A Child’s Christmas Journey
It was only her seventh Christmas eve. Naturally, Ella couldn’t get to sleep. At sunset, she’d watched her mother light the Christmas candle and place it in the window just like they did every year. Then, she’d helped prepare the traditional ham dinner by putting the napkins and silverware by the plates exactly as her grandmother instructed from her chair near the sideboard. After dinner everyone opened just one special gift from the presents that already skirted the fairyland yard beneath the Christmas tree. Her gift was a tree ornament, a clear plastic horse with a painted bridle and saddle that celebrated Ella’s first horseback riding lessons that summer with her grandfather. Her mother helped her hang it on a branch next to an old glass Santa whose painted red suit had flaked so much it was nearly pink. Ella thought the old ornament looked horrible and promptly told her mother so.
“I don’t want my shiny new ornament hanging next to that old thing. We should throw those old ornaments out,” she declared with all the authority of her seven years of experience.
“This Santa was on your daddy’s tree when he was little,” her mother explained.
“But it isn’t shiny and pretty anymore. The new ones are so much prettier.”
Her mother pursed her lips and lowered her voice. “Honey, I’ll explain it to you some day but we don’t want an argument on Christmas eve. You don’t want to hurt your daddy’s feelings. Santa might hear you and think you haven’t been such a good little girl.”
Ella scowled. She wasn’t quite sure she still believed in Santa but it probably wasn’t such a good idea to take chances.
There had been the usual round of kisses and hugs when her grandparents left to go home and she’d dutifully marched up the stairs, changed into her new pajamas dotted with playful kittens, and climbed into bed with the great stuffed poodle that Santa supposedly brought her last year. She heard her parents talking, trying to be quiet as they climbed the stairs and went down the hall to their bedroom. Ella squinched her eyes shut and tried to go to sleep but visions of Santa and Christmas tree ornaments kept her awake. Then, she thought she heard a voice giggling and she sat straight up. Who was downstairs?
Her parents were already in bed. Perhaps…just perhaps…she’d better find out who was giggling.
Leaving the great poodle snug in bed, Ella pushed her toes into the fluffy slippers that matched her pajamas. I’ll sneak down and have a quick look, she thought. If it did just happen to be a giant elf in a red suit…well, it wouldn’t do to let him see her.
She crept down the stairs and peaked around the corner from the hall into the living room…and of course it was empty, but oh how pretty it was. Only one lamp lit the room. The softly glowing lights on the tree cast wispy feather patterns on the ceiling. Under the tree, the tiny village houses and trees glistened with artificial snow. Wouldn’t it be wonderful she thought to be able to live in a wonderful world like that? She could play all day in the snow and never get cold or wet. She could sing carols with the pine cone people, play with the little foxes and squirrels, or have a snowball fight with the little boy in the red coat who always had his arm cocked and ready to fire the snowball in his hand.
She went closer to the yard and sat down close to the mirror skating rink where people sat on a bench and watched several children frozen in the act of playing their hockey game. She leaned back against the easy chair that her father liked to sit in when the room was like this. She’d seem him gaze at the tree with the funniest little smile on his face for minutes on end or until mother called them for dinner.
There was a little green plastic pond toward the front of the yard with a brown plastic bridge dividing it into two sides. On one side a slightly tarnished white swan swam in an endless circle that it never managed to complete. A little green frog, named Unkie according to her grandmother, lay sprawled on the shiny surface of artificial water. A girl dressed in a coat and a funny hat stood on the bridge watching them. Her mother called her a “flapper” girl and told Ella that this was the way girls dressed when grandmother was that age. They had all been under grandmother’s tree when she was she was a little girl.
The skater’s pond had been placed beside the red covered bridge this year. Pine trees of all sizes and shapes lined the shoreline. In one corner, away from the hockey game, a metal girl skater danced a pirouette. Ella wished she could skate like that. It was all so beautifully perfect and more than anything, at that instant, Ella wanted to be part of that magic world of fluffy snow. She crept closer and tried to imagine what it would be like. Oh, if only, if only…
As she stared, the trees seemed to grow larger and larger. The red covered bridge grew bigger and bigger almost as if… Then her kitten slippers slid on the wooden floor and she sat down in the cotton with a great plop!
