Stories for the fireside 

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The tradition of storytelling is stronger at Christmas time than almost any other time of the year. Whether stories are read aloud to family and friends, or alone by the fire with a hot cup of cocoa, it's an activity all cherish during the holidays. In the spirit of sharing, enjoy these stories written by Pique writers for you.

Happy holidays from all of us to all of you.

Rubber Heart

By Dan Falloon

Winter is my favourite season — and always had been. It began when I was just a young boy finding my feet with blades underneath them on the dark rinks of Winnipeg. It took me long enough to harness my stride, discovering just the right cadence to slit the frozen water with my skates. Once I did, I spent hours out there trying to replicate the feats of local hero Billy Mosienko, who once scored an astonishing three times in 21 seconds for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1952.

The closest I came was one Christmas Day when I was 13, where, using my brand-new stick, I'd tapped one past the goalie from in close, and scored immediately afterward on a breakaway. Moe Patrick set me up once again, but I zinged the puck off the crossbar. Two chunks of prized rubber with Chicago's famous crossed tomahawks went flying — one banking off the skate shack and into a snowbank. I never recovered that half even after digging through the bank for a good 15 minutes after the game. The other chunk went flying into the gift bag of a girl walking by — me sheepishly asking for it back was my first introduction to a stunned but compliant Julia. I later found out she lived just down the street from the rink, so it became less and less surprising to see her, arms folded on the boards, watching us ramble back and forth on the increasingly chippy surface. As the years passed, she distracted me more and more — Moe began to bemoan how many more assists he could've had if I'd kept my head in the game.

I only caught one other glimpse of Julia that first day, but I was easily more focused on getting my third goal. Though our cheeks were as red as Mosienko's road jersey, we played until well past sundown. With the outdoor lights, darkness wasn't a problem, but we eventually turned in because of the cold, which caused the translucent fog we puffed out of our mouths with each stride.

I was known for puffing beyond that, unfortunately, as I've also exhaled opaque cigarette smoke for years. That's what put me in the hospital months ago, I'm sure. I don't have much time left.

Realizing I was caught up in a past I couldn't relive and a present I couldn't take part in, I looked over to Julia. There wasn't a lot to say anymore. I don't have much of a future and the present all but ends at the two feet lying outstretched ahead of me.

"So Sam gets in at 8:35 tonight, so I'll get there early, maybe get a bite, have a cup of tea. It's getting dark early these days," Julia's voice snapped my eyes in her direction.

I know she was hesitant. She hated driving at night and the hustle and bustle of the airport at the best of times. Ever since the kids moved away — Sam to Vancouver and Jess to Montreal — I had been the one-man welcoming committee, wearing a goofy Santa hat with Mickey Mouse ears from a family trip to Disney World years earlier.

"And Jess gets in at 9:10 tomorrow morning. I may as well just sleep there," she managed a smile.

"They can get cabs, it's a $20 ride. They're not tight for money, Jules," I said.

"It's Christmas. You should have somebody there to meet you," she countered. "Oh, and where's that Santa hat? They'll want to see it when they come see you."

"They won't care. They're too old, anyway," I spat out in between coughs.

"You'd be surprised what makes someone happy this time of year."

We sat in silence for a couple minutes, when she glanced toward the window and even in the glare, I could see night was beginning to fall. Julia slipped on her coat and then cautiously slipped her right hand into her pocket. She hesitated for a beat or two, then placed her hand on the table beside my bed.

When she uncurled her fingers and lifted her hand, I recognized what she was hiding — the other half of the puck I had lost.

"If I couldn't have the half that flew at me, I wanted the other," she said in a choked-up chuckle. "I saw you digging in the wrong spot, so when you gave up looking for it, I snuck around when the play went to the other end of the rink. I didn't know exactly where it was, but I had an idea. I dug and dug for about 10 minutes. My hands were frozen, but I eventually found it."

She paused and looked around the room and then down at me. She reached out for my hand.

