With so many Sunday Writers’ Club members contributing wonderful stories to the Christmas Story Story Share, we’ve created a 2nd post here with all new stories. 

The holidays are a time for sharing and Sunday Writers’ Club got into the spirit of it. Our story share this year was about the unexpected, from visitors to gifts.  And our writers sent some amazing stories, through the post, to friends near and far to celebrate the season.  We thought we would share a few with you as the holidays wind down, hoping you can keep some of the spirit of sharing with you as we “slide into the new year”, as the Viennese would say.

The Gift

By Caroline Stevenson

Prompt: The unexpected gift.

Gabriel the mouse was wandering through an awfully quiet house. It had been deserted since three o’ clock that morning. Gabriel had been enjoying and profiting majorly from the presence of the New Occupants since the beginning of December. Unlike the Previous Occupants, this couple didn’t own a cat – praise be! The Previous Occupants had taken their kitchen fittings and appliances with them in a rather Scrooge-like fashion, and the New Occupants had yet to install a new kitchen and make their new house a proper home. No room for them at the last place. Or certainly not enough room anyway. Not an ideal time of year to move in, but it couldn’t be put off any longer and they were getting desperate. Over the past few weeks, Gabriel had become better acquainted with the eating habits of Jo and Mhairie under their newfound circumstances. The fact they couldn’t cook hot dinners suited him just fine, he had no problem with the fact that he didn’t have to swerve out of the way of slops of boiling gravy landing on the floor and threatening to burn his feet. To his delight, Jo and Mhairie were big fans of cheese and crackers, so he got to savour plenty of leftover crumbs. Scraps of mince pies also found a loving home in his belly. Furthermore, he could easily remain hidden out of sight behind the mountains of cardboard boxes which were littered all over the place.

Many boxes had been shuffled around since the advent of the New Occupants, but the position of one item had remained constant: The Bag in the hallway, a tattered-looking thing presumably used for the gym in a previous life, and which steadily grew in bulge to the point where its zips looked set to burst. Just one more onesie, just in case. And those little car seats were awkward to fit into any bag.

But The Bag had departed at three o’ clock that morning, after two sets of footsteps descended down the staircase and disturbed the night-time hush – the first set leading the way a little hurriedly, the second set treading more gingerly just behind. The commotion had been enough to stir Gabriel from his slumber and he dared to venture out from his lodgings and peer round the skirting board towards the stairs. Jo and Mhairie were preceded by their shadows, and their combined silhouette was reminiscent of an under-rehearsed pantomime donkey. The Bag was picked up hastily, yes Jo absolutely knew the way to the hospital, the front door was slammed shut and when Gabriel heard the sound of the car keys in the ignition, he knew he was going to have the house to himself for a while. He had found solitude to be a huge relief immediately after the Previous Occupants had departed with their cat in tow, but now it bothered him and he somehow felt adrift. The fact that the house was still looking so un-festive at this time of year wasn’t helping his mood. Yes there was a tree in the corner of the living room, but it was still entirely unadorned, a strand of red tinsel hanging out limply from the top of a neighbouring box was the closest it came to being decorated. A sorry sight indeed. Surely there must be something he could do to brighten up the place.

Gabriel set about finding some gifts for his new benefactors and raided the miniature store cupboards of his abode, located in a snug little hole in the wall between the dining table in the kitchen and the coffee table in the living room (from this vantage point, the most crumbs could be salvaged day-to-day with minimum danger). Gabriel succeeded in gathering some tasty morsels together: a hunk of Camembert cheese the size of his paw; a single cranberry; an edge of a cracker. But what to put them in?

He returned to the hallway where, as luck would have it, a mini stocking with a stripey candy-cane pattern was lying discarded on the floor. It must have belonged to The Bag and tumbled out. His edible treats fit into it very snugly, but there was still room for a couple more gifts. Perhaps he would find something with a nice scent in the bathroom.

Finding a bottle of perfume small enough was always going to be a long shot, he conceded, but Gabriel did spot a gold ring lying wedged between the back of the sink and the radiator. His charitable instincts waned for a moment as he first checked to see if he could use it as a hula hoop for his fitness routine, but he could only pull it down halfway past his ears from above, and there was no chance he could pull it upwards successfully from his feet to his midriff. It was also just a little too big to pass off as a little crown, so into the mini stocking it went.

