Earlier this week when we were talking about the folklore of animals kneeling and speaking on Christmas Eve I was reminded of a wonderful guest post written by Celia Miles. I think you’ll enjoy it.
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.
—Written by Celia Miles. Originally published in the anthology “Christmas Presence: from 45 Western North Carolina Women Writers,” edited by Celia Miles and Nancy Dilllingham.
Last night’s video: Mountain Path 17.