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Tinsel Tales: Heartwarming holiday stories for the jolliest time of year

Sometimes a little escapism is necessary. 

Like, say, after nearly two years of a global pandemic, an increasingly polarized political climate, and the worst inflation Canada has seen in years. (Geez, Debbie Downer over here …) 

The holidays have always been a time to share stories with those we love, and here at Pique, we’ve made it a yearly tradition to curate and publish a bevvy of Yuletide yarns from some of our favourite local writers. 

This year is no different, and we’ve got a trio of tinsel-themed tales for you to enjoy around the fire, from Katherine Fawcett’s whimsical (and appetite-whetting) fairy tale, to a rare interview with the big man in red himself, courtesy of the lovable grinch, G.D. Maxwell. 

So raise a cup of nog or something stronger as we wish you and yours the very best the holidays have to offer (hey, that sorta rhymes!). 

- Brandon Barrett

 

The feast

By Katherine Fawcett

My dear child, listen carefully to your old grandmother. For if you insist on preparing The Feast, then this, you must obey.

First, watch the edges of the kitchen windowpane. When frost on the glass forms patterns of musical notes from your favourite holiday carol, the time has come to gather ingredients. 

Pull the bluest-blue mittens over your hands. Pull your red winter cap low on your forehead. Wrap a green scarf three times ‘round your throat. Place a berry into your coat pocket for good luck. Tie the laces of your boots tightly, throw an empty satchel over your left shoulder. Your right hand must be free to wave and snap and pick up spiders. 

Walk to the shore of the frozen lake. Listen for the echo of cracking ice. When you hear a split that sounds like the wail of a whale, run, run, to the broken-hearted fortune-teller’s cottage at the edge of the woods. Tell her you have an urgent message from her lover. He’s been a hundred years gone, and she will cry out and throw her crystal ball towards you. 

Duck. 

The magical glass orb will hit the doorframe and smash into ten thousand pieces. Carefully pick up the largest shard, wrap it in red ribbon and place it in the satchel. 

Leave quickly, before the fortune-teller gets up off the floor, wipes away her tears and sees what you have taken. 

Run to the snowman in the rich man’s field. Use the shard of broken crystal to slice open his frozen chest. When the midwinter sunbeam hits the snowman’s cold heart, count slowly backwards from thirteen. When you get to one, he will shed his layer of packed snow, his broom will become a spear, and he will kill the finest wild turkey for you. Then he will pluck its feathers as if they were petals from a poinsettia and wrap the naked bird in the rich man’s wife’s silken blouse. Why did the snowman have the rich’s man’s wife’s silken blouse? Why, that’s a story for another time, my dear. 

Place the bird inside your satchel. 

Only then will the snowman-turned-huntsman give you a ticket to the Plum Palace, where you will find everything else you need to prepare The Feast. 

Hold tight to the ticket. It’s the only one that exists, and you’ll need it to enter.  

To reach the Plum Palace, you must look for the empty silver sleigh, 

which is drawn by a white wolf, 

who is chasing an Arctic hare, 

who is after a tiny field mouse. 

When the field mouse runs up the leg of your pants and steals the ticket from your cold fingers, don’t cry out, for I cannot help you. I told you to hold tight, child, did I not? 

Follow the field mouse, but do not rely on her tracks, for they are invisible. Rather, keep your eye on the tiny creature, who is a poet and a dancer, and knows the way by heart. 

When you reach the outer gate of Plum Palace, a beautiful enchantress carrying a burgundy fox in a white, wire cage will invite you away with her. 

She will tell you that you need not bother with the spices and liqueurs and fruits and nuts from the Plum Palace. She will tell you she has all that and more at her home on the mountaintop.  

Do not trust the enchantress.  

She does not love you. 

Give her a tartlet spiced with ground thorns, and when her eyes are watering blind from the heat, open the door of the fox cage. The grateful creature will strike a bargain with the field mouse, who will give back your ticket in exchange for her life.

Once inside the Plum Palace, you must climb twenty-four storeys to the Tower of Ingredients. On the twelfth storey, where up is down and in is out, stop and open the satchel. 

If the Christmas turkey is still dead, carry on.   

If the Christmas turkey is alive, throw him off the balcony. Perhaps he will know how to fly, although none of his family can. 

If the Christmas turkey is not inside, turn around and retrace your steps, for you will have to replace it with a cured ham. 

When you finally reach the top, you will find: 

sugary yams and wrinkled pecans, 

freshly baked rolls as big as your hands.  

Potatoes for roasting, walnuts for toasting, 

Brussels sprouts, carrots and cranberry jam. 

