Since many of my stories center around Laura and Almanzo's relationship, Nels Oleson doesn't appear in a lot of them except in bit parts. I decided to break with my timeline in sharing these stories so that I could honor Richard Bull, the actor who played Nels. Bull passed away this week at the age of 89. I also plan to write up a character profile on Nels soon. I hope you enjoy this Christmas story from 2011.
LHOP inspired fiction by Cheryl C. Malandrinos
Author's note: In the show, Nellie was not pregnant during the winter, but I changed this part of the timeline so it fit with the story. It also goes contrary to the townsfolk of WG being in the dark about Percival's Jewish faith. In "Come Let Us Reason Together" from Season 7, Harriet says that Percival's name change was the best kept secret, leading viewers to assume no one outside of the Oleson clan knew he was Jewish.
Almanzo fumbled with his tie for the third time. He knitted his brow and sighed, letting each side of the burgundy colored tie drop down to his white shirt.
Laura's boots click-clacked behind him. Turning him around, she smiled. "Want some help?"
Almanzo raised his hands in exasperation. Maybe one day he would find it easier to curl his large fingers around the ends of the tie. His strong chin lifted while Laura's nimble fingers quickly made a perfect knot.
"There". She patted his chest. "All done."
"Thank ya, Beth." Almanzo leaned over and pecked her cheek. "I sure would enjoy this social a whole lot more if I didn't have to get dressed up."
Laura raised her eyebrows. "Manly, you know the only reason for your Sunday best is that Reverend Alden is holding a service for Christmas Eve." A mischievous smile brightened her face. "How would it look if you entered the house of the Lord in your work clothes?"
Almanzo's arms encircled her waist and pulled her close. "You sure don't seem to mind how I look in my work clothes."
"I'm your wife. I'm supposed to love you no matter how sweaty and dirty you are." Laura laughed, but Almanzo's lips quickly captured hers, stifling the last few giggles.
By the time Charles pulled his wagon to a stop in front of the Walnut Grove church, dainty white flakes fell from the sky.
"Maybe we'll have a white Christmas after all," said Caroline. Grace sat on her lap, tucked tightly into a wool blanket.
Carrie shrieked with glee from the back of the wagon.
Charles lifted his gaze to the sky and inhaled deeply. "It sure looks like it. We'll have to keep an eye on the storm. If it gets too bad we'll have to skip the social and head home."
"Aw," Carrie and Albert cried.
"Your Pa's right," Caroline gently scolded them. "We don't want to be stuck in a blizzard halfway home."
"Yes'um." Albert could barely croak out his response. He hoped to see Rebecca Stone tonight and ask her to dance. They had been stealing glances at each other across the school room all week.
After a lovely service, everyone made their way over to Nellie's Restaurant and Hotel. Nellie and Percival led the pack down the street. Percival opened the door and stepped back to allow his wife to enter. Nellie pressed a hand against the small of her back as she waddled through.
Charles took one last look at the lightly falling snow before walking inside and pulling the door tight. He helped Caroline shed her coat and carried it into the back room where the silent switchboard stood unattended. After removing his hat and coat, he joined Doc Baker, Almanzo, and Ned Turner, whose instruments were already filling the room with music. Gently removing his fiddle from its case, he easily fell in tune with the others.
Mary and Adam had taken the stage into town from Sleepy Eye yesterday. They had already begun dancing by the time the first notes of Charles's fiddle reached their ears. With his wife, Harriet, occupied ordering people about, Nels Oleson offered his arm to Caroline and they waltzed onto the dance floor. The Reverend Alden stood with one arm leaning on the mantle, tapping a foot on the floor. His wife, Anna, sat in a chair next to him. She hadn't been feeling well lately and wasn't quite up to dancing.
Laura busied herself helping Nellie and Percival with the food. She couldn't help but wonder how falling in love with Percival had changed her former enemy. She found it strange that they once despised each other so.
Laura balanced a heavy platter filled with sandwiches on one arm and carried a pot of coffee in the other. As she leaned with her back toward the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the dining room, the door swung open and hit her. Hot coffee sloshed onto the floor and she struggled to keep the platter from falling over.
"Oh, Laura dear, please be careful." Mrs. Oleson snatched the platter off her arm. "This belonged to my mother." Laura rolled her eyes up to her lids, but she bit her tongue. Christmas Eve was not an evening for sparring. Mrs. Oleson shooed her away. "Now, run along with that pot of coffee and hurry back. I don't want poor Nellie to exhaust herself." Laura sighed. Mrs. Oleson hadn't changed one bit.
Almanzo lifted his head as Laura walked through the open door. His gaze met hers. She wished he was holding her in his arms right now, twirling around the dance floor. Her grandma had loved to dance. Ma and Pa told her how much she reminded them of Dancing Grandma. She missed her aunts and uncles and all the cousins she had grown up with in the Big Woods.
