My book series currently has two Christmas short stories. One of the things I wanted to do was give them a nineteenth century feel, since… well, since they’re set in the nineteenth century.
What I am trying to say is I wanted a kind of old-fashioned, traditional feel to the stories. You know what that’s like if you’ve read O. Henry’s early twentieth century story “The Gift of the Magi,” read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” or seen the numerous movies that pay homage to it, or enjoyed the Christmas scenes in Alcott’s Little Women or liked its many iterations on screen.
So, what exactly is that feeling? Well, part if it is a sense of giving, especially to someone in need. But there is also a sense that Christmas is a time of sacrificial giving in that one goes the extra mile or gives up something for someone else. Dickens’ story also involves a supernatural element. Miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who teach him that there is more to life than money and that his wealth can and should be shared.
Not surprisingly, some of these elements come into play in my short stories.
“The Dundee Cake,” set in 1852, brings us into Maggie’s life at a time when she is still grieving the loss of her husband and young son from rheumatic fever, as well as grieving the more recent death of Aunt Letty, who had graciously opened her home to newlyweds Maggie and John Blaine after they had been disowned by both sets of parents. It was Aunty Letty who decided to turn her home into a boarding house in order to give Maggie a skill and an income. Now, Letty is dead, and Maggie is on her own. She tries her best to run a rooming house with four down-on-their-luck men, to pay newly hired cook Emily Johnson, and to raise two little girls. And there is an added complication: money is tight.
Maggie wonders if she will ever be able to make ends meet, let alone provide small gifts for her daughters and a Christmas dinner for her borders and family. A smaller, yet still depressing worry is that Maggie doubts she will be able to afford the ingredients for a Dundee cake, a Christmas treat made by her Scottish ancestors.
But when her cook Emily and husband Nate suffer a disaster, it changes Maggie’s priorities.
In my opinion, “The Dundee Cake” borrows from the tradition of sacrificial giving found in nineteenth century and early twentieth century Christmas stories.
NOTE: There is a recipe for a Dundee cake in the back of the book. I had placed a warning there to "make at your own risk," because when the story had been published, I hadn’t tried to make the cake yet. Good news! Last year Dan and I made it for the first time, and it was delicious! No wonder Maggie loves it so. Dan wants it again this year. (His love of the cake comes from his memories of a “blond fruitcake” his mother used to make. A Dundee cake is about as close as we can get to that right now.) So, to anyone interested in trying the recipe, I say “go ahead.” You might even want to adapt it to your own tastes.
The other story, “The Christmas Eve Visitor” is set in 1863 and borrows from the Dickensian twist of other-worldly visitors. However, the visitor in my story is neither terrifying nor out to change the bad behavior of Maggie and her family. Such a thing would be a case of bad timing, as the Smith and Johnson families are having a difficult time of it. They have moved from Gettysburg to escape the aftermath of the July battle and now are sojourning in Pennsylvania just outside Middletown (known today as Biglerville).
Christmas 1863 is far from cheerful for them. First, the two families are struggling to make ends meet, something not unusual for them. But their anxiety and fear are focused on the youngest children, all of whom have come down with a fever and a cough. Back in the 1860s, a fever and a cough were serious things. They could kill you. And that can still happen, but in those days people had little in the way of analgesics and there was no such thing as antibiotics. So, Maggie, Eli, Emily, Nate, and Maggie’s daughters Lydia and Frankie work to keep their spirits up as they care for three ill little ones and pray that the symptoms will abate. Losing any of or all the children is a real fear.
There is a roaring snowstorm outside, which adds to the feeling of being closed in and trapped.
And then someone knocks on their door.
Outside Maggie finds a little peddler. Baffled at his appearance in the storm, but always hospitable, she invites him in, gives him a bowl of hot soup and some bread, and sits him down at the kitchen table, where she and Emily proceed to chat with him.
The man says his name is Ira Strauss. He is grateful for the meal and the warm place to rest. These things, he says, have been a mitzvah. But Ira is decidedly odd, if not mysterious. He seems to know things about the family that he has no way of knowing. What’s more, he gives each person in the household a gift strangely suited to them. Who is he? Where is he from? What does he want? You’ll need to read the story to learn find out. Maybe.
And so, to honor the holidays and the tradition of giving, both books will be free on Kindle starting December 22 and ending on December 26. Get one or both for yourself and maybe give them to a friend. (Can be done on Kindle? Hope so!)
Click on the links below from 12/22 thru 12/26 to get either or both.
The Dundee Cake
The Christmas Eve Visitor
This is my little way of thanking you all for hanging with me this year. Let’s hope that things get better in 2021.
Stay strong and hopeful, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder