In Livermore Falls, Maine, there is a small farmhouse at the end of a dirt road where the actual date of Christmas is unknown. No one who lives there, not one of the Frost family, from 2 to 93, knows exactly which day is Christmas. Until it comes. They want it that way and they keep it that way, ever since their Christmas was nearly ruined. The Frosts love Christmas. Back in the fifties, they waited for the holiday like everyone else. But after that one terrible Christmas basket, they dreaded the coming of December 25. So the Frosts decided to keep the actual date a secret from themselves.
Every November 30 since then, the Frosts burn their calendar, unplug their radio, discontinue their newspaper and latch the gate at the end of the road. Everyone else in Livermore Falls thinks the Frosts go away every December. But the Frosts are at home. They have enough food stored for a month. Feed for the two cows and fourteen chickens is piled in the barn, and each child has delivered a note to their teacher in exchange for all of December’s schoolwork.
On November 30 they hang their stockings and cut a tree. After supper they make eggnog to celebrate the burning of the calendar. Day by day, they decorate leisurely and sing carols every night. For one month each year, the moon over the back acre is their only guide to the passing weeks.
For some reason, back in the fifties, the Frost family was the target of the town’s annual urge to be charitable. The gift baskets were filled with food, clothing and toys collected by the ladies of the Methodist Church and men from the Elks Club and hung on the Frosts’ gate every Christmas Eve. The Frosts were very uncomfortable with the baskets. No one seemed to realize the Frosts got by just fine. Floyd Junior, the second oldest Frost, is a tree farmer like all the Frosts before him. He sells his lumber to the paper company, then gets money from the government for planting more trees. Floyd Senior is retired at home. He helps out by sharpening saw blades in his chair by the parlor stove. He has an ulcer, so he drinks his gin in cold milk.
The Frosts grow their own vegetables. Mason jars like jewels line the jelly cabinet. Mrs. Frost sews soft cotton flannel shirts on the old Singer in her bedroom.
The stuff in the baskets wasn’t very interesting anyway. Dusty cans of vegetables from the back row of someone’s cupboard, polyester flannel shirts that itch, and toys taped back in their carton. When the Frosts drove into town, they never knew exactly who to thank so they never did.
But sometimes the toys were interesting. Certainly, that one time in the fifties they were.
On Christmas Eve that year, the whole family sat in the parlor around a sparkling tree watching Franklin, the youngest Frost, open a toy from the charity basket. No one in the room had ever seen Play-Doh before. It had just been invented. Four little round cardboard tubs with colored tops. The instructions said to use it like clay. But when Franklin eagerly pried off the red top, a shiny red blob oozed down over his hand and wrist, pulsing to the beat of his heart. Everyone sat very still for a moment until Franklin screamed. His mother jumped up to help, peeled the still moving patch of red goo off his arm and threw it on the floor. Where it hit, re-grouped and bounced to the ceiling. And stuck there, reflecting all the lights on the tree. Every Frost face stared upwards, every jaw dropped.
Slowly the Play-Doh began to slide down into large drops that dangled above them, hanging longer and longer until they began to fall in slow motion, one by one, to the floor, where they bounced and careened, faster and faster, slamming into walls and people. Finally, it was over. The Frosts froze, stunned, huge blood-colored splats stuck to every horrified face. Floyd Junior moved first, touching his own cheek. He hesitated before painfully peeling the Play-Doh off with a faint ripping sound. Then he rushed to help Franklin and Mrs. Frost. All the other Frosts freed themselves from the red stuff and carefully put it all in the ash bucket by the stove. When every red scrap was in the bucket, and Floyd Junior was putting an iron skillet on top to be sure, there was a gurgling sound from the corner of the room. It was Floyd Senior, nearly hidden in the big wing chair. A blot of red blazed on top of his head, while foaming milk ran down through his beard onto his green shirt.
“Oh God!” Floyd Junior rushed to his father and shook him, yelling his name over and over. Little Franklin began to wail. Then Floyd Senior stirred and woke up.
“What? Is the turkey ready?”
When they realized he was alive, they all cried with relief. What a fright they’d had! The men took the ash bucket out behind the barn to bury the Play-Doh. Franklin ran after them with the other three tubs. Now everyone was curious to see what the stuff would do outside. Holding it at arm’s length, Floyd Junior pried up the blue lid very slowly, his face turned away. Nothing happened. The blue stuff inside wasn’t moving. It wasn’t shiny either-or throbbing. It was crumbly and sweet-smelling, like old pound cake soaked in blue perfume. Same for the green and the yellow tubs. They were a little disappointed, truth be told.
They buried them anyway with the violent red Play-Doh. By the time the men returned to the house, the women had straightened the parlor and set the table, relieved for once to be doing women’s work. Christmas was back to normal.
But the next few Christmases were nerve-wracking. Bringing in the baskets on Christmas Eve, watching them under the tree, wondering what destruction might come out of the goodness of someone’s heart.
The Frosts finally got tired of worrying, it was wrecking Christmas. They decided they could only trust themselves, and Santa of course. So, they planned to keep the exact date of Christmas secret, no more anxious waiting. No more baskets on the gate. They began to celebrate Christmas alone, all month, watching the moon. A wonderful winter hibernation, safe and snug at the end of the unplowed road, behind the latched gate. And when Santa comes late one night, they know the next morning is Christmas and every present in the parlor is perfectly safe.
Wendy Palmer is an ex-social worker who lives on an island. Her work has appeared in Rosebud, New Millennium, Nimrod, Confluence, Sixfold, Lunch Ticket and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. She is working on a novel about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 19th century radical feminist, described at the time as a genius, also described as hysterical and overly absorbed by the woman question.