Monthly Writing Challenge (December 2021: A Christmas Story)

December 2021 Prompt: Something A Little Different; A Christmas Story

Holly had always been a little different.  Ever since she had been a small girl, she had recognized her differences.  The other girls always had their bows just perfect, their giggles sounded like jingling bells, and their demeanor could always be described as ‘sugar and spice and everything nice.’  Teachers were always telling Holly to smile more, to speak up more.  She had no interest in the topics of ‘how many coats of paint to get the glossiest, smoothest finish,’ nor the logistics for their busiest time of the year.

            Everyone treated her as though she had three heads, simply because she did not follow the traditional interests of her peers.  When the reality of the situation was simple: she simply had no interest in toy making. 

            “Holly?  Are we boring you?” a voice broke through Holly’s daydreaming, causing her to jolt in her seat.

            Lifting her chin from her palm and turning her head away from the mesmerizing snow falling outside the window, Holly forced herself to refocus.

            “Sorry,” Holly murmured.

            “I don’t suppose you could tell the class the proper ratio for child’s toy compared to their size and age, could you?” their instructor asked her sharply.

            She did not need to look around the room to see the others were staring at her, just waiting for her to make a fool of herself.  She could feel their eyes boring into her.

            “No,” said Holly quietly.

            Snickering could be heard through out the workshop.  Holly’s cheeks began to burn.

            “Precisely what I expected, perhaps pay attention so your train is not the size of a flea this time.”

            The workshop erupted in laughter and Holly found herself wishing an abominable snowman would turn up and eat her right then and there.  She was fed up with being teased for being different, for not finding her purpose.  It certainly wasn’t her fault she was the only elf that was no good at making toys.  Was it?  Surely there was not anything to the ‘toy making is in our DNA’, was there?

            No longer able to focus on the task at hand, Holly quietly gathered her things and slipped from the workshop.  She imagined the snide comments the others were making on her behalf.  ‘There she goes again.’  ‘The only thing she’s good at is giving up.’  ‘Another failure under Holly’s belt.’  ‘At least we aren’t like her.’

            Outside, the snow was swirling, still in its mesmerizing vortex through the frigid air, like one of Santa’s infamous snowglobes.  On her way to her favorite spot, Holly passed Mrs Claus, up to her elbows in Christmas fudge prepartions.  The white-haired woman in her crimson gown trimmed with white, gold flecked fur, waved to Holly with a warm smile.

            “Hello, Holly!” she called.

            “Morning, Mrs C,” Holly replied, trying – and failing – to lighten her voice. 

            Mrs Claus paused her whisking, eyeing Holly.  “Why the long face, hun?” she asked.

            “The other elves are laughing at me again,” Holly sighed.  If she made it sound like not a big deal, surely that meant it would upset her less, right?  Mrs Claus passed her bowl off to one of her assistants as Holly reluctantly recounted the events of earlier.

            “I just don’t understand why it’s expected for all elves to be good at the same thing.”

            Mrs Claus gave a little chuckle.  “It’s not expected, Holly,” she said.  “It’s just common for a trade to run in families.  You just happen to come from a long line of toy makers, so we assumed – incorrectly – that you might be a toy maker as well.  We just have to find what you’re good at.”  When Holly’s face remained sour, Mrs Claus slapped her thighs and carried on.  “Have you already forgotten the year you joined me and my candy makers?”

            Holly felt her cheeks flush with the reminder of another failed venture.  The time she had attempted to leave toy making for something else.  She had been surprisingly worse at candy making than she had been at toy making.

            “Oh, now,” chided Mrs Claus, “we had fun, didn’t we?”

            “But it wasn’t enough,” Holly grumbled.

            “Well, no, it isn’t always enough, dear.”  Mrs Claus smiled kindly at her.  “But that wasn’t my point, poppet,” she continued.   “My point was don’t be afraid to try other things, Holly.  Don’t let the fear of failure hold you in a place where you’re miserable.  There are loads of other departments you haven’t even considered yet.  What if you shouldn’t be a maker at all?  There’s Gift Wrap, Sleigh Maintenance, the Inventor’s Guild, Ornament Design, Logistics-”

            “All of which sound over my head,” Holly interrupted.  “Thanks for the pep talk, Mrs C, but I better be going.”

            She turned away before she could see Mrs Claus deflate at her brush-off.

            Holly trudged across the courtyard, kicking clumps of ice, and feeling sorry for herself.  It was time she just faced reality: she would never be anything but a failure.

            The door to the barn creaked as Holly nudged it open and slipped inside.  As she pushed it closed behind her, a velvety nose tickled the back of her neck.

            “Stop it, Vixen,” she giggled without turning.

            “How did you know that was her?” came a jovial voice.

            Holly jumped in surprise.  “Santa!” she exclaimed.  “You scared the coal right out of me!”

            Santa Claus chuckled, but he continued eyeing Holly expectantly.

            “I’ve been coming down here after dinner every night for the last few months,” Holly confessed.  She hoped Santa wouldn’t be angry; she knew that the reindeer were his sole responsibility, but she also knew more about them then anyone other than him.  “I’ve only been feeding them the purple carrots,” she added hastily.  “I know the orange ones are only for Christmas Eve, to sustain their magic.”

