We’ve never been much for holidays here in Skunk Corners. Not until just lately, when my students figured out that celebrations mostly come with food. They thought Thanksgiving was about the best thing ever, what with the wild turkey and the baked squash and the pies that Tess brought for our celebration, unless maybe the real best was the Fourth of July picnic. There they had all the food they could eat and it was outdoors, so they didn’t need any manners. At least, that’s the way the kids figured it.
After the success of those events, I began to wonder why we didn’t seem to celebrate Christmas much. Sure, some families did something, maybe a stocking with a bit of penny candy and an orange in it, and a dinner they took extra care over. Maybe they read about the baby Jesus in their Bibles. I don’t know much about that. But I’d been reading up on how folks elsewhere did things, and it made me kind of sad.
Even the first Christmas in Little Women, when no one had gifts but Marmee and they gave away their breakfast, seemed to have something we were missing. At least, I didn’t have it. So, naturally, I went to the Ninja Librarian.
“But why doesn’t anyone around here celebrate Christmas?” I wondered. “I know why I don’t, but why don’t other people?”
Tom gave me a long, grave look, and rather than answering my question, asked one of his own, which I should have expected. “Did you and your father not honor the day? Or did you stop when he was no longer with you?” Funny how he won’t let me ask about his life, but he doesn’t stop at asking me about mine.
I shook my head. “I was born the 20th of December, or something thereabouts. And Ma died a few days later. On Christmas.” It didn’t hurt much to say that, since I never knew Ma. It was thinking about Pa that stung. “So Pa never looked at the day. He’d go hunting or something.” I changed the subject. “What about you and your family? What did you do?”
He did what he always did when any question touched near to his own life or history. He said, “That was a long time ago.” Then he set me to doing more exercises so I could learn to be a Ninja fighter. The more questions I ask, the better I get at those moves. If I’m nosey enough, I might learn to be as good as the Ninja Librarian.
Maybe not. He works twice as hard and more often, and he’s been doing it for a long time, though naturally, when I tried to find out how long, he set me to learning a whole new set of complicated moves.
The idea of Christmas wouldn’t leave me, though. We celebrated another Thanksgiving, though I wasn’t sure to whom or for what we were being so all-fired grateful, unless it was that the Ninja Librarian had come back to us, and the fire didn’t burn us down, nor the roughs from Endoline take over our town. Which, come to think of it, was enough to be thankful for. But Christmas was just around the corner, and I didn’t know what I was going to do about it. If anything.
Besides, I was busy. As the weather got colder, I found some of my students were frozen half through before they got to school, mornings. And those who had gotten coats the year before were sticking out of them by several inches at the sleeves. Tommy couldn’t even fasten his, because now he was in his teens he was starting to fill out some. He’d stopped dodging chores at home, and around school he tried to take the place of Hank and Yance, who were mostly working now, learning finer carpentry and even making furniture with Ike Holstead.
I was working hard to get the women of the town to hunt out whatever old stuff they might have, and work it over to fit the bigger kids. The little ones were easy, since we could just pass last year’s coats down to them. And we were all making moccasins again, especially the ones stuffed with leaves and moss to keep the feet warm. So I didn’t have any time for thinking about Christmas.
No one else said anything, so I decided to just let the idea drop. On the shortest day of the year I decided that I had turned eighteen, but I didn’t say anything about that, either. Pa would’ve made a big deal about it, like he did when I was thirteen, but he wasn’t here and I was too old to cry about that or anything else. I didn’t say anything more to Ninja Tom, and he didn’t mention the holiday to me, either. Though he did comment on midwinter’s night—he called it the solstice—and had the children make a note of exactly what time the sun set.
“Way too early,” was Tommy’s assessment, and I agreed. Dark cold nights weren’t agreeing with me just then, though Tom mostly kept me from being cold by making me practice for hours until I could do each drill perfectly every time.
Of course, we didn’t have any school on the 24th or the 25th. That was tradition, whatever else folks did, or didn’t do. Preacher Dawson would have thrown a fit if we had gone on. He held a church service on the 24th, and I suppose some folks went. I stayed in my room behind the schoolhouse and read. Every single book by Miss Alcott that I could lay hands on, until I got a bit tired of all the girls ending up married. Then I took to reading history, and stuck with the explorers who wandered the hot southern lands. That worked better for improving my mood, at least until I had to go out and get more firewood.
On the 25th, I didn’t get out of bed when I woke up, not even when it got light. I just stayed where it was warm and read until the sun shone in my window. That got my attention, seeing as I hadn’t seen it for several days. I tossed back the covers, pulled on my dungarees over my long underwear, and topped it with a heavy wool sweater my Pa had worn. I was near as big as he’d been, unless the thing had shrunk.
Then I headed for Two-Timin’ Tess’s Tavern, where I could count on a decent meal, as long as it was after ten in the morning. They keep bartender’s hours over there. I figured on having a lot of breakfast, since I hadn’t eaten a thing when I woke up several hours earlier—just picked up my book and started reading. My belly was flapping against my spine, as Pa used to say.
I came around back to the kitchen, since it was much too early for the bar to be open, and stepped into a world of beautiful smells. Annie had been up far longer than I had, I decided. I could detect bread and apple pie and soup and maybe somewhere in all that a hint of the bacon and eggs I had thought I was looking for.
“Hey there, Al,” Annie greeted me. Tess was at the table, clutching a cup of coffee and watching Annie with something between delight and fear. “Pull up a chair and sit down.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I knew a good invitation when I heard it. I sat down, and Tess shoved the coffee pot toward me. By the time I had poured a cup, Annie had filled two plates with bacon, eggs, and some kind of cake. Cake for breakfast seemed a bit odd, but I wasn’t in any mood to say no. I sailed into the food and didn’t even look at Tess until I was nearly through it. When I did look, she was eating as single-mindedly as I had been, if somewhat less rapidly.
I looked again at Annie, who was pulling a pair of pies from the oven, and back at Tess, who shrugged.
“Annie,” she said, “is determined to make a real Christmas breakfast. And lunch, and dinner.”
“Who for?” I asked.
“For anyone who walks through that door hungry,” Annie said.
I didn’t know what she was expecting, but I thought there wouldn’t be much of anyone coming in on a day like this. The wind had kicked up again, the sun gone away after luring me out, and the temperature dropped to something just below unbearable. In my opinion, no one in their right mind would go out. Unless, like me, they were in need of something to eat.
Of course, she’d be feeding Johnny and the girls, and I figured Tom would be in. Like me, he’d taken to eating most of his meals at Tess’s. But no doubt everyone else would be sensible and go out only to do their chores. How should they know there was a feast at the Tavern?
Yet, somehow, as the day went on, folks just seemed to happen by. Some came for a drink, and stayed for pie. But some, like Tommy, just happened to be passing by and thought they’d see if there was anything to eat around, and to show us how warm his new coat was. Hank and Yance came with a shelf they’d made special for Ike Holstead, and Ike just happened to come in with Janey about that same time. She had her mocs on, having outgrown her boots. Eunice had those now. I know, because she stopped in too.
Crazy Jake and Wild Harry Colson were working, but the train stopped in town for an hour, long enough for my two oldest students—getting on into their twenties now—to come by for a turkey sandwich, pie and coffee. And for help with a report they had to write about a mishap on the line, so I figured that was their real reason, and the food was their luck. Those two would never turn down a good meal, no more than I would.
Me, I couldn’t see any reason to go back to my cold room, so I just stuck around and had a bite when I felt like it. Everyone who came in gave me a friendly “Merry Christmas,” and Tom had brought his chess set. He was teaching me to play, though Pa had made a start at it that last year before he died. Ninja Tom was a tough teacher, but that day I won two games, and figured I was making progress.
It finally wound on down to night, the last piece of pie went down Johnny’s gullet, and I headed back to my book and my bed, pretty pleased with the way the day had turned out.
Maybe I’m not as bright as a teacher ought to be, because it wasn’t until I was drifting off to sleep that it occurred to me to wonder if all those folks stopping in had been such happenstance after all. Maybe it had been some Christmas magic, conjured up by some folks who wanted me to think maybe I had a family after all.
Maybe Tom had even let me win those chess games.