As part of the Madeleine L’Engle reread, we’re posting an excerpt from The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas, a traditional children’s holiday story written by L’Engle, recently reprinted by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Vicky Austin’s family does one special thing each day of December to prepare for Christmas. This year, they’re also preparing for the birth of a new brother or sister, due after the New Year. Vicky is worried that the baby will come early—what kind of Christmas Eve would it be without Mother to help them hang up stockings and sing everyone to sleep with carols?
December is probably my favorite month. And on the first day of December we were out of bed before Mother came to call us.
I ran to the window to see if maybe it had snowed during the night. But the ground was still bare, the grass tawny, with a few last leaves fluttering over it. The trees were shaking dark branches against a grey sky.
Any snow?“ Suzy asked. Suzy’s my little sister. She’s only four, and I’ve just turned seven. I can read. Of course, so can John. He’s ten. I answered, ”Not a smidgin. And the sky isn’t white enough for snow today. But it doesn’t matter-it’s the first day of December!“
One of the reasons we love December so is Christmas, not only that Christmas is coming, but that we do something special every single day of the month to prepare for the twenty-fifth day.
John was up and out of the house before Suzy and I were dressed. He has a paper route, every morning before breakfast, and he’s allowed to ride all over the village on his bike. I’m the middle Austin and the ugly duckling. If I had more time to remember and think about it, I’d be very sad. I’m skinny and as tall as the eight-year-olds and my legs are so long I keep falling. And I was awake early because this was a specially special December for me. I was to be the angel in the Pageant at church on Christmas Eve-the biggest and most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me. I was to wear a golden halo and a flowing white costume and wings~ the loveliest wings anyone could imagine. Mother made them.
Suzy is four and she’s the baby and all cuddly and beautiful and her hair is curly and the color of sunshine. She has great shining eyes that are the purple-blue of the sky just after sunset. She has a rosebud for a mouth, and she isn’t skinny; she’s just right.
We dressed quickly, because even if there wasn’t any snow it was cold, and we ran downstairs just as John came in from delivering his papers, his cheeks shiny,red as apples from the cold. The dogs came running in after him, barking: Mr. Rochester, our big brindle Great Dane, and Colette, our little silver poodle. They’re very good friends.
Our kitchen is a big wandery room that turns corners and has unexpected nooks and crannies. In the dining room section in the winter the fire crackles merrily, and this morning the smell of applewood mingled with the smell of pancakes and maple syrup and hot chocolate. One of the cats was sleeping, curled up on a cushion in front of the fire. Our father had already had his breakfast and gone out; he’s a doctor and Mother said he’d gone out several hours ago to deliver a baby.
At that we looked at Mother, and the lovely bulge in her dress, and Mother smiled and said, ”Daddy thinks the baby should come along somerime the first week in January.“
”And then I won’t be the baby anymore!“ Suzy said. ”And I’ll help you with the new baby.“
Suzy’s mind flits from thought to thought, just as she herself does, like a butterfly. Now she asked, ”What’s the surprise for the first day of December?“
It wasn’t completely a surprise, because each year it’s an Advent calendar, but it’s partly a surprise, because it’s always a new one. Advent means coming, and it’s the four weeks that lead up to Christmas. Mother and Daddy read serious things in the evening, and talk about them, a book called The Four Last Things, for instance.
This year the calendar was a beautiful one, and had come all the way across the ocean, from Denmark. We take turns every day opening one of the windows to see what surprise picture is waiting behind. The twenty-fourth day, when the windows open, they reveal the stable, and Mary and Joseph and the baby.
Today Suzy opened, because she’s the youngest and goes first. Inside was a baby angel, who looked just like Suzy.
The next day, the second day of December, we all, even John, even Daddy when he got home from the office, made Christmas cookies. ”We’d better make them early this year, just in case. “
Just in case the baby comes earlier than expected.
Mother added, ”Babies have a way of keeping mothers too busy for Christmas cookies.“
I was born at the end of November, so Mother didn’t make any Christmas cookies that year. I always seem to spoil things. I looked out the long kitchen windows at the mountains, thinking: Please, don’t let me spoil anything this year. Don’t let me spoil the Christmas Pageant. Help me to be a good angel. Please.
On the third day of December, after the school bus had let John and me off at the foot of the hill and we’d trudged up the road to our house, Mother got wire and empty tin cans and a few Christmas tree balls. She took strong scissors and cut the tops and bottoms of the cans so that they made stars and curlicues. Then we took thread and hung the Chnstmas balls and the tin designs on the wire, and Morhcr and John balanced it, and we had made the most beautiful Christmas mobile you could possibly imagine. John got on the ladder and hung the mobile in the middle of the kitchen ceiling, and it turned and twirled and tinkled and twinkled.
