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There were six inches of snow crunching under heavy boots, leaving foot craters trailing behind and showing the path of the weary traveler. Grey woolen greatcoat with the collar pulled up over near frozen ears, black fedora crowning a cloud white mane of hair and showing that better days were somewhere far behind. Round rimless eyeglasses, wet almost beyond transparent, perched above a strong round nose and in front of pale blue eyes topped with pale bushy eyebrows.

Red cheeks burning with the cold, sat proudly above mounds of cotton beard that framed a small, yet generous mouth. Smoke colored gloves covered hands that reached through the blowing wind, with one occasionally reaching up to touch the brim of the fedora, to save it from whisked away into the blow. Greatcoat flapping open to show a bright red vest with golden buttons that protected a white linen shirt. Onward into the windish ice strode the traveler, step by ice crunching step.

Lights up ahead, coalescing into sleety blobs, squaring into windows with frames. Hatless heads and coatless shirts could be seen through the windows, and the traveler was gladdened by this. It meant warmth, not just of fire, but also of people. Automobile shaped mounds sat scattered in the mercury light covered parking lake of white, and surrounded the green mound of the Silver Diner. It was an aging and comfortable green and silver island that appeared almost ghost-like as the wind swept the blowing snow 'round and 'bout it.

Mounting the old wooden stairs to the door, the traveler noted that not a speck of ice were on any of the treads. Crystals of fresh snowmelt had been sprinkled liberally to protect any visitor from slip sliding their way to a hospital. At the top of the stairs was a mat, proudly proclaiming 'Welcome!' in bright red letters. Hunter green holly springs and their poisonous red berries were imaged on the mat, surrounding the word, reminding stair steppers that it was the season to be... if not jolly, then at least red and green.

The doorknob was a simple latch on the old spring aluminum door, and it was an easy pull, and it too had been painted bright red. A sign on the window of the door also bid "Welcome", and "Watch yer step!". The front door led to a small entry room that was brightly lit, with windows all around to show the inside with the happy diners and the outside with the frozen air.

There were, in that entry room, three gumball machines, though one was filled with peanuts and another was filled with candy baked beans. The third was filled with gumballs large enough to make any parent think twice about the possibility of choking in a small child. There was also a small corkboard stuck on one of the windows that faced toward the parking lot.

On this corkboard were flyers for "Home repair done cheap!" with little pull-tabs with a phone number. There were business cards from near and far, each proclaiming the travels of someone else to somewhere else. Notices of lost dogs, washers for sale, babysitting offers, a church bake sale that was to be held the preceding August, all hung for the inspection of anyone caring to look. There was a coat rack and above it, a hat shelf, all used, filled to the cotton, woolen, synthetic, natural fiber brim with coats and hats and gloves and scarves of all colors and types.

The traveler stood in the warmth, letting his bones get used to it, feeling the glow start from the inside and move to the out, and letting the heat move from the outside to the in. Leaking through the door that led to the dining room, drifted the sound of Bing singing that he's dreaming of a white Christmas. Glasses could be heard clinking and the squeaking scrape of flatware on dishes gave indication that food was indeed served here.

The screen door to the diner opened and a large woman stood holding it. Her blond hair was avalanched on top of her head and the entire yellow snowfall was held in place by two pencils, stabbed through a bun at the back. She wore a typical blue waitresses blouse with the rounded white collar and short sleeves. The blouse barely contained her breasts and the white buttons seemed to smile with the strain as they held back the burgeoning flow of flesh. A patch on her pocket said that her name was Nancy and the smile on her face said she was happy to see him.

"Well, stranger!" she said, smiling and laughing while talking in a loud voice. "You gonna stand there all night and freeze your butt off, or you gonna come in and warm up a bit?"

She held the door open wider and beckoned the traveler inside. "We haven't seen a snow like this in the last twenty years or so." The wind outside howled beyond the window. "You stranded?" she asked.

"Yes." The traveler answered simply. "Just past the highway, and just over the hill."

"Hooo Whee!" she cried out. "Son, there ain't no road out that way." She waved her hand in the general direction the traveler came from. "You must have taken a snow trail to end up over there."

The traveler smiled and said nothing.

"Well, get yourself in here; grab a table or a chair if you can find it." She stepped back from the opening. "We have lots of folks here tonight, must be the weather." And she laughed deep and serious and melodic.

"I don't want to be a bother," the traveler said. "I have help on the way."

"Ha!" Nancy said. "They better be driving a tractor or a snowcat if they think they're gonna be making any headway in this stuff. Might as well get in here and wait. Least you can take the weight off your feet."

"Thank you," said the traveler. "I have walked quite a distance. Perhaps a sit would do me well." He pushed past her and through the door. "Thank you, Nancy." He said.

The interior of the diner was well lit. People sat and talked or looked at him as he entered and took off his hat to brush the snow off its rim. It was an old fashioned diner, from out of the highway's past.

Tiny individual jukeboxes sat on each booth. Each table had old-fashioned steel napkin holders with red catsup and yellow mustard bottles sitting happily on red and white checkered tablecloths. The chairs were white, rounded back shaker style with red Naugahyde seats.

In the center of the diner, a white faux marble counter ran around the kitchen area. Nested around the counter, on the non-kitchen side, an army of stools stood patiently on their one brushed aluminum legs, waiting for seats to fill their round red Naugahyde covers. In truth, a number had been filled already, and there were a few children spinning around and around while their parents patiently talked or sipped their hot drinks or fed their twirling offspring French fries.

The traveler moved down the length and found an empty two-person booth in the corner of the diner. Nancy followed on his heels, and surprised him when he was finally seated.

"So," she said with pad and pencil in hand, "What'll it be? How bout a cup of coffee to start? Tea? Chocolate?"

"Nothing, really," the traveler said. "I'll just wait here until my help arrives."

"You're sitting pretty far back in the place for them to see you," Nancy observed.

"Oh, they'll know I'm here." The man pulled a small red and white case from his coat pocket. A cell phone. "I'll tell them where I'm sitting."

Nancy stood, with her arms crossed, and looked down at the traveler as he sat quietly, still wearing his coat and gloves. "Are you going to take off your coat at least? Your gloves?"

The traveler shook his head negatively. "No. I won't be here very long."

"Well," Nancy said. "Hope springs eternal, I guess." She turned away. "If you change your mind about something to eat or drink, just whistle." She bustled her way thought the diner, stopping and checking on each customer as to how they were doing, and did they need anything. Like a blue clad tugboat, Nancy coasted down the coast of customers and finally docked at the register near the door.

The wind howled fiercely and the snow piled deeply but safe inside the diner, the laughter and talk and clinking and singing continued as if to spite the weather. The traveler sat in the back at his table, looking out the window, waiting and watching.

Wrapped in his silence, he almost didn't notice the tug at his coat hem. In fact, the first time he didn't notice at all. It wasn't until the chubby little fist grabbed the bottom of his coat and gave the dark wool a mighty tug that the white framed face turned to see what was going on.

There stood a child before him. Perhaps five years old, perhaps six, with curly red hair, chubby cheeks and bright blue eyes. She smiled up at him, and despite the wrinkles on his brow, the traveler found himself smiling back.

"And what," he found himself asking, "may I do for you, Donna?"

In a sweet voice sounding like cherub trumpets, she asked, "Are you Santa Claus?"

"What would you say if I said that I am?" he asked.

"I would ask you to tell me a story, Santa," she replied, sounding very serious in her child's voice.

A woman's voice came from behind and above, saying, "I'm so sorry!" The traveler looked up at a pretty face framed in nicely curled red hair that matched the color of Donna's hair. "I hope she's not bothering you." Donna's mother reached down and said, "Come on, Donna. Leave the nice man alone."

"Oh, she's no bother at all, Andrea," the traveler smiled. "In fact, I was just about to tell her a story." He waved his hand at the seat across from his and asked Andrea, "Would you like to hear it, too?"

Donna's mother stood for a brief moment and then asked, "How did you know my name is Andrea?"

"It's because he's Santa, Momma!" Donna volunteered.

The traveler nodded and said with a knowing wink, "That's exactly right, Andrea. I'm Santa Claus. And if I can have your permission, I'd like to tell you and your daughter a story. A winter story."

"Why...," Andrea thought for a moment, looking out the window. She pulled out the seat and sat across from the traveler. "I don't think the weather is going to be getting any better. Why not?"

The traveler whistled, low and long. Nancy steamed over to the table and asked, "Did you change your mind, hon?"

"Yes, Nancy." The traveler looked at the two and said, "I think three big mugs of hot chocolate would do nicely." The two across the table nodded. "With extra chocolate?" He asked Donna, and the little girl nodded furiously. "And extra marshmallows?" He asked Andrea, who smiled broadly and nodded.

"Okey doke!" Nancy said. "Be back in two shakes of a reindeer's tail!"

The traveler unwrapped his bright white scarf from around his neck and folded it gently. He unbuttoned the top two buttons of his coat, revealing a crimson vest below.

"Are you really...," Andrea started, and then stopped. She blushed furiously at the silliness of her question.

"At this time of the year," the traveler asked, smiling pearlish teeth, "Aren't we all?"

Nancy showed up with three large and steaming mugs of thick brown liquid hidden beneath a large heap of marshmallow mountain. "Here you go, kids!" She winked at Andrea. "Extra marshmallows!" And off she steamed to help another customer.

The traveler took a might sip, smacked his lips appreciatively and said "And now the story."

He settled into his seat a bit more, and giving Andrea a wink and giving Donna his most serious of smiles, he said, "This is the story of how the pine trees got their needles." He cleared his throat and began.

"Many years ago, as most good stories begin, the world was warm and covered with water and land and flowers and grass and animals and trees. People had not even started to walk the land and the four seasons that we now know didn't exist. There was only one, and it was summer all year 'round."

"In this time, long, long ago, the animals and plants could all talk to each other. There was one language and peace covered the land because everyone knew what each other needed and everyone was willing to share, from the smallest bug in the land to the tallest tree."

"One day, the story of a change rumbled through the land. It was a story of the air growing cooler, of the world getting ready for its very first winter's sleep. Of course, it wasn't known as winter at that time. Winter had never come to the world before, and all the animals and plants knew was that it was steadily growing cooler.

"Well, at first, there was hardly any change at all. The sun had moved from its place in the sky and had sunk a bit toward the south. The early morning air carried a bit of a chilly nip, but the day was still warm enough for the animals to play outside. There were obvious changes that had begun, though. The animals grew thicker fur. The grass started to hide their seeds in the earth. The leaves on most of the trees had changed from green to all the colors of the rainbow.

"There were some trees, however, that decided that they would keep their green all year long. It was their pride, you see. They were some of the oldest in the forest and therefore had decided that they should display their superiority by keeping their leaves green and youthful all year long.

"These were the pine trees, and they had beautiful full leaves, as straight as a knife blade and as wide as a big man's hand. They were flat and could hold a full cup of water when it rained, and they carried a shine that would flash the summer sun so that it looked like as if a forest of fish where hanging on their limbs.

"Now, the tales of the pride of the pine trees and their refusal to have their leaves turn all different colors rippled through the forest, and all the animals and all the other plants ignored what they heard. It made no difference to them, as they saw the pine trees for what they really were. To the other plants and animals, the pine trees were just a lot of hot air, thinking they were better than everyone else, simply because they were the oldest, or the tallest.

"There was one, though, that could not ignore the stories of the pine trees and their folly. This was the Great North Wind. Before the sun had started to move to the south to keep warm, when it was Summer all year long, the North Wind would blow from its home, and bring cooling relief to the hot summer days.

"But when the world changed, the North Wind found that he had developed severe power and tremendous strength in his bite. For quite a while as the world was just starting to cool, the North Wind had been blowing around the North Pole, freezing water and making snow and putting whitecaps on mountains and creating glaciers. He was very proud of his strength, and knew he was the most powerful one around.

"When the North Wind had heard the rumor of the pine trees, he puffed up like a big balloon and said 'Keep their green, will they?' he huffed and howled. 'We shall see about that!' and down from the North pole he rumbled, determined to give a taste of this new season to the prideful pine trees.

