New Lancer Fiction (AR)
Note: Scott is six (going on seven) and Johnny is three (going on four.)
December in the Lancer household was turning out to be quite busy, and they were barely into the month. All of their birthdays fell in December: Scott’s on the nineteenth, Johnny’s on the twenty-third and Murdoch’s on the twenty-eighth. To top it all off, there was also Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the Posadas and, finally Hogmanay.1 Murdoch was not complaining, though, for he finally had both his sons home together for the first time.
Last December, Murdoch had gone to Boston to claim his firstborn and arrived at the Garrett mansion on Scott’s fifth birthday. Harlan had threatened to drag “Scotty” through the courts if Murdoch tried to take him. Murdoch called his bluff, however, and Harlan crumbled like the soggy molasses cookie that was currently clenched in Johnny’s grimy little paw.
They were soon on a ship back to California and that is where they celebrated their, Scott’s and Murdoch’s, first Christmas as father and son.
Maria, Johnny’s mother and Murdoch’s second wife, was none too happy to share her son with his own father, let alone another woman’s child. While Murdoch was away in Boston, she had taken up with a no-account gambler and shortly after Murdoch and Scott were back home, she tried to sneak off in the middle of the night with both the gambler and Johnny.
The three of them were just north of the Mexican border when Murdoch’s lawman friend, Joe Barker, caught up with them. Using his power of persuasion (and a little muscle,) Joe was able to bring Johnny back home to his father and brother.
Now with both of his children home for the Holidays, Murdoch was determined to make it a festive one, unlike the Christmases he spent growing up in Scotland.
Christmas there had been a quiet, reverent affair bookmarked by church services and hard work. Scots worked on Christmas Day. Few adults exchanged presents, although children received small treats and tokens. There would be a light Christmas dinner and families had small evergreens in the home or decorated doorways with boughs of holly.
Placing candles in the window to welcome a stranger was a long-upheld Scottish tradition that Murdoch continued to honor. He would place them in the window at the beginning of each December and with Scott away for five long years, the symbolism took on a double meaning.1
The Lancer home, here in California, was decorated in Victorian fashion.2 There was a huge evergreen tree in front of the French doors, adorned with lighted candles and draped with tinsel, ribbon, paper chains, cookies, and candy. On Christmas morning, there would be plenty of presents piled under the tree from Father Christmas and Santa Claus. Murdoch didn’t believe in spoiling his children, but on the occasion of their first Christmas together, he felt he could bend the rules a little.
Mistletoe was suspended from the ceiling. Those who met under it could claim a kiss. The number of kisses allowed under each plant depended on the number of berries. Each time a kiss was given, a berry was taken off. No more berries, no more kisses! Each of the boys were given kisses by Maria, Angel O’Brian, and Aggie Conway whenever they were caught under it. Johnny was delighted and gave huge, sloppy kisses to whoever caught him under the mistletoe.2
Scott, oh so grown-up at the ripe old age of six, had no time for girls of any age or kisses and would wipe them off each time he received them. In fact, one day his father caught him standing on a chair and attempting to pull off some berries to hurry the tedious process along. Told by Papa that that was cheating, the berry stealer soon ceased and desisted. He did, however, go out of his way to avoid being caught under the mistletoe.
Early on, after the boys were home, a bedtime routine had been established. Each boy got to pick a story for Murdoch to read every other night. Scott’s current favorite was “A Child’s History of England.3” Scott had learned to read early and his papa was quite surprised at the level of maturity of the books he selected. Currently, toddler Johnny was enamored with “The Little Ones’ Delight.3” They had been stuck on that one for months now, much to Scott and Murdoch’s chagrin. Scott never complained, he just gave out a long-suffering sigh when Papa began to read out of Johnny’s book.
Most nights, Murdoch would sit in the nursery armchair with a wriggly toddler Johnny on his lap. Scott had just recently decided he was too old (at six) to sit on Papa’s lap unless he had a bad case of the green-eyed monster or was feeling a bit insecure. Most nights, however, he could be found sitting on the rug at Papa’s feet while he listened to the tale being told that night.
