Somewhere down south, nestled in the Appalachian foothills, there’s a small town called Old Hundred. Main Street consists of a general store, a barber shop, a town hall, and a chapel. It boasts a population of 173 citizens (not including Mrs. Simpson’s upcoming eighth child). They fly the flag proudly, root for the home team, and watch each other’s backs. But the gang of kids in Old Hundred is constantly up to mischief: so grab a sweet tea an’ I’ll give a few examples!
In Old Hundred, the folks have learned that snow doesn’t make a Christmas. Some may not be content with this, but it doesn’t change the fact that the town’s one hundred seventy-three (soon to be one hundred seventy-four) citizens cherish whatever comes their way. As a special tradition, the elementary children put on a pageant in the white chapel on the hill at the end of Main Street. Come Christmas Eve, the pews are packed. But things must start to happen long before this.
A week before the scheduled program, Miss Luffman chose parts from among her students. Heidi McCloud, who was six and in school for the first time, was suddenly the angel. It sounded elegant at first to wear a white dress and stand up above everybody. However, after Miss Luffman set her up on a chair and left to settle a dispute between the wise men, Heidi was beginning to have doubts. Miles of chairs—she would be in front of all those people? She squirmed. How long did she have to hold up her arms? Heidi studied her scuffed brown boots. Did angels wear shoes? She would look ridiculous in bare feet.
Anxiously she waited until her big brothers came downstairs from middle school to pick her up.
“Let’s hurry!” urged thirteen-year-old Danny, taking his sister’s hand.
Eleven-year-old Abe took the other. “Remember, Heidi? Aunt Sare and Uncle Jack and the cousins are coming today. They’re already at home!”
Bo met them at the gate, barking madly. The boys rushed in, but Heidi stopped to hug the golden-haired dog. “What’s wrong, Bo?” she asked. “Oh, Aunt and Uncle? No, it’s alright, they’re family. Don’t worry. Stop barking—good boy. Go sit in the barn where its warm.”
The dog gave her a kiss and sped away. Inside the snug house, Uncle Jack scooped up Heidi in a big hug. Heidi laughed, but inside she didn’t like the store-bought smell of his gray suit. Aunt Sare gave her a hug too, but emanated of strong perfume. Heidi was afraid to hug too hard or she might crush her aunt’s nice clothes. She shyly stood with her mother, eyeing her cousins.
When Abe had charged in, he was eager to see his cousins. He was disappointed. He hadn’t remembered that they had grown up in the city. Della and Cody wore stylish clothes that made him look dingy in his overalls and thick flannel shirt. Della soon went up to her room to unpack and relax with her phone, and Abe took Cody out to the barn.
“I wanted to show you this,” he said, his excitement dimming, as he pulled out several projects from the workbench. Cody didn’t seem very impressed. Without taking much notice of the animals around him, he pulled out his phone and started playing a game.
“You don’t have a phone, or otherwise I would say you should play against me. This is a great game; it just came out. Watch this.”
Abe leaned over his shoulder and watched with confused eyes the quick movements of Cody’s thumbs and the flashing colors on the screen. After a while he stepped back to clear his vision. His breath made clouds of frost. Bo yipped playfully in the yard with Heidi.
“Hey, do you want to go out in the woods and see the tree fort Danny and I made?” asked Abe.
Cody raised his head after a moment and furrowed his brows. “It’s already so cold in here. You want to go out there?” He shoved his phone in his pocket and stalked to the house.
Danny slipped out of one of the stalls. “I guess city slicker thinks he’s too good for us country kids.”
Abe dejectedly kicked at a pebble. “I don’t get it. He’s younger than I am, and he’s stuck on that little phone all the time. What about all this?” He gestured wildly at the vast outdoors.
The rest of the week was spent on excursions in town, decorating the house, and other such things. Mrs. McCloud busily sewed a golden-white dress with long sleeves for her daughter. Throughout this time, Danny, Abe, and Heidi gave up on their cousins for the fun they had planned. But still, thought Heidi, there is the Christmas Eve Program.
Christmas Eve morning, there was a cold snap. Sleet dusted the ground, and it was so cold that Persimmon Pond froze over. The Old Hundred children were in such a state of excitement that it was a wonder all the families arrived at the chapel that evening.
Heidi gazed in wonder at the chapel’s beauty. In one corner the tree stood tall, brightly decorated and hung with treats. The room glowed with candles and lanterns. The singing voices of the congregation blended together in a golden harmony that matched the soft lights.
Abe was smug. Beside him, Cody and Della looked bewildered. Here, thought the country boy, they are the ones who are outshined.
