A young woman tries to find her faith at her Scotch-Irish family's Christmas party.
|The music filled the air. Sounds of Christmas that seemed to Hayley’s ears to be out of step with reality. She watched as her family and friends danced around in circles, kilts and skirts swirling in rhythm to the bagpipes and drums, feet lightly touching the ground only to bounce their owners up once again. The song ended and the gathered dancers laughed and clapped, calling for more music to carry their happy spirits onward toward Christmas. It was the annual Christmas Eve gathering of the Carmichael clan at Hayley’s aunt and uncle’s house. The oddest thing about this gathering in Hayley’s mind, with its ancient traditions that had been passed down through the generations, was that it was the 21st century and her family was behaving as if they were still in the Highlands at a time just after the clan’s conversion to Christianity. She usually enjoyed watching the dancers dance until well after midnight, but now she wondered just how relevant these old traditions were in the here and now. The old superstitions had long ago given way to scientific theory and proven facts. There was no need to dance away Christmas Eve to entice the Christ child to be born yet again and bring with Him the sun for yet another year. So why did her family insist on carrying on such outdated traditions?
Hayley glanced down at her slender white hands. They still felt a little sticky from pulling taffy earlier even though she’d washed them long enough to make her mother scold her for wasting water. They always felt sticky for the rest of the night after pulling taffy. True, the golden, sticky treats were well worth the effort and mess, but she never got used to the feeling on her skin of melted butter and sticky candy. She looked over to the small plate heaped with pieces of taffy. It rested on a small table under an open window. A candle had been lit and set beside the plate of taffy. Aunt Mabel had covered the candle with a hurricane glass to keep it from being blown out by the chilly night air wafting through the room. A stranger would probably have assumed the window had been opened to let in the cool breeze since, with all the dancing, the room was rather warm. Hayley knew differently. The candle was supposed to lead their ancestors to the window. The window was open to allow them to come join them on this night, to dance a jig for a while with the family before returning to whatever unearthly realm from which they had journeyed. The taffy had been place under the open window to persuade the dead relatives that they were welcome. For years Hayley had watched the plate, hoping to see some ethereal hand snatch away a treat, but not so much as one piece had ever disappeared—except when one of her older, mischievous cousins had snuck one when the adults weren’t looking. By now Hayley had figured out that nothing like that was ever going to happen. It was yet another old tradition that was linked to ancient superstition, yet another archaic custom that was no longer relevant.
With a sigh, Hayley shuffled to the door, grabbing her winter wrap on the way. She just couldn’t stay there in all the laughter and music knowing it meant absolutely nothing. She stepped out onto the porch and, even though no one would have heard it had she slammed it for the steady thumping of her relatives dancing feet, quietly shut the door behind her. Outside she enveloped herself tightly in the winter wrap, its soft faux fur tickling her chin. The night breeze had felt refreshing inside, a relief from the heat the dancers were generating. Outside it was just bearable if you were wrapped up in something warm. If it hadn’t been that Hayley just couldn’t make herself go back inside, she would have turned around immediately and hurried back into the stuffy warmth of the lodge. Instead she bent her head against the cold wind and started out into the yard. The snow crunched under boots as she carefully measured each step. Slowly the music coming from the lodge disappeared, replaced by the wind in the pines surrounding the several acres her Uncle Raymond owned. Cars were parked all along the driveway, curving out of sight toward the main road. Uncle Raymond had the only place large enough to hold the family’s Christmas Eve gathering. That was fine as far as Hayley was concerned. Uncle Raymond’s place was far enough out of town and surrounded by so many pine trees that you could imagine you were out in the middle of nowhere if you wanted. Hayley had always enjoyed the solitude of the place. Growing up, she’d often come for visits with her parents. She remembered playing make believe with her cousins amongst the pines, pretending they were explorers from a far away land, building forts to keep out the enemies, looking for leprechaun gold. There were many magical memories out there. As Hayley had grown older, though, the days of make believe, like the music behind her, had slowly disappeared, being replaced by the cacophony raised by the world’s demands until everything she had come to believe in as meaningful had been drowned in a sea of scientific thought and skepticism.
As she looked up into the clear night sky, she thought about the daydreams she’d had about what might exist amongst the stars. She had spun many wild stories in her mind about mystical beings and aliens. Now she saw only burning balls of gas billions of miles in space. It wasn’t just the loss of those wonderful stories that bothered her. She remembered being able to look at anything in nature and see some evidence of a Creator, a Source of All. She had prayed often to that Source on many nights just like this and had always believed It had heard. Now not even a whisper of the breeze through the trees seemed to indicate a Presence. Are you even there anymore?, she thought. Can you still hear me?