The next day we looked for snow again, but the ground stayed brown, and the trees were dark against the sky. When we went out through the garage to walk down to the school bus, we looked at the big sled, at Daddy’s snowshoes, at our ice skates hanging on the wall, at the skis. But though the wind was damp and we had on our warm Norwegian anoraks, we knew it wasn’t cold enough for snow. The pond had a thin skin of ice, but not nearly enough for skating, and all that came down from the heavy grey skies was an occasional drizzle that John said might turn into sleet, but not snow.
And the days sped into December. On the fourth day Daddy put a big glimmering golden star over the mantelpiece in the living room. On the fifth day we taped a cardboard Santa Claus with his reindeer up the banisters of the front stairs; it came from England and is very bright and colorful. On the sixth day we strung the merry Norwegian elves across the whole length of the kitchen windows, and Mother said that our Christmas decorations were a real United Nations. On the seventh day we put a tall golden angel above the kitchen mantelpiece. Unlike the Advent calendar angel this one was much too stately and dignified to look like Suzy, and I sighed because I knew that even with a costume and wings, I could never hope to look as graceful and beautiful as the golden angel.
On the eighth day of December I was late getting home because the rehearsal of the Pageant lasted much longer than usual. And it lasted longer because the director couldn’t get me in a position that satisfied her. The most awful moment was when I heard her whisper to the assistant director, ”I’ve never seen a seven-year-old be so awkward or ungraceful, but I suppose we really can’t recast the angel now.“
I clamped my teeth right shut to try to keep from crying, and the director said, ”Don’t look so sullen, Vicky. An angel should be joyful, you know.“
I nodded, but I didn’t dare unclench my teeth. One tear slipped out and trickled down my cheek, but I didn’t think anybody saw.
When the rehearsal was over, Mr. Quinn, the minister, drove me home. He hadn’t seen the rehearsal and he kept talking about how the Pageant was going to be the best ever, and that I was going to be a beautiful angel. If he’d been at the rehearsal he wouldn’t have said that.
The Advent surprise for that day was to have the Christmas mugs at dinner, the mugs that look like Santa Claus. But I still felt like crying, and the cheerful Santa Claus face didn’t cheer me up at all. After we had baths and were in our warm pajamas and ready for bed, we stood around the piano singing Advent carols, but I had such a big lump in my throat that I couldn’t sing.
Daddy put his arm around me. ”What’s the matter with my girl?“
Two tears slipped our of my eyes, and I told him about the rehearsal and what the director had said. He told me that he and Mother would help me to look and move more like an angel. ”You can be a lovely angel, Vicky but you’ll have to work at it.“
”I’ll work. I promise.“
On the ninth day of Advent we hung the Christmas bells from the beams in the living room, and then Mother worked with me on being an angel. She had me walk all over the house with a volume of the encyclopedia on my head. When I was finally able to walk all around without the encyclopedia falling, Mother showed me how to stand with my feet in ballet position, and how to hold my arms so they didn’t look all elbows.
On the tenth day of December Mother got the cuddly Santa Claus doll out of the attic, and told Suzy and me we could take turns taking it to bed at night. I thought of the Pageant, and said, ”Suzy can have it. May I take the Shu to Sub volume of the encyclopedia to bed with me?“
Mother understood. ”Yes. And now put it on your head and try walking up the front stairs and down the back stairs.“
Each time I did it I managed more steps without having to catch the encyclopedia. Suzy went to bed with the cuddly Santa Claus doll I put the Shu to Sub volume under my pillow.
On the eleventh day the director beamed at me and said, ”That was much better, Vicky. I think you’re going to be all right after all. Now let’s try it again. Good, Vicky, GOOD.“
I was happy when I got home and Mother gave me a hug, and John said, ”I don’t know why anybody ever thought you couldn’t do it. I knew you could.“
Suzy jumped up and down and said, ”What’re we going to do for Advent today?“
Mother suggested, ”Let’s make a Christmas chandelier.“ We took the wire mesh lettuce basket and filled it with the Christmas decorations that were just a tiny bit broken but not shattered. We hung one of the prettiest, shiniest decorations on the bottom of the lettuce basket, and then Mother and John fitted the basket over the front hall light so that it glittered and sparkled with the color of all the Christmas baubles. And I walked up and down the front hall with the encyclopedia, Shu to Sub, balanced on my head; I tried to look at the Christmas chandelier out of the corner of my eye, but when I looked up, the encyclopedia slipped and I caught it just before it landed on the floor.