            A twinkle sparkled in Santa’s eye.  “Have you now?”  He slid his hands into his pockets.  “Can you name the rest from over there?”  Santa nodded his head towards where the other seven reindeer were.

            Holly grinned.  “That’s easy!  Cupid is on the left, by the grain bag; then Donner and Dancer are standing together; Blitzen is under the window; Prancer is lying down; then it’s Dasher and Comet.”

            “You’re certain you haven’t confused Prancer and Dancer?” Santa asked, quirking a snowy brow.

            “No,” said Holly without hesitation.  “Prancer gets tired this time of day, so she’s always lying down, resting.  And Dancer and Donner have been really enjoying being near one another lately.”  She folded her arms knowingly, a look of satisfaction on her face, daring Santa to correct her.

            Santa nodded his approval.  “Most impressive,” he said, nodding again, his white beard bouncing softly.

            “And yes, I know they’re all female, contrary to common lore, as only female reindeer hold their antlers this late into winter.”

            “I apparently need to keep my eye on you, or you’ll steal my job when I’m not looking!”  He winked at her, and Holly smiled proudly.  Santa rose from his seat on a hay bale, brushing himself free of stray hay.  “I won’t intrude on your evening any longer lass.  Just don’t let Cupid talk you out of any more candy canes.  She-”

            “Has quite the sweet tooth, I know,” Holly finished.

            “Of course, you do!” Santa laughed.  “She even stole mine out of my pocket after I’d already give her the nightly allowance!”

            As Santa disappeared from the barn, Holly wished him a good night before settling in beside Prancer and pulling a book from her bag.  She rested the heavy, leather-bound volume across her lap as the other seven reindeer gathered around Holly and Prancer.  Holly leaned back against Prancer’s warm side as she flipped the pages to find her place.  Comet curled around Holly’s right side, her velvety nose nudging Holly’s hand.  Holly giggled.  Comet nibbled lazily at the edges of the paper as the pages fluttered past. “Stop that,” Holly giggled again, “books are not meant for eating, Comet!”

            Comet responded by butting Holly’s hand again, as though saying “Go faster than!”

            Finally, Holly found her page, her pressed mistletoe bookmark having slid down into the pages.  Clearing her throat, she smoothed the page.

            “Ah, here we are,” she said eagerly.  “’Gandalf and the King’s company rode away, turning eastward to make the circuit of the ruined walls of Isengard…’”

The weeks leading up to Christmas passed slowly and uneventfully for Holly.  She managed to have no major catastrophes in the toy workshop, though no successes, either.  Her daily tasks in the workshop had devolved to simple material management and prep.  It had kept her occupied and contributing, but Holly was left feeling unfulfilled.  A few nights a week, Holly would run into Santa in the reindeer barn.  Each encounter saw Santa pushing Holly’s reindeer knowledge, quizzing her on their diets, exercise requirements, daily routines, and individual mannerisms.

            Holly found herself slipping into a state of melancholy when she was outside the barn.  Watching all the other elves thriving in their careers, in their favorite time of year, had Holly feeling left behind.  She could still remember the time when she had loved Christmas, when she had still been learning and before she had transitioned into the workshop.  Before expectations had been handed out.  She had loved this time of year growing up but had somehow lost the joy and magic along the way.  With all her heart, she wished she could find that love again.

            The morning of Christmas Eve, Holly awoke with a strange feeling.  She puzzled over it all morning as she readied herself for a last abysmal day in the toy workshop before things slowed down.  Nothing struck her as off, so Holly chalked it up to her seasonal blue and attempted to go about her day. 

            The workshop was bustling with excitement of last-minute preparations.  All the other elves were in their element, bustling about with efficiency and energy.  Tedious, slow tasks, being completed in record time due to the odd DNA dynamics of North Pole elves.  Carols were being sung above the din of toy making, and the bells outside were constantly chiming.  Holly was frantically trying to keep up, but she found someone in her assembly line was always shouting at her.  She was too slow clearing this away, too slow refilling supplies, brought the wrong supplies…

            Holly paused to wipe the sweat clinging to her brow and decided to step outside to cool down.  No one would miss her.  The air was cool outside, the snow swirling about lazily upon the air.  The wind bit at Holly’s cheeks; she could feel them growing warm as they reddened from the wind biting, but she did not care. 

            Across the courtyard, Holly noticed the door to the reindeer barn flapping in the wind.  That wasn’t right.  Toymaking prep forgotten, Holly set off to investigate.

            The wooden door of the barn was clacking aggressively against the door jambs.  Holly slip inside and latched the door firmly behind her, giving it an extra tug to be certain.  The girls were all in a state, cowering in the far corner, trembling in fear.  Holly began speaking to them in clear, confident tones as she moved through the barn, trying to determine the source of their upset.  All she could find was a sash of fabric that had blown in and caught on an empty sconce, whipping erratically.  Holly pulled it down with a giggle.

            “Is this what was frightening you?” she asked, holding out the swath of emerald velvet.

            Comet bleated indignantly.

            Vixen snorted in frustration.

