December 1, 1961

Danny Mangan kicked a rock ahead of him as he walked slowly home from school.  All around him, the scrubby flat plain stretched from one edge of his vision to the other.  Occasionally a gust of wind sent a tumbleweed scudding over the brown, dry, sticker-filled grass.  He craned his head back, hoping to see a few flakes of snow falling from the dull, gray sky.  But there was nothing, nothing but a few raggedy strands of cloud, interspersed with the occasional trail of a jet plane.  He sighed in disappointment.  It was December first, and he’d started to think about Christmas.  Santa Claus needed snow in order to travel over the earth with his sleigh.  It was bad enough that the house where they lived didn’t even have a real chimney.  What in the world would Santa do if there was no snow for Christmas?

Lawton, Oklahoma, was Danny’s – and his mom’s – temporary home while his dad served with the United States Army in Germany.  He wasn’t sure why he and his mom couldn’t be with his dad, but every time he asked her that, her eyes got all watery and her lips would press together.  And then she'd say, “We'll be able to go over and be with Daddy next summer.” 

But next summer was a long way off, and sometimes he wondered if his mom really meant it.  He kicked the rock again, imagining his dad shooting bad people or maybe being a kind of spy.  His dad sent them a letter at least once a week, and it never sounded like anything exciting was happening to him, so Danny wondered why they couldn’t be together now.  Just another one of those weird grownup things, he’d decided.

He didn’t have far to walk.  His school was only a block from the small, flat-roofed house where he and his mom lived, and he was nearly there.  He kicked the rock again and when it bounced off the sidewalk into the street, he let it go.  Seeing his mom standing on the small stoop outside the front door, huddled in a thin sweater and watching for him, he broke into a run. 

“Mommy!  Hi, Mommy!” he cried, throwing his arms around her waist.

“My Danny boy!” She pulled him close in a tight hug.  “How was your day, sweetheart?”

“It was okay,” he said.  “I played kickball at recess with Jimmy and John D and Bob and … well, a bunch of other fellas.”

“That’s nice, son.”  His mother opened the front door and he followed her inside.  Danny scampered close to the wall-mounted heater and pulled off his knitted cap and winter coat, dropped them to the bare floor and held his hands close to the louvered vents in the heater. 

Rosemary Mangan picked up the coat and cap and hung them on a hook inside the closet door.  She smiled at her son, warming himself at the heater for a moment.  He was always so intense.  Whatever he does, he’s doing it fully, she thought.  Just like his dad.  Her lips curved in a smile as she thought of her husband, so far away.  The news from him was positive; his squadron had experienced no local rioting or other problems and he fully expected that she and Danny would be able to join him – with Army housing on post – by mid-summer.  While that news didn’t fully compensate for the current separation, it was something to anticipate.  She, who’d never traveled outside of New York City before her marriage, would cross the Atlantic Ocean on a plane.  And although Germany wasn’t completely recovered from the damages it had sustained during World War II, Tim had written of the beautiful, clean countryside as well as the wonderful parks and quaint cities near Schweinfurt, where he was stationed.  She glanced at the calendar hanging above the television.

December first!  I nearly forgot about Tim’s package, she realized with a start.  “Danny, we have a special package from your daddy to open today,” she announced.

“Yippee!”  Danny jumped up and down in his excitement.  “Is it the one that came last week?  The one you put in your room?”

“Yes, that’s the one,” she agreed.  “Can you carry it?  It’s pretty big.”

“I can do it, Mom,” he insisted.  “After all, I’m in the first grade!”  He took off at a trot and in a moment was back, staggering under the bulky, although not heavy, package.  “Here ya go, Mommy.”

“Let’s put it on the table,” she suggested, taking it from him.  Danny scrambled up onto his usual chair and leaned on his elbows, chin in his hands, his dark eyes shining with eagerness and curiosity.

Grabbing a pair of scissors from the kitchen, she snipped the string that secured the package, and tore off the heavy brown paper.  Next, she spent a few moments working loose several heavy-duty staples and opened the box.     

A flurry of curly wood shavings fluttered to the floor when Rosemary pulled out a flat wooden container, like a miniature cabinet about two inches deep.  One side of the box was plain, and the other was covered with tiny doors, each with a number from one to twenty-five on it.  A note in Tim’s bold, angular writing told her it was an Advent calendar – something to help her and Danny pass the time until Christmas.

“What is it, Mommy?” Danny asked, bouncing in his chair.

“Why, it’s an Advent calendar, Danny-boy,” she answered with a warm smile.  “Each day, we open one of the little doors, according to the date.  Inside will be a little surprise.  It’s like a way of counting down until Christmas.”

“I get it,” Danny said.  “Like five, four, three, two, one, blastoff!”  He made an explosive sound with his mouth while demonstrating the activity of a rocket ship with his hands.

His mom chuckled.  “Kind of like that.”  Her face took on a more serious expression.  “But really, it’s something we do to get ourselves ready for Jesus’ birthday on Christmas.  People waited a long, long time for Jesus to come, just like we wait all year for his birthday to come again, and we give each other presents because Jesus was God’s present to us.”

“So we open a door every day while we wait?” Danny asked.  His fingers itched to open the door marked “1”. 

“Yes, that’s right,” his mom replied with a smile.  “Go ahead, open the first door.”

He opened the little door carefully, and found a tiny wooden sheep behind it.  “Lookit, Mommy!” he cried.  “A sheep!”  His excitement faded into confusion.  “What does a sheep have to do with Christmas?”

“Danny, you remember the shepherds who came to the stable where Jesus was born,” his mother reminded him.  “Of course, they must have brought at least a couple of their sheep with them.”

“Oh.  Well, sure.  But, Mommy—”

“Just set the sheep in front of the calendar for now,” she said.   “In a few days we’ll have some more pieces and we’ll see if we need to do something different then.”

