Appalachian Writers Christmas Holidays in Appalachia

And The Animals Knelt

Christmas in Appalachia 1933

Today’s Guest Post is written by Celia Miles and was originally published in the anthology Christmas Presence: from 45 Western North Carolina Women Writers, edited by Celia Miles and Nancy Dilllingham.

And the Animals Knelt by Celia Miles

My grandmother had me on her lap and she smelled of fried chicken and freshly ironed apron. She held me because my mama just told me Daddy wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas after all. He was in Manila or somewhere that made me think of vanilla when Mama’s soft voice said it.

“Look at that pout,” Grandma said, “and you such a pretty child when you smile.” I chewed on my pigtail. “I don’t want to smile. I may never smile again.” “Now that’s a big maybe. You best be careful of what you say tonight. Santa Claus might hear you–and it’s about time for him to hitch his reindeer up and set out.”

“Tommy said no old Santa’s gonna find us back here in the mountains, anyway.” Grandma smoothed my hair with her rough hand. “I bet that Tommy will change his tune about midnight, specially if he hears little hooves a-pattering on the roof.” “He was awfully sure,” I said. “I miss my Daddy.” Daddy called me his brave little tomboy. Grandma wasn’t one for much talking. She shifted a little to get more comfortable. I always gave up Grandma’s lap when little Gordie came toddling along. “After all,” Mama said, “he’s the baby, and he’s never even seen his daddy yet. You’re our big girl now.” “And old MaryBelle is sick,” I said, piling on the misery. Daddy gone to war, Mama crying, little Gordie just too cute and cuddly, Santa likely to get lost, and now our cow, our only cow, had come down sick. “I think Christmas stinks!” “Young lady, get off that pity pot of yours,” Grandma said, her voice stern. “You go wash up the dishes for your mama and I’ll tell you what we’ll do at midnight.” “What?” I jumped off her lap in my excitement. “What will we do? I don’t ever get to stay up till midnight. I never have. Will Mama let me?” “Your mama’s tired. She’s in there crying right now because my Billy won’t be home like he hoped and the army promised. We’ll keep it our secret. Go on, now. Get those dishes done.”

Grandma was rocking gently in front of the fireplace when I came back from the kitchen. I’d made so much noise Mama said from the bedroom, “Rachel Jean, if you wake this baby you’re going to have to tend to him.” I pulled two cushions from the sofa–one to sit on and the other I held in my arms. It was silky and had fringe and a painting on it of white sand and palm trees. It was from that vanilla place where Daddy was soldiering. I sat down in front of the fire, careful not to block the heat from Grandma. “My granddaddy told us this story,” she began, “and I reckon it came over on the ships from England with his momma and poppa. Listen, child,” and she cupped her hand to her ear.  I listened intently. I heard Mama scribbling on a piece of paper, writing Daddy again. Grandma leaned toward the window. The wind was blowing a strong snow, and the sashes crackled. I leaned toward the drafty window too and listened as hard as I could. A dog barked, old MaryBelle was lowing in the barn, her bell jangling a little, and Oscar the mule snorted. I thought I even heard the sow and her pigs eating at the trough. But I’d never heard all those sounds before…with the wind howling and the barn way off from the house. “Granddaddy said on Christmas eve, the animals all stay awake till the dot of midnight,” she whispered. “They’re waiting to honor the Christ child. He was born in a manger, you know, like in the barn, born among strangers, not even a bed.” Grandma’s voice was so mournful I looked at her, expecting almost to see tears. But Grandma was tough. She never cried, and sometimes she got put out with Mama who cried a lot. “The Sunday school teacher told us about little baby Jesus,” I said, “and the preacher talked about his birthday.”  I thought a moment. “But they didn’t say a word about animals, ‘cept Joseph and Mary had a donkey.” Grandma had a faraway look in her eyes. “All the animals, they say, wait up for that blessed moment. Some people even say that right then they even talk to each other.” She shook her head. “I don’t know about that.” She smiled and a little smile crept out to my lips. “Can you imagine what Oscar and MaryBelle would talk about? I bet your Daddy’s fiesty fine mare wouldn’t even speak to the rest of them, fancy as she is!” Daddy had courted Mama on his shiny brown mare, Juliet, his pride and joy. Mama groomed her every week so when Daddy came home he wouldn’t be ashamed of his horse. I giggled a little but thinking of Juliet made me think of Daddy, and I hung my head again. “You don’t believe that, do you, Grandma? Animals talking?” “Christmas is a magic time, Rachel Jean, anything can happen. But,” she admitted, “talking animals?  More’n likely the other story’s true.” She paused so long I jiggled her shoe. “What, Grandma, what?

“All the animals in the world–with any sense, that is–kneel down at midnight to pay homage to the baby child Jesus. Yes, they do. Now that I can believe.” “Oh, Grandma, have you ever seen them do that, have you?” I had a vision of camels and elephants in far off places, and polar bears and black bears, and giraffes and billy goats all going down on their knees. It couldn’t be. “I admit, child, I’ve never stayed up to see,” Grandma said. “With so much work to be done, I’m always asleep.” “We’ll see tonight, Grandma, we’ll stay up. Oh, I don’t care if Tommy is right about Santa Claus. I don’t think he’ll get here tonight. Look, now it’s snowing even harder.” “I’ve always wanted to see the animals on Christmas Eve,” Grandma said, “but I never did. We’ll go out there, no matter how cold.”  She bent over and stirred the fire. “Let’s get some rest, child, first.”