She looked around. The trees towered above her. The snow glittered all around. She looked down. What? She was sitting on ice but she wasn’t cold! She was sitting on the ice at the edge of the skating pond! Ella didn’t know whether to giggle or call for her mother. Everything was so beautiful. But what had happened to her? Then something soft thumped into the side of her head. She looked down to see a tiny, tiny cottonball bounce off her lap and roll to the ground.
“Ha! Ha! Gotcha! You can’t stand up on ice! Don’t you know how to skate?”
It was the plaster boy in the red coat who was always throwing a snowball! He waded through the cotton snow to the astonished little girl sitting on her rump and held out his hand.
“Come on. I’ll help you up.”
Ella closed her gaping mouth and took a deep breath before reaching out.
“Uh, er, thank you. How did I get here?”
“The same way we all did, silly. Someone took us out of the big box and put us here.”
“But I was only sitting next to the tree, looking into the yard. Then I fell and I was here. What happened?”
“One of the big people who put up the tree put you here.
“Those are my parents and grandparents.”
“If you say so. Are you going to skate or not?”
“Uh, yes, yes. But I don’t have any skates.
“No one does. Just slide along. Try it.”
She held his hand and took a tiny, tentative step. She glided across the ice mirror.
“It’s so easy! Just like I dreamed it would be.” She took another step, then another, and soon she was skimming past the other skaters who waved and smiled. They skated and whirled until she finally had to stop to catch her breath.
“It’s so much fun. I wish I could do this every day, just like you do.”
“Oh, we only do it when the tree lights are on and then only on Christmas eve.”
“I thought you did it all the time.”
“No, silly. We’re yard people and when the tree lights go out on Christmas morning, we all go back to being yard figures until next year.”
“What’s the matter?” It was all perfectly normal to the snowball boy. He couldn’t understand why his new friend was starting to cry.
“I’m not a yard figure. I’m a girl. My parents are the ones who put up the tree and laid down the yard. I don’t want to be boxed away all year. I miss my parents.” The tears began to slid down her cheeks.
“Then you’d better go back outside the yard before the lights are turned off.”
Ella turned around frantically looking for the way back but all she could see was the yard and the beautiful tree above.
“Which way do I go?”
The snowball boy looked around.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been outside the yard. I’m always asleep with the others when we’re in the box.”
Tears dripped off Ella’s chin. “What am I going to do?”
“Hey, don’t cry. You’ll get the cotton wet and, when that happens, it gets too soggy to walk in. Why don’t we ask the dwarf people or the pine cone people?”
“Oh yes,” Ella clapped her hands, tears suddenly forgotten. “Mother says the dwarf people have been under the tree for years. I’ve always wanted to meet them.”
They found the dwarf people on their way home from work and explained Ella’s problem. They put down their picks and shovels and consulted among themselves.
Finally, the head of the clan came forward, slowly shaking his head.
“I am truly sorry. We have no idea how to help you. Nothing like this has ever happened while we’ve been here.”
Ella felt the tears welling up in her eyes again. It had all been so wonderful. Now there’d be no Christmas morning for her, no presents, and, worst of all, no warm hugs from her parents and grandparents.
The head dwarf patted her gently. “I wish so much we could help. Why don’t you go ask the swan or the frog or the little girl on the bridge. I have been told those folks have been under the tree for many, many years. Many more than even our family.”
“Yes,” the snowball boy agreed, “we’ll ask them. Anybody’s who’s that old will know everything. Come on. This way.”
They tromped past the thatched cottage and the heavy metal bulldog who was always face down in the cotton because his head was so much larger than his body. Finally, they reached the green pond and brown bridge. Unkie the frog floated lazily on his stomach while the old swan preened his coat, now yellowing with age. The little flapper girl waved and waited patiently for them as if she’d always expected them to drop by.
“No, I’m afraid I can’t help you either,” she said after the snowball boy explained Ella’s problem. “Perhaps the skiing Santa knows. You’ll have to speak up though. His head is falling off and it affects his hearing. A terrier almost bit it off one time.”
“Oh dear!” Ella exclaimed.
“It was a poodle!” a dry voice honked.
“Excuse me?” Ella looked around to see who had spoken.
“I said it was a poodle. A white toy poodle.” It was the old swan who’d spoken. Apparently even the animals spoke in the tree yard.
“It came racing through the house, dove straight into the yard and grabbed a mouthful of cotton. Trees and toys flew everywhere.”
“You’re telling me,” croaked Unkie the frog. “How do you think I got this tooth mark in the middle of my stomach?”
“Oh my, I’m really sorry,” said Ella.
“It happens.” The swan shrugged and adjusted his wings. “You have to watch out for these animals, especially the young ones. Thank goodness they don’t have cats. They love to climb in the tree and knock the ornaments down.”
Ella wondered how the swan knew this if her family had never owned cats but she didn’t want to risk insulting anyone. She turned back to the flapper girl.
“Could you tell me where to find the skiing Santa?”
“Won’t help,” the swan honked. “He can barely stay upright let alone give advice. But my cousin might be able to help.”
“Who’s your cousin?”
“Why he’s the great swan at the top of the tree.”
“I know about him. Legend tells that he carries the sun back to its place in the sky as a signal that it’s the end of winter. Do you think he could fly me back to the living room?”
“Well, if anyone can do it, he could. Cygnus is the best flier in the family.”
“But how does she get to the top of the tree?”
“Not my problem. I can’t fly at all, only swim.”
Ella and the snowball boy looked upward into the mass of green branches glittering with lights and ornaments.
“I guess I’ll have to climb,” she said resignedly, thankful now that she had done a considerable amount of climbing in the small maple tree in the back yard despite her mother’s protests and occasional threats of punishment.
“I’ll help you,” offered the snowball boy.
“Won’t you get into trouble, leaving the yard?”
“I don’t know but I always wanted to see more of the world. This is my big chance to go exploring. Maybe the only chance I’ll ever have.”
“All right. Let’s go.”
“Wait a minute,” called the swan. “Don’t stop to gawk at the ornaments no matter how pretty they are or you’ll never get there in time,” he warned.
Ella nodded and they started the trek up the cotton snow bank until they reached a low hanging branch. Snowball boy gave Ella a boost, then swung up beside her. It was slow going as they made their way between the fir needles and found the next branches to climb higher. Ella was thankful her parents hadn’t bought a Scotch pine tree. Its needles were hard and sharp. The fir was much more friendly to the climbers and smelled better.
They climbed more branches until they came to a large pink ornament. Like her father’s Santa, the paint had faded and flaked but one patch seemed to glitter with lights and warmth.
“Oh, how pretty!” Ella climbed along the branch to get a better look.
“Don’t forget the swan’s warning. We’ve a long way to go yet.”
“Just a little while. Listen. I hear laughter.” She leaned closer. “Look in here. I can see people. They’re having a costume party!”
The people were indeed having a good time. The women wore long dresses with bows and frills. The men wore odd suits with stiff collars and long-tailed coats and they had long curling mustaches that Ella had never seen on any grown-up men before.
“Why are they dressed so funny?”
Snowball boy looked over her shoulder. “That’s because they’re old.”
“They’re not old. Not any older than my parents. And there’s a girl my age and she’s dressed the same way.”
“I meant old in time. Haven’t you seen the people walking in the street by the big brick house on the other side of the red covered bridge? They’re dressed the same way. I’ll bet that party happened almost a hundred Christmas eves ago. You see, a Christmas ornament always reflects what happened in the house on the first Christmas that it was hung on the tree. This Christmas must have been a very happy one.”
Ella’s mouth dropped open.
“How wonderful! Mother told me that this ball hung on my great-grandmother’s tree when she was little. I’ll bet that’s her playing with the puppy! What a wonderful time they’re having.”
“They liked to play games in those days and have a lot of people in for parties. Come on. We’d better keep going.”
“Can’t we stay just a little longer?”
Snowball boy shook his head. “Not if you want to reach the top of the tree before morning. It’s a long way to climb yet.”
Reluctantly, Ella left the ornament and the party behind. After climbing only several more branches, they came face to face with the glass Santa that Ella had wanted to remove from the tree. In the reflection from the Santa’s eyes, Ella saw a small boy playing with a wooden train.
“Can that be Daddy? Mother said this was his Santa.”
A little girl dragged a ragg dolly over and sat beside the boy. He put the doll on one of the train cars, got up, and pulled the train across the room. “Toot! Toot! Toot!” he called. “All aboard!”
“Chug! Chug! Chug!” cried the little girl.
“That must be Aunt Helen.”
Ella wanted a closer look but the snowball boy tugged at her sleeve until she reluctantly followed him up the tree. They passed other ornaments reflecting their first Christmases. Then they reached one beautiful glass ornament swirling with colored stars on its surface. Ella remembered thinking it was one of the prettiest she’d seen. She just had to stop and see what it reflected.