“This is a neat present, Mommy!  We can think about Daddy every day when we open a door, ’cause he sent it to us.”  He gave her a big smile, feeling the cool air of the house wash through the wide gap where his front teeth had come out a few weeks earlier.

“We sure can.  We can even say a little prayer for Daddy right now.”  His mother pushed a wave of auburn hair back from her forehead and took his hands in both of hers.  Danny listened as she offered a brief prayer for his father’s health and safety. 

After the prayer, Danny started to fidget.  “I can’t wait for Christmas, Mommy!  But how is Santa going to get here when there’s no snow?  Last year we had lots of snow,” he said.

“Santa Claus will find a way. And good things come to those who wait.”  She smiled, her bright green eyes sparkling.  “Don’t you worry, my Danny-boy.”  His mother had never been wrong yet, so Danny tried to stop worrying.

“Let’s bake some Christmas gingerbread cookies,” she suggested.  “I want to send a package to your daddy and we need to do it soon, so he can get it by Christmas.”

“Okey-dokey.”  Danny loved helping his mom bake cookies.  Gingerbread cookies were the best, because he could cut them out himself.  And afterward, he liked putting on all the shiny decorations after his mom squeezed the icing from the bag-thing in pretty swirly lines.

“We’ll save a few for Santa,” his mom said when the cookies were finished.  “Let these dry.  We’ll have a couple after supper.”

Each day, Danny looked forward to opening another door of his Advent calendar.  The sheep had been joined by a shepherd, two more sheep, a donkey, an angel, and a cat.

“A cat!”  He scowled.  “Why did they need a cat?”

“A cat’s a handy animal to have in a stable, Danny.”  His mother laughed.  “Mice love to live where there’s plenty of hay and feed for animals.”

“Well, I hope there’s a dog, too.”  He preferred dogs over cats, and often wished he owned a dog of his own.

The days stayed cold and clear.  Not a flake fell from the sky.  As they prepared for Christmas, he continued to trust that his mom was right and Santa would be able to make it to his house.  Each night, she did something different.  One night, she sat down with a bunch of cards and her special book, the one she always got out when she had to write a letter to someone. She called it a “dress book”, but that didn't make sense to him. He liked calling it “the name book” instead.

“Who are you sending all these cards to?”

“Well, there's the place where I grew up, St Hilde's.  And one for Mrs. Moffat.”

“My teacher? Really?” He bounced in his seat. “Can I give it to her my very own self? ”

“We'll see. And I want to send some to your dad's friends, you remember Captain and Mrs. Russell, right? ” 

He nodded.  “Can I help, Mommy? Can I lick the envelopes and put on the stamps?”

Another night, she helped him choose a stocking to put out for Santa.  They decided one of his dad’s big socks would be about the right size.  “It can hold more candy and stuff than mine can,” he said with satisfaction. 

“When can we get our Christmas tree?” he asked one day. 

“We’ll get it in two days,” his mom promised.  “If we get it too early, it’ll dry out and won’t look nice.”

By this time, twenty doors had been opened on the calendar.  The tiny figures had been moved to the bookcase under the big front window, and there was quite a crowd of shepherds, sheep, angels, camels and wise men awaiting Joseph and Mary.  Danny had covered a shoebox with colored paper and glued dry grass to the top, to make a stable where the figures gathered.  With windows cut into the sides and a lamp above providing light, he thought it looked just right.  Only one thing would make it better:  if it snowed for Christmas.

Finally, it was Christmas Eve.   At Mass, he sang his favorite carol, Angels We Have Heard on High, with his First Communion class.   He loved to stretch the Gloria for as long as possible.  Sometimes Sister Ann had to shake a finger at him because he kept it going too long.  But tonight, he sang it just the way he was supposed to.   After church, he found his mom and as they drove home, he boasted, “Did you hear me?”  He bounced in his seat.  “I sang the Gloria just right this time. Sister Ann didn't even have to shake her finger at me."

She reached over and squeezed his mittened hand.  “You sang the best.  But I like the really long way you sing it, too. Let's sing it again, it can be just like we're Christmas caroling.”  And they did. 

As soon as they were home, his mother plugged in the lights on the Christmas tree. He couldn't take his eyes from it.  Shiny glass ornaments reflected the sparkling, multicolored lights.  Strands of tinsel “icicles” caught and reflected the colors, and a lighted star on the very top cast a glow over the whole room.  His mom had taken a white sheet and made it look exactly like a drift of snow on the floor beneath. He reached out and touched it to see if it was as cold as it looked.

It wasn’t, but Danny forgot his disappointment when he noticed a package under the tree.  His heart beat a little faster.  It hadn’t been there that morning, and he was itching to know what it was.  He picked it up and shook it.  It didn’t make any noise, so it must not be the Lincoln logs he’d asked for in his letter to Santa.  And anyway, since there were no other gifts, it couldn’t have come from Santa.  At least, he hoped Santa would give him more than one gift.  “Since we went to church tonight, does that mean it’s Christmas now?” he asked. 

“Christmas Eve Mass counts as Christmas,” his mom replied.  “But it’s not Christmas just yet.”

“Can I open this one present now, Mommy?”  He held the package up so she could see. 

“Yes, sweetheart, you can open that one present.” 

Then his mom laughed, one of the happiest sounds Danny knew.  He threw his arms around her for a hug and then grabbed the package, tore off the paper and pulled out – a new pair of pajamas.  He looked at the pajamas, blue and red plaid flannel, with a warm pair of bedroom slippers and a robe.  He wondered for a moment if he was supposed to be excited about pajamas.

“Who are they from, Mommy?” he finally asked.

“Danny-boy!  They’re from your dad and me.  Don’t you remember the new pajamas you got last year, and the year before?”   

