Monday, January 26, 2015

Warm Thoughts While Waiting for the Blizzard

I have been a very bad blogger lately, mostly because I have been busy with other things—all writing related, though, so I will not complain. According to the National Weather Service we have a blizzard headed our way so, in a little while, I will go out and do a few errands—stock up on any essentials that are not already sufficiently stocked—then come home and hunker down. My only concern is losing power for very long. However, since I live close to downtown and just 2 blocks from City Hall, even when we do lose power we are among the first to have it restored.

The first good thing that happened this week is the proof copies of th book I have been working on for Dick Dornisch arrived. Much as I appreciate the ease and convenience of digital book, there's nothing quite like a real book. The St.Marystown Saga is beautiful! The paper is a nice, sturdy, pure white that shows the drawings well and I'm happy with the cover.

The book is now live on Amazon and has been selling well enough to climb to #44 on Amazon's Local History list. That makes me happy.

The second good thing is that the boxed set of my three full-length novels is $2.99 for Kindle all this week. The novels are $3.99/each if purchased separately and the boxed set is normally $8.99 so this is a very good deal for a short time.

And the third good thing is that the new Marienstadt stories for the next collection are coming along. I finished a long one called The Memory Quilt of Lacey Mulhearn which turned into a very endearing story that I love. And I finished the first draft of a very short story called A Mystery in Porcupine Run. It's a combination of funny and sad but I like it.

So, that is my life these days—stay home, stay warm, work, be productive, and think about Spring. If you are in the path of the storm I wish you warmth and safety, and if you are not, I wish you happiness and productivity.


Thanks for reading.   

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Doing Research: Mail Order Brides & Arranged Marriages

One of the stories in my new series of Marienstadt tales concerns a mid-19th century marriage between a successful 30-something businessman in America and a pregnant and disgraced 15 year old from “the Old Country”—Ireland. In the story, Paddy came from Ireland as a teenager to work on the railroad but, being a very industrious young man, he made the decision not to marry until he had made his fortune and had a proper home to offer a wife. However, by the time he has made a success of his life, he discovers there are no suitable wives available. Then he learns that the teenage daughter of a friend from the Old Country has gotten herself “in the family way” by a married man. He sends for the girl, concocts the story that she was married but that her husband died to tell his friends, and promptly marries her upon her arrival. It turns out to be a reasonably good marriage and the story has a sweet ending.

As I was working on it I became interested in the customs and expectations about such marriages in the mid-19th century. The term “mail order bride” is commonly used for marriages at that time but it is misleading. It implies that the young women were just picked out of a catalog and sent for but the reality was quite different. Thanks to two factors—the building of the trans-continental railroad and the Civil War—there was a huge imbalance of unmarried people in the United States. The west was filled with single men who had worked their way west building the railroad. The east was filled with young women whose chances of marriage were slim because of the massive loss of men in the Civil War. It is estimated that in the late 1860s there were 30,000 unmarried ladies in the east with no husband material available. Consequently, if a woman wanted to marry her only option was to travel west. Thousands of women did.

At that time the generally accepted sentiment was that marriage was a matter of practicality and that love would come later. Usually marriages were arranged by a local clergyman or marriage broker. Though the betrothed couple sometimes communicated by letters before meeting, illiteracy was common so, unless there was access to someone who could write for them, they knew very little about each other before they met.

There are accounts of prospective bridegrooms meeting their new bride at the train station accompanied by a priest or minister who performed the ceremony then and there. The reason most often given was so that the couple would not be tempted to “sin” before marriage, but it is acknowledged that a far more common reason was that the men did not want to risk the girls taking a look at them and turning around to get back on the train. Among the Irish this was especially true because, being mostly Catholic, the marriage was not considered valid until it was consummated. A new Irish bride could expect to be married while still in her traveling clothes, then led across the street to a hotel where the marriage was “made valid”—so to speak.

All of this seems very scary and somewhat unsavory to us now but in the 19th century such marriages were often the only way many people would marry and have a family. In the west single men were not thought capable of managing a farm or ranch without a wife and children to provide stability and help as the farm or ranch grew. In the east single women were considered a burden that their families had to support if they couldn't find older widowers willing to marry them.

As I was doing this research I was somewhat surprised to see how many times married people described their marriages as happy or, at the least, content. They did not have the expectations of love and romance we have today. Both parties knew their duty and fulfilled it.

So my story of Paddy and Lacey follows the customs of the times. It will be interesting to see how it is received by contemporary readers. The Memory Quilt of Lacey Mulhearn will be added to the next Marienstadt collection. And all this research has added considerably to all the strange information swimming around in my brain.


Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Unique Approach to Story-telling

In my last blog post I talked about the book, The St. Martystown Saga, that I was designing. I was very excited about the project and, frankly, I have gotten very little else done since I started working on it. The deeper into the project I got, the more dazzled I was by the sheer complexity of what Dick Dornisch accomplished with this work. The history that he wrote is so detailed and so grounded in events around the world that it makes the growth of our community fully understandable in terms of what was going on in the world. As before, I am just in love with the drawings in these comic strips. I've isolated a number of them to use on the front matter and back matter of the book just so people can appreciate the art without being distracted by the words.

I read comic books when I was a kid—I loved Katy Keene but was also a big fan of my brothers' action comics. I remember reading the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. I also loved all the Classics comic books which told stories from world literature in comic book format. I avidly collected all of them and, to this day, there are a few classic novels whose characters still look like the drawings in the comic books inside my head.

Maybe this is why I was so taken by the whole notion of Dick's comic strips. I love the combination of images and words. Comic strips have been around as long as newspapers have but learning history this way is not something I would have thought of. And I cannot help but wonder if I would have loved history more back when I was in school if it had been presented this way.

As an adult I've occasionally picked up graphic novels and am awed by the workmanship. My problem, of course, is that I am not a big fan of fantasy/science fiction and it seems most graphic novels are in that genre. But the artwork continues to impress me.

So the paperback of The St. Marystown Saga is nearly complete and I am looking forward to seeing the actual books. This has been a labor of love for me and I hope that the results reflect that.


Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

St. Marystown Saga: A Publication Long Overdue

Although I was born and grew up in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, my inspiration for the fictional town of Marienstadt in many of my stories, I have not lived there since 1980. In some ways, I suppose, that makes it possible for me to recall the town in a spirit that is quite a bit more idealistic than realistic. One of the things I most remember from my young years there was the abundance of “colorful characters” that the town seemed to grow in great number. One of these was a man named Dick Dornisch.