But this time there were no bright lights, no singing, no laughter. Inside, it was cloudy as if smoke filled the room. When Ella looked closer, she could only see her parents sitting on the couch in front of the fireplace and her mother seemed to be crying.
“What’s the matter? Why is it so dark? Why is my mother crying?”
“It wasn’t a very happy Christmas that year,” said a strange voice.
Ella looked up to see the miniature Raggedy Ann yarn doll hanging above her, except that she wasn’t so very miniature now.
“That Christmas your grandfather was in a bad car accident and he wasn’t expected to live.”
“But he’s alive and well,” Ella protested.
“Yes he is, but everyone was very sad that Christmas eve and the ornament carries that memory forever.”
“Oh, the poor ornament. Wait, will my new ornament reflect the argument I had with my mother?”
“Probably. Of course, something happy could wipe that memory away.”
“Come on,” Snowball boy urged. “It’s getting late. We’ve got to hurry.”
They climbed as fast as they could but, the higher they climbed, the fewer and farther apart the branches became. Finally, they couldn’t reach the next branch.
“What’ll we do? It’s so far away.”
“I’ll hold on while you reach for it.”
Snowball boy took a grip on the collar of Ella’s kitten pajamas. She stretched up and out as far as she could but kitten pajamas were never meant to support a little girl climbing a tree. Her fingers tipped the branch’s needles but she could not, as hard as she tried, get a grip on the branch. A tiny bell tinkled as she finally let go and a silver icicle slipped off the branch and fell to the floor.
“Oh dear, now look at what I’ve done.”
“There you are. What took you so long? I’ve been expecting you. And don’t worry about the icicle, dear. Those silly things are always falling off.”
Ella looked up. The golden-haired angel smiled down at her from the top of the tree.
“It was my fault. I wanted to stop to look at all the Christmases reflected in the ornaments. I never realized… Now I know why the older ornaments are so important to everyone.”
The angel smiled. “That’s part of the purpose of a family tree, my darling. The ornaments store all our remembrances of Christmases past and bring them to life again in our memories. Did you know that I was put on the tree top for your very first Christmas?”
Suddenly, in the angel’s halo, Ella saw the happiness and joy of her parents and the rest of the family as they crowded around the new baby.
“I want to go back to my mother and father! Please help me!”
“Climb on my back!” honked another voice. It belonged to the beautiful white swan who sat on the branch below the angel. He spread his wings and floated down to Ella’s branch.
“Are you Cygnus?”
“None other. Now hurry before they turn off the tree lights.”
Ella climbed onto the swan’s back among the snowy white fluff of Cygnus’s feathers.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asked the snowball boy.
“No, no. I belong in the yard with my friends.”
“But how will you get back?”
“No problem. I’ll jump. I won’t break when I fall into the cotton. Have a good Christmas and don’t forget what a good time we had at the pond.”
“I won’t…ever. And you’ll always be under my Christmas tree. Goodbye, everybody! Thank you all!”
“See you next Christmas! The snowball boy waved goodbye.
The swan spread his great wings, soaring high above the tree and around the angel who still glowed with the happiness and love of a child’s first Christmas. He flew in ever widening circles away from the branches and out into the living room. His feathers were as soft as the softest pillow and Ella was exhausted from the climb. She nestled sleepily into the fluffy warmth.
“I’ll carry her back to bed.” Ella heard a voice in the distance that sounded like her father. She struggled to wake up.
“Go back to sleep, Pumpkin. I’ve got you. Mommy and Daddy are here.”
And they were. Her mother’s hand smoothed stray curls from Ella’s sleepy eyes. She was back in the living room safe and sound and cradled in her father’s strong arms.
“Now I wonder how that got there,” she heard her mother say.
Ella watched her pluck the snowball boy from a branch at the top of the tree and put him back in the yard next to the skating pond.
Then Ella saw it…her new horse ornament on its branch next to the old Santa. It sparkled and glowed, reflecting Ella being held in her Daddy’s arms.
“Daddy. I was in the yard with the skaters but I didn’t know how to get back and I had to climb the tree and I saw all the ornaments and then the swan…”
“It’s all right, Pumpkin. It’s all right. Daddy knows,” he crooned softly. “Go back to sleep.”
As Ella laid her head back on his shoulder, she thought she saw him glance over at the old glass Santa and smile that secret little smile.