The student news site of Mother of Divine Grace in Ojai, California
Photo Credit: Anna Hermes

Photo Credit: Anna Hermes

Winning Stories of the Christmas Writing Competition

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone had a blessed and joyous Christmas season and a very happy New Year!

We received some beautiful submissions for this year’s Christmas Writing Competition! In fact, it was very tough for our judges to decide!

The winner of this year’s competition is Maria Simmons with her submission, “Missing From Christmas”! And the 2nd place winner is Reagan Sullivan with “A Christmas in St. Petersburg”.

I hope you enjoy their stories! We all hope you’ll consider entering next year!

Missing from Christmas

by Maria Sammons

December 1st.

Christmas was everywhere. Lights and stockings were hung, the radio only played holiday songs, and the Moretti’s advent wreath was unpacked and placed on their table. The air smelled of frost and fires and Christmas cooking.

Mia hated it.

To her, Christmas wasn’t anywhere. Christmas was missing that year. The lights and stockings had been hung lopsided by her younger sister Gianna, who was too short to reach. The Christmas songs were played to a car with one empty seat. Her family held hands while they said the Advent prayers around the dinner table, but there was a person missing.

Everywhere Mia looked, her mama was missing from Christmas.

Mia sat in front of the fire that her papa and her older brother Gabriel had made. In the kitchen, Gianna baked cookies. After a long day of schoolwork, it should have been relaxing to gaze into the fire, but Mia’s eyes kept drifting up to the mantle and the four stockings hung there. Papa. Gabriel. Mia. Gianna.

Missing. Mama was missing.

Mia looked down, letting her dark hair fall over her face and cover her eyes. This was Mama’s time of year. Mama had always loved Christmas, and even last year with the reality of her cancer looming over them all, she had made it a joyful time. Last year five stockings hung over the fire, and the Morettis were happy.

Now, Mama’s stocking was missing from the mantle, and that happiness was missing from Mia. She pulled the sleeves of her sweater over her hands and took a deep, shaky breath.

This was going to be the worst Christmas of her life.

December 13th.

Mia woke up to a light covering of snow outside her window. She smiled. She loved snow and the way it covered the ground in silence and sparkling beauty.

It was still early, only a little past 7, but Mia climbed out of bed and got dressed, wanting to be up and ready before the rest of her family. She pulled on a warm grey sweater and jeans and her boots.

Outside, the snow continued to fall harder. Mia sat on the front porch, not caring about her freezing fingers. The world was still and silent, and Mia looked out at the hills beyond their neighborhood and thought of her mama’s favorite Christmas song.

Angels we have heard on high

Sweetly singing o’er the plains,

And the mountains in reply

Echoing their joyous strains.

But Mia didn’t hear any joyous strains. All she could hear was her own heartbeat.

She put her hand on the freezing ground, touching the snow and trying to take her mind off her thoughts. But her mind wasn’t quiet like the cold world around her. She

couldn’t be at peace like the rest of Christmas, and she couldn’t be happy like the rest of the world.

Why were they all so happy? What on earth was there to be joyful about? The radio with its happy songs and her neighbors with their excessive lights and even her family, with their cooking and decorating and “holiday cheer”.

Why should she be happy just because it was a certain time of year?

Mia sighed, her breath hanging in a cloud in front of her. It didn’t matter what she thought – Christmas was coming whether she wanted it to or not. She would go to a holiday party tonight, and she would feel isolated from all the happy, joyful people there. She wouldn’t be able to enjoy it like the rest of them, because that part of her was gone. This Christmas season, all the important things were missing.

The cold from the porch was soaking her bones. She stood up, brushing snow off her knees, and turned to go inside. Instead of starting her day like she knew she should, Mia climbed back in bed and buried herself under all her blankets.

And she tried to sleep, tried to drift off to a place where all the missing parts of her didn’t hurt so much.

December 21st.

Mia trudged up the porch steps after school and stamped her feet to knock the snow off her boots. She pulled the door open, and as soon as she did, she smelled it. Christmas bread.

