CC Tillery has some big news to share! But first, a little backstory–toward the end of our book, Whistling Woman, the family celebrates Old Christmas, with Papa and Bessie telling Thee the meaning and the myths behind the holiday. The following is an edited section–no spoilers here!–from Chapter Twenty-one, Winter 1900, entitled, Breaking up Christmas:
Papa is talking to Thee:
“Ya’ see, boy, midnight tonight is when the baby Jesus was first presented to the world. That was when the three Wise Men arrived at the stables where Mary and Joseph had taken shelter so Mary could have her baby. The Wise Men had traveled for miles, following the light of a single star, because they wanted to honor the birth of their Savior. When they showed up and offered the gifts they’d brought, all the animals in the stables woke up, adding their praise to that of the three Wise Men and the angels singing up above. And to this day, they say if you go out right at midnight and stand quietly, you can hear the animals praying, and some say if you can get a look at them, you’ll see them kneeling, too. Don’t know how true it is, but I’ve heard tell that the wild animals out in the woods and up on the mountains wake, stand up, and then lay back down on their other side.”
I looked at Thee, his eyes wide and filled with love, and knew right then and there that not only could I forgive Papa, I had to for the sake of my family.
Loney, who loved Christmas, sat in the chair beside Papa with a nearly completed quilt top spread across her lap. She’d heard the story many times, but when Papa started telling it, she stopped sewing and listened as raptly as Thee. When the story was finished, she smiled and asked, “Have you ever seen the animals pray, Papa?”
“Can’t rightly say I have, but I’ve heard tell of people who sneak out at midnight and have seen it. ’Course, there’s folks who say it’s bad luck to go looking for the signs of Old Christmas, that if you do, something bad will happen to you. I don’t think that’s so, though, since the people I talked to that claim to have seen and heard it all looked hearty to me.”
“But if you just happen to be out and see a sign, then it’s all right?”
“Sure it is but why would a person be out in the barn at midnight?”
Playing along, Loney said, “Maybe they were late getting home and had to put their horse in the stable before they could go to bed?”
Papa laughed. “Could be, Loney, but we’re all safe at home, as most people are on a cold winter night, so I guess we’ll stay right here and let the animals and alder bushes do what they do without us.”
“The alder bushes?”
Papa winked at Thee. “Did I forget that part? Well, Loney, the animals aren’t the only ones who honor the birth of the baby Jesus. The alder bushes do, too. Right at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, no matter how cold the night is or how much snow’s on the ground, the alder bushes burst into bloom and some say they even sprout new branches. I’ve also heard it said that if you listen closely, you can hear the bees roar in the bee-gum, as if they wanted to swarm.”
Thee stood up, leaned on Papa’s knee and said, “Can we see the animals, Papa?”
“Maybe in a few more years, when you’re old enough to stay up until midnight but not this year, boy. This year, I’d say you’ll be fast asleep by the time midnight rolls around. Why, you already look like its long past your bedtime and here it’s barely gone dark. It’s a long time till midnight.”
Thee’s little face crumpled and Papa patted his head. “Tell you what, Thee, if you can keep your eyes open till then, I’ll take you out to the barn myself and we’ll see what we can see.”
Clapping his hands, Thee jumped up and down. Jack chortled and did her best to slap her tiny hands together, too.
“But Papa, what if it is bad luck?” Loney asked.
“Pshaw, girl, I’ve talked to lots of people who say they’ve seen just such a thing and they were all living and breathing when they told me.”
Loney picked up her needle and started working on the quilt top again. “Wouldn’t that be a lovely thing to see, all the animals honoring Jesus like that?” She looked down at Thee and smiled. “I think it might be worth taking a chance on some bad luck, don’t you, little man?”
Thee nodded and clapped his hands again. “Tell us some more, Papa.”
“Why that’s all I know to tell, boy. Maybe Bess knows more.”
Thee ran over to me where I sat on the sofa. “Tell, Bessie, tell.”
I smiled at him and ruffled his hair. “I’ll tell you what else happens during the twelve days of Christmas, Thee, but it’s about people, not about the animals.”
He looked doubtful but sat down at my feet, prepared to listen.
“There are some things you shouldn’t do, like lend anything to anybody during the twelve days of Christmas because if you do you’ll never get it back.” I pointed to the fireplace. “You see how the ashes are piling up in the hearth over there? That’s because it’s bad luck to clean them out during the twelve days. It’s also bad luck to wash your bed sheets until Old Christmas is over.” I leaned down and sniffed at Thee. “Good thing we only have one more day, else we wouldn’t be able to stand the smell.”
Thee giggled and dramatically sniffed the skirt of my dress, wrinkling his little nose.
“Tonight is Old Christmas Eve and at midnight people everywhere will be breaking up Christmas.” His face crumpled again and I went on hurriedly, “That’s not a bad thing. What it means is most people will drink sweet cider and burn a piece of cedar or pine in the fire as a way of saying farewell to the season.
“Do they have to break it because it’s old?”
I smiled. “No, sweetie. You see, some people believe the twenty-fifth of December is the day when the baby Jesus was born and the sixth of January is when He was first presented to the three Wise Men and to the world. But a long time ago, most people believed the sixth was the day when He was truly born and that’s when they celebrated so that day came to be known as Old Christmas. There are twelve days between the two dates, from December 25th, the ‘new’ Christmas, to January 6th, the ‘old’ Christmas, and that gives us the twelve days of Christmas. During those twelve days, people have what they call Breaking Up Christmas parties. Tonight’s party is at Aunt Belle’s house and there will be lots of sweet cider to drink and music for dancing.” I leaned down. “And I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell. Promise?”
I bent down and whispered, “Aunt Belle is planning on having a small fire in the street outside her house right at midnight so that people can burn a piece of cedar or pine to officially Break Up Christmas. Don’t tell Papa though, or he might have to arrest Aunt Belle.”
Thee laughed and whispered back, “I won’t. Can I go and see the fire?”
“If you do, how will you see the animals in the barn when they kneel down to pray?”
He frowned. Uncle Ned boarded his horse at the town livery stables so Aunt Belle didn’t have a barn or any animals he could spy on to see if they really did pray at midnight.
I took his chin in my hand and lifted it to give him a kiss. “Why don’t you stay here with Papa and Loney, and if you can stay awake, Papa will take you out to see the animals. You can see a fire in the fireplace any old time and Roy and I will be sure to burn a piece of pine in Aunt Belle’s fire to break up Christmas for you.”
Roy came in from the barn, bringing the crisp smell of winter with him. “You about ready to go, Bessie? I’ve got the horses hitched up and they’re champing at the bit.”
I stood, lifting Thee with me. “You keep those eyes open tonight, Theodore Norton. I want to hear all about what you see tomorrow.”
He put his arms around my neck and hugged me, whispering, “I will, Bessie,” in my ear. I squeezed him before kissing his cheek and setting him down on the floor.
Walking over to Papa, I kissed Jack on the top of her head first then bent further in to kiss Papa’s cheek. I turned to Loney who set her quilting aside and stood up.
“Have a good time, Bess.” She stepped forward and kissed my cheek, which surprised me. Loney wasn’t usually given to outward signs of affection.
I took her hand and squeezed it. “You sure you don’t mind staying home with the babies? I can stay and you can go to the party if you want.”
She smiled. “I don’t mind a bit. You know how much I enjoy taking care of them. You and Roy have fun.”
I hugged her goodbye. At the door, I turned and looked at my family and the strangest sensation washed over me, as if I stood far away, seeing them in a dream. I could feel their love for me, just as I could mine for them, but there was a distance there, a deep chasm keeping them from me.
Now for the big news, in honor of Old Christmas, and as a way of saying thanks to everyone who’s been involved with this book for the last four years, Christy and I decided to have a special 12 Days of Christmas sale. That means from December 26, 2011 until January 6, 2012, you’ll be able to download the Kindle version of Whistling Woman for only 99 cents!
Enjoy and a very happy holiday season to everyone!