On the twelfth day of December not only did it not snow, it rained. Rain poured in great torrents from the sodden skies and the gutters spouted like fountains. After school Mother discovered that we’d eaten up all the first batch of Christmas cookies, so we made more.
On the thirteenth the skies were all washed clean and the sun was out and we had a Pageant rehearsal. The director surprised me by saying, ”Vicky, dear, you’re doing so well that weve decided to give you some lines for the scene where you appear with the shepherds. Do you think you can memorize them?“
I nodded happily. It may be hard for me to walk without tripping up, and to stand still without being all sharp corners and angles, but memorizing things is easy for me.
The director explained, ”These are the angel lines from an old play in the Chester Cycle. The Chester Cycle is a group of plays written in the Middle Ages in England, to be performed in the Cathedral in Chester, so we think it’s very appropriate for the Pageant. By the way, we miss your mother in the choir.“
I explained, ”It’s because of the new baby, you know.“
”Isn’t that nice! I wonder if she’ll be in the hospital for Christmas? Now here are your lines, dear. Read them slowly and clearly.“
I read. Slowly and clearly. But I hardly heard myself. Mother in the hospital for Christmas? I knew Mother would go to the hospital to have the baby, just as she did for John and me and Suzy, But not for Christmas Eve! Not for Christmas day!
”Good, dear,“ the director was saying. ”Read it once more. “
Shepherds, of this sight
Be ye not afright,
For this is God’s might.
To Bethlehem now right;
There shall ye see in sight
That Christ is born tonight
To save all mankind.
If Mother was in the hospital it wouldn’t be Christmas. Christmas is the whole family hanging up stockings, and Daddy reading The Night Before Christmas and Saint Luke, and Mother singing everybody to sleep with her guitar and carols. What about the stocking presents Christmas morning in Mother and Daddy’s big bed? What about running downstairs all together to see the presents under the tree? What about-what about-everything?
Who would cook Christmas dinner? Make the stuffing? Roast the turkey? Fix the cranberry sauce? What about putting out cocoa and cookies for Santa Claus the very last thing on Christmas Eve? What about-what about-everything?
”That’s very good, dear,“ the director approved. ”You speak beautifully. Now read it again, just a little bit more slowly this time. Do you think you can memorize it for tomorrow?“
I nodded numbly. Somehow or other I managed to do everything the director told me, but all I could think was-Mother has to be home for Christmas!
Daddy picked me up after rehearsal that afternoon. As soon as he had the car started, I asked, ”Daddy, Mother isn’t going to be in the hospital for Christmas, is she?“
He answered quietly, ”It’s a distinct possibility.“
I shouted, ”But she can’t be!“
Daddy said calmly, ”According to our calculations, the baby’s due about the first of January, but babies don’t always arrive exactly on schedule. John, for instance, was three weeks late, and you were exactly on time. Suzy was a few days early.“
”Who knows, the baby may decide to come early enough so that Mother’ll be home for Christmas. Or it mightn’t be till the new year. But we have to accept the fact that there’s a chance that Mother’ll be in the hospital over Christmas.“
”Let’s not have the baby!“ I cried. ”If Mother has to be in the hospital on Christmas I don’t want the baby!“
”Here, here,“ Daddy said, ”that’s no way to talk.“
”There are enough of us already.“ I choked over a sob. ”Do we have to have the baby, Daddy?“
”Of course we do. We all want the baby. This isn’t like you, Vicky Austin.“
”What about Christmas dinner?“ I wailed.
”At the last count,“ Daddy said, ”we’d had seventeen invitations for dinner.“
It kept getting worse and worse. ”But we can’t go out for Christmas dinner! I’d rather have cornflakes and have them at home!“
Daddy turned the car up the hill to the house. ”I quite agree with you there, Vic. I’ve turned down all the invitations. If Mother’s in the hospital, I think you and John and Suzy and I can manage Christmas dinner, don’t you?“ And I’ll let you in on a secret: Mother made our dinner and put it in the freezer. All we have to do is thaw it and heat it up in the oven.”
I hiccuped tiredly.“Well. All right. But it won’t be Christmas if Mother isn’t with us.”
The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas copyright © 1984 by Crosswicks, Ltd.
Art copyright © 2010 by Jill Weber