Mama’s Christmas bread. The homemade bread they only had once a year. Mama was the only one who ever made it.

Gianna was in the kitchen, covered in flour, her curly dark hair escaping from her bun.

“What are you doing?” Mia asked, sounding ruder than she had intended.

“Making Christmas bread!” Gianna tried to pull her curls back and instead left streaks of flour in her hair.

“You don’t know how.”

“I found the recipe! And anyway, Papa said I could. Do you want to help?”

“What else are we having for Christmas dinner?” Mia asked, avoiding the question.

“What we always have: Pork chops, potatoes….”

Mia cut her off. “Why are you trying make everything the exact same?”

Gianna bit her lip, not understanding why Mia was frustrated. “Because…that’s what we always do. We always have Christmas bread and mashed potatoes. We always have –”

“We always have Mama here. But now we don’t. You can’t fix that by pretending nothing’s wrong.”

Gianna’s eyes widened. “Mia! I’m trying – I’m trying to do something right,” she finished quietly, her lip trembling.

But Mia didn’t care that her younger sister was on the verge of tears. “You can’t! You can’t do this right, Gianna, unless you let things go. I can’t stand the way everyone acts like nothing is wrong – everything is wrong! Everything!” Mia didn’t realize she had raised her voice until she said the last word and her voice cracked. She glared at Gianna,

annoyed at her trembling lip and the flour in her hair and the smell of the Christmas bread.

Gianna tried to speak. “Mia, I –”

“I don’t care,” Mia mumbled, already regretting her words. “Do whatever you want. Just don’t expect me to pretend to be happy for Christmas.”

Mia turned around and headed for her room. It was where she spent most of her time at home, despite her papa’s wishes.

But when she opened her door, she sighed. It was a mess. An unopened box of her Christmas decorations was still sitting by her unmade bed. Mia unzipped her jacket and threw it on the chair, then sat in bed and pulled a blanket over her legs. The messiness stressed her out, but at least she was alone.

Until someone knocked on the door.

Mia let out a sigh loud enough to be heard outside the room. “I want to be alone right now, Gianna!” she called out.

But the door opened and Gabriel stepped inside.

“Oh. You,” she said unenthusiastically.

“Yeah, me. What’s up?”

“Since when do you care?”

Gabriel frowned. “Not your day?”

“Not my year.”

Gabriel stared at her for a bit, no emotion on his face. Something Mia disliked and also envied about her brother was his ability to hide his feelings.

He made his way across her messy floor and sat down next to her on the bed. “Yeah, I don’t think this is the year for anyone in this family,” he said.

Mia didn’t say anything.

“You shouldn’t yell at Gianna. She’s doing her best.”

“If you came in here to lecture me you can get out now.”

Gabriel played with the edge of the blanket. “I didn’t. I just wanted to talk. Maybe.”

Mia looked at him sideway. “Talking’s not usually your thing.”

“It’s really not. But you’re my sister, and I figured we should sometime, and it’s Christmas time.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Do you have a subject in mind?”

He looked her right in the eyes. “Well I don’t think we’ve had a conversation about Mama in the past seven months.”

Mia turned her head away quickly and crossed her arms, hugging herself. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Neither do I, really. But I also don’t want you to take out your feelings on Gianna.”

“Should I take out my feelings on you, instead?”

“Please. Yell at me, I don’t care. Just get it out, Mia, because I think it’s time we both do.”

Mia was quiet. Her chest hurt from all the feelings she had locked inside. But Gabriel could understand that. He, like her, didn’t talk about Mama. He didn’t cry. So she spoke.

“People always say that if we keep Mama in our hearts, if we remember her and love her, then she’s not really gone. But all I can feel is how gone she is. She’s gone from our house, from going to church with us, from making us dinner, and she’s gone from Christmas. She’s missing from everything.” Mia looked at Gabriel. “Don’t you feel it too? How gone she is?”

“It’s all I feel, Mia. Everything we do. She’s missing from it all.” He twisted his hands together.

“It hurts,” Mia said.

