CHAPTER 1: THE FIRE
As the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yet, it can also be the most terrible time of the year. There's just something about the Christmas season which magnifies both joys and sorrows.
The previous December had been one of true uninterrupted delight, despite the news of South Carolina's secession from the union. Upon reading that somewhat disturbing piece of news in the newspaper, Henry had smiled a sort-of half-way smile and said, “They'll learn. They'll soon come back, begging to be let back in.” He had just sent his patriotic poem “Paul Revere's Ride" into the Atlantic Monthly and had been hoping that its publication might serve to remind the nation of its start and in doing so, help to bring about unity.
Soon the news of South Carolina's secession had been forgotten and Christmas cheer was in full swing. In addition to the tree trimming, the cookie baking, and the present wrapping, there were those horse-drawn sleigh rides through the countryside to view the lighted houses and the Christmas trees which might be seen through open windows. He had driven the horse with his wife and five children behind in the huge sleigh, all bundled up in their heavy coats and scarfs and woolen caps, talking, laughing and singing the beautiful carols of Christmas, led by his wife, Fanny. There was little Edith, 7 years old, Alice Mary who was 10, Francis, who was 13, Ernest, who had just turned 15, and Charles, the eldest, now 16. They had glided along under starry skies, between snow-laden pines and though blankets of snow to the sound of sleigh bells and the occasional ringing of church bells. As they passed by the icebound Charles River, they could see the multicolored lights from many gelatin cup lamps reflected in the ice, and even from those houses yet unlit for Christmas shone the yellow light of the kerosene lamps whose reflection seemed like so many Christmas candles. Whenever they came upon an especially beautifully lighted house or saw a beautifully decorated tree, either in a yard or through an unshaded window, they would yell out: “Wow, look at that one!”
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(Source: Flickr: Roger W.[https://www.flikr.com/photos/24736216@N07/4864248263])
He recalled one of those rides in particular when they rode by one particular house which had a large set of crudely carved and painted nativity figures on the lawn, clearly visible from the glow of the nearby brilliant gas lighted street lamps. Seeing the figures reflected in the ice of the river, little Edith had asked, “What are these people and why are they looking up at us from the ice?”
Fanny, the mother, had smiled and said, “They are looking up because you are looking at the reflection in the ice. Who they are is that they are the Holy family of the nativity.”
“But who are they and what's a 'tivity?” asked little Edith, not having heard the whole word.
“They are Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus.” Fanny had replied. “The nativity is a term we use to refer to His birth because He was born to bring peace to the earth.”
“Oh, I see—kinda like Saint Nicholas.”
“Kinda.” And that was all that had been said.
Then, as they drove under a clump of trees, the bare branches above them would release a shower of sparkling snow and the children would giggle with delight as the snow would hit them in various parts of their bodies. It soon became a game to see who would get hit where next.
“I bet the next one hits you right on the head.”
“No, it's gonna hit you in the nose.”
“Whoops! You were both wrong. It hit Edith on the chest.”
But this year was to be different. There would be no sleigh rides this year—No carol singing and no giggles. This December, 1861, as he sat in his study staring blankly out the window at the beautifully lighted tree his children had decorated, Henry was filled with a strange sense of ambivalence.
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