“Oh.  Well, I was little then.  I guess I forgot.”

“Don’t you like them?”  His mom looked as if she might cry.  Just a minute ago she’d been happy!  He felt like the meanest kid in the world.

“Sure I like them,” he insisted.  And he did, really.  He just hadn’t been expecting pajamas.  “Can I put them on right now?”

“Yes, of course.”  Danny was relieved to see that she was smiling again.  “Then I’ll read you the story of Jesus’ birth and you can open the last door of your Advent calendar before you go to bed.”

He scampered into his room to change clothes.  The new pajamas were warm, and so were the fuzzy robe and new slippers.  It was almost like when his dad bundled him up in a blanket on his lap for a bedtime story. Danny smiled and pushed his hands into the pockets of the robe before joining his mom again in the living room.

He curled up next to her on the sofa.  She opened the picture book which told the story of the first Christmas.  ‘..And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city...’

Some of the words were strange to Danny, but he enjoyed the rhythm of his mother’s voice as she read the story, and followed along with the pictures as Joseph and Mary went from door to door seeking a place to stay.  By the time the angel appeared to the shepherds, his eyes were growing heavy, and when his mom shook his shoulder, he awakened with a start.

“I was dreaming that I opened the last door and found a real baby behind it,” he said with a big yawn. 

“Wouldn’t that be nice?”  She gave him a big hug.  “Let’s go on and open the door now.”

Joseph and Mary had joined the other miniature figures in his shoebox stable, and an empty manger awaited the Baby Jesus.  Danny opened the last little door and pulled out the tiny wooden baby in his white-painted swaddling clothes.  Gently, he laid the figure in the manger.  He and his mom looked at the peaceful scene for a minute or two.

“Since it’s Jesus’ birthday, do you think we could make Him a birthday cake tomorrow?” he asked.

“I never thought of making Jesus a birthday cake,” his mom replied.  “But why not?  We’ll do it after breakfast.  What kind of cake do you think Jesus would like best?”

“Chocolate, of course!”  Danny licked his lips and rubbed his tummy.  “Chocolate’s my favorite and I bet it’s Jesus’ favorite, too!”

“Chocolate it is.  Now, let’s fix Santa his plate of cookies and milk, and we’ll set some treats outside for the reindeer.”

He chose the best of the iced gingerbread cookies for Santa’s plate, and set it on the coffee table next to his stocking.  He figured that was the best place for Santa to find it, since their house had no mantel.  His mom poured milk into her favorite coffee cup and sat it next to the plate.  Next, they chose a few carrots and an apple, sliced them and set them on the front stoop in a pie pan.

“Mommy, are you sure Santa can come even though there’s no snow?”  In his storybooks, there was always plenty of fluffy white snow for Christmas.

“Santa will come.  Don’t you worry, Danny-boy.  Now, it’s off to bed with you.  Scoot!”  She swatted gently at his bottom.

He ran to his room.  His mom followed more slowly, and knelt next to him on the rug in front of his bed while he said his prayers.

“…and God bless Daddy and bring him home safe.  Amen.”   He jumped up and dived under his blanket before wiggling out of his robe and slippers.   His mom bent down to kiss him goodnight, and he reached up to give her a hug.   

“Do you think Santa would ever bring me a baby brother or sister?” he asked next.  He snuggled into his blankets and yawned again. "I'm the only kid in the class who doesn’t have any other kids in the family.”

“Santa doesn’t bring babies, son.  God sends them and they have to grow inside the mommy before they can be born.  I don’t know if God will send us another baby or not.  We have to wait and see.” 

His mom looked sad again, and Danny was sorry he’d asked the question.  But then she smiled and leaned close to kiss him again.

“Now, go to sleep, so Santa can come, Danny-boy.”   She turned out the light and closed the door, and he could hear her steps moving away from him and back to the living room.

Danny tried as hard as he could to go to sleep.  But the harder he tried, the more awake he felt.  Every noise made him think Santa was on the roof, looking for a chimney.  Once he thought he heard the front door open, and next there was a crackling sound like when his mom folded up grocery bags.  He couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to get up and investigate.  After all, the dad in The Night Before Christmas had seen Santa, and he still left presents for the family.  Without making a sound, he stole barefooted from his room until he reached the kitchen, where his mom was indeed folding grocery bags.

“What are you doing, Mommy?” he asked in surprise. 

His mom jumped and screeched a little.  “Danny!  You scared me.  What are you doing up?”

“I couldn’t sleep.  I just thought maybe I could see Santa, like the man in the story.”  His bare feet were getting cold.

“Not yet, sweetheart.  Now go on back to bed before you freeze.  Good night and merry Christmas.”

Back in his warm bed, he closed his eyes.  If Mommy said Santa was coming, then he was.  

The next thing he knew, it was morning and he could smell a wonderful aroma drifting in from the kitchen.

“Santa!” Danny jumped out of bed and ran into the living room.  A small pile of wrapped presents lay underneath the Christmas tree, with a shiny pair of roller skates on top of the pile. Fifteen minutes later, he sat amid a spread-out array of gifts that included not only the roller skates and the Lincoln Logs he’d asked for, but also a cowboy outfit complete with chaps and six-shooters that were really cap pistols. One of the gifts was a book with a painting of a baby horse splashing along a beach. He tried to read the title. S-e-a...that was another word for the ocean. Well, that made sense, because there was an ocean in the picture. S-t-a-r...Star, like on the Christmas tree, he thought. Oh, and just like the star on the baby horse in the picture, too.

“What’s this big word, Mommy?”

“Chincoteague. The book is called Sea Star, Orphan of Chincoteague. We can read it together later on.”

“Gosh, Santa got me things I didn’t even know I wanted. He must be really smart.”