I tried and tried to rest but I was afraid I’d miss midnight. Truly I wasn’t so sure about Santa Claus because I knew the army was bigger than Santa. I’d written and asked him to bring Daddy home, and then Mama got his letter and had been crying ever since. I woke up Grandma who was snoring loud enough to keep any reindeer off the roof. She rubbed some sparkle into her sleepy eyes, and we put on our heavy coats and boots. The snow was wet and almost up to my knees as we waded toward the log barn. I carried a flashlight and Grandma carried a lantern. The sky was dark and the ground white. At the barn we wrestled with the heavy bar across the door. Grandma was wheezing. We got the door slightly open and I peeped in, Grandma right behind me. Juliet, MaryBelle and Oscar all had their own stalls and I didn’t see a head in any of them like I could in the daytime. It was awfully quiet. “Look,” Grandma sounded excited, like a little girl. “They’re bound to be kneeling. Not a head in sight, and you know horses sleep standing up.” “They’re kneeling to the baby,” I whispered. “It’s right on the dot of midnight.” Far away I heard a church bell or I thought I did. “It’s Christmas, all right,” Grandma said. “Let’s get back to the fire before we catch our deaths of cold.” In the light of the lantern, I could see a glow on Grandma’s face. I wouldn’t swear on a stack of bibles our animals had been kneeling, but I’d never tell Grandma that.

When we opened the door and kicked off our snowy boots, Mama was up. She’d made hot cocoa for us. The steaming cups smelled like Christmas. She hugged me. “Look what Santa left for you…while you were out there in the cold.” She handed me a long box, all wrapped up in red and green paper. It looked just like a box a doll would come in. I didn’t want any sissy doll with icy blue eyes. I was my daddy’s tomboy. I was careful, hardly tearing the paper at all. I took the lid off. It was a soldier boy doll. It had a khaki uniform on, even a cap with a stripe. His hair was as black as his painted boots. He was the handsomest soldier ever–just like my daddy. When I lifted him from the box and set him on the floor he was half as tall as I was. His buttons gleamed. “He’s all the way from Daddy’s army camp,” Mama said softly. “Your daddy sent him to you across the ocean all that way.” “My own soldier boy doll.” It was a miracle. Like my daddy was with us. Santa had found us. The animals had knelt. It was Christmas.

—————————-

Now that’s a Christmas story to warm the heart! I hope you enjoyed Celia’s writing as much as I did-leave her a comment and I’ll make sure she reads it.

Tipper

 

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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Jessica Puckett
    December 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    What a beautiful story! It made me think of my own grandmother and those precious Christmas memories I have of her. How blessed I am to have had the privilege of growing up here in these mountains. This story made me cry, then laugh as I reflected back on my own memories. We never had much money, but we were rich in so many other ways. Thank-you for sharing!!

  • Reply
    Becky
    January 2, 2011 at 10:17 am

    What a story! It kept me captive until the very last word.
    Wish I had gotten here and read this before Christmas. Cause you know I would have been out there looking to see if my horses were kneeling and listening for their conversation about the Christ child.

  • Reply
    Dave Anderson
    December 28, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Good stories are hard to come by. This is one of the best I’ve had the privilage to read this year. Every family has stories about a special Christmas of their past. We should make it a tradition of writing at least one story a year to be shared with family and friends.

  • Reply
    Charline
    December 26, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    Love the story! So touching.

  • Reply
    Glenda Beall
    December 24, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    Celia’s story is touching and gives us that warm and special feeling that Christmas stories bring when they are told well.
    I have a Christmas story I should post on my blog during this season. Maybe I will.
    Thanks Celia. And thank you, Tipper for posting it.

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    December 23, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    I love this story, Celia!

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, Ph.D.
    December 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Ok! I did not make it through Celia’s story without the tears! The LOG BARN got me! Why? Because my Grandpa W.I.Wimpey built a LOG BARN (1907?)when my mother was a little girl. That LOG BARN STOOD FOR MANY, MANY YEARS after Grandpa had passed away. Everytime we would drive by the barn I would think of Grandpa! After one hundred years the LOG BARN finally fell!
    Merry Christmas, Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Nancy Wigmore
    December 23, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this Tipper. Celia what a precious story. God bless you all with a wonderful Christmas.

  • Reply
    Janet
    December 23, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    That was a wonderful story. She writes beautifully.

  • Reply
    Ken
    December 23, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Tipper,
    Another great Christmas story. I
    wouldn’t even answer my phone while reading Celia’s “And the
    Animals Knelt.” She reminds me of
    my life and times of long ago.
    Thank You, Celia…Ken

  • Reply
    Canned Quilter
    December 23, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Touching! Wonderful story for this time of year : )

  • Reply
    Clint
    December 23, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Stop sending stories like that! They make dust get in my eyes every time:)
    Merry Christmas!

  • Reply
    Hummer
    December 23, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Loved it. It is very heart warming. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Reply
    kat
    December 23, 2010 at 10:00 am

    What a wonderful story. She writes in such a way that you feel like you’re right there with them. Enjoyed it very much.

  • Reply
    kathryn magendie
    December 23, 2010 at 9:39 am

    I love that anthology! I bought one last year when it wasn’t christmas and it made me feel as if it were christmas – just loved it — wonderful!

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    December 23, 2010 at 9:30 am

    I almost made it through without shedding tears….Ahh, but didn’t quite make it…LOL
    What a wonderful story…
    Thanks Tipper, and thank you Celia for writing it….

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    December 23, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Great story, and it reminds me to remember the many military folks who won’t be home this Christmas and pray for their safety.

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