Christmas is our most beloved holiday. No other holiday is so richly decorated, seasoned by joy, and trumpeted with music. It is so big it must be celebrated in a variety of traditions. The Christmas Stories is a collection of twenty pieces that explore these traditions, sometimes with humor. The stories were written and read aloud by the author, one each year, at an annual advent worship service at St Stephen Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, to not only entertain but to inspire readers and listeners to find their own Christmas stories to share. The stories in The Christmas Stories are a mix of fact and fiction but, regardless, address certain truths about Christmas we never question. For example, we know that every year we go home for Christmas, even if it's just a journey of the heart, and that children agonize having to wait one slow day at a time for Christmas to arrive, while adults embrace the wait and even give it a name, advent. And that even secularists celebrate the holiday as the highest altar of peace, love, and joy. The Christmas Stories is meant not only to entertain but to inspire readers to find their own stories to share about this most beloved season.
The year I turned eleven my grandparents came to visit us for the holidays. As was the custom when we had overnight guests, I gave up my bedroom and crossed the hall to bunk with my brother. On Christmas Eve, we climbed into bed anxious for morning. In whispers we shared our expectations of great presents. We played games in the dark. We traded sides of the bed a dozen times. When we finally wore the batteries out in our flashlight, we decided to call it a night and try to go to sleep. It was late but the grown-ups were still downstairs. Their voices mixed softly with the melodies of Christmas music on the radio. The sounds were soothing and familiar, like every Christmas Eve. I remarked to my brother-four years my junior-that Santa doesn't enter a house if the grown-ups are still up, so Mom and Dad better get Granddad and Grandma to bed pretty soon. We lay there is the dark listening. Then, suddenly, mixed with the music, there was a new sound, one I had never heard before. It was a soft irregular tapping, like hoof beats alternating slow and fast-tap, tap...tap...tap, followed by long periods of silence. My brother and I crawled from the bed and lay by the door to listen better. After each interlude of silence, the sounds would start again. The cycles repeated, over and over. Like the horse was starting and stopping. The sounds came from the basement, two floors below, and sometimes were punctuated by the voices of my father or grandfather speaking in numbers. But they offered no other clues to the mystery. Eventually, the sounds stopped for the longest time and were replaced by footsteps on the basement stairs. My brother and I dove back under the covers and pretended to be asleep. The lights downstairs went out and the footsteps came up to the bedroom level. A few minutes later the house was completely dark, and we let the mystery go and drifted off to sleep. In the morning we rushed downstairs to find the presents Santa had left under the tree. I got a cap pistol and a model airplane. My brother got a baseball glove. It was a great Christmas. As we leapt gleefully from present to present, my father walked over to the table at the end of the couch and picked up a piece of paper. "Hey," he said, "Santa left us a note." He kneeled and we rushed to his side and read over his shoulder. "Yeah, that's Santa's handwriting all right," I said confidently. My father read. "Thanks for the cookies. I left a present in the basement. It was too big to put under the tree. Santa." "Well, what do you know?" Dad said. We didn't run downstairs; we flew, hardly touching the steps. In the basement we turned on the light. There, before our eyes, in the middle of the floor, was a brand spanking new ping pong table. Our eyes grew big like little white plastic balls. We reached for the paddles and a ball. Arriving a few seconds later, my father remarked, "Boy, old Santa sure was good to you guys this year. Imagine. A ping-pong table." My brother took a swipe at the ball. Tap. It bounced over the net and across the table top. Tap, tap, tap...tap....tap... Seized by an uncertain fear, I let the ball go by. That sound! I froze. The room went dark for me. "One to nothing," my brother cried. In silent horror I watched a scene play out on a screen in my mind: my father and grandfather, late the night before, down here in the basement, pulling a large box from behind the furnace.... No, I thought, it can't be. "Pick the ball up," my brother said. I shuddered in disbelief. But I kept my thoughts to myself. My brother looked at me with annoyance. Then, the hard look slid from his face and bewilderment took its place. His expression began to change in stages. First, his brow creased. Then, his eyes narrowed. When his mouth fell open, I knew that he knew.
Ted Field is a comic artist and watercolor painter, and author of The Well: An Enviro-Thriller, a mystery novel about a plot to conceal the intentional contamination of city water supplies, and An Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, a personal remembrance of growing up as a baby boomer. As the principal artist of Have Pen Will Draw, he prepared the pen-and-ink drawings included in The Christmas Stories. He lives with his wife in Minnesota.