“Santa loves children,” his mom replied with a smile. “That’s how he knows what to bring you. Did you notice he ate the cookies?”

“Yep, he sure did.” Danny scrutinized the plate. Only a few crumbs were left, and the napkin was crumpled up on top. The mug of milk was empty, too. “You said he’d come even if it didn’t snow,” he said. “You were right. Hey! I wonder if the reindeer ate their snack, too?”

He ran outside to check the pie pan on the front stoop.  Sure enough, it was empty.  He picked it up and took it back inside to his mom, jumping up and down in his excitement.  “Look, Mommy, Rudolph was here!”

She smiled and patted a chair for him to sit down at the table that was set for breakfast, but then he remembered one gift that hadn’t been opened yet. 

“Wait a minute!”  He ran back to the tree and pulled out a flat package wrapped in lots of crinkled red tissue paper.  Presenting it to his mom, he said, “Merry Christmas, Mommy!  I made you a present too.”

His mom tore the wrappings off while Danny watched.  He hoped she’d like it. Mrs. Moffat had told them that the parents would be thrilled. He hadn’t been all that sure the day in school when they poured the goopy white clay stuff into little pie tins and then pressed their hands into them to make handprints. But it had been fun. And after it had been baked in a special oven, it had even been more fun to paint it her favorite color, a bright Kelly green.

Soon she held it up. She didn’t say anything for such a long time he started to worry she didn’t like it. But then he saw her eyes were all shiny and she was smiling at the same time, like she did sometimes when she said she was really, really happy.

“See, it has a wire on the back so you can hang it up,” he said.

“I’m going to hang it right now, so I can look at it all the time.” She stood up immediately and went to the kitchen. She took down one of the potholders from a hook in the wall and hung up his handprint in its place.

“Thank you, son! I love it,” she said, and then blew her nose with a “honk” that made both of them laugh. “Now let’s eat!”

“Yummy!” he exclaimed.  “What smells so good?  Besides bacon, I mean.”

“It’s a Swedish tea ring,” his mom answered.  “One of the other officer’s wives gave me the recipe and I decided to make it for our breakfast.  Isn’t it pretty?”  She looked tired, with dark circles under her eyes, but her radiant smile was as bright as ever.  Danny’s mouth watered.  Cake for breakfast!  Icing!  Raisins!  He wasn’t quite sure about the colorful specks of candied fruit that decorated the top of the pastry wreath, but they sure were pretty.   He’d never seen anything like it before.

While she served him juice, bacon, and a slice of the tea ring, he was happy to see that she kept looking up at his handprint all during breakfast.  The radio played Christmas music as they ate.

He had just taken his last bite and was going to ask to be excused when a loud ringing noise nearly made him jump out of his chair.  The phone!  It didn’t ring a lot, not like at his friend John D’s house.  “I’ll get it!” he shouted, racing to the phone.  Picking up the receiver, he took a deep breath before reciting, “Hello, this is the Mangan residence, Danny speaking,” just as he’d been taught.

 “Danny-boy!  Merry Christmas!”  The voice on the phone was familiar, but one Danny hadn’t heard for months – his father’s.

“Daddy!  Merry Christmas to you, too!  Do you know, Santa came here even though we didn’t have any snow?”

“Good!  I’m glad to hear it.  I hope he brought you some good presents.”  His dad chuckled.  “I got an awfully good package of cookies the other day.  Thank you and your mom!”

“You’re welcome,” Danny grinned as he remembered the baking of the cookies.  “I decorated lots of them myself,” he boasted.  “Hey, I got a whole cowboy outfit, with six-shooters.  And a book about a baby horse.”

“Sounds great!  Can I talk to your mom?”  Danny could feel the warmth of his dad’s smile through the phone line.

“I’ll get her,” he promised.  “Mommy!” he shouted. “Daddy’s on the phone.”

“I love you, sport,” his dad said.  “See you next summer.”

“I love you too, Daddy,” Danny said before handing the phone to his mom.

“Tim, darling, Merry Christmas.”

He liked that special voice she used when she talked to his dad. It made him very happy. He wandered back to his new toys and listened to Away in a Manger play softly on the radio on one side of the room; his mother’s soft voice talking to Daddy on the other.

Afterward, his mother read to him from his new book. Then she got down on the rug with him and they built a two-story log cabin with his new Lincoln Logs. Then it was time for dinner.

Dinner had two of his favorite foods, ham and scalloped potatoes, and one of his mom’s favorites, broccoli. He tried to pretend he ate his broccoli by sneaking it back into the dish every time his mother glanced away, but she saw him anyway.

“No broccoli, no dessert,” she said sternly.

No chocolate Baby Jesus birthday cake? The thought was more than he could bear. Taking a deep breath, he manfully chewed his way through the nasty green vegetables, washing it all down with big swallows of milk.

After dinner, he helped her clear the plates and dried the dishes as she washed.   Then she read more from his new book about the baby horse.  Too soon, his mom looked at the clock.

“Time for a bath and then to bed with you,” she announced, closing the book.  “Let’s pick up all the Lincoln Logs and get you into the tub, Danny-boy.”

After his bath, he lay in bed, listening to the peaceful strains of Silent Night on the radio and remembering all of the wonderful things about the day.  It was the best Christmas he could remember, except for not having his dad home.  Still, he’d been able to talk to his dad on the telephone.  That was something to remember.

 The next year, Danny and his family were together in Germany.  As they carried on the traditions begun when he and his mom were alone in Lawton, he began to enjoy the waiting time through the dark December days.  Each evening, he opened a door of the Advent calendar and recalled the previous year.  And although he’d begun to have private doubts about Santa, he insisted on putting out a plate of cookies for Santa as well as the reindeer snacks.  New pajamas for Christmas Eve, and the Christmas breakfast of Swedish tea ring, were even more fun with his dad around.