Gabriel nodded. “It’s hard, missing Mama.”

Mia put the blanket over his legs. “I don’t know how Gianna and Papa do it,” she said. “They see Mama everywhere.”

“Didn’t Gianna cry every night for about a month after she died?”

“Yeah, it was rough.”

“And when’s the last time you cried?”

Mia frowned. “I don’t…I don’t cry.”

“Me neither.” Gabriel ran a hand through his hair. “We both keep it all inside. It’s probably unhealthy, and why we can’t move on.”

“We can’t move on? We’re not the ones pretending nothing bad ever happened and everything is okay.”

“But we’re refusing to celebrate Christmas.”

“Yeah…” Mia rubbed her temples. “Why did you want to talk with me?”

“I just wanted to see if you felt the same way as me. I thought maybe it was just me. I thought….”

“What?”

Gabriel looked at the floor. “I thought maybe I didn’t love Mama enough, and that’s why I can’t feel her anywhere.”

Mia’s stomach tightened, like a knot being tied.

“Everything just feels so wrong,” she said. “The world has been wrong since she left and now Christmas is wrong and – and I am wrong.” She choked on the words. “And I can’t even cry,” she finished.

Then Gabriel turned to her and put his arms around her, something she could not remember him doing before, and he let her rest her head on his shoulder. Her body shook, but she didn’t cry.

“It hurts so much,” Mia whispered.

“If it hurts, then you are alive,” Gabriel said quietly. “After all, ‘to hurt is as human as to breathe.’”

“When did you get all smart and philosophical?” Mia asked, her voice muffled against his sleeve. She tried to laugh but it came out shaky, more like a cough.

“It’s true, Mia. We might not be able to feel her, but we can feel the pain. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s necessary.”

Mia didn’t say anything. She wanted to believe him, but she didn’t want this pain. She wanted Mama. She wanted to be in her mama’s arms instead.

But Mama was still gone, gone, gone.

Gabriel was silent, but he was there, and he understood, and that was enough.

December 24th.

Mia got ready for midnight Mass in silence. Usually she would listen to music while putting on her clothes and makeup and doing her hair, but tonight she needed the silence. She needed to think.

She thought of her family, all of them. She thought of what her family was now. She thought about what Gabriel had said to her.

The anger that had been tight inside her chest seemed to melt down to her stomach. It sat there, a heavy weight that watched her get ready. As she brushed out her hair, the knot inside her stomach became untangled too. It crawled up her throat, flooding her lungs. Instead of wanting to yell and rage, she wanted to lie in bed forever.

But she continued getting ready. With a sore throat and lungs, slow limbs, and an aching heart, Mia braided her hair and slipped on her navy blue dress.

Externally, she was ready to go.

But inside, she was nervous and hurting and expectant and lonely, all at once and for no reason at all.

December 25th.

At midnight Mass, time seemed to slow down. Mia sat next to Gianna and followed along in her Missal, trying to take the words into her heart, trying to understand.

Listening to the scripture readings, she remembered her mama reading her Bible stories when she was little.

When the bells rang, her heart ached and her hands shook.

She received Holy Communion, and for the first time that month she didn’t feel so cold. A warmth spread inside her. She knelt in the pew with her family, and she thought about her year and asked for strength fin the coming year.

The closing hymn was Angels We Have Heard on High.

Gloria

in excelsis Deo.

And suddenly, Mama was there with them. She was with the heavenly angels, singing the glorias. Mia felt her there, felt her presence so deeply she could almost smell her perfume and hear her beautiful voice. The whisper of Mama that had been in Christmas all along suddenly became a crystal clear shout.

And the dam Mia had built up in her heart burst. The sadness and the pain of the last seven months demanded to be felt. But she felt so much more than that.

Her face was wet and cold, and she realized she was crying.

Shepherds, why this jubilee?

Why your joyous strains prolong?

What your gladsome tidings be

Which inspire your heavenly song?

Joy. It wasn’t the same as happiness. It was much deeper, and it came to her through pain.