I didn't really know Dick, though I knew who he was. He worked for the local newspaper, The Daily Press, and was the leader of a book club that was well-regarded. I knew him well enough to say hello on the street but that was all. By 1996 I was living in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and going back to St. Marys for visits about once a year. During that time I started hearing about a comic strip that appeared every Saturday in the local paper. It was called St. Marystown Saga and was a combination of history lesson and cartoons written and illustrated by Dick. My mother had recently passed away and my dad, living alone, began cutting out the comic strips and mailing them to me—especially when they mentioned people we were related to. I enjoyed them, pinned them on my refrigerator, and didn't think more about them.

In 2011 I wrote my first Marienstadt story, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, never dreaming it would grow into an entire series. That story grew into ten more which were published as The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall:Secrets of Marienstadt and the title story of the collection won the the eFestival of Words award for Best Short Story of 2013. People kept asking for more and as I began work on a sequel, The Christmas Daughter, I thought of Dick's comic strips and all the history they contained. I wished I had saved all of them to refer to for inspiration.

Then it came to my attention that a man named Dennis Lecker had scanned all of Dick's comic strips and posted them on a web site. There were over 350 panels posted. Not only did he tell the story of our town but he placed events within an historical context to show how our little St. Marystown grew in relation to world events. He drew pictures of people and events both local and global—fabulous little cartoons of our town's colorful characters as well as U.S. Presidents, world leaders, people in the news. His drawings were amazing.

I saved the web pages to my tablet and spent hours looking at the pictures and reading. The story was thorough and endlessly interesting but the drawings were what fascinated me. They were tiny but as I enlarge them on my screen I was endlessly charmed by the tiniest details—the ribbons on a little girl's pigtails as she ran, a man rushing for a train losing his hat, the buttons on the back flap of a lumberjack's long johns, or the coffee grinder on the counter of a housewife's kitchen. Beautiful, perfectly illustrated little touches that delighted me. I wanted all these comic strips in a book where people could see how talented this man was.

In December when I was in St. Marys I met with Dennis Lecker, a close friend of Dick's, who had scanned all the comic strips. I outlined my idea for a book to him and Dennis said he would talk to Dick, who is in his eighties now, about the idea. Dick gave him the go ahead. Dennis gave his high-res scans to me, and I set to work. In a little over a week, I cleaned up all of the cartoons and assembled them in an InDesign file. I was so taken with some of the illustrations that I isolate them and enlarged them to use as ornaments on the opening pages. Last night I sent the manuscript off to Dennis for his inspection and, if all goes well, this book will be available from Amazon within the next few weeks.

Even though I happily volunteered my time for this, I feel I got so much from it—I learned more about my hometown and got tremendous inspiration for additional Marienstadt stories. I cannot wait to see the finished books and I am honored and thrilled to play a part in bringing this talented man's work to the world. St. Marystown Saga by Richard “Dick” Dornish will be available soon. Stay posted.


Thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Welcome 2015—It's About Time

I'll be honest—2014 was not my favorite year but it ended well and is now over and we are on to 2015 which I have every hope will be excellent. This year, for the first time in over a decade, I drove to my home town of St. Marys, Pennsylvania, for the holidays and everything about the trip was perfect.

Traditionally, my family holds a Christmas party every year between Christmas and New Years. In the past this has always been at someone's house but this year my brother Wayne decided to host it at the function hall of the PFL (Protective Fraternal League) where he is the president. Our Grandfather Valentine was the president there in the late 1940s so he is carrying on the family tradition. The party was scheduled for Saturday the 27th so on Christmas Day I packed my car and the morning of the 26th I drove 556 miles—most of it across I-80 through Pennsylvania.


It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day in the 40s and a good day for getting to see a lot of geology in the deep cuts in the Applachian Mountains that line I-80. Because I have been writing more Marienstadt stories this was an added opportunity to feed the Muse. Though I have driven I-80 many times—both coming an going from Maine and then Massachusetts nd when I was in college at Penn State—I tend to forget how beautiful and multi-layered the mountains are.

As I was climbing Red Hill Summit, just outside of St. Marys it was a little after 4:00 pm. The sky was bright with lots of moisture in the atmosphere and at the top of the summit I saw the most brilliant and enormous sundogs I have ever seen. We get to see sundogs here in Gloucester a lot but I don't recall ever seeing them in Pennsylvania before. They were huge and brilliant. It felt like a welcome home.

Saturday morning, before the party, I drove down to the Elk Park in Benezette which I've written about in a couple of Marienstadt stories. The Elk Park itself was pretty much deserted—no elk to be seen but as I was coming down through Medix Run I saw these two fellows and that made the trip worthwhile. They were just grazing by the road looking handsome.

The party started at 2:00 pm and in no time the whole hall was filled. There were over 30 of us and it was so good to see all the beautiful nieces and nephews again. Wayne had knocked himself out with food—spaghetti and meatballs, ham and scalloped potatoes, home-made bread. Anne and Any brought Andy's home-made venison sausage and there were tons of cookies and snacks plus two kegs of beer on tap and lots of wine. The PFL has the advantage of having a game room so we could play pool or darts and, because it is right downtown, the teens could go out and walk around town when they were restless. I left at 10:45, absolutely exhausted, and the party was still going strong.

The next morning we all met again at the West Wind Grill and, although most of us were a little hung-over, we all showed up and had a fine breakfast together. After much hugging and well-wishes, most headed back to wherever they came from. I was meeting my long-time friend Ray for a late lunch so I went to the cemetery for a little while just to pay respect and do a little research.

Lunch with Ray was fine as it always is and I could have stayed all day if I were not so tired. I had one more mission and that was to go in search of a Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn. Years ago there had been many of them in Elk County but the first two I hoped to see while driving in were gone. So I headed out the Bucktail Trail and, sure enough, I found this one.

My next collection of Marienstadt stories has a story in it called Candy Dippold and the Mail Pouch Barn, about the efforts of townspeople to save the county's last one. So it pleased me to discover there was still one around.