Each successive year, Danny and his parents recreated the special traditions of their tiny family.  Without grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, those rituals symbolized family to him. 

Even the terrible Christmas after his dad was killed during a routine errand while stationed in Korea, his mom insisted on keeping up their traditions. He didn’t feel like playing with toys, but he did look forward each day to opening the doors of the Advent calendar and handling the tiny wooden figures of the Nativity.  Much of their paint had worn off, but each piece had a patina gained from the boy’s loving touch.  The Nativity scene and their family rituals helped him feel that life was still worth living, and Someone was watching over him.  

Christmas Eve 1969

His neighbor, Mrs. Kowalski, and the social worker had just left the Mangans’ apartment.  Danny was to spend the night there at home, under the neighbor’s supervision.  Mrs. Kowalski had invited him to eat supper and spend the night at her apartment, but he hadn’t felt up to being around her large, boisterous family.  Christmas afternoon, the social worker would pick him up and take him to a foster home.  The next day, he would attend his mother’s funeral.  Dan felt a rage that was all the stronger for being powerless.

A spindly Christmas tree stood in front of the single living room window.  Just yesterday he’d decorated it while his mom watched from her place on the sofa.  Every harsh labored breath had torn at his heart.  He’d made a big production, this year, of opening the doors of the Advent calendar his dad had sent from Germany, way back when he was in the first grade.  For his mom especially, it seemed to symbolize happier days, and this year, he was determined to keep her happy, no matter what he had to do.

It hadn’t mattered.  When he awakened during the night to find her gasping for air and called an ambulance, he’d had a bad feeling.  Then, at the hospital, they wouldn’t let him see her for hours while the doctors worked on her.  When he finally got to see her, she was unconscious in an oxygen tent, and she never awakened.  The hospital chaplain had arrived to give her the last rites, and minutes later she was gone.

Gone.  Like his dad.  He was alone now.

His eyes darted around the neat, but shabby, living room, seeking an outlet for his feelings.  They settled on the Advent calendar, sitting in a place of honor on the end table, next to the pillow where his mom’s head had often rested.  Each figure was already set up around the shoebox stable he’d made, way back in first grade, in the center of the coffee table.  The only piece left to put out was the Baby. 

Dan swept the tiny wooden figures from the coffee table, and knocked the calendar itself off onto the floor for good measure.  Hot tears burned his cheeks and a choked cry escaped his throat.  The precious gift from his dad lay scattered on the floor, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy his rage at this moment.

He rummaged through his closet to find the baseball bat he’d won in the Police League the past summer. 

“I hate you!”  Whack!  He smashed the bat down onto the cherished wooden structure.  The fragile wood shattered under the impact of the bat, and splinters of wood and tiny brass knobs flew everywhere. 

“Why?  It’s not fair!”  He pounded the portion of the structure that was left, and thumped the tiny figurines.  “I hate you!”  He stomped the flimsy cardboard stable flat. 

“Why did you have to take my dad and my mom?  Damn you!” Over and over his bat came down, until nothing of his dad’s gift was left intact.  He never heard the thumps from the downstairs apartment as its resident pounded the ceiling.  

Tears streaked his face as he finally dropped the bat, his fury not spent but the realization of what he had done pricking his conscience.

“I don’t care!” he shouted, pushing away the guilty stirrings.  “I hate you!  A God who loved me wouldn’t have taken my mom and my dad away.”  His hands balled into fists and he grabbed his jacket and ran outside into the dark, cold night. 

He ran for what seemed like a long time, finally slowing down only because he was hungry.  He wondered where he could get something to eat.  There was no food back in the apartment, and Mrs. Kowalski had told him she’d be back in the morning to take him to church.  “Damn church!” he said out loud, for a moment fearful of being struck dead for his blasphemy.  When nothing happened, he felt his defiance returning, and his stomach growled to remind him it was empty. 

Luke might have something to eat.  Luke was a boy in his class at school, but a couple of years older, since he’d been kept back because of excessive absences.  He’d often invited Dan to join him and his gang of younger boys for a late-night feast.  In their “headquarters”, a vacant warehouse down by the waterfront, the gang would cook stolen hotdogs over a fire built in an empty metal barrel. 

He’d put the older boy off until now; he’d heard that Luke and his gang took joyrides in stolen cars, and shoplifted small items that were passed on to a street vendor to sell.  Luke was even suspected of selling packets of marijuana in the boys’ bathroom at school.  He always had money, that was for certain.  Luke had often tried to entice Dan by telling him of the money he could earn if he’d join the gang; in addition, Luke would earn a commission for recruiting him. 

It was tempting.  Since his mom had been sick, the government pension she received each month didn’t leave room for the nice extras she’d always provided.  But he’d resisted.  He enjoyed his activities in the Police Athletic League and feared Luke would get him into trouble with the law.  Now, however, things were different.  The law was going to put him into a foster home, and who knew what might happen to him?  The way he saw it, from now on he was going to have to look out for himself.  No one else was going to do it.  Dan set his steps in the direction Luke had given him.  Foster home or no, tonight he was going to take his life into his own hands.

November 28, 1970

It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and for Dan, the long weekend was ending too soon.  On Monday, the Bob-Whites would return to Sleepyside Junior-Senior High School.  December promised to be a whirlwind of activity, between completing the semester’s work and helping with the school’s Toys for Tots Christmas dance. 

Miss Trask, Regan, Mr. Maypenny and Harrison, the Lynches’ butler, had played a hand of cribbage at the game table earlier, but Harrison had just left for home, Regan had gone to the stables, and Miss Trask had decided to take a walk.  Mr. Maypenny was the only adult left, and he was snoozing in an overstuffed recliner in front of the television.  The station was broadcasting Holiday Inn, and Bing Crosby was singing “I’ve got Plenty to be Thankful For.”