Meanwhile, the elementary children snuck to the coat closet to pull on their costumes. Heidi’s mother helped her to arrange her dress, then gave her an encouraging kiss. The magi donned glittering garments and strutted about. The shepherds eagerly awaited the special arrival of Mr. O’Neal’s goat. Mary hugged her baby to herself.
Miss Luffman ran about, looking blustered and frantic. “Where is the goat? We’re supposed to be going up the aisle!”
Mr. O’Neal arrived just then, bringing with him a draft of cold air from outside. “I’m sorry, miss,” he said sheepishly, “But my goat won’t be able to perform tonight.”
Miss Luffman turned pale. “Oh dear. The shepherds were so counting on it. What in the world could prevent her?”
The farmer shifted in his muddy boots. “I suppose I should have told you before. Eliza, uh, the goat, went into labor this afternoon. She has a baby of her own to take care of tonight.”
Heidi’s brown eyes were big with surprise. “But we need a sheep for the shepherds!” she whispered.
Abe slipped in beside her. “What’s wrong? Everybody’s waiting!” Heidi filled him in on the dire situation. Suddenly a light sprang into his eyes. “I know! Miss Luffman, I can get a sheep. It won’t take long, honest!” He burst out of the chapel and pelted away.
Miss Luffman tried to call him back, but gave up, wringing her hands. Timidly she entered the other room and started another carol.
In the dark, bitter cold, Abe leapt over the fence at home and rushed to the barn. “Come on, Bo,” he told the joyful dog. “We got a job for you.”
Miss Luffman could wait no longer. They had sung carols, they had recited poems, they had even played the piano. The children finally took their places, and the big girls started to read the story.
“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth… Joseph also went up from Galilee… in order to register along with Mary…”
Heidi stood fearfully behind her chair, waiting. Where was Abe?
“…and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Jill Wimbledon laid her doll in the manger and gazed down at it in perfect character. In the back of the chapel, a door opened.
“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night.”
Heidi stifled a giggle of joy. There was Curt and Willy, in their bathrobes, coming up the aisle, with—Bo! The dog was covered with a white sheet and zigzagged from pew to pew, wagging his tail. The shepherds took their places and made him sit. Willy had to hold him down when he saw Heidi. The dog and girl stood still, grinning at each other.
“And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.”
Heidi kept on smiling at Bo. A few people chuckled. One of the magi ducked over and nudged her. Hastily she climbed on the chair and spread out her arms, blushing madly.
“’Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy… a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Heidi smiled shyly at the shadowy crowd and thought about that. There was only a doll there in the crib, but in the Bible, there was a real little baby. He had to sleep in a dirty pile of straw in a cave somewhere, and didn’t even know that He Himself was the Son of God!
She was still standing there with her arms outstretched when the congregation stood up for a final carol. “Psst,” said Willy. “Come on, Heidi!”
So quickly that she nearly tripped on her dress, Heidi scrambled down and tip-toed to her seat with Bo. He wriggled at her knees and licked her hands.
Afterwards, everyone mingled together and laughter sprinkled the lively conversation. The room was warm with so many bodies. It was late. Heidi started to sag sleepily.
Mr. and Mrs. McCloud stood apart from their family. “This reminds me of a Christmas Eve a long time ago, in Vermont,” said he. “That was our first date, remember?”
“I remember,” she answered, glowing. “We went ice skating, didn’t we?”
“You know,” said he, “I hear tell that a few couples are going down to Persimmon Pond for a skate. Would you do me the honor of accompanying me there, Cecile?”
Mrs. McCloud laughed and jostled him. “So, that’s what that bag is? Our old skates! I would be pleasured, Chip.”
Uncle Jack and Aunt Sare took the children home. Light streamed out of the chapel doors onto the icy ground. From the path to Persimmon Pond, the McCloud parents watched Danny tenderly pick up Heidi and carry her home, Abe and Bo following.
On the pond, a dozen other couples swished back and forth over the ice. Mr. McCloud pulled his wife out into the middle and swept her into a waltz.
“Did you hear,” said Mrs. McCloud, “What the children were saying after the program?”
“Hardly,” said Mr. McCloud.
“I only caught the end tail of it, but I remember it clearly. Cody was wondering very loudly why Santa Claus was not there handing out presents. He asked Abe, quite disappointed, where Santa was. And do you know what Abe said?”
Mr. McCloud had a twinkle in his eye. “What did he say?” They twirled in a graceful arc.
Mrs. McCloud smiled. “He said, ‘Cody, we don’t do Santa. We think Jesus is more than enough.’”