"When the Great North Wind appeared, he brought blowing snow and freezing rain and the leaves on some of the trees blew away like colored feathers in a storm. It was still quite early in winter, so the North Wind's strength was not fully grown.

"The North wind blew as hard as he could, but since it was not quite December, and indeed was only the last few days of November, its breath was not as strong as he had thought, and could only cause the pine trees to barely shiver. The pine trees were indeed keeping their leaves green, and were holding onto them with a tight grip. All this did was anger the North Wind more.

"Don't you worry!" the North Wind roared out, spitting ice cicles. "I'll be back, and when I do, I will take your pretty green leaves and scatter them all across the land!" Then, with a great earth shaking howl, the North Wind retreated to his North Pole home, to wait and build his strength and plan his attack.

The pine trees, though prideful, were not silly trees and began to worry. "What if it's true?" they worried. "What if the North wind can blow all of our beautiful green leaves away?" they fretted. "We would be naked! We would be laughed at!" It was a thought the pine trees did not want to think about, but it was a thought that the pine trees could not help but think about.

Now, in this land, this Summerland that was turning to a Winterland, there lived a curious little animal called a woji."

"A woji?" asked Donna, from below her chocolate mustache.

"It was called a woji, and there has never been an animal like it since. It was small like a small dog, but it was slender, like a weasel. It had fingers instead of toes and its ears were round and not pointed. It had big, slanted yellow eyes, and a long mouth full of teeth. And it was always hungry.

"The woji was a very smart animal, and could tell that when the North Wind came next, the world would turn very cold and frozen and it would be very hard for the woji to find food. And the food that the woji loved to eat the best was fresh and green pine leaves.

That is why the woji was pleased that the pine trees were going to keep their leaves green and that is why the woji was very frightened by the Great North Wind. If the North Wind succeeded in blowing all the leaves away, then what would the woji eat? How would it live? And besides having no food, the woji did not like the idea of cold. It did not like the idea of cold at all.

And so, in those last few days of November, the woji thought and thought hard. It thought and thought and thought. Then it rested and thought some more. And then one day, one of the last sunny days that also happened to be the last day of November, the woji came up with an idea.

He approached one of the pine trees and told it of his idea. Well, the pine tree just laughed. "Preposterous!" it bellowed. "Ridiculous!" it scoffed. "It would never work!" it mocked.

The woji was not put off. The woji knew that the idea was a good one, as good an idea as an idea can get and that all that was needed was an open and wise ear to listen.

So the woji went to the next pine tree, who also laughed at the idea. "Ridiculous! Preposterous! It would never work."

On and on, from pine tree to pine tree the woji went, always hearing the same thing. "Ridiculous! Preposterous!"

The world was turning cold now. The Great North Wind was getting closer and some of the leaves had started to drop and blow away. Tiny flakes of snow fell and blanketed the land in a think white sheet that melted as the day warmed. All who lived in and on the land knew that it wouldn't be too terribly soon before the snow would not melt, and the leaves would all blow away. They knew it as surely as they could feel the cool air in the morning and the chill in their bones.

Further and further the woji traveled, telling every pine tree it found the idea it had. The further north and the colder the world became, the less and less the pine trees laughed, but still none would even listen to the idea. Snow had started to pile up around the bases of some of the trees and a few of them had already lost some of their leaves, but still the pine trees held onto their belief that they were, somehow special. Somehow, they would keep their leaves and keep those leaves green.

The woji was beginning to become discouraged, and almost gave up. It decided to give it one last try, but rather than talk to each and every tree in the pine forest, it would go straight to the oldest and wisest pine tree there was. Now, being the oldest and wisest it was also possible that it was also the most proud, so the woji approached most carefully.

"Oh, great pine, oldest and wisest of all the trees," the woji said, "I have an idea of how you can keep your green leaves all the year round. No matter how cold, no matter how fierce and strong the North Wind may blow, your leaves would stay on your branches and stay green."

The pine tree king pondered and muttered and hummed. It too, had heard the threat of the Great North Wind, and though it was as vain and proud as the other trees, it was also aware that pride did not equal wisdom, and sometimes pride must give way to wisdom in order for life to continue. Besides, the pine tree king had already seen some of the other pine trees lose some of their leaves, and did not want to join them.

"Tell me, little woji," said the tree king, "If I agree to this idea you have, what is it that you will get from it? I have heard of you, little woji, and I know that you never do anything for free."

And it was true. The woji was a very crafty animal. There were some animals that would not even speak to it, because they simply did not trust what the woji would do next. The woji was rather famous, you see, for doing jokes at the other animal's expense. That is how the skunk got her strip, the giraffe got his long neck and the leopard got her spots. All were because of one joke or another that the woji had played.

Even so, this was not a time for jokes, and the woji became very serious. The woji told the pine tree king the idea that had popped into it's head. The woji spoke a very long time, from when the shadows were almost straight up and down until they were stretched far out to the side.

After the woji had explained the idea, the pine tree king once again pondered and hummed and muttered. While the pine tree king pondered, a cold wind blew hard and the tree and the woji both shivered in the growing cold. This may have helped the pine tree king make up his mind. We may never know.

"How long will it take you?" asked the tree king, to the shock and amazement of the other pine trees in the forest. The other pine trees protested, admonishing their king and flatly refusing to take part in such a foolish plan. The pine tree king silenced all the other pine trees, saying he would be the first and therefore, if anyone looked foolish, it would be he and he alone.

"Your majesty," said the woji, "it will take me hardly anytime at all. And all I ask is that, when I am done, you shelter me with your branches, and you allow me to eat, just a few mind you, of your green and tender leaves."

"Very well," the pine tree king said, sounding dubious and suspicious. Another, colder blast of wind blew through and the pine tree kings shivered where he stood. "Can you start now?"

"Right away, your majesty!" the woji said, jumping up and clapping his hands. "Right away!"

So, for the next few days the woji worked. It was the hardest work it had ever done, and at night, the woji would collapse, exhausted and fall into a deep sleep, only to wake the next morning and start again.

The work took three days, and each day was growing colder than the one before it. When all of the work was done, the woji stepped back to admire what had been done. The other pine trees laughed at such a sight, but the woji simply smiled and nodded, satisfied with what it was seeing.

"Now!" the woji cried out. "Now, Great North Wind! I dare you to do your worst! Blow and howl and scream and freeze and snow all you want. I will be safe and snug and warm, and there is nothing you can do about it!"

Well, now, this did not make the Great North Wind very happy, as you can imagine. Down from the North Pole he blew, freezing everything in his path. Snow covered the land in greath heaping mounds. The lakes and rivers froze over, freezing fish in mid-swim. The animals all moved south, running hard to get away from the cold. Some ran so far that they ended up in far away countries, never to be seen here again.

The North wind blew so hard and so strongly that all of the trees in the forest lost their leaves and they shivered in the cold, naked and frozen. All trees but one, that is. Surrounded by bare bark and naked limbs, the pine tree king stood, green and glorious.

What the woji had offered to the Tree King was really very simple. He would take each and every leaf on each and every branch and roll them into little needles. Then using the woji's own fur, each leaf would be sewn, like a button, to its place on the branch. That would keep them safe and secure no matter how hard the wind blew and no matter how cold it would get.

And so it was, and so it happened. The Great North Wind blew and blew and howled and screamed and froze and snowed, but the greatest screams and the loudest howls were from his own frustration. Hidden deep and snuggly secure in the green clothed branches of the pine tree king, the woji slept with a smile on its face, with its belly full of fresh green pine needles.

"And that," the traveler said, "is why pine trees have needles instead of leaves."

Donna was sleeping in her mother's arms, her belly full of warm chocolate and her mind filled with dreams of Christmas. Andrea looked up from her sleeping daughter and said, "That was a wonderful story. Where did you hear it?"

Nancy appeared at the table and said, "Well, folks, look like the storm has broken and the skies are clear again." She looked over at the traveler and said, "The chocolates are on the house. You spin a good tale." She looked out the window, and her eyes grew wide.