Dragging the stocking back towards the Christmas tree, Gabriel inadvertently walked through a trail of cinnamon spice on the kitchen floor – the aftermath of Jo unpacking a box of things which had been largely forgotten about in his and Mhairie’s old home and which were destined for the same fate here too. So that was the scent taken care of. He nipped back into his hole for a piece of discarded string, then he set to work tying the stocking to one of the lower branches of the tree. The branch sank under the weight, but the stocking remained firmly in place, swaying gently. Gabriel stood back to get a better look and admire his work. But why stop there? He dragged out the tinsel and wound it around the tree, and then noticed that a golden star was the one item left at the bottom of the box. The star was glued onto a cone-shaped piece of chicken wire. Gabriel shuffled into the cone and placed his front limbs through the gaps in the wiring so that the weight of the star was directly above his head, and he clambered up to the summit of the tree. He was really feeling the burden of his overindulgence in recent weeks, a little embarrassed to find he was wheezing, but that did not deter him. After accomplishing his mission, he sidled out from underneath the star and almost fell from the top of the tree in shock when he heard a key turning in the front door lock. He scampered his way down and darted behind the box again just before Jo and Mhairie appeared in the living room, both looking exhausted but content. Mhairie was holding the little car seat which now had a little bundle of joy inside, nestling under a blanket. She let out a gasp the moment she saw the tree. Though she was surprised, she was not unsettled or alarmed. After all, no one had a spare key. No muddy footprints indicated signs of a break-in. They didn’t even have a “Welcome” doormat to beckon anyone in. Surely Jo must have nipped back and arranged this for her whilst she had taken a nap at the hospital. But the minute she looked at Jo’s face she knew he was just as surprised as she was. He untied the little stocking from the tree, curious to see if its contents might reveal the answer to the question they were both silently asking. They certainly raised their eyebrows when the samples of food came tumbling out into Jo’s hand, but Mhairie was most astonished to be reunited with her wedding ring and she put it back on her finger immediately with a sigh of relief.

“I was wondering when you were going to tell me you’d lost it,” Jo said.

“I was praying you wouldn’t notice,” Mhairie told her husband. “I was going to tell you after our son arrived, honest, so you wouldn’t get too mad!” She turned her gaze back to the stocking, mystified.

“Who could it have been?”

Jo scanned his eyes around the room, still at a loss for an explanation.

“A guardian angel,” he concluded.

The cinnamon wafting from the sock made the newborn sneeze. His parents giggled under the glittering star. The room glowed with warmth, although no fire was lit. Gabriel couldn’t help but smile.

Believe

By Sarah Roos-Essl

Prompt: The unexpected gift.

He stacked jars of silvery pickled herring in neat columns along the basement wall. Sometimes there were jars of plump green pickles mixed in the columns, put together like a game of Tetris, but not always. There was a white plastic electric tea kettle, now gray with grime, plugged into a single burnt-out electrical strip. A set of clean clothes hung on hangers on a nail in the brick wall: a pressed white shirt, a maroon knitted sweater and gray wool trousers. Black polished shoes and a folded red blanket were tucked neatly under the makeshift table he used to make tea. I remember studying his sweater, thinking it looked so sophisticated for a construction worker. I couldn’t imagine him wearing it – he always had on the same faded blue coverall which was spattered with a rainbow of paint drops and streaks. It felt a little like imagining Santa in a tuxedo at a Viennese ball. He was old enough to be my dad and that broke my heart a little.

The deadline was set in stone. I practically tattooed it on everyone’s arms: December 24. The house must be finished by December 24th. The renovation of our 120 year old dilapidated house needed to be wrapped up in time for us to celebrate Christmas there or everyone involved would face the wrath of an overwhelmed, exhausted and displaced mother. If this doesn’t sound like a terrifying image, it should.

We packed up our entire life in California in July and expected to settle quickly into our new life in Vienna. Given my husband Martin’s Austrian nationality and our meticulously organized plan, everything seemed pretty straightforward at the time: Rent an apartment while we renovate the old house we impulsively bought on Willhaben, start our new jobs, get the girls comfortable at their new schools and by Christmas, move into our beautiful home and celebrate the holidays. Was it Woody Allen who said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans…”?

#

When I moved to Austria, one of the first words I learned in German was “leider,” meaning “unfortunately.” There came a point where every single conversation about the house renovation began with “leider.” I started to get heart palpitations every time I heard the word.

Leider, the faucets will not be ready until January. Leider, the electrician doesn’t have time to install the lights until February 1st. Leider, we didn’t realize the ceiling is caving in, now we must re-level the floors above. Leider, the floor guy isn’t available until the spring…” 

It wasn’t just that I selfishly wanted to have Christmas in our new house. It wasn’t just that I was weary of living out of suitcases for six months or that our two young girls, then four and six, missed their books and toys. It wasn’t that our rented apartment wasn’t just perfectly fine. The problem was – the lease of this rented apartment was over on December 24 and another family was moving in. From that day forward, we didn’t have an actual place to live in if not at our house. 

#

When December 1st rolled around, I began to panic.  The walls downstairs were still missing, the floors were piles of stones and rubble, herringbone hardwoods were nowhere in sight. There was no plumbing, no running water, no lights. A few bare wires with bulbs attached illuminated the workspaces but everything grew very dark when the sun set at 16:30. I visited the house each morning with our architect, a burly and opinionated Austrian woman, twice my size, who barked orders at the crew in German, knowing full well they only spoke Polish. They never made eye contact with her. My face would get hot with embarrassment and I would do my best to smooth things over in her wake. “I’m so sorry,” I would whisper to them as I passed by them, far behind her. “I just, I just would like this to all be done by Christmas, for my little girls…” I stammered. They didn’t speak English either.

He was always there. The others came and went but no matter what time of day I visited the house, he was there, working in his paint-splashed blue coveralls. One evening I came after the kids were in bed and he was grouting shower tiles by candlelight. The next morning when I stopped by before school drop-offs, he was shoveling gravel out of the living room with a cigarette dangling from his lips. It wasn’t even 7am.

It wasn’t until long after we moved into the house and the work was done that I realized he was sleeping there, in that nook in the basement adorned with pickled fish, and working around the clock to meet my Christmas deadline.

#

Each day brought new challenges but new progress. The floors were laid in a miraculous twelve hours. The electrician cleared his schedule and was able to complete the wiring ahead of time. We didn’t have light fixtures, but we had lightbulbs dangling in every room, and that was a miracle. By mid-December, although every surface was covered in 3cm of concrete dust, I could sort of, maybe, imagine us moving in by Christmas Eve.

#

The moving truck arrived early on December 23rd. The construction crew was still working feverishly to install the kitchen, the stove, the dishwasher and the toilets. The floors were being stained, room by room, making half of the house off limits at any given time. It was as good a time as any to unload all of our worldly possessions, which had crossed the Atlantic in a shipping container over the summer, out of storage and to stuff them into the few rooms that were finished. 

I worked for almost 24 hours straight to unpack the essentials, namely, our Christmas decorations, bedsheets, wine glasses and a few pots and pans. I shoved the dozens and dozens of unopened boxes in the corner of the dining room.  

Early in the morning on the 24th, I dropped the girls off at school for their class Christmas party and I packed up our temporary apartment, including the small plastic Christmas tree I had purchased for it. I hauled everything over to the house in one fell swoop. The miniature tree looked like it belonged in a dollhouse when it was placed in our living room with its five meter-high art nouveau ceilings. “It will just have to do,” I huffed under my breath as I rushed to the next task. “Done is better than perfect” was my new mantra.

#

“Mama, what should we believe in now?” asked my oldest daughter Rose, who was six that year, in the car ride to the new house after school. She had heard from her classmates about the tradition of the Christkind coming every Christmas Eve to deliver presents to children in Austria. No one in her class had really heard of Santa before, but they fiercely believed in this angel character making Christmas magic.

“If Santa doesn’t come down our chimney anymore and the Christkind comes instead, how does she get in? When will she come? WHO EVEN IS SHE?” I nearly ran a red traffic light. I actually had no idea. And it was 13:00 on Christmas Eve. 

I immediately texted my new (and at the time, only) friend and neighbor, Hedda, who was Norwegian but had lived in Austria for a decade. 

“SOS. I need the basic facts on the Christkind: 

1) Delivery time 

2) Preferred entry point 

3) Anything else essential I need to know.”

 

She wrote back: 

“1) After dinner on Christmas Eve. Send the kids upstairs to play, close the doors to the room where the Christmas tree is and bring in the presents. 

2) She flies through an open window (leave one open!) 

3) She rings a bell when she arrives.”

“Oh, and one last thing,” she texted separately. “Can you possibly ring our doorbell at 17:00 tonight and run away? ‘Father Christmas’ also visits my house before the Christkind, but that’s probably not essential for your family in the first year here.” I laughed nervously out loud, but this wasn’t a joke.

#

That night for dinner, we boiled pasta on an electric camping stove and ate bowls of spaghetti with jarred tomato sauce by candlelight. Anticipation was high for what was to come and for the new gift-bearing visitor in our lives. I was nervous – I barely understood the rules of this game. This was more than just convincing my girls to believe in the Christkind. This was about helping them to believe in their new life in this new country, to feel at home in this new homeland. At 17:00, I sent the girls up to their room with a pile of our favorite Christmas books I had unpacked and two candy canes to tide them over.