Scott had been learning of different Christmas traditions around the world. His teacher, Miss Healey, was calling upon each child to tell of their Holiday customs, each child taking their turn.
There were many nationalities in the little one room schoolhouse. Men had brought their families west to strike it rich during the Gold Rush of 1848. Very few realized their dreams so had settled down in California and had taken up various occupations. Scott was looking forward to explaining the Scottish custom of Hogmanay at New Year’s, more important to the Scots than Christmas!
Each night, after the bedtime story was read, Scott related the newly discovered custom to his father and brother. So far, Scott had told of the Dutch St. Nicholas’ Day4 on December 5th and tonight, December 6th, was Belsnickel night5, a German custom.
His eldest was so excited to share his stories with both Johnny and Papa, that Murdoch found himself with two armfuls of wiggly boys each night.
The tradition of Der Belsnickel as related by Willie, one of Scott’s little classmates, was a tradition brought to America by German immigrants and was soon adopted by other settlers. The character was typically covered in furs and his job is to reward good children and punish those who’d misbehaved. On the evening of December 6th, shoes were put (one pair apiece, of course) next to the front door. In the morning, they’d most likely be full of candy treats and small gifts. It was Belsnickel’s job to let Santa know whether children had been behaving their P’s and Q’s.
Suddenly, Scott paused and got a devilish grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Putting his two forefingers up to his head like horns, he wiggled them and leered at his baby brother.
“Johnny, Krampus is a mean old monster that travels with der Belsnickel and punishes naughty children. You better watch out because Krampus will leave coal and switches instead of candy in your shoes!”
Johnny looked at his big brother with concern, big blue eyes open wide and lower lip trembling.
Papa chided, “Now, Scott. If Krampus leaves Johnny coal and a switch, don’t you think you’ll get the same? I seem to remember two children who were naughty on occasion, not just one!”
Scott frowned in puzzlement, so Papa reminded him of the time that he took Johnny out on his pony, Shadow, and rode beyond the Lancer Arch, something that was strictly forbidden by Papa.
Scott blushed to the roots of his blond hair, and wriggled uncomfortably while he toyed with the buttons on the front of Papa’s shirt. He remembered the incident well and its unpleasant aftermath. It was an experience he didn’t care to repeat.
Unable to look his papa in the eye, Scott lowered his head and mumbled, “Well, Johnny was mostly good this year…”
Papa put two fingers under Scott’s chin and raised his head so that he would finally look his papa in the eye. Murdoch smiled at his boy and whispered, “Well, so were you…mostly.”
Scott smiled shyly and looked rather relieved by this revelation
After story time and the telling of Scott’s Belsnickel tale, Papa told his boys to place their shoes just outside the front door. Then they all trooped upstairs to bed, where Papa heard their prayers, tucked them in and kissed them both good-night.
The next morning, Murdoch was sitting at his desk drinking a cup of coffee when Johnny waltzed into the great room. This was rather unusual as it was still quite early in the morning. It was also unusual to see Johnny alone because no matter which boy woke up first, he always woke the other and they both came down to breakfast together.
Taking a closer look at Johnny, Murdoch frowned. Johnny was holding out his little nightshirt like an apron and carrying what looked to be a significant amount of treats. Papa couldn’t remember giving Johnny that much candy and small treats. The child was so antsy that sugar only exacerbated the problem.
On closer look, Papa could see that Johnny had chocolate smeared across his face and a mouth so full of candy, he looked like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter. How had Johnny gotten so much candy? Had Maria or Paul or Angel, or maybe all three, sneaked some extra candy into the boys’ shoes?
While Murdoch was puzzling over this mystery, he heard a banshee-like shriek from inside the front hall. He winced, recognizing the screams of his elder boy.
“PAPA! I don’t have any candy…I don’t even have any shoes!”
Murdoch watched the tail end of a small nightshirt quickly disappear around the kitchen door.
1. Scottish Christmas Traditions
2. A Victorian Christmas
3. Victorian Children’s Literature
4. Christmas in the Netherlands/Holland
5. Belsnickel or There’s Candy in My Shoes