Mia looked over at the rest of her family and saw tears streaming down their faces as well. Gianna, a beautiful smile on her face while the tears glistened on her cheeks.

Gabriel, standing up straight for once and staring through his tears at the crucifix above the altar. And even Papa, whom Mia had not seen cry since the funeral.

They all felt Mama. She was there with them.

Mia put her hymnal down and wrapped her arms around her body, hugging herself and hugging the feeling that her mama was there with them.

She was there, watching over them as they cried on Christmas day.

They were all silent in the car on the way home, and they were silent as they trudged through the snow up to their house, and Mia was silent as she walked through the house to her room.

It wasn’t until she opened her door that she realized Gabriel was behind her. He followed her into her dimly lit room. She didn’t turn around to face him but instead spoke to her wall. “She was there.”

“Yes.”

“I think she always has been, and Papa and Gianna knew it. But we didn’t.”

“Well yeah,” Gabriel said, “Isn’t that how it always is with angels? They’re always there; we just have to open our hearts.”

Mia finally turned to face him. His eyes were red.

He put an arm around her. “You know how I usually hate being sappy?”

Mia raised an eyebrow at him. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. So that’s enough of that. Want me to help you decorate your room?”

“I – what? I wasn’t planning on….”

Suddenly Gianna was at the door, summoned by the word “decorate”. “Yay!” she exclaimed, bouncing on her toes. “I’ll help! We need to put your lights up, and your nutcrackers!”

Mia laughed, her head still resting on Gabriel’s shoulder. “I love you, Gianna,” she said.

Gianna stopped talking and skipped over to them, throwing her arms around them both. Gabriel patted her on the back, and Mia realized Gianna was crying and smiling at the same time.

Then Papa was in the doorway. “Can’t wait until tomorrow to celebrate?” He asked.

Mia grinned at him and he smiled back, and she realized she had missed her papa. She had missed hanging out and talking with him.

And then she knew that all through that Advent, she hadn’t just been missing Mama. She had been missing her whole family. The joy and love inside of her was what had been missing from Christmas.

Mia let go of Gianna and turned to Gabriel. “And I guess I love you too, dork,” she said, lightly punching his shoulder.

He smirked. “Love you too, bud.”

Mia looked around her room. Gianna was already setting up her nutcrackers, Papa brought in a plate of Christmas cookies, and Gabriel started hanging up her lights.

And it finally felt like Christmas.

Come to Bethlehem and see

Him whose birth the angels sing;

Come adore on bended knee

Christ the Lord, the newborn king.

~

A Christmas in St. Petersburg

By Reagan Sullivan, 10th grade

“I’m cold,” the bearded man breathed, “Would you let me stay here for the night?”

Through the grate, the lamplight flickered, revealing the soldier’s face to his weary eyes. Not even daring to breathe, the man pulled his cloak just a little closer to him.

“I know who you are,” the soldier finally said. “Get out of here.”

Sighing deeply, the bearded man shouldered his pack again. His arm muscles rippled as he swung it up; he was remarkably strong. His shirt was ripped and full of holes. One could almost see the serial number tattooed on his chest. It hadn’t been the first time that day he had been refused shelter, but then again, what could an ex-convict expect?

~

The slight woman, a girl really, sewed furiously, her small fingers pricked and hardened from the needle. Her brown eyes focused on her work. She could barely see for how they had been strained, but it was easier to stare down than to look up. The manager of the factory, Grigory Vlonsky, was certain to be staring directly at her, his eyes glaring at her.

Humming gently, she rubbed her forehead against the back of her hand. A dull pain throbbed in her temples. She should have eaten, but then again, she had no money for food.

“Nathalie!” She heard shouted.

Nearly dropping her needle, she jumped to feet. The manager stood before her, waving a shirt in front of her face.

“Is this the quality of work I should be expecting from you?”

“I-I, I’m sorry, sir,” Nathalie murmured meekly, bowing her head slightly, reaching to take the shirt from him.

He pulled it from her reach, his brows knitted together tightly. “Sorry isn’t good enough. You’re fired.”