And that is the highlights of my first holiday trip to Marienstadt in many years. More to tell later but thanks for reading and wishing everyone a peaceful and prosperous 2015.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

#Christmas with My Characters: V. Ruthie, Bertie, and Jim

This is from the story Treeing from A Very Marienstadt Christmas:


In the dining room, Belva carefully stirred a blend of rum, cognac, brandy, and milk into the Tom and Jerry punch bowl, being careful not to disturb islands of spicy meringue.
I never heard of Tom and Jerrys before Father Nick told me about them,” she said to Ruthie.
When I was little,” Ruthie said, “my mother served it for every Christmas party from Belsnickel to New Year’s Eve. She always made hers with milk but Mother Bertie said she used to make hot Tom and Jerrys with coffee.” As she said it she looked up to find her tall, imperious mother-in-law headed toward her. Ruthie reached for the last mug and ladled punch and meringue into it.
Here, Mother Bertie,” Ruthie said, “let me fix one for you. I’m so glad you got here before all the mugs were taken. I tried to keep them just for Tom and Jerrys but the kids love them and keep grabbing them for their fruit punch.”
That’s perfectly all right.” Bertie smiled with genuine pleasure in her eyes. “It just warms my heart to see my grandchildren using the very same mugs that my mother served our Christmas eggnog in.”
As Ruthie turned the cup to hand it to her mother-in-law she saw something that made her hand tremble and her knees wobble.
Oh dear!” she gasped before she could stop herself. A few guests standing nearby glanced over at her. Bertie looked up.
Whatever is the matter?” She reached to take the mug from Ruthie’s shaking hand.
Oh, my!” Ruthie looked up with wide eyes. “I don’t know how that happened. I never even noticed it.”
What?” Bertie said, turning the cup. Then she laughed. “Oh, I forgot all about that.” She held it up and ran one finger over a chip the size of her little fingernail in the handle. She laughed. “Oh my. That was a very long time ago.”
Ruthie stared at her—her mouth moving but no sound coming out.
My husband is responsible for that, God rest his soul—he always was the clumsiest man
in town.” Bertie smiled with a misty expression in her eyes.
What?” Ruthie could barely speak.
I think it was the last Christmas we spent together.” Bertie sighed. “We had a wonderful party and after everyone left I was starting to clean up, but Norm said he wanted me to come have a drink with him by the Christmas tree.” Her eyes misted with tears and Ruthie stared at her. In all the years she had known Bertie she’d never seen a tear in those sharp eyes. “Norm turned out all the lights except for the tree and fixed us each a drink in these mugs. We were cuddling on the couch and…” Bertie flushed. “Norm was kissing me but he had this mug in his hand and he got so carried away he smacked his hand into a lamp and took a chip right out of the cup.” Bertie took a napkin from the buffet table and wiped her eyes. “Oh my. He thought I would be mad at him but I couldn’t stop laughing. Poor dear Norm. He was killed in an accident at the plant the following summer.” She looked at the chip in the handle of the cup and smiled. “I’m so happy I remembered that.” Bertie leaned forward and kissed Ruthie’s cheek. “Thank you, dear. Thank you so much.”
Ruthie stared with her mouth open as Bertie walked away.

Evening settled in and, though soft snow continued falling, no one seemed in a hurry to leave. Lucius arrived and let Belva lead him around as she showed off her diamond and collected congratulations and hugs. Ruthie thought Lucius looked like he would explode from happiness. She was carrying an empty tray back to the kitchen when, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a couple making good use of the mistletoe hanging in the hall. Jim held Ellie against him, his head bent over hers. She ran her fingers through his hair and sighed as he kissed her.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

#Christmas with My Characters: IV. Oliver and Gretchen

From Story #9, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Ever since she was a kid Gretchen has had a crush on Oliver but in recent years he has lived as a recluse deep in Opelt's Wood. Finally, Gretchen discovers the reason for his seclusion and helps their mutual friend Father Nick to do something about it. Oliver is grateful and Gretchen can't stop thinking about him. On Christmas Day she leaves her mother and sister and drives down to Opelt's Wood to find him:

 There were over a dozen deer feasting on apples in the hollow as she approached the sawmill. One was a buck with a beautiful rack. She was glad to see he had survived another hunting season. She pulled her car up beside Oliver's truck but before she could get out he appeared at the door of his workshop with sandpaper in his hand, Toots by his side.
“You're not supposed to work on Christmas,” she said as she got out of her car.
“Who says?” he asked.
She shrugged. “You're supposed to sit around the table with a bunch of relatives, eat way too much, get drunk, and pass out in front of a football game. Isn't that the tradition?”
He laughed and she noticed he looked very good, happy, rested, and content.
“Merry Christmas,” she said as she approached and stood on her toes to kiss him.
“Thanks for what you did,” he said. “I still can't believe it. I'm so happy.”
“It was Father Nick who found them.” She was intensely aware of the feeling of his hand on her back as he guided her into his shop. “And thank you for my beautiful clock. Where did you find that little lady with the quilt?”
He grinned. “Sister Hilda at the convent made it. I ordered a bunch of miniatures from her to put on more clocks.”
“I love it.”
He stood silent for a moment and then he looked at her feet. “I'm glad you have good boots on. I've got something I want to show you. Come on,” he said, pulling on his jacket. “Toots, you stay here. We'll be back in a bit.”
Toots gave a little whimper and curled up by the woodstove.
He walked with her to his truck and opened the passenger side door for her. “Watch your step,” he said.
He stepped up into the driver's side and said, “Fasten your seat belt and hang on.”
They headed off past the sawmill, up the single lane drive that hugged the river. Here in the depths of Opelt's Wood the snow was deeper on the ground. The trees grew thicker and darker almost blotting out the sun.
“Okay, hang on.” He guided the truck off the road onto an old logging grade and they bumped and lurched through miles of bushes so thick they scraped against the sides of his truck. She rolled down the window and captured a juniper bough loaded with frosty blue berries. The trees were wound round with the skeletons of wild grape vines. Hemlocks brushed the windshield leaving scatterings of little cones across the hood of the truck.
“This is my favorite Christmas adventure ever,” she said laughing.
“Just wait,” he said. “This is part of the Seneca Highlands not many people get to see.”
They climbed a steep hill with the truck tipped so far to the side that she thought if she reached out of the window she could touch the ground. Then, as suddenly, as they had entered the deep woods, they emerged into a clearing... a vast field in which the milkweed plants stood as high as the windows and sumac and sassafras bushes were everywhere. Ahead of them, at the crest of a rise, stood a mammoth oak tree, whose bare branches formed a pattern of black lace against the bright blue sky.
“That's beautiful,” she said.
“Wait,” he said, “I'll get us closer.” As they approached the tree he leaned over to her and pointed. “See that?”
She followed the direction of his finger. Though the branches were bare, in the them, on the right side of the tree, low in the limbs, was a ball of brilliant greenery. It looked completely out of place in a tree bare of leaves and yet it swayed and shone in the winter light.
“What is that?”
He smiled. “Come on.” He parked the truck and they hopped out. The dry winter grasses weren't as deep here at the top of the hill and he put his arm around her waist and guided her through the ankle deep snow until they were standing under the tree.
She looked up and saw clusters of small white berries nestled among the leaves.
“It's a parasite,” he said. “It takes up residence in some trees like big oaks and it grows there all on its own. Here...” He bent down and picked up a sprig of the green leaves and clusters of white berries that had fallen into the snow.
“It's beautiful,” she said, touching the berries.
“Let me,” he said and he wove it into her silky blond curls. “That's a perfect place for it. Haven't you ever seen it before?”
She shook her head. “I don't think so.”
“I bet you have,” he said. “It's mistletoe.”
He looked into her eyes and knew, as they stood under the old tree atop the snowy landscape on this Christmas afternoon, that he wanted children of his own and that this woman beside him was the one he wanted to have them with. So he stroked her hair, and drew her to him. He cradled her warm body against his, cupped her face in his big hand, leaned down, and shared with her the tradition of the mistletoe. 
Read the rest of the stories, The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall, Boxed Set.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

#Christmas with My Characters: III. Clair's Christmas

This is from The Old Mermaid's Tale:

TEARS SWOLLEN WITH SHAME BURNED MY EYES and all the wrong words clawed at the inside of my throat but I would not cry or speak. He sat as far away from me as possible on the cracked backseat of an old taxi where years of lovers must have wound around each other, eager to be alone. Is it possible to believe that the one you are sure is the incarnation of all your desires cannot be warmed by the heat of your longing? As we turned down Canal Street the colored Christmas lights in the windows of the restaurants and taverns seemed sad and forlorn. We passed The Old Mermaid Inn and I covered my face and sighed.
“I’m so sorry, Baptiste.” I spoke as calmly as I could. “I’m sorry I was so forward.”
The door of the Inn opened and a lone, hunched figure stepped out into the street.
“I’m so foolish,” I gasped, letting the tears fall. “I dream up these ridiculous mysteries then I try to find people to fit them. I’m a stupid country girl in love with a phantom.”
I pressed my cheek to the cold of the window letting the flush of my humiliation fog the glass.
His hand slid down my back so softly I scarcely felt it. When he reached my waist he curled his arm around me and lifted me backward into his embrace. I turned but his hand cupped my chin and his mouth covered mine before a word could escape.
Snow fell in round, fat puffs as he walked me to my door. The taxi idled at the corner and I clung to him lacking any sense or thought.
“Come in.” I pressed myself against him. “Come in and stay tonight.”
He bent and kissed my mouth and let his face rest against mine. “If I do...” he said choosing his words carefully, “what will happen tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is Christmas, Baptiste. Anything can happen on Christmas.”
He lifted his face and stared down into my eyes. And then he nodded.
As he turned back to dismiss the taxi I made a solemn vow that whatever happened would exist only between us without interference from the rest of the world. I would not offer him my passion colored by conditions. If we were to be lovers, even for one night, it would be my gift, as much to myself as to him, and I would not beg heaven for more. As the taxi pulled away the driver’s eyes met mine and he smiled as though in benediction.
Baptiste turned, raised his head and shook it violently sending the snow flying in a white whirlwind. He raised his hand and pointed his finger toward me.
“This is your last chance, cher. If I walk down this path your life will never be the same.” But he was smiling.
I held out my arms and he walked right into them.
I had dreamed a thousand coming-togethers in the preceding weeks but fantasies cannot compare to reality. Whether or not Baptiste was the accomplished lover I had imagined him to be, my own fire was so intense it filled all the spaces between us. A smear of pink lipstick along his jaw startled me when I lifted my head to kiss him until I realized it was my own and our history had already begun. His breath was exquisite and I longed for his mouth even as it covered mine.
I moved my lips to his ear whispering, “Have you ever dreamed of doing something you would regret for the rest of your life?”
His hands tangled in my hair. He gasped, hiding his face from me and I could not imagine what truth I had disturbed as my lips sought his hands and the thickness of his fingers separating strands of my hair. My cloak fell across the back of the couch and was covered by his overcoat and I took his hand and drew him to the stairs. It seemed we could not stop kissing long enough to even mount them but then we were in my room and his hands were moving over me and the velvet was slithering down and puddling onto the floor. I touched my fingertips to the fine lace of hair emerging as I unbuttoned his shirt and I rubbed my face against his chest shuddering at his impossible gorgeousness.

“Take my breath away.”

Read more from The Old Mermaid's Tale

Saturday, December 20, 2014

#Christmas with My Characters: II. Boone's Christmas

All his life Boone Wilde was a tough guy--a tattoo-covered biker who worked as a roadie for rock bands and as a cowboy in Montana. Now he has returned home to run to his family's business and to discover that he is the father of a sweet little girl who needs him very much.

from The Christmas Daughter
The house was completely quiet when Boone opened his eyes and looked at the clock. It was only seven o'clock—still dark outside—but large, fat snowflakes drifted past the window. “Lazy snow,” Kit had called it when they were kids. He was the one who couldn't wait for the snow to be deep enough for them to haul a toboggan to the top of Sugar Hill and fly down it over and over.
“Come on,” he'd say impatiently as he looked out the window. “This lazy snow will take all day to get deep enough.”
Throughout their childhood Boone and Kit shared the room he slept in now. Emily was across the hall and Cody had his own room, a smaller one, next to their parents' bedroom. Both Minnie and Big Zach commented on how proud they were of Boone and Kit for sharing, getting along, rarely fighting. Boone folded his hands behind his head, still watching the snow, and wondered again if they had shut Cody out—Minnie and Big Zach always had each other, he and Kit were each others' best friend, and Emily had God. Boone knew he'd never know that answer.
He lay back remembering the Christmas mornings of his boyhood, the fragrance of turkey roasting in the kitchen, and the scent of cinnamon and apple cider and the piney perfume of the Christmas tree lingering in the air. Minnie and Big Zach always told them that they weren't allowed to leave their room until it was bright enough outside to see without turning lights on, a restriction that seemed almost too great to bear. He remembered Emily sneaking across the hall and curling up at the foot of his bed as the three of them shared quiet speculation about what wonderful things awaited downstairs. Now he wondered what his daughter's Christmas mornings had been like. Was it any wonder that she didn't know how to respond to people whose lives had been filled with love and shared affection? Last night at his aunt and uncle's house he'd watched her and, while she was happy and enthusiastic about everything, he noticed she seemed painfully shy in the presence of the natural, unabashed affection of family members. It will take time, he reminded himself. It will take time.

He was just drifting back to sleep when he heard a sound so familiar it immediately brought a smile to his face—the slow squeak of the metal drawer under the stove where Minnie kept her roasting pan. She pulled it open carefully, trying not to wake anyone, so she could start her turkey. Minutes later he smelled the distinctive holiday scent of onions simmering in butter with marjoram and sage. He heard the door across the hall open and soft footsteps scurried toward the stairs. He stretched, got up, pulled on jeans and a flannel shirt, and began his Christmas Day. 
~~~
Charity watched them walk down the path to the tavern, talking and laughing as they went.
“That was quite a dinner, wasn't it?” Boone said as he pulled aside the fireplace screen to add another log. “Grandma said she couldn't have done it without you.”
Charity gave a tentative little half smile. “I like cooking with her. I made the green bean casserole and the cranberry sauce all by myself.” She stood silently for a moment, then said. “So what do we do now?”
Boone raised his eyebrows. “I don't know. What would you like to do?”
“We never did much for Christmas—mostly just watched television. Maybe I could do something with my sewing machine?”
“Are you happy with your sewing machine?” He looked at her and noticed for the first time how much like an elf she looked in bright red leggings and a green sweater with a pattern of holly on it.
“I love it.” She sighed. “I love everything.”
“You know what.” He hunched his shoulders and thought for a minute. “I have an idea.” He crossed to the bookcases covering the walls around the fireplace. He examined the books until he found the one he wanted and, with a smile and no small amount of nostalgia, took it down. He turned to his daughter, who stood in the middle of the room watching him.
“When I was a boy,” he said, “my pop always drank beer and watched football until he fell asleep but my mom...” He held up the book. “Mom always read to us.”
“Read to you?” She wrinkled her forehead as though she'd never heard of such a thing.
“Yeah. Didn't anybody ever read to you?”
“No.”
Boone stared at her. “Nobody ever read to you? Even when you were little?”
She shook her head. “Maybe sometimes in school. The Sisters read Bible stories.”
“Well, we're going to fix that.” He pushed a leather hassock close to the end of the sofa nearest the fireplace, sat down and put his feet up, then held his hand out to her. “Come here.” She gave a slight uncertain smile. He patted the space beside him. “Come on. I won't bite.”
She grinned, sat down close, and he put his arm around her. Boone took his reading glasses from his pocket, adjusted them on his nose, and opened the book.
“Don't turn the pages too fast,” she said. “I can't read as fast as you.”
“You don't have to read.” He placed his hand lightly on her head and guided it to his shoulder. “Just close your eyes and listen.”
“Okay.”
“Now,” he said, “are you comfortable?”
“Yes.” She was smiling the soft, bashful little smile that always tugged at his heart.
“Okay.” He opened the book and turned to the first page. “Marley was dead,” he read, “to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.1

She giggled and repeated, “'Dead as a door-nail.'” Then she snuggled into him. He caught his breath, kissed her forehead, and continued to read.  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

#Christmas with My Characters: I. Maggie's Christmas

Since Christmas tends to play a large role in many of my stories, I thought I'd share a few Christmas scenes between now and December 25th. Starting off with this from Each Angel Burns:

At two as promised, the reception room bells jangled and she opened the door to a grinning man with a luxuriant mane of shiny white hair pulled back in a ponytail and a huge, handlebar mustache. He wore a tuxedo jacket over a white pleated dress shirt and, to both her surprise and her delight, a red and green plaid kilt complete with sporran.
Glenn Magnuson, at your service.” He bowed deeply and extended a beefy fist holding a clear plastic box tied with red and green straw and gold bells. “Glenn the Magnificent to my friends,” he added. “And I am honored, dear lassie, honored to be escorting such a fine...” He drew the word out in a rolling Highland brogue—fi-i-i-i-i-ne. “...lady to the day’s festivities.”
The box contained a corsage of white gardenias and tiny red rosebuds. She couldn’t help giggling as she opened it.
You’re not going to believe this,” she said, “but this is the first corsage I’ve ever received.”
He wrapped an arm around her waist, lifted her off her feet, and planted a very loud, and not at all unpleasant, kiss on her lips.
And I am proud to be the one what gave it to you.”
She watched him as he helped her secure the extravagant corsage on the shoulder of the evergreen velvet shawl she had draped herself in and decided she liked him. His big eyes reminded her of Zeke’s.
Glenn the Magnificent drove a twenty year old gold Mercedes with a finish that had mellowed to the color of an old coin. He drove the coastal route where waves crashed with an exuberance that seemed almost celebratory of the day. A Highland Christmas boomed from the CD player as he rambled on giving his opinion of Christmas and how it got to be that way. She was stunned into silence.
At the top of a pine-covered hill stood a long railroad station with an orange tile roof. “The boys”, as Glenn called them, had rescued the derelict building from scheduled destruction and spent six years turning it into a home and studio. Guests were received in the old passenger waiting room where stiff wooden benches had been replaced with deeply cushioned red leather sofas and the old, gold-lettered ticket windows now served as a bar. The entire back of the building had been removed and a long wall of glass windows offered panoramic views of the Gulf of Maine including a direct view—complete with telescopes—of a clothing-optional beach, though Derreck assured her it wasn’t very interesting at this time of year.
The food was extravagant, the company delightful. A fifteen-foot Christmas tree was decorated with bubbling lava lamp lights, holographic tinsel, and ornaments made from vintage paper dolls of Forties and Fifties goddesses of the silver screen in various exotic costumes. The entertainment ran the gamut from inspired to insane. Glenn unpacked a set of bagpipes and played a jazz version of Good King Wenceslas followed by a sweet and poignant What Child Is This.
Maggie shocked herself, and delighted Derreck and James, when motivated by far more hot mulled wine than she could recall drinking, she stood up wearing a fantastical gold and silver bow on her head and trilled La vie en rose in a creditable Piaf impersonation. Everyone hooted and applauded and she sat down blushing furiously and downed another cup of the perfectly wonderful wine.
Glenn the Magnificent proved an amiable date, pleasant but not hovering. He provided her with an exhausting workout as they jitterbugged to a Brian Setzer Christmas tune and rescued her more than once when she got trapped under one of the many mistletoes with an amorous but inebriated celebrant. It was nearing ten o’clock when he came up behind her and, snatching her around the waist, bent her over into a deep, theatrical kiss then whispered in her ear, “If I have to listen to one more goddamned Ella Fitzgerald Christmas carol I’m going to barf.”
They said their good-byes.