The temperature outside had risen slightly, turning the tiny flakes into larger ones filled with moisture that stuck to every surface they landed on. Inside the restaurant, the residents of Walnut Grove danced and ate, unaware that no one would make it home.
The wind picked up as a full-fledged Minnesota blizzard blew into town. The glass in the windows shook and the door rattled against the increasing wind. Immediate silence fell upon the room of party goers.
Charles and Almanzo laid down their instruments and marched to the door. Almanzo pulled it open and a blast of cold wind and snow swirled around him. "Look at that come down."
"How bad is it?" Nels said from behind Charles.
Almanzo moved aside. "Take a look."
Nels squinted. "I can't even see my house."
Doc Baker tapped Nels on the shoulder. "I hope you have plenty of firewood. It looks like we'll be here awhile."
Almanzo pushed the door shut and locked it. Hopefully it wouldn't give way against the blustery weather. The children kneeled on chairs in front of the windows, their parents staring over their shoulders.
Charles raised his chin so he could be heard. "It looks like we'll be spending Christmas Eve with the Olesons."
"It's that bad?" asked Caroline, who sat in a chair next to Anna.
"It wouldn't be safe for any of us to try to reach home now. That wind is whipping the snow around so much you can't see your hand in front of your face."
"We don't live too far," said Tom Jenkins. "If we leave now, we could probably make it back."
A few nods and "yeas" rose from the crowd.
Almanzo planted his hands on his hips. "Charles is right. We have food and firewood here. We should stay put until the storm blows over."
"I don't havta listen to you." Tom headed toward the back where the coats were stored.
The room erupted into chaos as everyone began talking at once. Some men pulled their wives by the arms and followed Jenkins. Children began crying and mothers quickly tried to hush them.
Anna stood and clasped his hand. "Robert is right." She smiled at her husband. "Let's not ruin the evening by quarreling. It's Christmas Eve. Think of what might have happened if the shepherds were too busy arguing to go and find the Savior."
Tom hung his head in shame. "I'm sorry, Reverend. I almost forgot we are celebrating the Lord's birth."
Charles motioned to Almanzo and the other musicians. They picked up their instruments and began playing, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." Soon everyone was singing and peace reigned again.
The younger children had been put to sleep in rooms upstairs. Soft notes from Charles's fiddle and Almanzo's guitar lulled the few little ones fighting off the sand man into a peaceful slumber filled with dreams of Christmas. Their parents had assured them that even if they weren't home for Christmas, Santa would leave presents for when they returned.
The adults and the older children sat downstairs huddled in blankets with their coats on. The men took turns tending the fire, just enough to keep it burning. They didn't know how long they would be stranded at Nellie's place, so they needed to conserve the firewood. Many of the kerosene lamps had been blown out. The few that remained on left them with just enough light for people to walk around to get food or coffee.
Charles and Almanzo asked everyone to join them in singing "Silent Night." Their fingers were getting too cold to play well, so this would be the last song. As the first few words were sung by the crowd, Laura heard the doors shake against the howling wind. It was anything but a silent night in Walnut Grove this Christmas Eve.
Once the song was over, Charles and Almanzo grabbed cups of coffee and headed over to the blankets to join their families. Hushed conversations filtered through the air.
"This is boring," whined Carrie. "When can we go home?"
Caroline ran her hand down one of her braids. "Not until the storm passes."
Albert sighed. "It is kind of boring being stuck here with nothing to do and no presents to open."
"Tell us a story, Laura," said Carrie.
Laura raised her eyebrows. "Here?"
"Why not, Half-pint?" Charles winked at her.
"You told some great stories last Thanksgiving," said Albert.
Laura pushed a tendril of hair behind her ear. "But those stories are good because they're about our family. Nobody else would be interested in them."
"I would," Willie Oleson said. He sat next to Albert's family on a blanket with Nellie and Percival.
Nellie shook her hand in the air at Laura. "I know, tell everyone the story about your first Christmas on Plum Creek."
Laura crossed her arms over her chest. "Are you sure you want me to share that one?"
Nellie laughed. "Everyone already knows what a spoiled brat I was."
As Laura quietly began her story, Nellie hushed her. She tried to stand up, but couldn't. "Percival my love, would you?"
Percival helped Nellie to her feet. She grabbed Laura's arm and carefully guided her to the front of the room, Laura whispering, "What are you doing?" most of the way.
Nellie raised her arms to get people's attention. "Listen up everyone. Laura is going to tell a Christmas story."
Butterflies danced in Laura's stomach. She looked over the crowd, many of whom were rearranging their places so they could listen. She had never spoken in front of such a large group before. Teaching the children was easy, but many of these people had known her since she was a little girl. Laura clasped her hands in front of her and sought out Manly in the crowd. The dim light didn't allow her to make out all his features, but she thought a corner of his mouth was raised in a crooked smile.