Molasses and peppermint, rosemary, sage,

brandy that’s taken three decades to age. 

Gingerbread, marshmallows, chocolate squares,

apple croissants and cinnamon pears.  

Take what you need, but 

Not. 

One. 

Ounce. 

More. 

You may slide down the banister to exit the Plum Palace. Place the groceries inside a sled pulled by wildcats. They have a sense of direction like no other and will find their way home through a forest of mistletoe using only their whiskers.  

When you reach the first clearing, a lost soldier with a frosted beard will beg for a ride home. Offer him a spot in the sled beside the jar of sweet custard. He has given much and walked far enough.  

In the second clearing, a black deer tells you there are no more juniper bushes for the juniper berries to grow on. She starts crying, and her tears cut crevices in the snowfield. You must go quickly before the wildcats fall into the cracks. But first, promise the deer that you will return in spring and plant juniper bushes. Promise, and don’t break your promise.

In the third clearing, a white spirit bear asks you to pray for his forest. Fold your hands, close your eyes, pray until the snowflakes stop in midair, turn into kisses, and melt clean away. Then, leave without a trace and sing until you reach your own front door.   

Arrive home before the hungry guests knock the door-knocker. 

Unpack the sled, and give the wildcats salmon sandwiches with the crusts removed. Hide the crystal shard in the woodpile. Don’t worry about your boots. 

Unwrap the wild turkey immediately. Bathe him in salt water and fresh herbs and tuck him into a silver pan. With knives and pots, cutting boards and candy canes, with butter and pepper, fire and forks, we’ll fix The Feast together. 

And when we are all seated at the long table for The Feast, your parents will be so proud, and your sister so hungry, and the guests so delighted, there will be no doubt that Grandfather and I will be asked to babysit you again. 

And again. 

And again. 

 

Katherine Fawcett is a Squamish-based author. Her most recent book, The Swan Suit, was a finalist for the ReLit award. “The Feast” was adapted from a play Fawcett wrote for Once Upon A Cold Snap, a recent stage production by Squamish’s Between Shifts Theatre. 

Fruitcake

By Brandon Barrett

Sometimes, if she tries really hard, Natalie can still remember what her mom’s fruitcake tastes like.

It’s not an altogether pleasant memory—her mother never was much of a baker—but comforting just the same, in the way that a lot of the simple pleasures of childhood seem outsized and meaningful years later. It was a Christmas staple in her home, and Natalie spent many a winter’s night wrapping thick slices in tinfoil to send off to distant relatives who probably cringed when they saw the Whistler mailing address.

Oh great, more fruitcake.

Natalie was abruptly snapped out of her nostalgic haze when a woman dripping in lavish furs and expensive jewelry slid up to the counter, a look of distress spread across her perfectly put-together face.

“Does this godforsaken hotel have Wi-Fi or am I going to be forced to watch the television?” she asked, furiously fingering her smartphone.

“Well yes, ma’am, there is complimentary wireless service throughout the hotel. The network name and password should be on your key card.”

“Don’t you think I already tried that?” she barked.

“No, I wasn’t implying that, ma’am. Just trying to help.”

“Oh.” A tense pause. “Forgot to put the password in all caps. These glasses, I can barely see,” she said, pointing to her $800 Cartier frames. “My optometrist will be hearing about this, you can rest assured.”

“Have yourself a commercially fulfilling Non-Denominational Winter Holiday!” Natalie quipped after the woman had already rushed off, her voice registering a-not-so faint hint of sarcasm.

She’ll do just fine, Natalie thought, sharing a knowing glance with Mateo, her co-worker and fellow conspirator. Mateo was an impossibly outgoing Italian transplant, who, like so many in Whistler’s working class, was trying to scrape together enough money to stay in town for another ski season. On the surface, Mateo was the ideal concierge; all charm and hair wax, schmoozing his way into the hearts and wallets of even the most demanding guests. But behind the cheery façade, he could be vicious, never missing a chance to cut down a difficult customer the second they are out of earshot. It was this chameleonic quality that Natalie found so appealing, the ability to fit into—and exploit—any social situation. It also made him the ideal partner in crime.

Since The Great War on Christmas, which we’re legally obligated to tell you was sponsored by Chrysler, Natalie had grown increasingly alienated by the relentless consumerism of the holidays. Not that Christmas was ever really free from the grips of commercialism, but at least it came with generations of tradition and warm fuzzies behind it.

For Natalie, the joy of Christmas was never about the presents, but the rare chance to get all the people she loved together in one room, drunk and happy and free from the stress of everyday life. Those Christmas mornings are distant memories now, just like her mother’s fruitcake. Now her mom relies on the government-approved, Betty Crocker raisin-bread recipe for her holiday baking, the green and red jellies that populated her old loaf now long since banned. Instead of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, families slopped up Quaker Oats’ Winter Gruel in front of the warm glow of the FireLog Channel.