As sparkles of snow drifted lazily down through the lace of black tree branches, Glenn changed the raucous zydeco CD for one of the dreamy Windham Hill Solstice ones and drove her back to the abbey. It was all she could do to stay awake.
He pulled into the parking lot next to the chapel and shifted the car into park. Then he shifted himself closer to her.
Come here,” he murmured as he drew her against him and lifted her face. His kisses were very nice and she was sufficiently intoxicated not to protest.
When was the last time you necked in a Mercedes?” he whispered.
She shook her head. “Shhh,” she said. “Keep kissing.”
He obliged her. He lifted her across the console into his lap and if one of them was more eager for their caresses than the other, she couldn’t have told which it was. His hand was under her sweater kneading her breasts and she was very aware of the bulky hardness pushing against her buttocks through their clothes. This is what I need, she thought. Something totally stupid and uncomplicated. He was very good at what he was doing—his hands traveled over her back and breasts then up under her skirt to caress the warm flesh above the lace of her stockings.

Are you ready to find out what I have under my kilt,” he whispered in her ear nipping at her lips with tiny, tantalizing bites.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My Stollen Christmas

This is a reprint of a blog post from Christmas 2009. Enjoy!

Growing up in Pennsylvania I always looked forward to Christmas. We usually had a good deal of snow and, because I come from such a large family, there was always a lot of activity. The neighborhood I lived in was rural and there were lots of kids and we took Christmas seriously, especially caroling. Every year a gang of us would devise our caroling plan of attack fully cognizant of which houses were most inclined to pass out cookies or candy for our efforts. 

The church we belonged to, Queen of the World, was about half a mile away and there was a lovely woods with an old logging trail that we could walk through. I have a lot of memories of walking to Midnight Mass with my friends Kathy and Sue through those woods all dusted with snow. Of course once boys entered the equation there were snowball fights both coming and going. I remember one Christmas when I had this fabulous hat. Of course it got pummeled with snowballs on the way to Mass and I sat through the Mass with melting snow running down the back of my neck. All of that was a very long time ago.

One of the things my family took pride in was making a lot of our own Christmas gifts. Every year we had a party on Christmas Eve to exchange our family gifts and it was always exciting to see who made what. Knitted and crocheted scarves and mittens, quits, home-made edible treats, hand-stitched samplers and ornaments. I have a vivid memory of my sister Chris hiding in the bedroom frantically crocheting trying to finish an afghan before it was her turn to present it to the lucky recipient.

Even after I moved away I came home at Christmas time loaded down with stuffed animals, homemade dolls, hand-knit sweaters. It got to the point where it was ridiculous. One year I baked dozens of delicious coffeecakes that I wrapped in colored cellophane and tied with ribbons. Problem was they didn't keep well and by the time they were transported 1500 miles and unwrapped they were coated with green fuzz --- festive but inedible. And then there was my stollen...

Christmas stollen originated in Germany in the fifteenth century. Stollen is generally made from a butter-rich yeast bread which is loaded with candied, marinated fruit. I was living in Marblehead when I decided to make a Christmas project of homemade stollen. I decided I would make all the fruits to include and started in October by filling a huge jar with golden raisins and warm apricot brandy. I let it sit in the sunshine overlooking the ocean with the thought that perhaps some of the scent of the sea would soak into them. I found directions for making candied orange and lemon peel which was absolutely delicious.

My friend Trudi and I took a trip in to the North End to look for glacé cherries and the marzipan I wanted to put inside. Trudi had lived in Italy for many years and knew about such things. It was quite an adventure and we came home with cherries, marzipan, three different kinds of nuts, and some beautiful silk ribbon to wrap the loaves.

The making of the stollen was quite an operation. The dough was beautiful, silky and rich. I kneaded into it all the goodies I had collected and, after the first rising, made loves wrapped around a core of marzipan. I do not have words to describe how delicious the house smelled as they baked. All the while I was working on them I was thinking about our family Christmas Eve party and what a delicious treat they would be. We always had the same food Christmas Eve. Mom made a big batch of her “whopper” soup and homemade rolls. Jack brought his home-made smoked venison sausage. Anne made Wedding Soup, Lisa made her cheese and broccoli soup. Chris & Beth made different soups that were always delicious. One year Beth made a cold apple-cinnamon soup that I still remember. I was very much looking forward to adding my home-made stollen to the festivities. I just knew everyone would think it amazing.

So the stollens were dusted with powdered sugar into which I had sprinkled some silver sugar to add sparkle. They were garnished with the cherries and wrapped in tissue. I delivered smaller stollens to friends in Marblehead and packed the biggest one, the one that would earn me all kinds of Christmas praise, to make the journey to Pennsylvania.

When I arrived at my parents' house it was mid-afternoon of Christmas Eve. The only person home was my sister Beth. Her husband had taken their two boys somewhere and everyone else was either out doing last minute errands or had not arrived yet. While we gabbed I arranged my magnificent stollen in the middle of the huge kitchen table in my mother's bright kitchen. Beth had just made a pot of coffee and we sat down to chat.

Beth is seventeen years younger than I am. We have never really lived in the same house together because I went off to college before she was even walking. But, of course, we are still sisters and it was wonderful to have some time, just the two of us, to catch up. So we drank coffee and gabbed and then --- well --- we decided to sample the stollen. And sample it... and sample it... and sample it. It was every bit as delicious as I knew it would be. We were both very impressed. I told her the whole story of the making of it and we decided to see how it tasted with a glass of wine. Let me tell you, it was even better than with coffee!

It was a delightful afternoon and as the sun went down over the snowy hills outside the kitchen window people started arriving loaded with presents and soup and treats and goodies. And what they found in Mom's kitchen was two inebriated sisters and about 3 inches left of stollen. Three measly inches...

Well, I'm sure it was a lovely Christmas Eve. I'm sure everyone had good time and that all the food was delicious. And I'm sure everyone believes me when I tell them how wonderful the stollen was. Maybe some year I'll try to make it again. This time I'll mail it to them.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Saturday, December 06, 2014

It's Belsnickel Week: Two Belsnickel Stories from My Home Town

