I was sixteen.
Ma’s upright piano stood against the wall in the dining room where it had been since Ma and Pa were married. It was Grandma’s piano, but she gave it to my Ma as a wedding present. It was made of mahogany and Ma polished it almost every day. I was sitting at it just plucking randomly on the black keys when Ma placed a bright red runner across the top of the piano and, a few minutes later, placed the crèche on the runner. She arranged the figures of Mary and Joseph around the baby Jesus lying in a manger.
“You’re late puttin’ that out this year, Ma,” I said.
“Each year there are more and more boxes of Christmas decorations to sort through,” she said.
I strummed several keys with an unmelodic result and heaved a loud sigh.
“Have you decided yet which song you’re going to do for the Christmas service?” she asked.
I rapidly tapped the D flat key three times, producing a discordant sound. “Not yet, Ma,” I said.
This was going to be my first solo in front of the congregation of the Piney Creek Baptist Church, and on Christmas morning to boot, so I wanted it to be perfect, something everyone would remember.
“Christmas is only two days away,” she said.
“I know, Ma,” I said. I closed the cover over the keys and got up from the stool. “Where’s Pa?”
“He’s out in the barn gettin’ the wagon ready for tonight’s hayride,” she said. “If you’re not going to practice your music, you should go help him.”
“Yes, Ma,” I said.
Sitting on the coffee table was the three-tiered candy dish Ma set out every Christmas. It looked fancy, like it was made of etched glass, but it was plastic. Pa had given it to Ma their first Christmas together as a married couple, back when, as Pa always liked to say, “They didn’t have two sticks to rub together to make a fire.” They still didn’t have much money, but me and my little sister, Kaylee, never went without. Starting on the twelfth day before Christmas, Ma loaded all three tiers of the candy dish with homemade chocolate fudge; sugar cookies topped with icing made from powdered sugar and colored with blue, green, and red food dyes; and possibly every kind of nut known to mankind. I took a cookie from the top tier, stuck it between my teeth, and held it there while I put on my coat, hat, and gloves.
I bit into the cookie as I opened the door. The front yard was covered with a light dusting of snow. On the other side of the road, our corn fields looked bleak and barren, with broken, brown stalks sticking up here and there out of the frozen ground. I swallowed the piece of cookie and marveled at how the icing tasted like their color, although Ma never added flavoring to it. The red tasted like cherry, the green like mint, and the blue like berries.
I stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind me. As I ate the rest of the cookie, I watched Canadian geese flying in a V-formation as they crossed the sky. Kaylee came around the side of the house and ran up the porch steps. She had our pet Manx cat, Stinky, in her arms. Stinky was the same age as Kaylee, ten. Kaylee had tied a large silver bow to Stinky’s collar. The cat was used to being decorated for the Christmas holidays. Kaylee had been doing it to her since both of them were four.
“Pa says I can go on the hayride tonight,” she said excitedly. “If Ma says it’s okay.”
She nuzzled Stinky’s light gray fur. “Do you know what song you’re going to sing?”
I brushed cookie crumbs from my coat front. “Not yet,” I said. “Why?”
“I like that song about the drummer boy,” she said. “Bum, bum, bumty, bum, bum,” she intoned. “That one.”
“Yeah, I know it,” I said. “I’ll think about it.” I started down the steps.
“Do you think Ma is going to say no?” she asked.
I looked over my shoulder at the worried, gloomy look on her face. “I’ll talk to her if she does.”
“You’re the best brother ever,” she shouted. She went into the house loudly humming the tune to ‘The Little Drummer Boy.’
I walked around the house and to the barn. The ground crunched beneath the soles of my sneakers. The warmth inside the barn enveloped me as I walked in and closed the door. Pa was up in the loft and pitching hay into the wagon positioned beneath the loft. He was wearing his favorite blue flannel shirt, the one Ma had given him two Christmases before.
“I’m here to help,” I yelled up to him.
He dumped a pitchfork full of hay into the wagon. “Shouldn’t you be workin’ on your song?”
“I’ll do it tomorrow,” I said. “I just have to decide which song I’m going to do.”
“I’ve always been partial to ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’” he said as he leaned on the handle of the pitchfork.
“I can’t sing that in church,” I said.
“I guess not,” he said.
As Pa dropped hay into the wagon, I spread it out, building a comfortable bed. Pa did the hayride during Easter and Christmas for the teenagers in Piney Creek. Being a small town, there was usually no more than twenty teenagers who participated. Pa started doing it when I turned thirteen, and I suspected he enjoyed it more than I did.
Ann Chernay sat with me huddled under a quilt with cloth cut-outs of Christmas trees, candy canes and reindeer sewn onto the squares. She had her head on my shoulder and the coconut fragrance of her shampoo filled my senses. I was certain I was in love.
Between the clouds, bright stars glittered in the night sky. When the crescent moon appeared, its glow blanketed the fields in pale moonlight. The rhythmic clip-clop from the hooves of the horses was as relaxing as a lullaby. Pa had strung small, silver bells on the sides of the wagon. They tinkled gently as the wagon rocked and swayed.
We sang “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Kaylee sat on the seat next to Pa, snuggled against his side.
Ann didn’t attend Piney Creek Baptist Church. I don’t know how she found out I was going to sing a solo in church, but she asked, “Are you nervous about singing at your church on Christmas?”
“I can’t decide what song to sing,” I said.
“Do you know ‘Ave Maria?’” she asked.
“That’s not a Christmas song.” I sighed. “I’m beginnin’ to wish I had never told Reverend Smith I’d do a song at all.”
When Pa pulled the wagon into our driveway, everyone quickly jumped down and rushed into the warmth of our house. Ma had placed trays of sandwiches, cookies in the shape of Christmas wreaths with green butter cream frosting, and chewy Rice Krispy Treats on the dining room table. The entire house smelled like hot apple cider Ma served to everyone in red plastic cups.
When her parents arrived to take her home, Ann kissed me on the cheek before she went out the door. “I’ll be at your church Christmas morning just to hear what song you select.”
“Oh, great,” I said. My stomach quickly tied itself into a knot.
The morning before Christmas day, Ma and Pa cleared the place in front of the living room window where the Christmas tree would go. Ma placed a white sheet on the floor and scattered silver glitter on it. Pa placed the tree stand in the center of the sheet and Ma bunched it up around the edges to give it the likeness of miniature snow drifts. Boxes of tree ornaments were stacked against the wall.
“You are comin’ with me to get the tree or are you practicin’ your song?” Pa asked me.
I glanced at the piano and was overcome with a sense of dread. “I’ll go with you,” I answered.
I was happy Ma didn’t insist that I practice my song, or any song for that matter.
Pa and I put on our boots, coats, hats, and gloves and went out the back door. The ice crystals on the frozen ground shimmered in the dull morning sunlight that was filtered through thin, wispy clouds. Inside the barn, Pa hitched our mare, Gertie, to the slay. Before leaving the barn, Pa handed me the axe. He led Gertie down the driveway and into the woods while I walked alongside him. The runners of the sled glided easily over the icy ground. The air was heavily scented with pine.
“Your Ma says you’re still strugglin’ with findin’ the right song to sing,” he said.
I grunted. “Nothin’ I think of is what I want to sing.”
“Nothin’ will gum up the works than over-thinkin’ somethin’,” he said. “Sing whatever you think the baby Jesus would want to hear. It’s his birthday, after all.”
We didn’t go very far into the woods before we found the right tree.
“It looks like it grew specially to stand in our living room,” Pa said.
For the second year in a row, I cut down our Christmas tree. We tied it on the sled and Gertie pulled it back to the barn.
For Christmas Eve, Ma fixed a ham topped with pineapple rings for dinner. Ma always said the Christmas Eve dinner was “light,” which it never was. Along with the ham, it included mashed sweet potatoes topped with miniature marshmallows, steamed asparagus, homemade applesauce, yeast rolls, and for dessert a Yule log smothered with chocolate icing. She covered the table with the white lace tablecloth that my grandmother passed on to her and set candles in silver candlesticks on each end of the table. Before dinner began, I played ‘O Holy Night’ on the piano while my family stood around me and we sang it.
Ma timed that we began decorating the tree at the same time the movie ‘White Christmas’ started on the television. Pa strung the lights on the tree, and then Kaylee and Ma hung the strands of popcorn and cranberries. We all hung the ornaments while Stinky lurked about under the tree and swatted at the hanging bulbs. Kaylee had attached a large green bow to the cat’s collar. Pa put the antique golden angel on the top of the tree. It had a small key on the back that when turned the tune to the song ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ played. He turned the tree lights on just as Bing Crosby sang ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.’
Like every Christmas Eve, Ma and Pa brought out one gift for my sister and me. Kaylee tore apart the shiny blue paper wrapped around a large box Pa had placed on her lap. When she opened the box, she screamed with delight. She pulled out a large stuffed gorilla, the one she had seen in the window of Tiswell’s Department Store. As she hugged it, I said, “I thought you said you were getting too old for dolls.”
“This isn’t a doll,” she replied curtly.
Stinky hopped up onto the sofa, sniffed the gorilla, meowed softly, and then laid down against Kaylee’s leg.
For several minutes, I stared at the flat package wrapped in red tissue paper Ma had set on my knees before I opened it. It was a framed photograph of Grandma sitting at the piano. She was the first person to tell me I had musical talent. The smile on her face in the photograph was inscrutable. There was an envelope attached to the back. The words “For Music School” were written on it. Inside there was a hundred-dollar bill.
Before we went to bed, we went out on the porch and watched as large snowflakes began to fall.
I awoke Christmas morning not thinking about the presents under the tree, or the aroma wafting from the kitchen of Dutch baby pancakes, something Ma only made on Christmas mornings. Tunes of Christmas songs cluttered my brain. Most of the night my dreams had been filled with panicky scenarios where my voice was gone, or I forgot how to play the piano. I climbed out of bed with a headache. I dressed in my best pants, put on the tie Pa had given me for my birthday, and joined the rest of my family in the kitchen. Ma had placed a large Dutch baby heavily sprinkled with powdered sugar on my plate. I sat down at the table, avoiding looking at anyone, although I could feel their eyes on me.
“Merry Christmas,” Ma said as she kissed me on the forehead. She put a glass of orange juice by my plate.
“Merry Christmas, Ma,” I said, staring at the puffed-up pancake in front of me.
Peripherally, I could see Kaylee stuffing large forkfuls of her Dutch baby into her mouth, hoping to speed breakfast along in order to get to the business of tearing open the gifts.
“Don’t let this singin’ at the church ruin Christmas for you,” Pa said to me after several minutes of silence from everyone.
It had been a long time since I had done it, but right there, while staring at my Dutch baby, I began to sob. It surprised my family as much as it surprised me. They affectionately huddled around me as if I had just told them I was dying from a terminal illness.
“Let’s go open the gifts,” Pa said. “That’ll make you feel a little better.”
“Yay!” Kaylee exclaimed as she ran from the kitchen.
In the living room, gifts had been placed under the tree during the night by Ma and Pa. Kaylee passed them out, and as we opened them, for that little while, I forgot all about singing at the church service.
Afterward, leaving wrapping, ribbons, bows, and our gifts, strewn about the room, we put on our boots, coats, hats, and gloves, and left the house. There was about a foot of soft snow on the ground and our boots sunk in it as we walked to the car. I helped Pa clear the snow from the windows and then got in the back seat with Kaylee.
“Here we go,” Pa said as he started the car.
Kaylee grabbed my hand and held it all the way to the church.
The pews were full as they always were for the Christmas service, but we found a pew near the front of the church. Reverend Smith’s pulpit was wrapped in gold foil with a large red bow in the front.
Reverend Smith was a tall, lanky man, who moved very slowly despite not being very old. As he crossed the podium, he glanced at me and smiled warmly. Once behind the pulpit, he gazed out at the congregation. “This morning, instead of starting the service with a prayer, we’re going to begin it with a gift to our Lord and Savior. Most of you know has a song prepared for the occasion of the miracle of the Christ Child’s birth.” He nodded to me and then gestured for me to come up onto the podium.
My mouth was dry, and the palms of my hands were sweaty. I could hear the thumping of my heart.
“Sing what your heart tells you to sing,” Pa whispered to me as I stood up.
I passed by the piano and walked up to the podium. I looked at the expectant expressions on Ma and Kaylee’s faces. And then I looked at Pa who winked at me. I heard his voice echoing in my head, “It’s his birthday, after all.”
I opened my mouth, and sang.
“Happy Birthday to you,
“Happy Birthday to you,
“Happy Birthday, dear Jesus,
“Happy Birthday to you.”
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 630 short stories – new and reprints –published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.