In a quiet voice, not quite a whisper, but as close as she could get, Nancy asked, "Is that your ride?" She nodded to a scene outside the window.

The traveler followed her nod and stood. He wrapped the snow-white scarf around his neck, and donned his hat once again. "Yes, Nancy. That is my ride. I thank you for your hospitality, and now I must be leaving. I have a long way to go and a short time to get there."

The traveler moved out from the tiny booth and strode to the door, stopping and turning before he opened it. "By the Grace of God, and however you believe, may you all be at peace in this season, and may you all find the love and joy that you deserve. These are the gifts you can give yourselves, and your loved ones. A very Merry Christmas to all, and to all," he winked, "a good night!" Then he turned and disappeared into the night.

Andrea, mouth gaping, turned to Nancy and asked in a hushed voice, "You don't think he really is... you know?"

Nancy shrugged and smiled. "Who knows?" she said. "I've seen a number of strange folks come through here, so it wouldn't surprise me one little bit."

Outside, a tiny sleigh, pulled by what looked like reindeer waited for the traveler to mount his seat. Once he was seat-belted in, he waved one gloved hand at the patrons looking out the window of the Silver Diner, pulled a whip from the side of the bench seat, and smartly cracked it. With a jerk, the reindeer, sleigh and rider started down the road.

Nancy wiped down the table, and noticed that the traveler had left a tip. A crisp twenty dollar bill, with the words, "Merry Christmas!" written on it. There was also a signature: "S.C."

"Nope," Nancy said, placing the bill in the pocket of her blouse, "I wouldn't be surprised at all."

In eight hours, I shall be outside, with my eyes closed, listening. There will be, as there has for the last fifty-one years, the small sound of a sleigh, quietly whooshing through the sky. There will also be, as I'm quite sure there has always been, the ethereal blessing of good tidings falling from the heavens on all who are alive, and quite possibly on some who aren't.

May your Holiday, in whatever form it may take, be warm, safe and wonderful. May your families be around you, in spirit or in flesh, and may you take comfort in knowing that you are loved and cherished.

You are all my family. - StoryTeller.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-24 10:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
*makes sure some cider and cookies are set by the best seat of the fire for the Storyteller*

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-25 12:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
*happy sigh*

Love you, dear lil' brother mine. So very much. Thank you for the story. I feel much the readier for Christmas now. *smile*

((((( hot chocolate with extra marshmallows HUGS ))))))

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-25 12:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ah, my dear lil sis... I cannot, and I will not even try to tell you how much you being in my world means to me. You are one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. That and a Red Mars book that came today in the mail. But really, you come up on top.

You know, it's been a teary eyed day for me, but I seem to have more and more of those recently. Maybe I'm just getting sentimental in my old age.

You are welcome, and you are thanked, and you are blessed, darlin' Chris. I love you so much my heart breaks and grows bigger.

Happy Celebration of your lord, dear!

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-25 02:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
*smiling and gazing at her dear bro*

*happiest of sighs*

Thank you, dear heart. Thank you.

(((( huuuuuuuuuuuug )))) <---- forever

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-25 04:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you for sharing this, and of you. I am glad to be growing to know you.

*listening for the faint sleigh bells*

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-25 05:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
We then, are doubly blessed, you and I. May our sharing never cease, may our joy do nothing but increase. May all our times be good, and our troubles understood and may the friendship, the love and the family that has sprouted this very year continue to grow and to prosper. Many blessings on your and yours, and may Christmas bells ring in your heart forever more.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-25 05:53 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, what a wonderful, wonderful story!!


Merry Christmas, Uncle Chet!

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-25 06:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You are most welcome, little one. Merry Christmas, Niece Amber!

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-25 06:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I do so love this story...Merry Christmas Fool of my heart, thank you for my Christmas bedtime story. It was just what I needed.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-25 06:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think it was the very first story I ever told you, way back when. Merry Christmas Fitz of my soul. You are very welcome.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-12-25 02:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It was one of the early ones! You first told me stories like the Flying Dutchman and some others you made up as you told them. But this was the first Christmas Story you ever told me!


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