Percival walked over and turned up two of the kerosene lamps next to the platform where the musicians had played. Now all eyes were certainly on her. She took a deep breath and thought of how to begin.
"Our family came to Walnut Grove from Kansas. Pa and Ma built a small cabin not far from Independence; but one day, a soldier came and told Pa that the government had redrawn the lines and our house was now in Indian Territory."
Several gasps rose from the crowd.
"So, we had to pack up and leave Kansas, and our friend, Mr. Edwards." Laura lowered her head. She wondered how Mr. Edwards and his family were faring these days. It had been some time since they had written to Ma and Pa. Their oldest son, John Jr., was still in Chicago as far as they knew, and who knew what Carl and Alicia were up to these days. Carl had been such a good chum growing up. It seemed so long ago.
"I still remember the day Pa met Mr. Hanson."
Everyone perked up as soon as Mr. Hanson's name was mentioned. One of the founders of Walnut Grove, he was still missed by the townsfolk.
"I thought he talked a bit funny, but Mr. Hanson was kind and we knew he would be fair."
"Good ole, Lars," someone said, which was answered with many nods and kind words.
"I had never seen a house in the ground before. I wished I had a remembrance book to write about the day we came here and I saw it. Pa bought the land by Plum Creek and built a new house. Mary and I were so excited that we would get to sleep up in the loft."
Mary's gentle laughter reached Laura's ears. They had many wonderful times up in that loft. Several fights too, though they didn't seem to matter anymore.
"That first Christmas was one of secrets." Laura began walking as she spoke. "Pa took us into Oleson's Mercantile to look for gifts. I wasn't too happy though. I didn't have much money. And I still hadn't figured out what I should get Ma or Pa."
Laura walked back the other way, trying to catch people's eyes as she spoke. Even though the children were older, many were embraced by their mothers or had their father's arm around their shoulders.
"I decided to take Ma's and Pa's advice and make some gifts. It was hard trying to work on things without anyone finding out."
Chuckles rose up from the crowd. It probably wasn't very different in their houses.
"I had found out what Ma needed, but wasn't quite sure if Mr. Oleson would be willing to trade. Thankfully, I knew just the thing that he wanted…or should I say, what Nellie wanted."
All heads turned to where Nellie sat on a blanket between Percival and Willie.
"There was something Nellie didn't want when she was a child?" Nels joked as and leaned over to peck her cheek.
"Oh, Father." Nellie and the rest of the town laughed.
"Well," said Laura, "there was one thing she wanted more than anything else. My pony, Bunny." Laura crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight onto her right leg. "Nellie had been asking her father to buy Bunny for weeks, but I had refused to sell her. I loved Bunny, and I was sure Nellie wouldn't treat her very well."
"And you were right." Nellie covered her cheeks with her hands. "I was so awful to her."
"After some bartering, Mr. Oleson agreed to trade Bunny for a stove. Ma had admired it when we visited the mercantile before Christmas, and I knew I had to find a way to buy it for her."
Laura sought out her mother. Even after all this time, Caroline's eyes glistened from the memory. Laura swallowed the lump in her throat.
"On Christmas Eve, we had wrapped all our gifts and put them under the tree. Pa took out his fiddle and we danced. Mr. Oleson stopped by with a big crate marked, 'Do Not Open Until Christmas.' I couldn't wait for Christmas morning, even though I knew it meant that Nellie would be coming to take Bunny away. I wanted to see Ma's face when she opened the crate."
Laura took a deep breath. Though many years had passed, she still thought of Bunny from time to time, wishing she had held onto her just a little while longer.
"Ma nearly giggled with excitement when she took the crowbar and pried off the lid. Imagine her shock, and Pa's, when the card inside read, 'Love, Laura.' Pa had been working to fix and paint a set of wheels for a customer of Mr. Oleson's. He was going to trade the work for the stove, only Mr. Oleson didn't know that until Pa delivered them on Christmas Eve.
"True to his word, Mr. Oleson never said anything about our deal to Pa. He only told him the stove had been sold and he would have to order him one."
Laura stepped down from the platform and walked into the crowd. Everyone looked up at her, eager for more. She rubbed her hands together to warm them.
"Nellie and Mr. Oleson arrived a few moments after Ma opened the crate. It was then that everyone knew I had traded Bunny for the stove. I had to swallow back tears as I led Nellie to the barn to go get Bunny. I watched while Mr. Oleson tied Bunny to the back of his wagon and drove off.
"Ma told me she loved her stove and said I shouldn't cry, because one day we would have another pony. I told her I wasn't upset about Bunny, only that Pa had worked so hard making a saddle for me as a gift that Christmas."
Laura's gaze drifted up to the ceiling. "That was only part of the truth. My heart ached over losing Bunny, especially to someone who I knew wouldn't love her as much as I did. But seeing Ma's face that Christmas made it all worth it. And knowing life would be a bit easier for her with the new stove made me happy inside."
Caroline turned her head to hide the tears spilling down her cheeks. Next to her, Pa wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close.
"Then Carrie reminded us why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. She had bought a star for the tree. After Pa lifted her up to put it on top, she looked upon her special gift and said, 'Happy birthday, Baby Jesus.'
"That was the first of many wonderful Christmases we've shared in Walnut Grove. Our family has been blessed with many things, but the love of family and friends is one of the most precious gifts we ever received."
The room erupted with applause as Laura carefully walked around blankets to rejoin her family. Caroline stood and embraced her. When Laura sat down, Nellie leaned over and whispered in her ear.
"You have a wonderful way with words, Laura. You should write your stories down one day."
The heat of embarrassment crept up Laura's cheeks. "Thanks. Maybe I will."
Percival rose and clasped his hands together. "Who should we hear from next?"
The door shook violently and gasps filled the air as some expected the door to fly off its hinges. Percival marched over to the door and gave it a strong pull.
"No need to worry. The door will hold just fine. Mr. Ingalls, could you stoke up the fire?"
Charles hopped up. "I'll get right on it."
Mr. Oleson stood and walked over to Percival, patting him on the back. "Where were we? Oh, yes, who would like to share a story of Christmas past?"
In the corner, the voices of a husband and wife rose in discord. The woman was nudging him forward as he tried to convince her he wanted to do anything but what she wanted him to do.
"They hear from me all the time," he said.
"Telling them a story from your childhood will mean so much more than a sermon," she replied.
Nels waved him over. "We would love to hear a story from you, Reverend."
Reverend Alden shrugged. "I can't guarantee it will be any more engaging than one of my sermons."
The crowd laughed. Some people walked about getting a sandwich or a cup of coffee before settling in to listen.
Reverend Alden felt a bit strange without his pulpit. He didn't seem to know what to do with his arms, so he stuffed his hands in his pockets.
"As some of you know, my father was a minister. While I could never hope to be as good a speaker as he, whatever skills I have in sharing the Word of God came from him."
"We love you, Reverend," said a man from the back of the room.
Reverend Alden curled his lips into a smile. "Thank you." He pulled his hands out of his pockets and wiped them on his black jacket.
"I was at the seminary when I received a wire that my father was gravely ill. School was to be let out at the end of the week for Christmas, but my mother asked that I return home immediately. I knew then that my father couldn't have much time left."
Reverend Alden lowered his head. He breathed deeply and a few moments passed before he continued. "I took the first stage out of town, but I was a few days away. I spent most of that time praying I would make it home before my father passed on."
People around the room held their loved ones a little tighter.
"When I finally arrived in town, I ran all the way home. My mother met me at the door. It was as if she had aged ten years since I went away. She had cared for my father for months. I almost didn't go to the seminary, because I didn't want to leave her to care for him alone, but she insisted I answer God's call to the ministry. She told me that it would do my father good to see his only son follow in his footsteps.
"Standing in front of her, seeing her hair scattered about her face in a loose bun, her shoulders bent from exhaustion, I was sure I never should have left.
She embraced me and said I should go see my father right away."
Anna came to stand beside her husband. She placed a hand on his arm and smiled, encouraging him, as she always did. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it.
"I stepped into my father's room, but the sight of him stopped me in my tracks. He had always been thin, but he was so pale it was like you could see through him. He couldn't even lift his head from the pillow. One of his fingers rose from the bed and motioned me over. His voice so hoarse, I could barely understand when he called my name.
"'Robert,' he said, a bit more clearly. 'I am going home soon.'
"I shook my head as tears rolled down my face. 'No Papa, don't leave us,' I cried.
"'Robert,' he said, 'God determines when we are called home, not us. We cannot fight it, nor should we, as to be called back to Him is a moment of great joy.
'You are a good boy. I am so proud of you.'
"I could barely see his face through my tears. I laid my head down on his chest. His breath rattled through his lungs as he lifted a shaky hand to rub my back. 'No man has ever had a better son,' he said. Then he asked me to grab his Bible off the table next to his bed and read him Psalm 100.
'Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands.
Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.
Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.'
"My father smiled at me, and for but a moment, he looked as he did when I was a boy: young and vibrant. 'I have served the Lord my whole life,' he said. 'Today, I will enter into his gates and I will be thankful for it. Oh, Robert, I cannot wait to see Him. This Bible was a gift from my beloved teacher at the seminary. I want you to have it.'"