There was no more sitting on Santa’s lap either. Instead, wide-eyed kids waited hours in line to see Icy the Inclusive Snowflake, their gift wishlists a mere formality thanks to the SweetDreams Brainwave Reader that scours children’s subconscious while they sleep to figure out what presents they really want before they even know it themselves.

It was enough to make Natalie want to hide in a dark corner until January with a big bottle of bourbon. But here she was, just another cog in the machine, a small part of the system she so despised. She kept reminding herself of this fact whenever a tinge of guilt would spring up before the heists. Besides, she figured they were doing these people a favour, freeing them from the endless pursuit of more stuff they didn’t need.

They started small, her and Mateo cherry-picking the wealthiest hotel guests, the ones who were less likely to notice a gift or two missing from under the hologram tree. Then they got more brazen, lifting cash, jewellery and credit cards. Natalie was certain they would get caught eventually, but Mateo was determined to keep the operation going. “We’ll just pay off more security guards,” he reassured her. “Everybody’s got a price.”

Natalie wondered what her price was as she slowly crept her way down the hallway, Mateo parked near the elevators as lookout. Here she was, Room 1412. She took a long, stilted breath before knocking on the door. No answer. She shot a nervous glance Mateo’s way, who wordlessly urged her along. She slid the keycard in, turned the handle and stepped inside. Jesus, she thought. Look at all this crap.

Boxes upon boxes of neatly wrapped gifts stacked in one corner. She quietly scurried across the room to get a better look before systematically loading the heaviest boxes onto a trolley Mateo had borrowed from the valets. Natalie knew they had hit the mother lode.

Just then, she heard the whir of a blowdryer coming from the washroom. She wasn’t alone. Friggin’ Mateo. He had called ahead to make sure Mrs. Worthington wasn’t in her room, but obviously didn’t account for the fact she was in the shower. It was these kinds of sloppy mistakes that would land them in jail.

Natalie was scrambling to put the boxes back where she found them when the bathroom door swung out, and Mrs. Worthington emerged in a bathrobe, Egyptian-cotton towel wrapped around her head. Natalie froze.

“Oh, it’s you,” the woman said. “Lil’ Miss Wi-Fi. What are you doing here?”

“My apologies, ma’am. I thought you were at the spa.” Natalie was shaking like a leaf. “I just, uh, wanted to drop off this complimentary bottle of champagne for the whole mix-up earlier.” 

“Don’t bother. I don’t drink,” Mrs. Worthington said, snatching the bottle from Natalie’s hands. “So, tell me: Does management drop off a bottle of Veuve Cliquot every time a guest forgets the Wi-Fi password? Doesn’t seem like a very sound business model.”

“Well, um, ma’am, I wasn’t satisfied with the level of customer serv—”

“Knock it off. You’re ugly when you lie; the lines in your forehead go all squiggly. It’s not a good look.”

Natalie squirmed, reaching for any excuse that could explain why she had barged into a guest’s room without permission. She briefly considered jumping out the window.

“You’re here to rob me, aren’t you?” Mrs. Worthington asked. “I read about this hotel. Poor, rich saps like me get bamboozled every year during the holidays. Gotta say, didn’t expect the criminal mastermind to be a woman. You go, girl.”

Natalie stood there, frozen in place, a tableau of shame. She tried to speak, but all that came out was a barely audible squeak.

“Here, you want the stuff? You can have it. I don’t need it. Lord knows my ungrateful little shit of a kid doesn’t need a virtual-reality player. He has trouble enough with actual reality.” Mrs. Worthington unravelled the towel, revealing a beautiful tangle of wavy, brown hair.

“You know, I thought this trip would bring us closer. My husband, I mean. He works at this big-wig hedge fund, manages more money than he knows what to do with. But you think he could manage a marriage? Puh-lease. He’d rather get drunk with a bunch of old guys in suits than spend a minute with his damn wife.”

Not knowing what else to do, Natalie sat down on the edge of the bed, champagne still in hand.

“You gonna pop that bottle or just stare at it?” the woman asked. “I could go for a drink. Don’t tell my yoga teacher.” Natalie warily opened the bottle and filled up two plastic cups of bubbly. Mrs. Worthington downed hers in one gulp and thrust her arm out for a refill.