"I didn't know why, but even though we just spoke for a second, I knew it was a special moment. Well, I felt it was a special moment. I could have been wrong. I had been before. I never kept any sort of keepsake from those times, whether I turned out to be right or wrong, but I guess I'd never had the chance. I just figured I'd grab it and sort out the rest later. It worked out OK." She squeezed my hand. "Merry Christmas, Paul."

I gripped the puck all that night, thinking as lucidly as I could in my state about that first meeting and how meaningful it actually was.

As the natural light started to hit my window, I decided I wasn't going to spend Christmas here. I couldn't. I rustled through my wallet and found a couple of quarters.

I slipped on a warm pair of pants, put my feet on the ground, slowly and unsurely lifted myself out of bed. I held on tight until I overcame a brief head rush and fully had my balance. I found my coat and pulled it on, finding a half-empty pack of smokes in the inside pocket. I'd never been able to kick my addiction, but at least it would come in as a handy cover tonight.

I ambled past the nurses' station, taking care not to work up my breathing and do myself in.

"A little early this morning, Paul?" the nurse inquired disapprovingly.

"Never too early to start celebrating Christmas," I winked.

I made my way to a payphone by the main doors, called a cab, and watched the wind kicking up snow off the banks.

Soon enough, the taxi came, and before too long, we approached home. I could see Julia's car wasn't sticking out from the driveway — she'd left for the airport with Sam.

I paid the driver everything I had in my wallet, about twice the actual fare, and asked him to help me to the house. He obliged and held my arm as we meandered over the snowy walkway.

I unlocked the door and stepped inside, heading straight for the bedroom. I opened my nightstand and retrieved the other half of the puck. I found a tube of super glue in a kitchen drawer that was damn near empty, but I squeezed and squeezed the glue onto my half — it was appropriate, Julia could have been anywhere with anyone, but sometimes seemed stuck with me more than anything else. Once I was satisfied I'd gotten everything I could from it, I pressed her half into mine.

As I waited for it to dry, I toddled back into the bedroom and found the mouse-eared Santa hat and wiggled it onto my head, getting a look in the mirror at the festive headwear topping my deteriorating body.

I heard Julia's car pull into the driveway and went to retrieve the puck. It was a little tender to the touch at the cracks but still seemed to be drying well. A click came from the front door, and there was some thick apprehension as it creaked open, reminding me I hadn't relocked it.

"Hello?" Julia asked, tentatively.

I emerged in her view, puck behind my back. Julia's eyes widened, and neither she nor the kids could say anything.

"You'd be surprised what makes someone happy this time of year," I offered.

Julia repeated her sadness-tinged laugh or joyful cry from the night before breaking down in mostly happy tears, stepping forward to hug me.

I slipped the puck into her hand.

"If this breaking played a little part in bringing us together, well, I'm glad it can finally be in one piece."

She held me even tighter, and after years of searching malls and boutiques for that elusive perfect gift, I knew I'd discovered it with that one simple, final holiday offering.

Christmas would be every day

By Cathryn Atkinson

"This long distance relationship is... what... is... is wide but no gulf... Is that right? Is that accurate? Well, yes, it is. I think so. What to do? Hmmm. Oh, I should go back to sleep."

These almost racing thoughts came from an almost sleeping woman who was wiping sleep from her eyes.

"My aim is to see the distance halved. Then quartered," she told herself as she was still lying in bed, feeling a little more conscious. "Draw a line through it like something completed on a to-do list. The distance reduced to nothing, it would disappear and Christmas would be every day, instead of just next week."

That particular "distance" wasn't related to travelling overland; it was internal. A case of both of them trusting the challenge — they were heading towards each other but were still trying to figure out what that looked like. When it came to the actual geography involved, the mileage between them, the distance would disappear all at once, thanks to a different kind of action. At the right time, no sooner. There were no halves or quarters in that, just an airport-to-airport miracle.

As much as she imagined herself in transit and tackling this, she was not there yet. There was no deadline. Instead, she was in padding through her kitchen, being led by a whine and a kettle. Her thoughts were as grounded as the coffee in the press as she pushed it down to get what she needed.  She drank them and the coffee in.

It was a dark 7 a.m., there was rain and the dog emceed the proceedings. Wanting to go out, being turned off by the rain, wanting to come back inside. Scratching at the French door again to go out. Repeat. Trotting in with a twig, running from her as she lunged for it, dropping it as she yelled.

She successfully retrieved the twig and threw it outside. Disgruntled, the dog ran upstairs to see if there were any socks available for chewing. She decided to ignore this.

Another sound at the door. It was her this time, not the dog, tapping on the French door with her index finger, looking out at the rain. Repeat. Coffee in hand, thinking about the distance and the season.

But really it was fine, they'd committed to this at this time of year, at least for now. The caffeine hit and the dog came back without socks and curled up on the couch. She felt more at peace with everything but the weather.

So what was that man doing right now, out there in the distance? One thing is certain; there was a crunching of snow under his foot and not the splashings of puddles. The time zone made it later and brighter there. They'd promised not to communicate today; they were too busy with mundane but important things.

She played some seasonal music, switched on the outside lights and the inside tree, and got the flour, ginger, nutmeg and sugar out. Made cookies and perfumed the house. It smelled like she imagined Samarkand to smell, like Carthage, like Jerusalem. It smelled like an old connected world feeding mid-winter dreams in the new disconnected world, trying hard to build memories.  

As the baking cooled, she moved on to more important things. She went to the closet for bags of hidden treasures soon to belong to others, things they would be unaware of until the 25th.

Her real skill was not in wrapping presents, she was terrible at it — many a parcel had gone off in the mail over the years with duct tape keeping the pretty paper covering toys and books in place. She was so last minute with that aspect of Christmas. What she excelled in and took her time with was the loving selection of gifts — finding what was right for the person; she tried to find them things that wouldn't require duct tape five minutes after opening.

The first presents she bought had been almost a year earlier, in the January sales. All stashed until she could carry out her traditional final week wrapping rush.

A book of watercolours for Mary, all based on a short conversation about angels and agriculture they had six months ago, found on Amazon and purchased immediately. A set of awls for Joseph, found in an estate sale in September. Maple handles and turned metal. Ancient. Joseph would try not to cry but possibly fail – and he'd head straight into the workshop until called out for feeding.

A present for the baby. Something to keep him warm and dry — there was no need to push diversions yet. And a box of chocolates for everyone to share. Well, maybe not the baby. Or the dog.

She looked up and saw it was 10 a.m. She calculated the time difference between them and went back to work. There were eight more people to get through. It was going to be a long day.

Cutting through wrapping paper rolls of white skating snowmen for the kids, and what could only be described as oblique, absurdist stars for the grownups, took two more careful hours. No duct tape was used in the scrappy wrappings this year. Not only was the right kind of adhesive available, it was actually invisible on paper.

She paused to think about the nature of this season, of any celebration that harbours so many emotions, yet the time of renewal seems to need to wait a week longer, until the start of the new year. Her heart was too full of it all to be defined, apart from its being the pumping vessel behind the achievement of the cookies and the gifts.

Another coffee, a Christmas cookie. The dog's head lifted for a second, the dog's torso rolled over.

The afternoon rolled on faster. She went out to buy a turkey, came home and made calls to those people she could invite for dinner. She planned the oppressive, wonderful day with her usual dedication.

And then the phone goes off and he is there. He isn't meant to be, she isn't meant to take the call. Not yet. They are rationing. They are busy after all. But not busy enough, thank goodness, and the smile that comes at reading the name on the display of her ringing phone says it all.

"Hi."

"Hi."

They weren't meant to talk but then three hours passed. And after the intimacies and laughter she had all she really needed to know. He was there and you can forget the rest.

