December 25, 1862; Maple Grove, Tennessee
Luke Prider bounded off his bed, too excited to feel even the cold wood against his bare feet. It was Christmas morning. His sister, Sue Ellen, had said that Santa wouldn’t visit them. Even his momma had tried to convince him that the Union blockade held a tight line and wouldn’t allow Santa to visit those in the South. But what did they know? They were only girls. They couldn’t possibly understand the power of a man on a mission.
His daddy was out there, even now, dealing with those Yanks. Sue Ellen may not have faith. His momma might have given up, but not Luke. He believed in Santa, just like he believed in his daddy. Santa came last night. He just knew it.
His feet pounded on the rough wooden floor as he ran to the tree. But the tree sat alone. Dark without the aid of the candles, the short cedar tree stood in the shadows in the corner of the room. Without his daddy to bring in a nice tall tree, they had to make due with whatever his momma and sister could manage alone. His little chest heaved as he took in the sight of the lone tree. Brushing a lock of blond hair away from his eyes, he turned to the fireplace. He had insisted they each hang a stocking above the fireplace, but they too were empty. There had to be something. Somewhere.
Dropping to his knees, he scurried under the tree, his hands patting the floor in front of him. Nothing. Backing away from the tree, he pulled his legs up to his chest and rested his chin on top. What happened to Santa? Luke tried his hardest to be good. He just knew he was better this year than last year. Santa came all those years before, so he couldn’t have put him on the naughty list this year.
Did he decide not to show because of Sue Ellen’s attitude? Luke’s frown deepened into a scowl. His sister would ruin something as important as this. But what if it wasn’t her? What if his daddy was hurt and couldn’t help Santa? What if those awful Yanks shot down Santa for trying to help the kids in the South?
Luke heard a soft, pitiful meow coming from outside. General, his kitten, must have left the barn and wandered up to the house in search of food. They were all searching for food these days. Momma kept making meals out of a little cornmeal and the remaining vegetables they kept from the meager crop this year. General wouldn’t find anything to eat, but he could at least come in out of the cold. Luke quickly rose from the floor and opened the door to let in the orange kitten. His momma would have a fit if she found out, but it was Christmas morning; somebody should receive something special today.
“Santa came! Santa came!” Luke shouted, running through the house. Suanne Prider could barely open her eyes before her eight-year-old son leaped onto her bed, jumping and shouting all the more. “Santa came! Santa came! He really did; just like I said he would!”
Suanne rubbed her weary eyes and sat up. “Luke, what on earth are you talking about?”
He let out a deep sigh, and his shoulders slumped. Frowning at her, he answered, “Santa came.”
Suanne held a hand to her forehead and winced. He said that already. Several times actually, but it still failed to make any sense. She didn’t have anything to set out under the tree. She had tried her hardest to make the boy understand. They haven’t had meat on their table in over three months. Their savings had long since run dry, and Harry’s paychecks were becoming scarce. The Confederacy was running low on funds just as the rest of the South.
She wanted to get something for the kids this year to help make up for their father’s absence. With a heavy heart, Suanne had decided that any money found in their home would best be spent on clothes, shoes, or food. A simple gift would be too much to hope for.
Regardless of what she had said, the child went to bed last night holding out hope that Santa would indeed visit him. She didn’t look forward to a disappointing day, and it appeared as if Luke would make things even more difficult than necessary.
Her daughter, Sue Ellen, glided in next and carefully sat on the edge of the bed, her eyes showing her concern. Her fifteen years understood more than a young girl should. She remained silent and at least that was a comfort.
Taking a deep breath, she let it out in a rush. “Luke, honey, Santa couldn’t have come last night.” She prepared herself for his disappointment and for an onslaught of tears.
“But he DID, Momma. Won’t ya listen to me. He DID come last night.”
She held a hand up, wearily, but the little boy rushed on. “I done been outside. I saw the presents he left us. He left them on the porch.”
Her brows turned down in confusion, and she met Sue Ellen’s worried glare. “What are you talking about?” she asked, throwing the covers off and sliding out of bed. She threw a thinning wrapper around her shoulders and tied it snugly around her waist before turning to the boy.
Luke leaped off the bed in the same way he got on. “Santa must’ve been in a hurry last night cause he didn’t come in and set the stuff down by the tree like normal. But I knew he’d come. I just knew it.”
“Luke, please,” she said impatiently. “None of this is making any sense.”
“Well, come on. You’ll see.”
“Momma, I don’t know,” Sue Ellen said cautiously.
Luke rolled his eyes. Turning to his sister, he said, “You think you’re so smart, Sue, but you’re not. I know stuff too. I’m the man here now till Daddy gets back home. You should be showin’ me more respect.”
She huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s not gonna happen,” she muttered.
“Children, please,” Suanne said before the fight could escalate. Thankfully, they were more concerned about the mysterious gifts so they dropped their argument without further prompting.
“Lead the way, Luke,” she ordered. The boy eagerly left the room, scooping up General on his way to the door. “Luke,” she growled, “you know I don’t allow the animals in the house.”
He turned slowly to her with an impish little grin on his face. “It’s Christmas, Momma. Have a heart, would ya?”
Her frown deepened, but she said nothing more. When had she grown so hard? So joyless? Had Harry’s absence done this to her? The stress of struggling to raise two kids on no money? The worries and uncertainties of war? With a sigh, she whispered another prayer for peace and perseverance. It seemed like all she could do anymore was beg for the ability to continue.
Luke threw open the door and walked out, pointing excitedly. “See, I told ya! See! See!”
Suanne walked through the door and then stopped and stared where he pointed. A new stack of firewood rested on her porch. She held one hand over her quivering lips, her eyes burning with unshed tears. There would be enough wood here to keep them warm for at least a month.
“Look at that on top, Momma.”
In a daze, Suanne moved closer to the bundles lying on top of the stack. She ran her hand over the two large folds of material. A tear slipped down her face as she glanced down at her children, knowing their ankles peeked out from under their clothes. She hadn’t the means for making anything new for them, or even for lengthening their current wardrobe. She swallowed the lump in her throat as she ran her hands across the cold jars of peaches and green beans. But it was the neatly wrapped, plucked chicken that opened the floodgates. She caressed the package with trembling hands.
“See, I told ya. I knew Santa would come.”
“No, son,” she whispered. “Someone much greater than Santa had been here last night.”
She felt his curious eyes on her. “Huh?”
“It was Jesus. Only the hands and feet of Christ could have seen to our needs like this.” Swiping at the falling tears, she reached for the chicken with one hand and patted his boney shoulder with the other. “Come, we’ve got a Christmas chicken to cook.”
Together they gathered their precious gifts and returned inside, General trailing happily behind them.
“…and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Matthew 1:23
Note: “The Hands and Feet of Christmas” is a deleted scene from my novel, “Where Can I Flee.” This scene is not a spoiler, but it is a companion to WCIF’s chapter 34. If you don’t have a copy of Where Can I Flee, you can pick one up on Amazon. Merry Christmas from the Heaths and the Harpers. 😉