Tears glistened in Reverend Alden's eyes. Anna still stood by his side and he leaned on her for comfort.
"He asked me to look after my mother until they could be together again, but he also asked that I return to the seminary, so I could graduate and then use his Bible to help spread the Word of God." He ran his tongue over his dry lips. "That evening, my father fell into a coma. He died two days later, on Christmas Eve. His Bible remains the most precious gift I ever received, outside of the gift that God gave all of us when He sent His Son down from heaven.
"I've tried my best to live a good life and to be an honorable and moral man. My father was that kind of man. I hope he can still say that he is proud of me."
Anna lifted up on her toes to kiss her husband's cheek. "That was lovely, Robert."
Several members of the town sniffled back tears as Reverend Alden made his way back to his chair by the fireplace, arm in arm with Anna. After a few moments, Harriet Oleson strolled into the main room from the kitchen.
"There are more sandwiches and a fresh pot of coffee," she said. "Maybe it would be a good idea for us to get up and start moving to keep warm. We'll save some firewood that way."
Chatter filled the room as families made their way over to the long tables that still held a great deal of food. Laura had almost forgotten about Mrs. Oleson. She must have been working in the kitchen during the storytelling. Laura whispered to Manly and then raced off to the kitchen. She found Mrs. Oleson dipping her finger into a dollop of cream on top of the cherry pie.
As soon as Mrs. Oleson realized she wasn't alone, she wiped her finger on her apron and then smoothed her hair. "You really shouldn't sneak up on a person like that, Laura."
A retort danced on Laura's tongue. "I'm sorry Mrs. Oleson. I just got so caught up in the storytelling that I forgot I had promised to help you serve the food."
Mrs. Oleson pursed her lips. "Well, I know not everyone can be as conscientious as my Nellie." She sliced the pie into 16 slices and picked it off the counter. "You do, however, have a natural ability when it comes to telling stories."
A compliment from Mrs. Oleson? Now, that was a surprise. "Thank you." Laura pointed at the pie in Mrs. Oleson's hands. "Would you like me to carry that out for you?"
"Oh no, I've got this. Why don't you see if the next pot of coffee is ready."
Mrs. Oleson plowed out the swinging door and disappeared. Laura waited a few moments until the coffee was done percolating. Then she wrapped a thick towel around the pot's handle and carried it out to the other room.
Almanzo and Pa were playing "O Come All Ye Faithful" when Laura entered the room. Their fingers weren't as nimble as usual, but the crowd seemed to be enjoying it. Some were singing, while others wrapped their fingers around cups of hot coffee, trying to stay warm.
"I'm sorry that wasn't a bit smoother," said Charles after they played the last notes. "Cold fingers and fiddle playing don't mix."
"It was beautiful, Charles," Caroline said from her seat next to the fireplace. Mary and Adam had joined her. They chatted about the gifts the children from the blind school had given them before going away for Christmas break.
Ned Turner walked over to the window and looked out. Swirls of snow made it almost impossible to see, but drifts of snow came up to the bottom of the windows. "I wish this blasted storm was over."
"Ned!" his wife said sharply.
"I'm sorry, Edna. I just get to worryin' about the animals. That wind could blow the doors right off the barn and there ain't nothin' I can do about it from here."
"There's nothing you could do about it from home either. All we can do is pray that the storm will end soon and that all will be well when we make it back to our place."
"Nicely said, Mrs. Turner." Reverend Alden had gone back to the platform where he had told his story earlier. "Why don't we bow our heads right now and pray."
Silence settled upon the dining room. Reverend Alden cleared his throat.
"Dear Lord, We thank you for the safety of this place and the generous amount of food you have provided to keep us nourished during the storm. We ask you to protect our homes and our animals while we are away, and to end this storm soon so that we may make a safe journey back. Amen."
"Thank you, Reverend," said Nels. He walked to the front of the room. "Would someone like to share another story with us?" The room remained silent. "Don't be shy. We would love to hear about your special memories."
"What about Percvial?" Nellie had moved over to the fireplace and now sat in a circle with Caroline, Mary, Adam, and Anna. "We just celebrated Chanukah together for the first time. I'm sure he has some great stories to share."
Harriet marched to the fireplace as Nellie spoke. She bent down and whispered into her ear. "I don't think that's appropriate on Christmas Eve."
"Why not?" replied Nellie. "Jesus was Jewish. He was consecrated in the temple when he was only a few days old."
Harriet clucked her tongue. "Really, Nellie, I don't know why you have to encourage this, this—"
Nellie pushed herself up from the chair. "This what?" She glared at her mother, whose hands were now moving in circles while she searched for words.
"Oh, you know what I mean. It's not right. That's all. We're Christians. We don't celebrate Chana…Chana…Chana—"
"Chanukah," said Nellie. "All the more reason for Percival to tell us about it. He's part of this town too."
"Nellie's right." Nels put his arm around Percival's shoulder. "Percival is part of this town, and what's more important, he's part of our family. If he wants to tell us a story about a special Chanukah, he should."
Percival's heart swelled with affection. He had always gotten along well with Nels, but he was never quite sure if his father-in-law was happy Nellie had married him, or if he just didn't want to interfere. His admission that Percival was family meant the world to him. "If everyone would like to hear about Chanukah, then sure."
People started clapping and Rebecca Stone stood. "I would love to know all about Chanukah, Mr. Dalton."
Albert's head whipped around and he smiled at Rebecca. She smiled back, and then lowered her head, suddenly bashful. Percival couldn't help but laugh inside. Maybe they would be the next Walnut Grove couple.
His gaze took in the townsfolk of Walnut Grove. These were good people, but even they may not understand him. He licked his dry lips and released a breath he didn't realize he had been holding. "Chanukah is celebrated during the month of Kislev, the ninth month of the Jewish calendar. It is celebrated on the ninth day of Kislev, and lasts for eight days."
"Can you imagine having Christmas for eight days?" said Albert.
Several in the room laughed.
"Don't interrupt," said Caroline.
"Oh, it's all right Mrs. Ingalls." Percival couldn't help but smile. "It probably sounds a bit strange, but it's a very important tradition because Chaunkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where the Jews rose up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. Around 200 B.C., Judea came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria. He allowed the Jews to continue practicing their religion. But when his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, took over, he outlawed our faith and forced the Jews to worship the Greek gods."
"That sounds like what the king of England tried to do," said Carrie, who was wrapped tightly in a large blanket. "It's why the colonists first came to America."
Percival adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. "You're right, Carrie. And it was just as bad then, as it was when Antiocus did it. His soldiers massacred thousands of people and desecrated the city's holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls. A Jewish priest, Mattathias, and his five sons, led a rebellion against Antiocus. After Mattathias died, his son, Judah took over and drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem."
Many of the townsfolk sat with their mouths open, seemingly in awe of what they were being told. Mrs. Oleson's finger was wrapped over the string of pearls at her throat. Even she didn't look like she could speak.
"Judah called on his followers to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and light its menorah. The menorah is a gold candelabrum whose seven branches represent knowledge and creation. They were meant to be kept burning every night, but they only had enough oil to burn for a single day. The miracle of Chanukah is that even though they only had enough oil for the menorah to burn one day, the flame continued to flicker for eight days."
Gasps filled the air. "How is that possible?" asked Carrie.
"With God, all things are possible." Percival stole a glance at his wife, who sat beside the fireplace rubbing her belly.
"What does a menorah look like?" Charles stood and walked toward the table to pour a cup of coffee.
"I have mine upstairs if you would like to see it," said Percival.
Many people expressed interest, so Percival quietly went upstairs and unwrapped the menorah, which he kept in his wardrobe. "You're welcome to come up and get a closer look." Several of the children stepped forward, and some adults too.
"What do you put in these holes?" asked one boy.
"Candles, though years ago they used oil."
Almanzo walked over to the fireplace and stoked the fading embers. Then he tossed another log inside.
"What's it made out of?" asked Willie.
"This one is brass, but they can also be made from gold, silver, or other metals."
"That's all lovely, sweetheart," Nellie interrupted from her seat by the fire, "but you still haven't shared a special Chanukah story with us."
"I'm getting to that dear."
Everyone settled in to listen to the rest of Percival's story. Caroline came to stand next to Charles by the food table. He wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close. Almanzo had taken a seat next to the fireplace. He tapped his leg and Laura sat down on his lap.
"One year, Papa decided he would try taking his store on the road."
"Oh, father, did that too." Nellie turned in Nels's direction. "Do you remember, Father?"
Nels caught Charles's eye from across the room. He tugged at the tie around his collar. "Um, yes, I remember."
"Mama didn't want him to go," said Percival, "but he can be a bit stubborn at times." Nellie giggled. She had heard many stories about her father-in-law and his infamous stubbornness. "So, he packed up the wagon and traveled out of the city."
Percival straightened his eyeglasses on the bridge of his nose and licked his lips before continuing. "The first few trips were very profitable, so he decided he would go out one more time in late October. We hadn't received a letter from him, so we expected he would be home right before Thanksgiving. But Thanksgiving came, and went, and still there was no sign of Papa."
Everyone's eyes widened. No one knew much about him or his family, so no one would know how this story turned out. It made Percival feel special that they paid so much attention to him. He could never hope to gain the kind of respect that Mr. Ingalls or Nels had, but it was tough for an outsider to feel part of such a close-knit community like Walnut Grove.
