Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Christmas Tree in the Woods

So it's that time of the year again, when I update this blog every day for a month. Because I love Christmas. My mother died this year, which makes me remember Christmases of times past, actually, Christmases when I was a little kid, running in and out of the big house in Johor (where we always went for holidays), smelling the cookies baking, the smells I came to link with Christmas and that excitement, just the freshness deep down everything. I couldn't know of course that that freshness had more to do with age, and less to do with smells. I tried to recreate those feelings by filling my one and only apartment with the smells of baking (and did I bake me up a storm). No cigar. I guess, some things are lost in the fastnesses of time. But, there are the stories...and this month, I will try to have one children's Christmas story every day. Let's see how long I last, hey?

By Susan Smith

It had begun to snow the very first day of the holidays. Mark and Margot, sitting in the train with their father and mother, on the way up to their farmhouse in Maine, jumped up and down with joy. The white smoke blew out over the frosty fields as the train made its way through dark, quiet woods of pine and hemlock and fir, and past frozen streams where brown oak leaves whirled along the edge of the shore in the snow eddies.

"Now we can slide on the long hill," said Mark.

"Mr. Simpson will meet us with the red sleigh," said Margot, "and the sleigh bells will make that nice cold noise."

Mr. Simpson ran the farm for the family in the summer and took care of all the farm animals for them in the winter. He knew how to do all sorts of wonderful things, like transplanting big apple trees, with the earth frozen hard around their roots so that they never knew they had been moved.

There he was at the station, with the red sleigh and the two big black farm horses. Mark and Margot got in and sat beside him on the front seat; their father and mother sat behind. The two dogs, Miranda, a very old Airedale, and Sailor, a very curly sheepdog, ran along beside the sleigh and fell into the snow drifts.

"We'll have snow for the Christmas tree," said Mark to Mr. Simpson.

"Looks like it," said Mr Simpson. "We've got a lot of brush to burn before then."

"We'll help you," said the children.

When they drove up to their house which stood on the top of a high hill, it was just getting dark. The snow was blowing past the lighted window panes,and all the fields where Mr. Simpson and the other men had cut the hay and oats and wheat and barley in summer were now drifted smooth and white. The path to the house, that had been shovelled only an hour before, was blurred with fresh snow. Indoors, a big birch log fire was burning in the living room; the flames were clear and bright because the wood had been cut the year before and dried in the shed.

All night it snowed, and the wind piled the drifts over the fields like big white waves. But in the morning the sun was bright in a blue sky, and a chickadee sang in the whitened twigs of the bare lilac bush at the kitchen door. Mr Simpson was shovelling the path again and Mark and Margot got their shovels from the woodshed and helped him.

They shovelled a path from the house to the barn and then they rested awhile and sat in a sunny patch on the barn floor with the dogs Miranda and Sailor. The barn smelled very good of hay and animals. Jim and Nellie, the two black farm horses, were eating their breakfast. In the next stalls, Star and Bright, the big red and white oxen, where whiffling and munching. Caesar, the goat, and Major, the little gray donkey with the black cross on his back, came clattering through the barn doorway when they heard the children talking. Caesar stood up on his hind legs and butted them with his curly horns to show how glad he was to see them, and Major poked his little black wet nose into their hands.

"Get your skis on now," said Mr. Simpson. "We're going to the woods."

He walked ahead with an axe over his shoulder, Mark and Margot came next, on their skis, and Caesar and Major followed on behind them. Sailor thought they might find a rabbit. Miranda, although she knew perfectly well they wouldn't, ran ahead with him, just to show him that she wasn't so old after all.

"I picked out the best tree this year that we've ever had," said Mr. Simpson. "It's straight as a mast, and every branch is even all around."

Mark and Margot stood looking at the tree, while Mr. Simpson began clearing away the small dead trees and the fallen branches near it. It was so tall and straight and beautiful that they could hardly wait for Christmas Eve to see it covered with shining gold and silver balls and lighted candles.

Mr. Simpson had a huge fire going now, and Mark and Margot dragged dead branches from everywhere and piled them on it. The hot yellow flames shot up crackling, and the smoke was pale blue against the dark tree tops. The snow melted around the edges of the fire, and Sailor dug a deep hole in the wet pine needles there. He put his nose into it and blew and puffed so much that he made Miranda believe he had found a woodchuck, though of course he had not.

It was noon before they knew it, and time for Mr. Simpson to go home to dinner. The children stayed by the fire for their mother had promised them a snow picnic. Soon they heard her coming along the path, and Miranda and Sailor rushed out to meet her and fell over her skis and nearly tripped her up they were so glad to see her.

It was a wonderful picnic - sausages and fried apples cooked in an iron skillet over the fire, and hot chocolate and jam sandwiches made with some of Mrs. Simpson's delicious plum jam. and a dog biscuit apiece for Sailor and Miranda.

Every day of the week before Christmas the children went out on their skis and helped. The big tree stood at last in the center of a cleared circle and its long even branches swept the ground. The day before Christmas was mild and sunny and the snow melted just enough to show the little green spikes of princess pine and the gray moss with red blossoms.

Mark and Margot worked all the afternoon, helping trim the great tree. Their mother stood on a tall farm ladder, and hung the shining balls and stars on the tree. Mr. Simpson was the only one who was tall enough to put the big blue-and-silver star on the very tip top.

In the depths of the woods, where the snow had not melted, the fir trees, their branches heavy with white fans of snow, stood like great white birds sleeping with their heads under their wings. But the fires had melted all the snow from the beautiful green branches of the Christmas tree in the center of the circle. Mr. Simpson had dragged out the great pine roots that had been drying all summer in a new field he had ploughed, and now he threw them on top of the blazing pine and hemlock branches, so that the fires would burn for hours.