I slipped into my winter boots and threw on my wool coat. In a flash, I was at Hedda’s door and rang her bell. Before her four children could spot me out the window, I sprinted back to my house and took the steps two-by-two, winded and flushed with cold.

It was showtime. I kept my boots on and ran down the basement steps, past the corner where the pickles used to rest. It was empty now and swept clean with no trace of its previous resident. I grabbed the bulging bags of wrapped presents and back upstairs, I arranged them haphazardly under the tiny plastic tree. Per Hedda’s advice, I threw open the window and a gust of snow-laced wind knocked the tiny tree right over. I could hear the chatter upstairs rise into yelling decibels and I knew I was running out of time. I managed to get the tree standing upright again, but many of the ornaments had shattered. I had made quite the racket.

My phone vibrated. Martin texted me from upstairs with the girls. “Might be time to ring that bell…the kids are getting antsy…”

SHIT. The bell. I didn’t have a bell! I forgot to get a bell and who has a bell just laying around?!? 

“Think, Sarah. Think.” I muttered to myself. The San Francisco Bay Area tech-veteran in me said, “There must be an app that makes a bell sound, right?”

Sure enough, there is a Christkind app that allows you to “set off” a bell noise at a specified time. BINGO! I downloaded it and set the timer for 10 minutes. But in my haste, I forgot to leave the phone under the Christmas tree and tucked it back in my jeans pocket.

I ran upstairs, splashed some water on my face and ran a brush through my hair. “Girls!!” I yelled from the bathroom, “Are you still listening for the Christkind? I think she’s here soon!” 

I opened the door to their bedroom a crack and at that exact moment, the phone in my pocket began to chime. The Christkind app chime. SHIT again. I turned around and sprinted down the hallway and tossed my phone into the living room where it landed face down under the plastic tree. 

“Mama!! What was that noise? Was that her, is she here??” Nina asked impatiently.

There was a loud knock at the front door. “Jesus Christ, what NOW?” I shouted. I opened the door and there he stood in the cold night air, dressed in his maroon sweater, pressed shirt and wool trousers. He spoke only six words, which he had obviously practiced using Google translate: “The. House. Is. Not. Done. Yet,” he said slowly and smiled sheepishly.

He took my shoulders, sat me down in a kitchen chair and motioned for me to close my eyes. Five minutes later, he took me by the shoulders again and, with my eyes still closed, directed me into the living room.

I opened my eyes to find an enormous fresh pine tree, as high as the ceiling and nearly as wide, standing upright in the corner and twinkling with golden lights. The plastic tree was nowhere in sight, the broken ornaments swept away. The presents had been neatly arranged on his red blanket, which was now our tree skirt.

In shock and with my eyes watering, I stammered, “Thank you…Dziękuję Ci,” a Polish phrase I too had practiced saying before. He bowed to me theatrically, looked up, and with a flash of a smile, bounded back out the door. “Merry Christmas!!” I yelled to him down the steps, but I was too late. The engine of his old pickup truck turned and he was gone. 

#

“What should we believe in now?” I heard Rose’s voice echo in my head from earlier that day. I pondered this act of generosity, this moment of pure kindness, and I suddenly knew my answer. 

“This,” I said out loud. “This is what we believe in.”

Christmas in The Gulch

By Stephen Hewitt

Prompt: The unexpected gift.

Ida’s kitchen was a shrine to Christmas. Multicolored lights blinked in the window. Giant shiny snowflakes hung from the ceiling. Atop the refrigerator sat a poinsettia, alongside a family of plush snowmen. Her red and white tablecloth was adorned with a playful reindeer motif, and the table itself overflowed with a multitude of Christmas treats: home-made shortbread cookies, fruit cake, date squares, and her famous rocky roads, all laid out on festive plates.

The dining room and the living room looked much the same. Christmas tree bedecked with tinsel. Nativity scene on the mantel. Christmas cards hanging from string. Frosted pine cone wreaths. Painted miniatures. Porcelain figurines. Snow globes. Mistletoe. Chocolates. Candy. Candles.

Christmas spilled out of every corner. 

It took considerable effort to pull it all together, and she took great pride in the finished product, yet it failed to bring her the same joy it once did. No amount of decorating was going to change the fact that her kids and grandkids had grown up, moved out, and were now scattered across the country.

Christmas is just not like it was, she thought.

She missed Abby, her youngest, most of all. Partly because Abby was her only daughter, and the last of her four kids to head out west, but mainly because Abby was born on Christmas Eve, and today was her birthday. 