“Ah, there ya are child,” said Uncle Raymond. “I was begin’n t’wonder where ya’d run off ta. Tis jus’ ‘bout midnight. Time ta welcome th’ Chris’ Child in.”
“I know Uncle. I just don’t feel like coming in right now,” Hayley replied, looking down at her feet. She wrapped her cloak a bit tighter around her, the chill in the air having less to do with the cold she felt than the emptiness in her heart.
“Ah. I see,” he said. He looked back at the lodge for a moment and then at her. “Ya know, I was thinkin’ of skippin’ this year’s awelcomin’ anyway. Mind if’n I join ya?” Hayley shrugged and looked back up at the stars. A gentle breeze pulled at her scarlet hair. She reached up, tucked a strand behind her ear, and pulled her frozen hand back within her wrap. She really hadn’t wanted any company, but she just couldn’t be rude to her favorite uncle. Besides that, it was his property anyway. Who was she to tell him where he could and couldn’t go?
“Pretty, aren’t they?” Hayley shrugged again. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Uncle Raymond gazing at the stars. The childlike smile on his face betrayed the leathery wrinkles trying to reveal his seventy-five years. She wondered what it was he saw in the stars that made him smile so. She looked back at the stars, squinting a little in hopes that she might better see whatever it was Uncle Raymond saw. She shook her head. Whatever it was was a mystery.
“Wha’ is it, child?” Uncle Raymond asked.
“Hmm?” She turned her head to look at her uncle. There was a twinkle in his eyes as if by gazing upon the stars some of their light had gotten stuck inside.
“Ya shook yur head ‘bout sumthin. I’s jus’ wonderin’ why.”
“Oh.” Hayley thought for a moment, looking back down at the snow.
“I was just wondering…” she temporized.
“About?” he prodded.
Do I dare share what I’ve been thinking?, she wondered. She shifted in place, trying to decide. If she told Uncle Raymond what she’d been thinking what would he say? Would he lecture her saying, “Oh ye of little faith”? That’s what Aunt Mabel would do. Would he agree with her? He had, after all, said he’d been thinking about skipping the Welcoming of the Christ Child, something no one in the Carmichael clan, except Hayley, would think to do. Judging his reaction was nearly impossible. She liked Uncle Raymond a lot, but she’d never really gotten to know him very well. She’d always gotten by with the token hellos and goodbyes when her family had visited and spent the majority of her time outside in the woods playing make believe with her cousins. She looked up at him. The smile was still on his lips, one of simple delight. Oh how she longed to share that feeling. That decided her.
“I was just wondering what it was you saw in the stars,” she said finally. He grinned.
“Ah! Tis simple, child,” he chuckled, looking back up at the stars. “Tis life.”
“Life?” Hayley asked, cocking her head in the puzzled way she’d often seen dogs look when their master commanded them to do a trick they’d never done before. She felt like one of those untrained dogs at the moment. She imagined her uncle holding a hula hoop in the air and telling her something in a foreign language. She knew he wanted her to do something, but what she had no idea. She was just as bewildered by his answer now as she would have been had she been that little dog she’d just imagined.
“Aye, life,” he repeated. He looked at her befuddled expression. His eyes lost their twinkle as they melted into deeper pools of caring. His grin faded into a small, quiet smile inviting her to listen to a bit more as he took pity on her. “Ya’ see, when I look at them there stars, I see the sparkle in yur grandmother’s eyes when she tol’ me she’d marry me and then agin when she says she’s pregnant with yur mother. An’ if’n ya lis’n ta th’ wind ya hear wee voices laughin’ an’ gigglin’. There’s life there, too.”
Hayley closed her eyes and listened carefully. The wind blew through the pines in a gentle whoosh. Occasionally she could hear the creak and groan of one of the ancient trees, but there was no laughter, no little voices. She sighed again, opening her eyes to look at the stars. It was so frustrating. She’d hoped Uncle Raymond would have the answer she was so desperately looking for, but he had nothing more for her than maudlin memories and faerytales. She blinked hard to keep the tears from forming and freezing to her eyelashes. She tried to swallow the lump in her throat, but it persisted in staying right were it had formed. She wanted to cry and scream at the star-filled night sky and tell the wind to be quiet, but she chose to stay silent instead. It was all useless. Nothing meant anything anymore and she doubted it ever would again. A gentle hand on her shoulder brought her back to the present and to the company beside her on this cold Christmas Eve. She looked at her uncle. The compassion on his weathered face spoke volumes. He patted her shoulder gently and nodded, then turned to make his way back to the lodge. As he opened the door the sound of voices singing Amazing Grace drifted back to Hayley. The strains were cut off from her ears as Uncle Raymond shut the door. A tear slid down her cheek.
“It must be Christmas,” Hayley whispered.