In our local writer’s group this year, it was decided that everyone would write a holiday story, in 1,000 words or less, to read at our Christmas party. Here’s mine. It’s 998 words, a modern interpretation of Tolstoy’s short story ‘Papa Panov’s Special Christmas,’ and my first attempt at fiction in many, many years. Based loosely on my experiences as a new expat in the Netherlands, I hope it captures the Christmas spirit for you.
Emily pulled the soft cinnamon-roll wreath out of the oven and laid it on the counter. A heavenly smell filled the air—three hours of work had paid off. She drizzled the powdered-sugar frosting onto each of the three wreaths and let out a sigh. This tradition of hers—baking Christmas treats for the neighbors—had never been an easy task, but it gave her great satisfaction. It was something she still had from her mother, a connection over the distance at holiday season. Memories from her childhood flooded her mind. How powerful for arousing memories is the sense of smell!
The Netherlands had been her home for two years now. Her children had both been born in America, but could already speak Dutch, having learned it in school. But the season seemed to bring out her homesickness. Leaving America, to follow Jack’s work, and starting a new life in an entirely new culture had felt like an uphill climb for Emily. But she had done it. The traditions from the states she carried with her helped her feel less far away. Baking for the neighbors and reading ‘Papa Panov’s Special Christmas’ by Tolstoy always reminded her of home.
As she baked, she thought deeply about the meaning behind Christmas. This year the holiday carried a stream of unfamiliar traditions, new products, and strange faces for her, so she tried to find the universal in it all; to let it boil down to its essence. She thought about the Christ child and wondered how many in modern society still think of Him while celebrating; not so many anymore.
‘It’s still HIS birthday,’ she thought to herself. She wondered how she could honor Him in some small way.
Too busy to deliver the wreaths that night, Emily decided to deliver them in the morning. She placed them near the kitchen window to wait for delivery.
During dinner, a knock sounded at the door. A young student asking for charity donations stood there, repeating his now-memorized pitch. His lips looked blue and his teeth chattered. Emily could see that he was very cold. He declined coming inside to warm up, but when Emily surprised herself by offering him a large piece of a still-warm cinnamon wreath, he couldn’t refuse. He gratefully admitted that he hadn’t had the chance to eat since early that morning. Emily hoped she could make due with the remaining wreaths for her neighbors.
The following morning was the last school day before vacation. Emily hurriedly helped the children dress and eat before leaving at eight. She made them breakfast and bundled them up in sweaters, mittens, coats, and scarves. At five minutes to eight, her son Ian exclaimed, “Mom, can I bring one of those wreaths for our Christmas breakfast at school?”
“No, Ian, those are for the neighbors. I spent a lot of time baking them last night.”
“B-But,” Ian stammered, “everyone is supposed to bring something! I’ll be the only kid without treats!”
Emily realized she had somehow missed the memo, and knew she had to give up a second cinnamon wreath, more to calm her anxious child than to feed a class of already over-sugared kids. She consented with a warm smile and a shrug.
“Oh well,” she thought. “At least I enjoyed the baking.”
One wreath left; which neighbour would receive it? Should she give it to the Vandenberg’s, who had the most perfectly manicured landscaping and lights? Maybe she could impress them with her baking. Or should it go to the Mertons? Of all the neighbors, they had been most kind to her. She felt obliged to return the favor. But what if the Vandenbergs and Mertons learned from each other that one had received and one hadn’t? They were longtime friends, and it was sure to come out.
Emily thought she could deliver the wreath to the Ruiz family instead, who lived on the other side of town. She had met Anita, an expat from Spain, at a play group. Perhaps they’d enjoy the wreath. Emily could deliver it to them after her holiday shopping that morning. She placed the wreath in the passenger seat beside her and headed for city center.
On the way to the center, Emily ran into a huge back-up of traffic—everyone trying to get into the city for last-minute shopping. Emily knew a different way into town, one that was longer, but would help her avoid the back-up. She turned off onto a country road with far less traffic.
After having traveled down the road for about ten minutes, she saw a woman standing off the side of the road, with a broken down car. As Emily came closer, she recognized that it was the mother of a child in Ian’s class. They had never spoken, but Emily knew that her name was Anouk.
Feeling some concern, Emily pulled over, just ahead of Anouk.
“Can I help you somehow?” Emily had to speak in English, since her Dutch was limited.
“Yes, thank you. I’m trying to visit my partner in the hospital, but our car died. If you can give me a lift, I’d be grateful,” she answered back in English. “Man in hospital, and car dead. My kids are going to hate the holiday break.”
“That’s terrible,” Emily responded. She thought of her own homesickness, which seemed so unimportant now, and realized that she had things pretty good.
“Here, step inside,” Emily motioned to her car, “Do you…like fresh baked goods?”
As Emily dropped Anouk off at the hospital, with a thankful smile and a large tray of cinnamon rolls in her hands, she thought again of the Christ child. His words came to her mind:
“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” — Matthew 25:40
Birthday gifts delivered.