The geographical distance was not lessened. Not yet. But she knew where she'd find the pen to draw the line through the mental distance, to have it be no more. He would hand it to her. He was already reaching for it. And because of that, Christmas did arrive early and it just might be every day.

She looked up at the ceiling and imagined the raining sky above it and the snowing sky where he was, and she laughed. It was perfect. All of it.

Christmas Confusion

By G.D. Maxwell

As holidays go, Will Chandler never really thought of Christmas as a psychologically taxing time. Why would he? It rolled around every year, he got presents, he gave presents, family and friends gathered, there was food and as he grew old enough, drink, and best of all, no school. Lost in the irresponsible glow of childhood and youth, Christmas was about as good as holidays got.

When he began attending university far from his home in Toronto, Christmas got a bit more challenging. Air travel was expensive, enough so that his parents considered his flight home to be a present, his big present. And flying at Christmas time was, let's be honest, miserable.

And then there were his nascent doubts about both the validity and value of Christmas, doubts fuelled by his Philosophy courses, his flirtation with atheism, his growing sense of social inequality and in no small part, his friendship with his roommate, a third-year Philosophy major with an outsized belief in his own brilliance.

"I don't know if Christmas is a universal story or a marginal myth," Dan answered in response to Will's opening question about the meaning of Christmas. "But I'm pretty sure it's a North American mythical reality."

"How do you know that," Will asked.

"Because of stress tests. Not heart and lung stress tests but stress tests of the psyche, the ones that ask you if you've experienced any of the following within the past year: The death of a loved one; A significant health setback; Substantial financial loss; Christmas."

"Christmas?" Will asked, incredulously.

"Yes, Christmas. Doesn't seem as bad as the death of a loved one but apparently Christmas is stressful for most people. I find it stressful. Too many cookies; so little time. Presents to buy for people who really don't need presents and know I'm only buying them one out of some misplaced sense of duty. Mailing deadlines. Courier deadlines for the presents that missed the mailing deadlines. Après Christmas presents that missed the courier deadlines. And, of course, presents that must have gotten lost or stolen by those damn untrustworthy couriers that will be sent again... some time after New Years.

"But there's a more fundamental sense in which Christmas is stressful. Like so many simple concepts we've complicated beyond recognition, Christmas has different meanings to different people. Of more immediate importance, Christmas has different meanings to each of us. Often, those different meanings are at odds with each other and mirror the multiple solitudes we drive ourselves crazy trying to accommodate."

"For instance?" Will inquired.

"For instance, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, son of God, Christian saviour of mankind, right?"

"That's what I've always been told," Will replied.

"Whether your're Christian or not..." Dan continued, "... you can't grow up in Western society and manage to dodge this powerful meaning of Christmas. And whether you believe the Christian Bible is the literal word of God, a collection of comforting myths, or the opiate of the masses doesn't really matter; somewhere inside all of us, believers and non-believers alike, resides this powerful image and all the implications it carries with it."

"Amen," Will said, facetiously.

"And like all matters of faith, the 'facts,' and I use that word advisedly, are both indisputable on the one hand and irrelevant on the other."

"For instance?" asked Will.

"For instance, the "fact" that December 25th is not Jesus' birthday," fired Dan.

"Of course it is," Will replied.

"Au contraire. Biblical scholars seem to agree that December 25th is highly unlikely to mark the birth of Jesus, in any literal sense. They point to the fact that the shepherds watching over their flocks by night would have been watching over sheepsicles if they still had the animals in the fields instead of tucked away in warm spots, mangers for example. And they're pretty sure not even Caesar would have required people to schlep cross country for the census during the coldest time of the year."

"Whatever," said Will, growing peeved.

"But, the fact is, Jesus' birthday is December 25th... because we want it to be. We want it to be and we've trained generations to believe it is and that's enough to make it so... factually. It's good enough for me and, it's good enough for Him," Dan said, lifting his eyes reverentially toward Heaven.

"And you know that how?"

"Using the power of modern technology I reached Jesus through channelthedead.com and asked him," Dan replied.

"You talked to Jesus?" asked Will, skeptically.

"Why shouldn't I; people do it all the time."

"They're praying, Dan. And I suppose Jesus talked back to you?"

"It was more like iMessaging," Dan answered. "Here, I transcribed the conversation."

Dan handed Will a couple of sheets of paper and poured them each a festive drink.

Will took the pages, reluctantly. He didn't want to insult Dan and was curious to see what he might have dreamed up.

Dan: Happy Birthday, dude!

Jesus: Thanks.

Dan: You know, there seems to be a lot of debate around the date of your birth. Some people claim you weren't really born on Christmas. Any truth to that?

Jesus: I don't know. I was pretty young then. But let's face it. You're born; you die; you're resurrected. And in some parts of the southern U.S., you're born again. But when you come right down to it, it's really all about what you do with the time in between, isn't it? Is the exact date really that important?

Dan: That's deep, man. But if we can't believe something as simple as your birthday, doesn't that call into question, like, major elements of the rest of the story?

Jesus: You either believe or you don't. I never considered my birthday very important. My family didn't make much of a fuss about it, falling as it did around Christmas. It just kind of got lost in the overall festivities of the holidays.

Dan: Yeah, I see your point. But it must kind of cheese you off that so many people have lost sight of what your birthday's supposed to be about. I mean, let's face it, importancewise, you're running well behind a new Xbox on a lot of people's lists.

Jesus: C'est la vie. Historically, among the moneyed classes, it has always been about gifts and one-upmanship.

Dan: You mean like the three kings of Orientare.

Jesus: Tell me you didn't say that.

Dan: Sorry. Do you remember their gifts? Did your folks save them for you?

Jesus: I never saw the gold. My folks said they put it aside for my college but I was more into the trades. I liked to work with my hands, although people told me I would have made a good doctor. I liked the way the frankincense smelled; we used to burn it a lot back then, what with the animals and all and being put away in a manger. But the myrrh... talk about a stink. That stuff's enough to raise the dead.

Dan: Tell me you didn't say that. OK, one last question. Do you have any parting thoughts on all the greedheads who've hijacked your birthday and turned it into a pre-bankruptcy festival?

Jesus: To hell with 'em.

Dan: You kill me, dude, thanks for the chat.

Will took a sip of his drink, put the pages down and stared in disbelief at Dan. "Am I supposed to believe this?" he asked.

"Like the man said, you either believe or you don't."

"I don't know what to believe... certainly not you and some imaginary text messages from Jesus," Will retorted. "I know Christmas is supposed to be about peace on Earth, goodwill towards men, but it just seems so commercial, like it's lost any greater meaning it ever had."

"Life's more complicated today," Dan said, putting his fingertips together in front of his face, a gesture Will had long since understood foreshadowed another of Dan's philosophical tangents.

"Once, in a simpler time, the festivities of Christmas were centred on its religious themes and the giving of presents was limited by both the fact very few people knew what presents were and even fewer could afford them. That all began to change in the last century," he began.

"If we're looking for a scapegoat — and aren't we always looking for a scapegoat — we probably couldn't find a better one than Clement Moore."

"Clement Moore?" Will asked. "Who's Clement Moore?"

"On December 23, 1823, Clement Moore created the second profound mythology of Christmas. He called it "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." We mostly refer to it by its first line. "Twas the night before Christmas."

"Oh," Will sighed, "that Clement Moore."

"He was only trying to entertain his children. But it was Moore's imagery that became our images of Christmas. Sugar plums — whatever they are — children nestled in bed, a jolly, old elf in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer all of which he named," at which point Dan launched into a few lines.

"His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly."

"You can stop any time," Will pleaded.

"Santa's undergone change in the decades since Moore penned his poem. Movies, songs, Coca-Cola, the Salvation Army and department stores have all drawn on and amplified the myth. But for many, Santa has come to represent all that's wrong with Christmas — the blatant commercialization, the life-or-death, make-or-break salvation of retailers, the mall riots, the over-indulged, ungrateful spoiled children we were, the insane proliferation of a lifestyle of excess embraced by a generation of swine.

"Like or hate it, we all buy into it to some degree or another and if we don't someone else will for us."

"Are you trying to cheer me up?" Will asked.

"No," Dan replied," just trying to underscore the futility of fighting the inevitable. Go with the flow... like water over rock, Grasshopper."

He rifled through the mess on his desk and came up with another few sheets of paper.

"Don't tell me," Will said, resignation in his voice. "You've been talking to Santa too?"

"Of course," he said, handing the pages to Will. "Read this; I think it'll help give you a better understanding of what you're up against."

Dan: Hi Santa, Dan Jackson from UBC here. How ya doin'?

Santa: Ho Ho Ho!

Dan: So Santa, it seems like most people have lost the true meaning of Christmas and replaced it with an insatiable quest for presents. How does that make you feel?

Santa: Overworked. What do you want for Christmas?

Dan: That's not really important. I just want to talk to you for a couple of minutes.

Santa: Oh, so you want a cell phone. No problema. How many minutes you want? I've got lots of cell phones and lots of plans. Consider it done. What else do you want?

Dan: No, I don't want a cell phone. I just want to see what you think about the meaning of Christmas.

Santa: Meaning of Christmas, Meaning of Christmas. Ah, here it is, item #5846A. You want that on Blu-ray or standard definition?

Dan: It's not a movie, Santa. It's a philosophical question. Do you think Christmas has become too commercial?

Santa: Well, which commercial did you see it on? Canadian Tire? The Future Shop? I can beat any deal out there, guaranteed.

Dan: OK, Santa, let's back up. In our harried lifestyles and the rush to buy presents and not look cheap or lazy to friends and family, have people really lost the true meaning of Christmas?

Santa: Well, you know, I don't generally recommend going this route but if you really don't have the time, or you've got a lot of fussy people to buy for, gift cards are always appreciated. If more people went that route, the elves and I could kick back a little more and enjoy the season ourselves, maybe catch some football games on the tube.

Dan: Nick, you're kind of pissin' me off here. It's really a simple question: Is Christmas too commercial?

Santa: Wait a minute. What did you say your name was? Let's see here. Hey, you're not... let me see.... You weren't by any chance born in Vancouver were you? Sister named Susie a few years younger?

Dan: Yeah, that's right.

Santa: This interview is over. You're on the Permanent Naughty List. I'm not wasting time with you. You buy retail.

Will slowly put the papers down, his head hanging limp. "You really need help, Dan. Really," he finally said.

"You're the one who seems bummed out about Christmas," Dan replied. "I'm just trying to help you work through some of your mixed emotions around the holiday."

"Help? You think fantasy chats with Jesus and Santa help me get over my... my ambivalence about whether Christmas has any real meaning any more?"

"Look, we're almost done. We've explored the mythological underpinnings of the birth of Jesus, Santa Claus and if you'll just be strong, I'll explain the third major mythological influence on the meaning of Christmas."

"Which is?" Will asked weakly.

"I like to refer to it as the no-pagan-left-behind movement, also known as Getting Christ out of Christmas," Dan said, beaming.

"That's it!" Will shouted. He stood up, put on his coat and headed for the door. Looking back, he said, "Dan, I love you as a roommate. Heck, you're even a pretty good mentor sometimes. But right now, you are definitely part of the problem, not the solution. I'm outta here."

Stepping into the brisk night air, Will knew what he had to do. Fishing his phone out of his jacket pocket, he punched familiar buttons and waited.

"Hello? Will, honey?"

"Hi mom."

"What's wrong?"

"I... I don't have any really important classes the rest of the week. Is it OK if I come home early?"

"Of course, darling," his mom cooed in her most reassuring voice.

"Like tomorrow?" Will pleaded.

"I'll call right now and change your ticket."

"Thanks, mom. Oh, and mom... Merry Christmas."

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