim before flying out into the starry night.
For More of Jennifer’s Adventures, Check her out here: