Christmas! Mary’s favourite time. Snow had fallen, muffling the world in its embrace. Yet, no wise men laboured knee-deep through the snow. Only Old Ted driving the cows into the stalls. Night fell early and the full moon rose, casting eerie shadows across the snow-covered landscape.
Some whispered Christmas Eve was a time when spirits walked abroad. Talking of spirits made her nervous. Father would scold her if he knew. Spirits were the makings of the weak-minded and the dark-hearted, he always said. But if spirits there were, let them stay outside. All good folk were indoors, warm and safe.
Her family would soon gather about the Christmas tree to sing carols and Father would read from the Good Book. Only when they’d finished would they eat. The smell of roasted poultry, baked potatoes and sage and onion stuffing filled the house. It made her mouth water, but hankering after food wouldn’t be right on such a holy day.
Her younger brothers and sisters came tumbling down, knowing Father would not tolerate lateness. The family, joined by Cook and Old Ted, stood in silence, waiting. Had Mother been alive, she would have accompanied them. Instead Mary gave the first note. As ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ came to an end, Mary listened hard, hoping to hear the sledge bells heralding Christmas. But all she could hear was the faint rustle of mice.
Could there really be spirits? Mary glanced at Father who began to read. At the moment the wise men discovered the baby in the manger, a crash interrupted Father’s reading. One of the crystal balls on the tree had fallen to the flagstone floor and shattered.
Everyone stared aghast. A growing carpet of pine needles had gathered under its branches. A second ball slid from the tree and smashed. Mary risked a look at Father. He was on the verge of exploding. In the deathly silence, the rustle of falling needles continued unabated.
“Who did this?” Father roared.
“Who let the devil into our house?” he asked.
Her youngest sister was in tears.
“Remove the decorations, Mary,” he ordered.
She hurried to obey, helped by her sisters.
“Fetch my axe!” Father told his eldest son, John.
She’d never seen him in such a rage, he who said anger was the devil’s work. When John returned, Father dragged the tree outside, letting a blast of freezing air steal into the house. He vented his fury on the hapless tree then set fire to the broken branches.
Back inside, he ordered Cook to return the food to the pantry. She tried to remonstrate, but he would have nothing of it. Mary feared he’d set about the woman, but instead he turned on the children, sending them to bed. As she shooed her sisters up the stairs, her heart heavy and her stomach empty, Mary wondered who had let the devil into their house. For whoever it was had ruined their Christmas.