Dan sat with the other six Bob-Whites in a rough semicircle around the fireplace in the Manor House den. He remained silent, only half-listening as his friends chattered around him, twittering like the birds their group were named after with plans for Christmas.

He stared into the dancing flames, wondering why the thought of Christmas no longer excited happy anticipation inside him.  Back when Mom was alive …  But he had a wonderful home with Mr. Maypenny now, and the best friends anyone could want.  Most surprising of all, the boy who had believed himself alone in the world had learned he had an uncle, an uncle who had rescued him from state custody in a juvenile correction facility.  The prematurely responsible Regan and the streetwise boy were forging a relationship that was still careful, still hesitant.  But it was more than Dan had ever expected.

Something Diana said caught his attention.  She was talking about an Advent calendar she’d made for her little brothers and sisters.   

“It’s like a banner with little pockets all over the front – like a miniature shoe bag,” she explained.  “Each pocket has a little trinket that symbolizes Christmas in some way.”

His mind went back to his own Advent calendar.  “I used to have one of those, but it was like a little cabinet with twenty-five doors on it.  Each day you opened a door and there was a little painted wood figure.  When Christmas came, you had a complete miniature Nativity set.”

“Oh, that sounds darling,” Honey exclaimed.  “I’ve never seen one of those.  I’ve seen the ones with a piece of candy for each day.”

“I’ve never seen one either,” Diana said.  “When I was little, Mummy always had the cardboard ones with a scene, and you pop open a door every day.  There’s a little picture and maybe a Bible verse behind each door.”

“My dad sent this one from Germany when I was in the first grade,” Dan explained.  “I think he got it at one of the big Christmas markets.  He missed Mom and me so much, he said, and he liked to think of us opening a door every day and thinking of him.”

“What happened to it, Dan?” Mart asked.  “It sounded like you don’t have it any more.”

He felt his face stiffen, and didn’t say anything right away.  Then, he ground out, “I don’t.” 

“Dan, didn’t you and Regan and Mr. Maypenny go to a storage unit in the city and claim your mom’s things last summer?  Do you mean to say the Advent calendar was missing then?” Trixie asked.

“Yeah, we went to the storage unit and got Mom’s stuff.  There wasn’t much.”  Dan kept his face turned away from his inquisitive friend.  “Some clothes, a few pictures, Dad’s life insurance policy, his Army papers, that kind of stuff.”  He stopped, remembering the pitifully small collection of articles.  “The Advent calendar wasn’t missing, Trix.  It’s gone.  I smashed it up when Mom died.  Wish I hadn’t done it now, but the way I felt then, it was something I couldn’t stop.”  He shrugged and stared out the window at the drizzly scene outdoors.

“I’m sorry, Dan.”  Diana placed a gentle hand on Dan’s shoulder, and Honey left her place next to Mart to give him a quick hug.  Trixie scrambled to stand up and give him a hug as well, but tripped over her feet and nearly made a nosedive.  He had to smile.  With a soft chuckle, he reassured her, “It’s all right, Freckles.  I don’t have those things any more, but no one can take my memories away from me.”

“I know what you mean, Dan,” said Jim with a husky catch to his voice.  Trixie quickly turned back to Jim and scooted in close to his side.

Warmed by the understanding and love from his friends, Dan returned to staring into the fire, no closer to feeling any fondness for Christmas, but feeling blessed all the same.

All the next week, Dan noticed that Mr. Maypenny seemed to have a lot of errands to run.  Normally, the older man stuck close to home and only went to the store every couple of weeks.  But on several days, Dan came home from school to an empty cabin, with a note saying his guardian would be back for supper.  He wondered what Mr. Maypenny could be doing, but figured if it was any of his business, he’d find out eventually.

He was too busy with his own projects to wonder much about the older man’s strange behavior.  The Bob-Whites were determined to make the Toys for Tots benefit dance a huge success, and he had something to do every day for that.  In addition, he and Mr. Maypenny were baking loaves of cranberry-walnut bread for their neighbors along Glen Road and the veterans’ hospital where Mr. M volunteered once a month.  For the other Bob-Whites, Dan had made use of his birthday gift – a new camera – to take pictures in the Wheeler game preserve.  Sometimes in the early morning when he made his rounds of the feeding stations, he’d been surprised by scenes of breathtaking beauty.  He’d chosen six of the best shots, had them blown up to eight-by-ten size, and framed them in simple black frames.  Studying the six pictures, he’d decided to do two more; one each for Regan and Mr. Maypenny.  Each picture was now wrapped and ready in his room.  Everything was ready.  Everything except the way he felt about Christmas.

Something was missing from the Christmas season for him.   First, it was associated in his mind with his mom’s death, and he still resented that he’d been deprived of her presence and her love.  It wasn’t that he was unhappy or had a bad life.  He was grateful for his home and his friends, and grateful especially that he’d escaped the clutches of Luke’s gang.  But in his heart, the reason for the season eluded him.  He attended Mass each Sunday with Regan, but refused to receive Communion.  Afterward, he felt empty although his anger at God had faded.  So had his faith. It was all so meaningless.  How could a God who supposedly loved him have taken away both his parents in the span of a few years?

Finally, it was Christmas Eve, and Regan and Dan had just come home from the early evening Mass.  Regan pulled his old truck into the clearing around the Maypenny cabin.

“Merry Christmas, Dan,” Regan said, reaching out to shake Dan’s hand.  “I’m glad Judge Armen got us hooked up.  Really glad.”

Dan grasped his uncle’s hand.  “Same here,” he replied.  “I just wish Mom could have known you were so close by.”

“So do I, buddy.”  Regan looked away, and Dan saw him brush something away from his eye.  “Look, here’s something for you.  For Christmas.”  He pulled a flat package from the glove compartment and handed it to Dan. 

