December 26, 2010
She heard the paper thump on the driveway. That was one of the things she hadn’t gotten to this year — the tip for the paper carrier, who put a Christmas card into a self-addressed envelope and inserted that into the first Sunday newspaper after Thanksgiving every year. On days she slept in, Julie was sometimes wakened by the woman’s rattly station wagon. Julie had never actually seen the paper carrier, and was only assuming it was a woman. The envelope was addressed to “Jamie Porter” in a run down neighborhood of old row houses and storefronts just outside the center of town. Usually, Julie stuck a twenty into the envelope and mailed it out the next day. This year she hadn’t, she couldn’t remember why, and here it was the Feast of Stephen, and all the Christmas fund money was spent.
— Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947
American apprentice fiction writer — from today’s warm-up exercise
Well, here it is, the Feast of Stephen, and all the Christmas fund money is spent.
Christmas took more of my attention this year than I thought it would, given that, for the fourth year in a row, I didn’t have the labor- and detail-intensive event formerly known as my Holiday Open House Extravaganza. I decorated more lightly than usual — just the tree, the creche, and the display of Lynn’s pictures with Santa Claus and in her St. Lucia day outfit, with the crown she can no longer wear even if she wanted to laid on the table. And, compared to the level of my participation in earlier years, I nearly abandoned Holidailies.
None of this was because I was unhappy or beset by some unforeseen complication. It’s just they way things unfolded. I kept busy with activities that were not reading and writing. I enjoyed everything that I did, including Ron’s choir concert, midweek prayer services at my church, two screenings of the Dragnet 1953 Christmas episode, and a trip on December 23 to Bethlehem (Pennsylvania — about 80 miles away) and the Moravian Book Shop, where I bought nothing except one handmade greeting card but left feeling peace and joy.
This is the day I traditionally start my new year. I open a new notebook, take a deep breath, and get back to work. I came downstairs this morning ready for that. I haven’t worked on my novel or the four stories I’m revising since about December 2, when I went shopping for the Angel Gift Tree at church with the recipients of a bible and a NASCAR blanket imagined as my characters. Nor have I done any sustained reading.
This morning I opened Jessica Treadway’s collection Please Come Back to Me and started into the first story. I was getting my second cup of coffee when the thump of the newspaper in the driveway snapped my fiction writer’s thinking muscles into action, for the first time since December 5, when I narrated a scene from my day (a recommended exercise for when you are unable to commit sustained time to a definite project) mostly as an amusement for a friend, whose text message at three in the morning had puzzled me.
The scene above is pretty much the way the moment passed between the time I heard the thump and the time I sat down at the table again, closed the book of short stories, and picked up my purple fiction-writing pen to get the ideas out. Ironically, it was Jessica Treadway’s “Shirley Wants Her Nickel Back,” in its first published version, that led me to respond for the first time to the paper carrier’s self-addressed envelope. (See “Gratuities,” my 2004 essay that struck a chord with many readers who had worked at such hidden, unappreciated jobs.)
I love the Feast of Stephen, when Good King Wenceslas looked out, although I have had to explain the reference to more than one reader who stumbled on it in an early draft of my novel. It’s in dialogue, spoken by a young woman on Christmas Eve who will not live to see that day and the return of her boyfriend from his visit home. I’ve had to alter the passage so that he says “December 26” and she says, “the Feast of Stephen,” and explains that it was the birthday of her grandfather, who was named Stephen.
It’s how one handles the conveying of information in fiction that is intended to enrich a context or educate a reader. The Feast of Stephen was my father’s birthday. My freshman year in college I had a boyfriend named Stephen whose father was also Stephen. He was my first serious boyfriend (that is, it was what my young friends today would call “a relationship” that lasted about eight months and ended badly), and the single fond memory I retain from that almost year with that boyfriend is being at his house with my parents and my sister and his parents and his five siblings on the Feast of Stephen, celebrating my father’s birthday and their saint’s name day. This is quite possibly why I named my character, who never appears in the novel but is only referred to, Stephen.
The Feast of Stephen is known in England as Boxing Day. The origins of the name are obscure (it doesn’t refer to the need to rid the house of all the boxes the Christmas toys came in), but generally has something to do with the custom of merchants or tradesmen or professional people (that is, those not members of the nobility) giving a gratuity to the people who served them and were thus below them in social and economic status.
My Christmas fund money, the money I set aside little by little over the course of a year, is spent. Every single gift I gave this year I gave with joy — there was nothing I did grudgingly because I thought I was obligated. I supported the charities I favor — the Retirement Fund for Religious, the retired Sisters of Mercy who live in Dallas, Pennsylvania, some organizations that work to alleviate hunger. I had neither cash nor my checkbook with me the last day I could order decorative poinsettias for church. I always placed one in memory of my father’s birthday and one for Ron’s aunt’s Christmas Eve birthday and one for Sister Mary Rita, R.S.M., who taught me the Poinsettia Song. I compensated by giving $1 to each of the charities (some of which I had never heard of) recommended by Cake Wrecks creator Jen Yates. And I stuck a five dollar bill, the change from the purchase I made at the Moravian Book Shop, into the Salvation Army bell ringer’s kettle, because he was singing “Oh Holy Night” with as much care as if he were the soloist at a great cathedral.
The Cake Wrecks effort used up about half of what I would have spent on poinsettias. So I actually do have about $13 left in the Christmas fund. I am certainly in a position to find another $7, find the paper carrier’s envelope that I know is in some folder and not thrown out, and still remember her efforts through dark and cold and broken presses that delay her (chances are she has a “real job” she has to get to by maybe 9:00) to deliver my newspaper.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow. And happy new year!
Love it? Hate it? Just want to say hi?
margaretdeangelis [at] gmail [dot] com (replace the bracketed parts with @ and a period) OR
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/silkentent