“Fired?” She cried, her eyes growing wide. “Oh no. Please, I’ll do anything, anything at all.” By now, she was desperately clutching his arm, her grip almost vise-like in her sudden panic. Grigory Vlonsky stared down at her, then glanced over his shoulder at a male worker.

“Remove her,” he said, flicking Nathalie away.

Her heart was pounding. Nathalie fell on her knees, pleading. She found herself gripped from behind and half drug away.

“Please, I have a child,” she cried, her hysteria rising, “I have a child!”

The doors were slammed in her face. Nathalie stared in shock for a moment, before slowly sinking onto the sidewalk, her back heaving with sobs. Burying her face in her hands, she murmured gently to herself.

“My poor Anya . . . What shall I ever do now?”

Sniffing a little, she stood up. Petersburg was lovely in winter, but the lone woman barely saw it. Pulling her thin shawl a little closer, she hurried down the winding streets. The couple watching her child Anya would be impatient for their money. Nathalie just had to find a way to explain to them their money wasn’t going to be coming anytime soon, for Anya and Nathalie would be on the streets before the sun set.

~

“How can we tolerate this anymore!? This isn’t freedom, it’s fear!”

The young man stood in front of the crowd of people. The crowd was restless, muttering. The favor was definitely against this young man and his views on the Communistic way of life. What was even less in his favor was the crucifix that was visible under his coat. It could be seen as he moved uneasily, his deep brown eyes scanning the crowd, looking for a friendly face. Mikhail Alexie began to think that loudly denouncing public opinion, enforced by law, might not have been such a good idea.

“Are you Catholic?” Someone shouted.

Swallowing, he answered back loudly. “I am.”

The muttering of the crowd suddenly turned to shouting, the angry screams echoing in his head. Brushing some golden hair from his brow, he stood bravely before them. Slowly, he turned his back and began to walk away.

As soon as he was out of sight of the angry crowd, he began to walk much faster. The people wanted blood, that much he could tell. Suddenly, a shriek caused him to turn sharply. A small woman stood in the doorway, clinging tightly to a tousle-headed little girl. A large man stood over her, intimidating her with his hand raised to strike her, his other wrapped around her child’s arm.

“No!” The woman cried, her voice growing more shrill with fear, “You will not keep my Anya away from me!”

“Shut up,” the man growled in response, “You’re as much a child as she.”

Mikhail watched a moment longer. The man pulled the child away from her mother who cried out as if in pain. She tried to take the small child back, but was stopped by a slap across her face. The man turned, moving as if to take the child back inside.

“Stop,” Mikhail shouted loudly, crossing the street in several strides. Determinedly, he stepped between the woman, who was holding a hand to her flaming red cheek, and the man holding onto the child roughly.

“How dare you lay a hand on either of them?!” He thundered. The man stared at him, slightly dumbfounded. Mikhail took advantage of this to lift up the child in his arms and take the hand of the mother. Walking away quickly, he didn’t say another word. In silence, he strode on for several minutes, until he noticed the woman was panting for air and almost running to keep up. Stopping, he released her hand.

“Are you alright?” he asked gently.

Nodding, she wiped a tear from her cheek quickly, then reached for the child. Mikhail hesitated a moment.

“Are you strong enough to carry her to your home?” He asked her, torn between handing her the child and letting her stumble along under that burden alone.

“We have no home,” the woman replied softly, brushing a wisp of hair from her face. “I lost my job and have no money, and I dare not face my landlord without the rent.”

“Ah.” Mikhail felt in his pocket. Being a college student was a terrible way to pay bills and his dormitory room was no place to bring a woman and her small child. “Well, we’ll figure out something,” he said to himself, before addressing the woman again. “What is your name?”

“Nathalie,” she breathed quickly. “That’s Anya.”

She pointed at the child who had fallen asleep in Mikhail’s arms. Nodding and smiling a little, he shifted her to his left shoulder.

“How did you manage to lose your job on Christmas Eve?” He asked, after introducing himself.

Nathalie blinked several times. “It’s Christmas Eve?” She asked slowly. “I had forgotten . . .”