“Thanks, Uncle Bill!” Dan exclaimed.  He tore off the wrapping paper, and saw a pair of sturdy, lined leather gloves.  “These will come in really handy when I’m patrolling.  My old ones are almost worn out.”

“Well, I figured you could use them.  You’re welcome.”  Regan smiled, and let out a puff of breath. 

“I really do like them,” Dan insisted, guessing his uncle hadn’t been too sure of his choice. He tried the gloves on, wiggling his fingers and admiring the leather. If anything, his uncle sure knew about fine leather!   “Hey, come on in for a while.  I’ve got something for you, and Mr. M wants you to eat with us.”

A sharp rap on the driver’s window confirmed Dan’s comment.  Regan started to roll the window down.  “What are you two gabbing about?” Mr. Maypenny asked with a grin that belied his attempt to sound grouchy.  “Dinner’s gettin’ cold on the table inside.”

“All right, you talked me into it, you old codger.”  Regan grinned back.  They both jumped out of the truck and hurried inside, where a savory dinner of roast venison, potatoes, and carrots awaited them. 

“Bill, will you say the blessing?” Mr. Maypenny asked.

“Um, uh, okay,” Regan agreed after a moment’s hesitation.  Dan couldn’t help but smirk.  Uncle Bill might go to Mass regularly, but he must be out of the habit of blessing his food before eating.

But Regan cleared his throat, folded his hands, and began.  “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bountiful hands, through Christ our Lord, amen.”   When he finished, he bowed his head for a moment and then flashed a smirk back at Dan.  “Didn’t think I’d remember it, did you, Danny-boy?”

“Don’t call me Danny-boy,” he snapped back.  Something about his uncle’s tone turned his amusement to fury.

“Ah, Dan, I was just kidding.  What the hell is your problem all of a sudden?”  Regan pushed his chair back.

“My mom always called me Danny-boy.”  He stared down at his plate.  “No one else gets to.”

“Daniel, Bill.  We’re family here.  Eat.”  Mr. Maypenny’s voice was gentle.

Dan lifted his head again.  The older man’s blue eyes radiated a benediction as he gazed from his Dan to his uncle.

“I’m sorry for flying off the handle, Uncle Bill,” he said, still feeling the calming warmth of his mentor’s gaze.  “There’s no way you could have known that.”

“That’s okay, Dan.  I’m sorry.  I might have realized it.”  Regan, too, sounded subdued.  

With the renewed peace in the air, Dan reapplied himself to the feast in front of him. He’d really rather be no place else than here, with the two people he felt closest to. He had to let his belt out a notch after polishing off a large piece of the homemade pumpkin pie sent by Mrs. Belden.

“Time to pack this up, I’d say.” said Mr. Maypenny, loosening his own belt.

“I’ll clean up.” Dan carried his plate to the sink.

“I’ll help,” said Regan.

“You boys wash, and I’ll pack up the leftovers,” suggested Mr.  Maypenny.

Dan enjoyed the silence between them as they worked together. For a while, the splashing of water, the clink of china, even Mr. Maypenny’s habit of whistling or humming—gained from long years of living alone—were the only sounds in the cabin.  

“Look at the time,” Regan said as he wiped the last dish dry.  “I’d better get back.  The horses won’t know it’s Christmas and they’ll be up as early as usual for their breakfast.”

“Wait!” Dan said, placing a hand on his uncle’s arm.  “I’ve got something for you.”  He walked over to the tiny tree in front of the cabin’s front window and pulled out a flat package wrapped in red tissue paper.  “Merry Christmas, Uncle Bill.”

Regan stared at the package.  “You didn’t have to give me anything, Dan.”

“I wanted to.”  Dan glowered at his uncle.  “Open it already!”

Mr. Maypenny joined Dan in watching as Regan tore the paper and pulled out a photograph of Jupiter standing in the Wheeler paddock early on an early fall morning.  The rising sun was behind him and mist rose from the ground under him.  Jupe’s head was lifted proudly and he looked as if he was enjoying inhaling the fresh air. 

“That’s a great shot of Jupe, Dan.  You have a real talent there.”  Regan squeezed his shoulder.  “Thanks for the picture.  It’ll look great in my apartment.”

“You’re welcome.  And Merry Christmas, again.”  Dan grabbed Regan’s coat and handed it to him while Mr. Maypenny and Regan shook hands and wished each other a merry Christmas.  Finally, after closing the cabin door closed behind the tall man, Mr. Maypenny touched Dan’s shoulder.

“I’ve got something for you, too, Daniel,” he said.  “My family always opened gifts on Christmas morning, but my brother and I always got new pajamas on Christmas Eve.”  He cleared his throat.  “This year, I’ve got a special Christmas Eve gift for you.  Humor an old man and open it now.”

Maypenny’s age was a joke between them.  Dan knew the gamekeeper was in his late fifties, and his parents had been very young.  Trixie Belden wasn’t the only person who’d mistaken Mr. Maypenny for his grandfather. 

“Sure, Mr. M.  Anything for your geriatric happiness,” he replied with an answering grin, following the older man into the living area.

Mr. Maypenny pulled a box from behind the tree. 

He must have put it there while we were at church, Dan thought, taking a seat on the worn sofa.  I’m sure it wasn’t there earlier.  Taking the box from the older man, he began to pull the paper apart gently.  His guardian sometimes recycled wrapping paper, and he wanted it to be in good condition if that was Mr. M’s intention.

“Oh, go on, just tear it off,” said Mr. Maypenny.  

Dan tore the rest of the paper off, revealing a cardboard box.  The box was only taped shut, so it only took him a moment to open it.  He lifted out the object inside, and his mouth fell open.  He nearly dropped the gift.  He looked up at his guardian, his lips moving but no sound coming out.