"I was just a young boy then, so I don't know how Mama was feeling, but I can imagine it was frightening for her. She had to run the store all by herself, and take care of me and my sister. As the days turned into weeks, I'm sure she thought something awful had happened to Papa.
"She and my sister, Rachel, prepared the food for Chanukah; the latkes and the sufganiyot—"
"What are those?" Albert asked.
"Latkes are potato pancakes. You shred potatoes, mix them with a batter, and fry them." Just thinking about them made Percival's mouth water. "Sufganiyot are doughnuts filled with jelly and sprinkled with sugar."
"Yummy!" said Carrie.
"We also have cheese and wine," said Percival. "It was almost sundown on the first night of Chanukah. Mama told me, as the man of the house, I would have to recite the Blessings. My heart pounded in my chest. What if I made a mistake? I was only five. But Mama hugged me and told me to do my best."
"Were you scared about your Pa not being home?" asked a boy about Albert's age sitting with his parents next to the windows. Percival thought his name was Timothy.
Percival's curly hair shook around his ears as he nodded. "It didn't feel like Chanukah without Papa. More than that, the house was so quiet. He had a big booming voice that filled the house with laughter, and sometimes, anger. Without him there, nothing seemed right. Instead of feeling peaceful and thankful, all of us were scared; scared we might never see Papa again."
Even after all this time, and with knowing all would turn out well, Percival's throat went dry. He walked over to the food table, poured some water from the pitcher into a cup, and drank it. Then he walked back to the front of the room. No one spoke while he did this. Their heads all followed him, as if they might miss something if they didn't have him in sight.
"Just as I was about to recite the first of the three Blessings, the front door flew open and Papa came bouncing in. Mama's hands flew up to her cheeks. She screamed my father's name and we all ran to him, almost knocking him over."
"Where was he all that time?" asked Albert.
"When we finally calmed down, Papa said he would tell us all about it, but first, we must say the Blessings and light the shamash candle, and the first candle of Chanukah."
Timothy leaned up onto his knees. "What is a shaw-shaw—"
"Shamash?" asked Percival. Timothy nodded. "That is the candle that we use to light all the others. So, on the first night of Chanukah, two candles are lit—the shamash and the first candle. Then each night we light one more candle, until finally all the candles are lit, representing the eight days that the oil burned.
"Papa said the three Blessings, and lit the candles. Then over dinner that night, he told us about his trip. He had traveled much farther north than he had intended to and got caught in a blizzard. He pulled off the road and sought shelter with a man and woman who had a baby boy."
Percival rubbed his hands together. The fire had almost gone out as he told his story. It seemed everyone was too engrossed to have noticed. He walked over to the fireplace and tossed a log on top and stoked the fire again, then held his hands up to the flames for a few moments.
"The snow continued off and on for a week. The Laramee family allowed him to stay and he traded them some goods for room and board. He said the poor family didn't have much, so he felt truly blessed they were willing to share with him.
"But even once the snow passed, Papa knew he would never be able to make it home with his wagon, so he borrowed Mr. Laramee's cutter and drove to the next town where he purchased a cutter of his own."
Percival walked over to Nellie, who had stood and stretched. She rubbed the small of her back with her fingers.
"Whatever Papa couldn't fit into the cutter, he gave to the Laramee family as his way of saying thanks. He hoped that would help make them more comfortable during the long winter.
"While he was there, he often spoke of Mama's cooking. The night before he left, Mrs. Laramee tried frying up some latkes. Papa told us that even though there was no sugar to sweeten them, they were almost as good as Mama's. When he told this to Mrs. Laramee, she blushed."
"Sounds like you had a wonderful Chanukah that year," said Almanzo.
Percival nodded. "We did. We felt very blessed to have Papa home safely."
Laura turned her head toward the windows and squinted. "Listen."
"I don't hear anything," said Almanzo.
"Exactly. I think the storm might be over."
Several people raced to look out the windows. Charles strode to the front door and opened it a few inches. A sliver of dim light shone upon the snow that had been blown onto the platform. Oohs and aahas filled the room as the residents of Walnut Grove gazed upon the snow covered prairie.
"Looks like we'll all be walking home tomorrow," said Charles, shutting the door before too much of the warmth escaped. "There's no way to get wagons through that." He reached his arm around Caroline's waist. "I'll take the horses home in the morning, do the chores, hitch them up to the cutter and then pick the rest of you up later."
Caroline glanced down at Carrie wrapped tightly in a blanket. She had fallen asleep without hearing the end of Percival's story. "What about Christmas presents? The kids will be so disappointed that Santa didn't come."
Nels grinned. "I think I can help with that."
Harriet marched over to her husband. She planted her fists on her round hips. "Don't you think of giving anything else away, Nels Oleson." Her right hand stretched in the direction of the food table. "We gave our fair share tonight."