“And my kid, don’t get me started on him. Chase is 15, and I’d be lying if I told you I’d ever seen him crack open a book. He spends all his time living in a fantasy world. Gawking at his phone, playing some mind-numbing video game. It’s all bells and whistles with these kids. No depth of emotion. You know what he got me for Winter Holiday last year? An egg beater! What the hell is that? We have a freakin’ maid, I don’t bake!”

Natalie took a nervous gulp of champagne, unsure of where this was headed.

“But what about you, huh? Come in here to rob me blind, you’re no better than the rest of em.” Natalie began mounting a feeble protest, and was interrupted. “You know this stuff isn’t gonna make you happy, right? No matter what the damn government tells you, accumulating more crap doesn’t make a lick of difference. Look at me! I spend $500 a week on therapy alone. But you know all this, you’re not a dumb girl.”

“I don’t feel too smart at the moment,” Natalie weakly replied.

“Well, you did a stupid thing, a very stupid thing. That doesn’t make you dumb, it makes you human.”

A silence passed between them that felt longer than it probably was.

“Let me ask you, what do you love to do? What moves you? Surely it’s not working at this damn hotel.”

Natalie hesitated a moment, uncertain if she should open herself up to a woman who she just tried to steal thousands of dollars in valuables from.

“Well, I’m actually a musician,’ she replied. “I play bass for this hardcore band called The Fantastic Damage. I only work here to pay the bills, you know? And studio time ain’t cheap.”

“Is that like, punk music? With all the shouting and bad haircuts?” 

Natalie let out her first laugh in a long while. “Yeah, pretty much. I had my hair dyed green last year until the feds caught me. They said I looked too much like an elf.” Mrs. Worthington let out a snort, spilling champagne onto the duvet. “Guess we’ll have to get housekeeping in here now, won’t we?”

Natalie smiled back. 

“I’ll tell you what, Miss Wi-Fi. I’m going to give you a choice: I can call the cops right now and watch them lock you up and throw away the key. Or I can give you an ultimatum: You quit this dead-end job of yours and commit yourself fully to your music. I mean, really commit. Life’s too damn short not to. And if I walk back into this hotel this time next year and you’re still rotting away behind that counter, well the police are gonna be the first phone call I make.”

Natalie’s eyes welled. She didn’t know what to say.

“Why would you do this for me?” she asked.

“I guess, I’m just filled with the spirit of another Non-Denominational Winter Holiday... So, have we got ourselves a deal?”

“You betcha. I can’t thank you enough.” They shook hands. Natalie quickly started making her way out the door for fear Mrs. Worthington would change her mind.

“Hey, Wi-Fi! Hold up.” Natalie’s chest tightened. She could hear the woman rummaging through her bag. “Here, take this.” The woman dropped a Tupperware container into her hand. “It’s fruitcake. Real fruitcake, with the jellies and everything. My maid’s secret recipe.” She put her finger to her mouth in a conspiratorial gesture.

Natalie stared at the door to Room 1412 for longer than she should have, bewildered at what just happened. She walked home in the cold, absentmindedly, running the past 10 minutes through her head on repeat. When she got home, she put the fruitcake in the fridge, gave her mom a big hug and flipped on the FireLog Channel.

 

This story originally ran as one of Pique’s 2017 holiday stories.

Brandon Barrett is a playwright, performer, theatre producer and award-winning reporter and features editor for Pique Newsmagazine. He detests fruitcake. 

 

North Pole, Schmorth Pole

By G.D. Maxwell 

Cape Columbia, Ellesmere Island, Qikiqtaaluk Region, Nunavut:

Baby it’s cold outside. I’m freezing my keister off at the northernmost point in Canada, at the entrance to the busiest toy factory at the busiest time of the year. Relocated earlier this year, Santa’s Workshop—or as the elves say, Santa’s Sweatshop—hums with frantic activity. Nonetheless, the jolly man himself has agreed to a brief interview, emphasis on brief.

Upon entering the Workshop, one is immediately overwhelmed at the cacophony of construction, punctuated by the high-pitched cursing of the elves. Not wanting to waste time, I take a pass on the proffered milk and cookies and get right down to business.

 

Pique Newsmagazine: “Hey Santa. What’s with Cape Columbia? What happened to the North Pole?”

 

Santa Claus: “Elves. COVID. Even though Canada laid claim to the North Pole in 1925, the government refused to process CERB claims the elves submitted when COVID shut us down in 2020. It was either move the shop to officially recognized Canada or lose the elves. They’ve been demanding little devils since joining the Teamsters.”

 

Pique: “Wow. I’m surprised they came back to work at all.” 

 

SC: “They didn’t want to but I hit ‘em with their own collective bargaining agreement. It was either that or deportation. None of them are citizens and most are pretty low on the priority list as refugees.”