Mr. Maypenny took the object from Dan’s fingers, which had suddenly gone as numb as his lips. He stared as his guardian carefully stood the small wooden cabinet with twenty-five numbered wooden doors on the coffee table.

“I know this probably isn’t anything like the Advent calendar you had all those years ago, Daniel,” Mr. Maypenny said.  “I went to the library to find out what it might look like and to get ideas for drawing up a plan for it.  Mrs. Vanderpoel gave me some nice maple wood to make the cabinet.  Mr. Hartman cut the wood and planed it in his home workshop.  Old Brom carved the pieces by hand, and Mrs. Belden and Miss Trask stained them.  And Bobby helped me to choose the decorations for the doors.”

“W-w-w-why? H-h-h-how?” Dan couldn’t take his eyes off the gift, couldn’t move.

“Well, I heard you young folks talking about Advent calendars at the Wheelers’ after Thanksgiving.  You probably thought I was asleep.” 

Dan finally jerked his eyes away from the Advent calendar and saw Mr. Maypenny was grinning. 

“There are a lot of people here who love you, Daniel.  People you’ve helped and who want you to be happy.  Remember all the snow you shoveled for Mrs. V?  And the wood you chopped for old Brom?  Mrs. Belden – and Bobby – appreciate the time you’ve spent with the little tyke while the other Bob-whites have been gone.  They all agreed they’d love to do this for you.”   

“It’s wonderful, Mr. M,” Dan finally managed to say in a more or less normal voice. But it caught, and he had to clear his throat before continuing.  “I’ve been waiting for a long time, waiting to feel like I should feel about Christmas.  It just wasn’t happening.  Mom always said God gave us Jesus for Christmas, and he was the reason for all of the other presents.   I’ve been mad at Him because He took my parents away from me, and Christmas just didn’t mean the same thing anymore.”

Dan leaned forward to run appreciative fingers over the item crafted for him with such love. Then he opened each door of the calendar and fingered the tiny figures while he watched Mr. Maypenny busy himself filling and tamping his pipe.

The older man didn’t answer until after he drew in a mouthful of fragrant smoke and released it in a series of puffs. “I can’t say I know just how you feel, Daniel,” he said.  “I haven’t had the exact same thing happen to me, and even if I had, we’re all different in the way we react to events in our lives.”  He drew on his pipe again, sending the smoke back out in a series of rings.  “But I’ve seen some terrible things, here at home and on the other side of the world, too.  I’ve asked the same questions you’ve asked.  Some people say it’s a mystery why bad things happen to good people.  Others say everything happens for a reason.”  Dan had never known Mr. Maypenny to say so much at a time, and as if his speech had used up all of his words for the day, the older man puffed on his pipe in silence.

He began to arrange the Advent figures into a traditional Nativity scene on the coffee table, pondering Mr. Maypenny’s words.  “I still can’t accept that there’s a reason why my parents had to die,” he said.  “But there are people here – in the world – who’ve been given to me now – as gifts, I guess you could say.  If my parents were still alive, I’d never have met my uncle… or the Bob-Whites… or you.”  He looked directly at Mr. Maypenny.  “And that has to mean something, something good.  Maybe it means there is a God, and he’s watching out for me.” 

Mr. Maypenny laid his pipe down, taking care not to let any burning embers escape.  He held out his arms, and Dan felt a warm and certain security emanating from the older man’s bright blue eyes.  He closed the space between them in two steps and hugged his guardian for the first time since he’d come to stay at the cabin in the woods.

With his face still buried in Mr. Maypenny’s chest, Dan said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to feel the ‘reason for the season’.  Now the waiting is over, and I’m glad.”  He felt a drop of water land on his head and run down his neck. Looking up, he saw that Mr. Maypenny’s eyes were moist.

“Me, too, son,” whispered Mr. Maypenny. “Me, too.”


Author’s Notes

8973 words

Merry, Merry Christmas to Ronda!  I hope you enjoy reading your giftfic as much as I enjoyed writing it.  And I hope the theme of family came through.  I tried to incorporate as many of your family traditions as I could.  It was fun, but difficult, to write the holiday through six-year-old Danny’s eyes.

Many, many thanks to my wonderful editors, Ryl, Trish, and Terry.  Each of them made suggestions that improved this story, and it’s so much better as a result of their help.

Thank you to CathyP for starting Jixemitri, and to the owners and Admin team who keep it going.  Jix has become an important piece of my life and the people here are real friends.

Thank you to all of the readers!  Your appreciation means a lot to me.

Thank you to Vivian, my webhostess and mentor in html and webpage design.  I couldn’t do it without you, my friend.

Notes about the story: Dan is one Bob-White who never speaks to me, and Ronda’s Inside the Jacket is my canon, so I was really nervous about writing a story about her boy!  I dealt with that by trying to incorporate some of my own life into the story.  Since it seems to be supported by canon that Dan’s dad was in the Army, I decided to make him an officer.  Coincidentally enough, my own Army officer dad was stationed in Germany at the time of the Berlin Wall and our family could not be with him for a year.  The way I remember it at the time,my mom said it was because housing was unavailable. Of course, I was only in kindergarten then. Much later, she admitted it was because of unrest over the Wall’s erection.   The Mangans’ house in Lawton, Oklahoma, was also based on a house where my family lived briefly.

Toys for Tots is a charitable activity sponsored by the US Marine Corps that gathers donated toys for needy children, and is a charity close to Ronda's heart. The Bob-Whites' fundraiser is also a nod to Trish's giftfic for Ronda last year.

Here is a picture and recipe for a Swedish Tea ring.

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. All other material on these pages copyright 2010-2011 by MaryN/Dianafan. Images from and manipulated by Mary N in Photoshop. Graphics copyright by Mary N 2010-2011. Links checked and html validated January 2011.

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