"It's Christmas, Harriet. There are a bunch of kids upstairs who are going to think Santa forgot them."
"That's not our problem, Nels." Harriet puckered her lips as she shook her head. "You would give away everything in the store if I let you."
Nels clasped her hands in his. "I'm not talking about giving things away. I'll take a trip over to the store and pick up one thing for each child, something small, practical. Then we can add it to their bills."
Harriet wagged a finger in front of his face. "You will do no such thing. Half these people are over-extended as it is."
"Maybe when you were a girl you never knew what it's like to be disappointed at Christmas, Harriet, but other children have. We have a chance to make these kids happy..to let them know they weren't forgotten because of the blizzard. Isn't Christmas the season of giving?"
Harriet sighed and rubbed her forehead. "All right, Nels. I hope you know what you're doing."
"Percival, Charles, you want to give me a hand getting across the street?" asked Nels.
The next morning, Nellie and Percival walked downstairs to start getting breakfast ready for everyone. They found Caroline, Laura, and Mary already busy at work.
"Didn't you three sleep at all?" Nellie asked.
Caroline smiled. "None of us are pregnant. We slept a bit, but we wanted to get the dishes washed and the coffee started before everyone else got up."
"Thank you. I feel like I don't have the energy to crack an egg."
Laura pulled a chair out from the corner of the kitchen and dragged it over. "Sit down and I'll get you a cup of coffee." Nellie flashed her a look of gratitude.
The three Ingalls women worked, and as more people woke up, other women wandered into the kitchen to help. Soon, the pounding of dozens of little feet thundered down the stairs. Squeals and giggles followed. The women wiped their hands on their aprons and pushed through the swinging door to enjoy Christmas morning with the rest of their friends.
Reverend Alden read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, and then everyone bowed their heads in prayer. Then Nels sat down in a chair by the fireplace with a huge sack at his feet. The younger children lined up in front of him. As each child walked up, he reached into the sack and pulled out a present, wishing the child Merry Christmas. His lips were curled into a large smile that nearly met each of his ears.
Caroline tapped Laura's shoulder and discretely pointed. Laura followed her finger to see Harriet Oleson leaning against the staircase. One hand across her chest, the woman's plump cheeks dimpled as she smiled.
Laura whispered in Nellie's ear. "Your parents seem to be enjoying themselves."
"Father is always a big kid at Christmastime. When Willie and I were little, Father would hide our gifts in the back of the store room on a top shelf so we couldn't reach them. Of course, he didn't realize what a good climber Willie was." Nellie giggled. "One year, we went looking for our gifts after Mother and Father went to bed. Willie climbed up and looked in the usual place but there was nothing except a note that said, 'Santa is watching.' I wonder how long he knew."
"I think I'm glad I don't know how many things Ma and Pa knew about what I did," said Laura.
After the last child had been handed a gift, the women walked back into the kitchen to finish preparing food. Harriet strolled across the room to follow them, when she felt a familiar grip on her arm. She twirled around, her face lowered into a scowl.
"Let me go, Nels. I have to make sure those women don't give away all the food."
Nels chuckled and loosened his grasp. "But you haven't seen what Santa brought you yet."
Harriet's eyes widened. "Me? What are you talking about?"
Nels pulled his other arm from behind his back. He lifted the square package wrapped in brown paper up to her. "This is for you." His brown eyes gleamed with mischief.
Harriet clutched the pearls at her throat and one of her fingers slid under the strand and tugged. Her mouth hung open. Nels dragged a chair over and helped her sit down.
With a knife from the food table, Harriet sliced through the string. Her fingers traced the edges of the box, and her chest rose and fell quickly.
"Open it," said Nels.
Harriet gazed up at him, her cheeks now rosy with the heat of her blush. Folding back the brown paper, she removed the top of the box and lifted out a brass container. On the cover was a mini-portrait of a beautiful woman wearing a white lace blouse and a feathered hat. When Harriet removed the top, she found a fluffy powder puff and powder inside. The box played a sweet, romantic tune.
Harriet ogled her gift. "It's beautiful. I never saw this come in."
"I picked it up on my trip to Mankato last month." He leaned against the door jamb. "I thought of you the minute I saw it."
Tears swam in Harriet's eyes. "Oh Nels." She stood and wrapped her arms around his neck.
They watched the families of Walnut Grove enjoying Christmas morning together. The children delighted in showing off their presents, and neighbors walked around the room, shaking hands and hugging each other. Harriet knew Nels hadn't added the cost of the gifts to their accounts. Suddenly it didn't matter. She felt especially blessed with her family and friends around her.
Harriet nestled deeper into his chest. "Merry Christmas, Nels."
He kissed the top of her head. "Merry Christmas, Harriet."
Copyright Cheryl C. Malandrinos - All Rights Reserved.