Now available: A Very Marienstadt Christmas, a limited edition paperback that is the perfect stocking stuffer. In honor of Belsnickel next Saturday I am reposting this blog post from December 2013. I'm on a mission to spread the Belsnickel Love so today I'm asking people to do something nice for someone in secret, don't let them know who their Belsnickel is! Since I wrote the original article I have also published a story about Belsnickel, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, a novella about which Book Lover's Alert says: Brew yourself a pot of hot chocolate and curl up with this story. Based in Pennsylvania Dutch folklore, it will renew your faith in Christmas, in love, and in basic human decency.

My friend Terry McMackin sent me the following two stories that were sent to him by his cousin. He does not know the origin of the stories but his grandfather is the "George Wagner" mentioned in them. Terry and I lived in the same neighborhood -- our backyards adjoined -- across the street from Mary Opelt's Woods. This appears to be two separate recollections. Thanks, Terry!


          I have been writing stories to my Grandchildren about my childhood in the City of St. Marys, Pa. One of the subjects concerned the coming of Der Peltznichol (Nicholas in Furs) on December 6th, the Feast Day of St. Nicholas. We, children, were always looking forward to this day, but always with a great deal of trepidation. Der Peltznichol always had an evil henchman who carried switches and lumps of coal. I remember quite vividly having to kneel down and say prayers so that the evil one would be forced to leave, rattling his bells and chains off into the night. Then we got candy and homemade cookies. If we were especially lucky, there would be a small toy included in the package of goodies.
          We were particularly afraid of one Peltznichol who was able to call voices out of the fireplace or from behind chairs or the couch. Long after I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I got in the habit of hanging around the local brick factory. One summer day I was snooping in a kiln that was being loaded with green brick. Suddenly a voice came out of one of the firing holes right beside me. My mind was transported back to a December 6th many years before. I forced myself not to turn and look at the men in the setting crew, but waited for the voice to come again. When it started, I instantly whirled around, searching their faces for any indication or movement of lips. I perceived the slightest movement of the jaw belonging to Mr. George Wagner. I blurted out in exasperation and triumph, "You're the damn Peltznichol". A general uproar broke out among the setting crew, because they had all been treated to stories about the activities of Der Peltznichol.
          I should explain that St. Marys was a sanctuary from persecution of German Catholics in the middle 19th century, and in fact maintained bilingual teaching of German and English in the Catholic schools until World War I. The F.B.I. and government seemed to think that the associations with the Old Country posed a threat to the security of the United States and so the practice of teaching German was quickly abandoned. Even today, a certain group of the Great-Great Grandchildren of the original settlers continue to preserve the tradition of St. Nicholas, but have pretty much eliminated the evil personage and made it more like an early visit by Santa Claus.
- Bill Hoehn


Margie McKelvy:
          Sr. Maureen has sent an e-mail asking if I could send you some things about Bellsnickle and St. Marys when we were growing up in the still much German St. Marys. I have done some research about this, mostly because of several programs on N.P.R. and the fact that my father played Bellsnickle and Santa for many years.
          My research indicated that the Bavarians and the French along the border between Lorraine and Germany in the Rhine Valley and on into the Black Forest have practiced the tradition for over a thousand years. The belief is that Peltznichol (Nicholas in furs) and his evil henchman, Swart Pater (the devil) were characters in Christmas Plays to illustrate and help convert the masses to Christianity. St. Nicholas was first a Good Samaritan, who provided dowries for destitute maidens so that their poor families might get them married to promising young men. Thus the tradition of gift giving and St. Nicholas. (Good - vs. - Evil)
When my father was growing up, and even in the early years of this playing Bellsnickle, he and his friend "Coxy" Sporner always went as the good Bellsnickle and the evil Swartz Pater. By the 1930's things had changed and sometimes there were just two Bellsnickles. Except at those homes where the old traditions still held like the Crawford house where one of the visitors still wore chains and dragged them through the streets from house to house. This brings me to the collective experience of the Crawford kids. I was always invited to Aunt Irene’s on December the 6th, and so got to have the shit scared out of me along with Freddy, Dotty and Puss. (I still can't believe that she became a nun.) Freddy was so frightened of the Bellsnickle that he would hide when we heard the sleigh bells and chains coming down West Mill Street.
           After the pair entered the front room, we kids were assembled in front of them. We all had to be questioned about our behavior for the past year, and sometimes they knew a little bit more about our activities than we wanted to admit to. Several years we got some real shocks, because the voices accusing you of misbehavior would come out of the fake fireplace or out from behind the couch. We were so scared it is a wonder that we didn't all pee our pants. Then it was time to kneel down and say our prayers. If you prayed really well the Swartz Pater would shake his chains and leave, then we would each get a bag of goodies or maybe a toy.  If we were particularly bad or didn't say our prayers just right, Swartz Pater would stay and hand us a switch or worse, the dreaded lump of coal.
           Many years later, I might have been 14 or 15; I was hanging around the Elk Fire Brick Company, just watching what the setting crew was doing inside the kiln, when a voice spoke out of a firing hole right next to me. Instantly I recognized the voice, but didn't see any of the workers looking at me. I tried to see who it was that was throwing his voice, but I couldn't catch any one moving his lips. I half turned to go out the arched opening in the end of the kiln like I hadn't heard anything. Just before I reached the opening I whirled around right in time to see just the slightest movement of one fellow’s lips. I yelled, "You’re the damn Bellsnickle". There was a burst of laughter from the whole crew. One fellow said, "Finally somebody caught you, George". That's how I learned who the Bellsnickle was at Crawford's house so many years before. Old George Wagner was a super ventriloquist and a really nice old guy.
           Ku Shise (Cow Shit) was my father’s nickname, and Ku played Santa Claus many times. Once he was the Bellsnickle at Crawfords (Before I was born). My father had cut off the end of this thumb splitting wood for a fire. Anyway as he and Uncle George Crawford told the story, John was about 3 or 4 this particular time. After the Bellsnickle left, John turned to his father and said, "Ya know, Pop, dat dare one Sanny Claus had a tum off chust like Uncle Ku." After that my dad always had to wear white gloves with the thumb stuffed full of cotton.