 

Pique: “Got it. So, Santa—you don’t mind if I call you Santa? I’m happy to call you Saint Nick... or whatever.” 

 

SC: “Ha, good one. Santa hasn’t been a saint since the fourth century when the original Saint Nicholas died.”

 

Pique: “Original?” 

 

SC: “What, you think I’m 1,800 years old? Santas come and Santas go. Kind of like the Knights Templar guarding the Holy Grail. I’m—let me see—I can’t remember, but maybe the 150th Santa.”

 

Pique: “Wow! I had no idea. How’d you end up with the job?”

 

SC: “How to you think? My father was Santa, his father was Santa, etc., etc., and so on back to Saint Nick. Not like I had a choice. The first son born into this family pretty well knows what’s in store for him. I wanted to be a professional golfer, live somewhere warm. But nooooooo. I had to be Santa. My little brother is living it up in the Med and I’m up here with a bunch of elves making toys.” 

 

Pique: “I’m surprised there hasn’t been any concerted effort to open up the job for, well, women. After all those centuries of men running things ...”  

 

SC: “Ho, ho, ho. Good one. I’ve tried to get Mrs. Claus more involved over the years but she’s way too kind to the elves. If she were running the show, nothing would get built. Besides, she’s not keen on flying over the holidays.”

Pique: “Not really what I was getting at but… moving on. So, how do you like Canada, eh?”

 

SC: “No offence but it sucks.” 

 

Pique: “Sucks?”

 

SC: “Well, more accurately, melts. This workshop was OK on a kilometres-thick ice sheet at the North Pole, but building on permafrost is a pain where Santa sits. With global warming melting things, we’re going to be climbing through the windows to get in and out in a couple of years.”

 

Pique: “I can see how that might be a problem. But I’m wondering if you’ve got bigger problems.”

 

SC: “Like?”

 

Pique: “Like, on the one hand, the whole exclusivity-of-Christmas-in-a-world-more-and-more-attuned-to-recognizing-diversity thing. And on the other hand, the religious movement that considers you a creation of Coca-Cola that has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus and the true meaning of Christmas.”

 

SC: Birth of Jesus? He wasn’t born anywhere near Dec. 25th! And as far as Jesus and Christmas goes, you ever see Jesus ringing a bell outside a department store for charity? Ever see little kids lined up to sit on the lap of Jesus’ helpers to tell them what they wanted for Christmas? And don’t get me started on diversity. Look at this. [Fumbles in his pocket and pulls out a paper] Here’s a picture of Santa riding a camel in the Middle East with nary a Christian in sight! I am the true meaning of Christmas.”

 

Pique: “Weird picture, all right. But moving on, what are the hot toys this Christmas?”

 

SC: “Anything without a microchip. You want something with a microchip, you’d better be asking the Easter Bunny. Between suppliers not having read we’d moved the factory and the supply chain mess, the byword this Christmas is lowered expectations. All the Santa’s helpers are pushing wooden toys this year. Wood we got. Of course, the bloody elves complain about splinters all the time. If it’s not one grievance, it’s another.”

 

Pique: [Noticing a matronly woman dressed in red, carrying a tray enter the shop] “Mrs. Claus, I presume.”

 

Mrs. Claus: “Oh yes. I thought you two might like some milk and cookies.”

 

SC: “Milk and cookies? Good grief, darling, I’m 200 pounds overweight, stressed so much my face looks like an extension of my red suit, trying to get ready for an all-night journey... Are you trying to kill me?”

 

Pique: “Milk and cookies? You bet. Thanks.”

 

SC: “Let’s wrap this up. I’ve got toys to finish, reindeer to feed, elves to keep from stealing me blind and a whole bunch of kids who thought they were getting new electronic toys who aren’t going to be very happy on Christmas morning.”

 

Pique: “Gotcha. Do you have any concerns this year about travelling all over the world, what with the various COVID-related travel restrictions forbidding people who’ve been in certain countries from entering other countries?”

 

SC: “Do you seriously think there’s a politician in the world who wants to explain to his or her family or potential voters that he or she has barred Santa from dropping off hoped-for toys?”

 

Pique: “Um... Kim Jong-un?”

 

SC: “Are you joking? You should see his letter to me. Don’t know how he expects me to cobble together world domination, the pudgy little pipsqueak.”

 

Pique: “Well, it’s been an eye-opener, Santa. From movin’ to Canada to all the hassles you have to put up with. Do you have any final message for our readers?”

 

SC: ‘Ho, ho, ho... and try not to be disappointed this year.” 

 

G.D. Maxwell started writing a column in Pique 26 years ago. Some people still don’t think he’s a real person.