The sadness welled up in Ida and brought a tear to her eye as she sat quietly in the kitchen, wistfully looking out the window while warming her hands on a mug of tea. Her husband, Ern, sat equally quietly at the other end of the table, exhausted and enfeebled having spent the better part of the day sawing up and stacking wood.

It was coming on dark, and a snow squall was drifting across the harbour, obscuring the house lights on the other side of the bay. Aside from each other, they had not seen a soul all day, and Ida was thinking ahead to a quiet evening on the couch. Maybe I’ll knit for a bit, or go to bed early and finish my book, she thought.

That’s when they heard footsteps approaching and the latch being lifted on the porch door. It snapped Ida out of her reverie.

“You expecting anyone?” she asked.

Ern looked puzzled, and shook his head No.

The noise from the porch grew louder as the sounds of multiple visitors could be heard jostling in the small space. Then the door to the kitchen burst open, and from the porch stomped three heavily disguised mummers!

“Oh sweet Jesus!” exclaimed Ida. Their garish costumes unnerved her, even though she knew they meant no harm. Christmas in The Gulch has become so quiet in recent years. Hardly anyone went mummering anymore. 

Meanwhile, the sudden intrusion perked up old Ern. “Come in, come in,” he said with a grin. “Let’s have a look ye.”

The three mummers shuffled across the kitchen floor, bent over in exaggerated stoops, dancing and gatching as they went. The big guy in the back wore a pink velour robe with an oversized bra on the outside. Another wore red one-piece pyjamas that were stuffed in the gut and in the rear. The smallest wore yellow oilskins with a lacy apron cinched at the waist, and a cape fashioned out of outmoded curtains. They wore pillowcases over their heads with eyeholes cut roughly in the cloth and faces crudely painted on with lipstick. 

“Do you know ’em?” asked Ida.

“I don’t have a clue who they are,” said Ern. He stepped up to the smallest one and stared into the eyeholes of the pillowcase. “I believe this one’s a woman,” he said. “She has pretty lashes.”

The mummer pulled away and giggled in a feminine voice.

“There, see, told ya,” said Ern, pleased with himself for guessing correctly. 

Ida felt relieved knowing that there was at least one woman in mix, but she still could not match Ern’s enthusiasm for their guests. She hadn’t quite shook off her melancholy, and she felt tired and lonely. Nevertheless, her good conscious would not allow her to be an ungracious host. “I suppose I should offer ye a drink,” she said. “What’ll ye have? Whiskey?”

Her offer was met with nods all around.

Ida pulled a whiskey bottle out from underneath the sink and lined up three glasses on the counter. As she was pouring the drinks something about the cape the smallest one was wearing caught her eye. It looked familiar. 

“That’s a nice cape you have there,” said Ida. “Turn around and let me have a better look at it.”

The mummer turned around and Ida recognized the floral print instantly. The swirling greens and yellows transported her back in time, back to Christmases past, to when the kids were young and still believed in Santa. The house was so alive back then. She had almost forgotten what it felt like.

“Ern, take a look at her cape. It’s the same as the curtains we used to have in the living room.”

Ern grabbed the corner of the cape and lifted it for closer inspection. “I believe you’re right,” he said. He remembered those old curtains well, because he never liked them. In fact, he despised them. But Ern also remembered them because the day they came down was the same day that Abby moved out. He had balled them up and thrown them in the garbage, but Abby rescued them from the bin, claiming they were ‘retro-cool’, and promised to give them a good home.

Ern looked into the mummer’s eyes again. This time she did not pull away, and through the holes in her pillowcase Ern saw fresh tears rolling down the mummer’s cheeks.

A chill flashed through Ern’s body and his knees buckled slightly. “A…Abby? Is that…is that you?” he stammered.

Abby nodded, and pulled the pillowcase off her head, her cheeks soaked with tears. “Yes Dad, it’s me. Merry Christmas.” They wrapped their arms around each other in a tight embrace, each supporting the weight of the other.

Their embrace was short lived, however, interrupted by the sound of the whiskey bottle crashing to the floor. Ida stood dumbfounded at the counter, mouth agape. She hurled herself towards her daughter screaming “Abby, my Abby!” It was as if every emotion she had every felt in her life—love, loss, joy, sadness, surprise, fear—she felt now all at once. It was almost too much for her to bear.

Ern looked to the other two mummers as they removed their masks. It was Bruce, Abby’s husband, and Ern’s grandson, Jacob. 

Slowly the intense emotions in the kitchen levelled out and they all sat around the table together. Outside the sky cleared and the wind abated. For hours they shared stories and reminisced and ate cake and drank whiskey, and the kitchen filled with laughter and their voices carried out across the bay, across the waves, into the past, into the future.

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