            Cupid pawed impatiently at the hay-covered floor.

            Dancer nipped at the air.

            Dasher headbutted Prancer’s flank.

            Donner huffed in Dasher’s direction.

            Prancer laid down in relief.

            Blitzen flung straw in the air with her antlers.

            Holly laughed again.  “Alright, alright,” she exclaimed, wadding up the velvet, “off it goes!”  She showed them her empty palms.  “See?” she said, “all gone!  Now, let’s get you ladies your pre-flight meal!”

            Vigorously, Holly set about to preparing the reindeer’s special Christmas Eve feast.  Getting the proper mix of protein, magic inducers, and stabilizers was tricky.  One incorrect portion would result in the grounding of Santa’s sleigh.

            Outside, the bells chiming transitioned over to the Silver Bells, the bells that signaled it was now time for Santa to be prepping for departure.  It was then that Holly realized how late in the day it had gotten; Santa should have been here hours ago to prep the reindeer. 

            As the reindeer finished their meals, Holly began a quick grooming and prepping the harnesses.  She was mid-jingle bell inspection of Cupid’s gear when the barn doors flew open with a bang.  Holly jumped and Vixen bleated in annoyance as Santa barreled into the barn.

            “Look lively, girls!” Santa bellowed.  “The missus forgot to wake me from my nap!  I’m afraid dinner is going to be breakfast this year and we’ll just have to take a lot of snack breaks!”  He stumbled in shock at the sight of Holly as he rounded the corner.  “Holly!” Santa cried.  “By the gods, you gave me a fright!”

            “Sorry, Santa!”  Holly exclaimed.  “But they have already been fed!  They have also already been groomed, and I am halfway through with the jingle inspections on the harnesses!”  She motioned to Prancer, Comet, and Vixen who were still unharnessed.  “Only those three remain!”

            Santa looked around in bewilderment.  “Holly, my dear,” he began, in a near trance, “how long have you been here?”

            “Just nearly two hours,” Holly called over her shoulder as she tightened Cupid’s harness and buckled the gleaming silver buckle.  “Why do you ask?”

            “It’s just… it’s just not possible to have done all of this in just a few hours.”  Santa gazed in wonder at Dancer, Prancer, Donner, and Blitzen; they were the very image of perfection.  “Let alone to have done it well,” he added in awe.

            Suddenly Santa’s eyes lit up with understanding.  “By the gods, Holly, I’ve got it!” Santa roared with excitement.  All the reindeer perked their ears.

            Holly sat back on her haunches, patting Cupid’s hindquarters to signal to her that she was finished.  “All ready, girl,” she said to Cupid.  “What is it, Santa?” she asked eagerly.

            Santa smiled broadly at her.  “They say when an elf has found their true calling, they can work at an unnatural speed, incapable of falling behind!”

            Holly stared at Santa in disbelief, her eyes widening.  Surely, he was not suggesting…  “Do you mean…”

            “That effective immediately you are my Head Reindeer Keeper?  You bet I do!”  Santa cleared his throat, “Providing you would like that position, that is.”

            “I would be honored, sir!” Holly exclaimed.

            “Then it is settled!” Santa cried.  “Let’s get these girls mounted up!”

            As they were attaching the last two harnesses to the bridle system, Mrs Claus and some of the Head Elves came running into the barn.  The air was suddenly full of voices shouting their desires to help Santa, that not to worry Christmas has never been late, surely together they can ready the sleigh.  Mrs Claus was the first to go quiet, a peculiar smile spready across her rose lips; her warm gaze settling on Holly with a proud, knowing look.  One-by-one, the other Head Elves began to fall silent, noticing there was nothing for them to do as Holly fastened the last buckle.

            “Santa,” said Juniper, the Head Toy Maker, “Mrs Claus said you wouldn’t be ready in time.  That you would never make it without all of us.  What has happened?”

            Santa smiled proudly, pulling Holly to stand beside him.  “We have a new Head Elf,” declared Santa jovially, “and without her none of this would have been possible!”

            “A new Head Elf?” Cedar scoffed, the Head of Logistics and an elf who had always refused Holly’s assignment to his team.

            “You are looking at her,” Santa said proudly, squeezing Holly’s shourlders.  “Holly, Head Reindeer Keeper!”

            Mrs Claus gave a clap of delight.  “How wonderful, darling!” she cried before ushering Santa into his sleigh.  The sun was already setting, nearing the Golden Hour, time for Santa to go.

            Holly couldn’t help but smile to herself as she pretended not to notice the disbelieving looks from Juniper, Cedar, and the other Head Elves.  She was one of them now.

            “I knew you could do it,” said Mrs Claus softly.

            “How so?” Holly asked as they waved to Santa as they galloped by.  Her heart lurched in her chest as they transitioned to take off; they made it; she had done everything right. 

            “Were you really just doubting yourself?” Mrs Claus asked in a mock-stern voice.

            “It’s my first day,” Holly giggled shyly.  As Santa’s sleigh disappeared into the clouds with a twinkle, Holly turned back to Mrs Claus.  “But how did you know I could do it?”

            Mrs Claus smiled.  “Do you really think I forgot to wake Santa?”

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