Mikhail laughed. “Well it is. Come on, let’s find a place out of the snow and cold.”

Obediently, the woman followed him. They knocked on several doors, asking if there was any shelter to be had anywhere. Each time, they were refused. Nathalie’s eyes grew misty and her head drooped. Mikhail bit his lip and trudged on. There had to be someone who would be kind enough to give a small child and her mother a room for the night.

The houses began to grow further apart, and the trees grew much closer together. After an hour more of walking, the three found themselves in the deep parts of the woods. The sun set, in a red, fiery burst of splendor, leaving them in the darkness. Nathalie began to quietly cry. Anya was still fast asleep in Mikhail’s arms, who was growing much more nervous.

“Stop that,” he said sternly, “We are not lost, it’s just dark. I grew up here. Don’t fret, nothing will hurt you.”

Nathalie screamed suddenly, as she pointed past him. A feeling of dread weighed down at his heart as he slowly turned around. Towering over him was a bearded man, wearing almost rags. His eyes seemed to snap and flash sparks in them.

“Who are you?” He half-growled.

Quickly handing the child to Nathalie, Mikhail stood between the man and the mother cradling her baby.

“We mean no harm,” he explained, “This child and her mother have no shelter and I have no place for them myself. I just wanted to find a safe place for them. After all, it’s almost Christmas Day, and bitter cold.”

The man’s face was unmoving, as if set in stone. Nathalie suddenly pushed past Mikhail, standing before the man.

“Please?” She almost whispered, clutching Anya tightly, “How could any of us harm you?”

Glancing at her and the child, the man’s eyes visibly softened.

“I,” he said in his deep voice, “Have no home myself. However, I have a hut in the woods and a fire. You are welcome to them.”

Standing aside, he motioned them to move forward. Sighing with relief, Mikhail took Nathalie’s hand and helped her along through the trees and snow to where the man guided them. They soon reached a clearing, in the center of which, a large fire blazed. Further in the shadows, a small hut was visible. The man entered it and brought out a large woolen blanket, which he roughly threw over the woman’s shoulders.

“Here,” he said gruffly, then stalked past her.

Nathalie sighed and wrapped herself and Anya in it, sitting down on a fallen log. Mikhail followed the tall man for a moment.

“Thank you,” he said, then repeated it, as the man showed no recognition of his words.

Stopping, the man glanced over his shoulder. “I’m surprised you even trust someone like me,” he said deeply. “Don’t you know, I’ve been in prison? Served nineteen years.”

“I guessed that,” Mikhail responded, “Which is why I stayed to ensure their safety.”

“Are they not strangers to you?”

“They are people,” he responded quickly, “And I will not let two innocents freeze on the streets when I could stop that by helping them. Haven’t you ever heard of Mary and her child, Jesus Christ? They were once in that position.”

“I have,” the man replied quietly. “But the forgiveness for which Christ came is not for one such as me.”

Mikhail started to respond, then hesitated. Reaching under his coat, he pulled off his crucifix necklace, then handed it to the man.

“He came to save everyone,” he said gently, touching the cross with much love shining in his eyes. “He forgave prostitutes and murderers and thieves and the lowest of the low. He has enough love for everyone, even an ex-convict who is too afraid to even ask for it.”

Pressing the man’s fingers around it, Mikhail turned and went back to Nathalie, who had fallen asleep, her head resting on the fallen log. Smiling, he propped her up a little, then gently kissed Anya’s cheek. The bells of the clocktower in St. Petersburg tolled twelve times, their tones ringing through the trees.

Looking up, Mikhail saw the ex-convict sitting across from him. The crucifix was around his neck. He smiled, his bearded face which had not smiled in nearly twenty years. Something new was shining through the man’s face: Hope. It was hope, something that the man had not known in many years. For suddenly, he began to understand the nature of mercy and why a baby boy had come into the world that night, almost two thousand years before.

“Merry Christmas,” he said gruffly. Mikhail could have sworn he saw tears in the man’s eyes.

~

THE END

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