All the way out to the wood and along the path through them, the children had hung Chinese lanterns. When it was really dark, at five o'clock, and the first stars were coming out, they lighted the lanterns. Some were pink, some yellow, and some green, and there were some beautiful white melon-shaped ones. Then the children and their father and mother walked in from the woods to the barn where the guests were beginning to arrive. The barn smelled richly sweet of hay and animals, and the light of the stable lanterns hanging from the beams shone on the fragrant golden hay that brimmed over from the filled lofts above.

When all the guests were there, everyone started out for the tree. Mark and Margot came last of all with the two dogs and the donkey and Margot's pet lamb, who had grown very big since summer but who followed her just as he used to when he was tiny.

In the circle around the tree the seven great fires were blazing, and the smoke, which had looked so blue against the trees in daylight, was pink and orange now, with gold sparks that shot up to the sky like fireworks. The flames were reflected in the silver balls on the Christmas tree and on the glittering tinsel stars. Lighted candles burned on every branch and in the open space of sky above the tree, a bright star shone.

Everyone stood in the bright warm circle of firelight around the tree and sang carols. They began with "Good King Wenceslaus:"

Good King Wenceslaus looked out,
On the even of Stephen,
When the snow lay all about,
Deep and crisp and even.

After singing all the stanzas of that they sang "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and "Silent Night!"

Silent night, holy night,
All is still, all is bright.

As they were singing, there was a sound of something coming slowly through the woods. The branches of the trees along the wide path shook and parted, and a yoke of oxen swayed into the circle. They were pulling a big sledge covered with green branches and red berries, and the sledge was piled high with packages in the bright-colored papers. The beautiful red and white oxen looked like fairy cattle. Their yoke was silver, and the big ring that hung down from it was silver too. Between their broad shining silver horns glittered big star-shaped tinsel flowers, shining like magic against the dark trees. Good St. Nicholas with his long white beard walked beside them, his red cloak trimmed with white fur.

"Gee his," said St. Nicholas, sounding very much like Mr. Simpson who had been at the party a moment before but now was nowhere to be seen. The big oxen stood quietly in the firelight looking about with their gentle dark eyes and nudging each other with their moist pale pink noses.

"Let's sing one more carol before we open the presents," said the children's mother. They all stood near the tree, facing the shining oxen. But suddenly, before they began another song, they saw a guest who had come last of all.

"It's the baby from the next farm!" cried the children.

On the farm next to theirs a family had settled the year before, a man and his wife and a tiny little boy. No one knew where they came from; they were shy and kept to themselves, for they spoke very little English. When they were asked to come to the Christmas tree, they only smiled and shook their heads.

But when Mr. Simpson had run back to hitch up his silver-horned oxen, he had found the little boy, with his father, waiting at the barn to speak to him. He had picked up the baby and put him on the sledge to drive out and see the tree, and just as they got there, the child climbed down to walk beside him. Now, at the sound of singing, he came out of the shadows and stood in front of the oxen, his blue eyes laughing and his curly rumpled hair like a light around his head in the warm golden firelight with the black trees and the shining dark-eyed cattle behind him. In the sky overhead hung the bright steady star.

The lamb and the donkey came and stood by the child and he put a hand on each of them.

"What's your name, little boy?" asked Margot's mother, as people always ask children. She smiled at him, but he did not answer, and Margot's father lifting him up on the sledge, said:

"We are called by His name,
Thou a child, and I a lamb."

"We must find him some presents," cried the children. They brought him peppermint sticks and colored balls and a white wooly lamb that he liked so much that he laughed out loud when he saw it. And a music box that made a lovely tinkly sound like icicles. The oxen were unhooked from the sledge and stood behind him, their breath white in the frosty air, and the donkey and the lamb nuzzled against him. The baby sat smiling in the sledge while they all brought him their gifts.

They sang a carol just for him - the Christmas hymn that Martin Luther wrote so long ago for his own children:

Away in a manger
No crib for His bed,
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His sweet head.

The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus
No crying he makes.

I love thee, Lord Jesus,
Look down where I lie,
And stay by my cradle,
To watch lullaby.

Then everyone had a cup of hot soup from the big kettle that was steaming over one of the fires, and they hooked the oxen to the sledge again and drove back to the house. At the big barn the little boy's father was waiting for him. The moon had risen over the long white hills now and hung huge and golden in the blue night sky.

"Let's drive him back to his house," said the children. Then with St. Nicholas guiding the oxen, they walked along the white road, singing:

The first Noel, the angels did say,
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay,
In fields where they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter's night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel - Born is the King of Israel.

So they took the child home to his mother, who was waiting at the door of their little house. Candles were lighted in all the little square window panes, and smoke rose straight up from the big chimney in the middle. Above the wild bare branches of the elm tree by the door stood the bright steady star.

They wished their neighbors a Merry Christmas and left all the baby's presents for him in a big basket wound with ribbons. He sat in the crook of his mother's arm, with his father standing beside them in the brightly lighted door, and watched them as they went home down the snowy road. As they walked behind the silver-horned oxen in the soft moonlight they sang the gay old Christmass carol that sounded like sleigh bells:

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day.

The moon was very bright now, and the sky so blue that only the star over the little house was still golden. As they turned into their own dooryard from the road, the last words welled joyously from their hearts:

O tidings of comfort and joy-
Tidings of comfort and joy.

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