          I started out writing about Coxy Sporner being one of the Santa Clauses. He and my dad went to Coxy's brother's house because Coxy's nephew, Hiddy, was about the right age. The Feast of St. Nicholas comes on December the 6th and is always in the middle of hunting season. This particular year Coxy had shot a buck on the first day of the season. The two Santas stood outside the living room window while Mrs. Sporner questioned Hiddy about what he would do if the Santa Clause should come to visit. Hiddy replied, "I have a great club. I would hit him over the head and drive him away." The two Santas let themselves into the through the kitchen door as quietly as they could. Mrs. Sporner, however heard them and told Hiddy to go into the kitchen and bring her a spool of thread. Be sure to turn on the light, she said.
          Hiddy came around the corner, snapped on the light and froze in his tracks. About half a second later he let out a scream, yelling, "Yiiiii! "Ich mus pee." as he tore out the back door and ran for the outhouse. My dad said it took about 20 minutes to get Hiddy to unlock the outhouse and come out. All the while Mrs. Sporner was trying to get Hiddy to come out, the Santas were laughing under their beards. Finally they were able to get him to talk and say his prayers. Suddenly Coxy growled, "I understand you shot one of Sanny Clauses Reindeer." Hiddy replied, "Oh No! Sanny Clause, Honest to God, that was Uncle Soxy!" The two couldn't keep from laughing and so had to beat a hasty retreat back out into the night.
          Such was the goings-on around St. Marys concerning Bellsnickle, and in some quarters it still continues today, but with a lot less scare and a lot more good things. Maybe it is for the best!
         


I also discovered a very interesting blog post about Belsnickel at: Conjure Cinema. The pictures here are from this blog:


    Today we turn to one of the strangest Christmas traditions I have come across in my research in a long time (and that's saying something), called belsnickeling. It's a holiday practice that stems from the Appalachian Valley area of Virginia and West Virginia - essentially, think "naughty mummers" for lack of a better term. A group of men would dress in outlandish costumes and go door to door, putting on some form of entertainment and demanding payment for their performance (usually food or drink, most often drink) - if the payment wasn't to their liking, then some mischief was performed at the offending house. The belsnickelers would go from house to house continuing their revelry, getting paid off with more drink at each house, until they were fully in their cups and God knows what their act looked like as the evening progressed. As you can see from the photo at left, the belsnickelers were always masked, so if the mischief got out of hand you didn't know WHO to blame for it the next day (the thought of looking for who was the most hungover in the town must not have occurred to the locals back then). Read the rest here

Thanks for the great stories and thanks for reading. Merry Christmas.
_____________
Posted in another forum by German author Cora Buhlert"Belsnickling" sounds very like our custom of "Nikolauslaufen", only that here it's children up to approx. 12 who go from door to door, sing a song or recite a poem and receive a treat in return. Nowadays, it's mostly chocolate and sweets (I always give Kinder Surprise Eggs) and tangerines among the more traditionally minded, but my Mom told me that she often got small household items such as shoelaces or matchboxes when she went "Nikolauslaufen" in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

A woman named Cora who lives in the northern part of Germany near the coast read about my new novelette, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, and sent me the following:

We don't call him Belsnickel, but I certainly know the character and got presents from him as a child. December 6th is St. Nicholas Day, dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, a bishop who lived in what is now Turkey in the 4th century.

In the Netherlands and Germany, St. Nicholas has long been associated with gift-giving. I live in North Germany, where the children put out an empty plate or their shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas Day and find that St. Nicholas had brought them treats (tangerines and nuts are traditional, though other candy and bigger presents are given as well) overnight. On the evening of December 6th, there is also the so-called Nikolauslaufen, which is a sort of trick-or-treating with the kids dressing up as St. Nicholas.

The Dutch variation of the tradition is called Sinterklaas. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is bigger than Christmas. The American Santa Claus is obviously a variation on St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas also knows if you've been good or bad. If you've been bad, you don't get any presents or treats. Instead you get a bundle of twigs. Originally, St Nicholas probably used the bundle of twigs to spank naughty children - in more politically correct times he just left the twigs behind for naughty children. Sometimes St. Nicholas has a helper who deals with the naughty children instead. In Germany, this helper is called Knecht Ruprecht, in the Netherlands it's the rather politically incorrect figure called Zwaarte Piet (black Peter).

I strongly suspect that your Belsnickel is a regional variation on the St. Nicholas tradition, particularly since Pennsylvania had a lot of German and Dutch settlers.

We have since exchanged a few emails and she said it pleased her to know that people in Pennsylvania were continuing to carry on the tradition. I sent her a copy of the story and she said the explanation of the origin of the name that I put in the story – that “Belsnickel” derived from “Pelz-Nicholas” which is German for “Nicholas in pelts” from the Rhine River Valley – sounded entirely plausible to her because wearing fur in the Rhine Valley would be a very good idea in Winter. I also took note of  “Knecht Ruprecht” because “Ruprecht” is a common name where I come from. 

I'm very happy to have had this correspondence and confirmation. I've also done a little more research and found out some interesting things. “Belsnickel” far pre-dates Santa Claus. Santa Claus only  evolved after the American Civil War but Belsnickel has been around since the eighth century. There is a good article about him on AntiquesJournal.com.

I also found this curious article on a blog called Appalachian Lifestyles. In this area Belsnickeling is a sort of Christmas time trick-or-treat with grown men dressed up as clowns and going from house-to-house with increasing merriment.

It is rather exciting to hear from people who read the story and have stories of their own to add. There are already 2 5-star reviews on Amazon and a few sales. I hope more people will discover this little story and read more about Belsnickel. It makes me happy to know that the tradition may survive.

Thanks for reading.

I got 13 Nikolaus kids this year, which is about average. Though I've also had more than 20 kids in other years. One year, I opened the door to find an entire girls' basketball team standing outside and singing and had to dig into my own stash of chocolate, because the sweets I'd bought weren't enough for them all.

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