I love Christmas. It’s one of my favorite holidays. I love the music, the magic, the mystery and of course, Santa Clause! This year is extra special because of the rare Christmas Star.
Here is an excerpt from my novel, A Beautiful Glittering Lie. It gives a glimpse of what life was like in north Alabama during the Civil War. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas to all!
The day of Callie’s Christmas party arrived. Rena and Josie had primped for a week, repeatedly trying on the five dresses they owned between them, until they finally came to a decision. David didn’t give it much thought, since Callie’s charms had worn off with time, but he did carve a beautiful broach for her.
They reached the Copeland’s as dusk was setting in. It was an unseasonably warm evening, and Caroline remarked about how the weather seemed to be cooperating with the party. Pulling into the yard, they saw several other carriages and wagons parked outside. David directed Joe Boy to an open area. He jumped down, tied the draft horse to a shrub, greeted Percy, who was tending the horses, and after assisting his mother and sisters down from the wagon, he escorted them up the steps to the house. The stylings of festive violin music floated through the air. Caroline tapped on the door. Momentarily, Mr. Copeland answered, dressed in a waistcoat with matching black trousers.
“Why, there y’all are!” he greeted them happily. “Please do come in!”
Extending his hand to David, the two shook and followed the ladies into the parlor, which was aglow with glittering lights. Candles flickered on brass candlesticks, reflecting off blown-glass decorations that adorned an enormous pine Christmas tree regally standing in a corner. The women were attired in festive, colorful dresses, and the men wore fine suits. David thought the entire sparkling room was enchanting.
Josie and Rena saw some friends, so they went off to mingle. Mr. Copeland took Caroline’s arm and led her over to his wife, leaving David awkwardly alone. He gazed around for a familiar face, and finally found one. Jake ambled across the room in his direction, with Callie on his arm. She was radiant in a shimmering, bronze-colored, hooped gown. Her golden hair was drawn up and confined within a snood that matched the hue of her dress. Jake appeared similarly attractive in his best suit.
“Glad to see you could make it!” he exclaimed, giving his friend a playful punch on the arm.
“Y’all knew we couldn’t miss this.”
“Well, I should certainly hope not!” exclaimed Callie. “Everyone knows mine is the most extravagant party in the county this season. And we have cause for celebration, this bein’ the first yuletide since the start of the war.” Releasing Jake, she clamped onto David. “Jake, would you be a darlin’ and go fetch me some punch?”
“It would be my pleasure, Miss Callie,” he said with a smile. Giving David a wink, he strolled off into the crowd.
“Now, Mr. Summers, if you please, I would like you to come with me,” she said, giving his arm a tug, so he obediently followed along like a puppy.
The violinist, joined by a pianist, delved into a tender rendition of “Silent Night.” Callie stopped momentarily to listen, so David took his opportunity.
“Miss Callie, I made you a token,” he bashfully admitted. Withdrawing a small wrapped package from his pocket, he handed it to her.
“Well, I do declare! David, darlin’, you shouldn’t have!” She tore open the wrapping and pried open the box, revealing the broach he had painstakingly carved for her. “Why, it’s absolutely breathtakin’.” She pinned it onto the front of her gown. “I shall wear it always.”
Taking his hand, she leaned over to give him a gentle kiss on the cheek, barely missing his mouth.
He shied away, embarrassed. Clearing his throat while his face flushed, he muttered, “What did you want to show me, Miss Callie?”
“I would like to present you to some friends who are out back.”
He followed her to the garden, but immediately wished he hadn’t, for as soon as they were outside, he saw several faces he recognized.
“David, you know Owen Ridgeway, and his brother, Lemuel.”
“Hey, Summers,” said Lemuel in a friendly manner, but his older brother only glared.
“Hey, y’all,” David responded genially, for Callie’s sake.
Jake arrived, and handed Callie a glass filled with sparkling red fluid. Seeing the tension, he said, “Zeke, go on in and git yourself some punch.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” he said, taking his chance to escape the scene. He knew Callie was unaware of the conflict, but he was riled, and he didn’t wish to spoil her party, so he went inside to the food table.
The spread temporarily distracted him from a possible confrontation. Ham, turkey, stuffing, cornbread, pickles, garden vegetables, bread pudding, and assorted pies were displayed on gold leaf china. His mouth watered as he absorbed the sight.
Rena appeared beside him. “Are you enjoyin’ yourself?” she asked, taking a plate.
“I was, till Callie took me outside. That scoundrel Owen Ridgeway is here.”
“Yeah, and so is his brother. I don’t have a quarrel with him, though.”
“Jist avoid him, David,” she advised.
He looked over to see the seriousness in her gaze. “I’ll be on my best behavior for Ma’s sake, but if he tries to make a fuss, well …”
“Jist don’t.” Rena glared insistently at him before moving on.
Once he had filled his plate, he walked across the kitchen, sat at the table, and began eating. Soon, several guests joined him, and struck up a conversation about his father. Isabelle scurried about to accommodate the partygoers, as did the Copeland’s five slaves, and a few others the neighbors had brought along to help support them.
After lingering for half an hour, David excused himself. He walked into the parlor, where he saw Jake and Callie talking to Alice Walker, so he joined them.
“Oh, David, Miss Alice has jist informed us of the most dreadful news!” Callie leaned against Jake for support.
“What is it, Miss Alice?” he asked.
“We’re movin’ to California,” she announced. A broad smile spread across her young porcelain-like face.
“Californee is a right far piece away!” Jake exclaimed with a chuckle.
She nodded. “My pa has an uncle out that way who struck it rich, so we’re fixin’ to go next year sometime. Perhaps after spring thaw.”
David smirked through a flash of jealousy. “I wish I could go out to Californee and strike it rich,” he muttered.
Callie smiled at him. “Perhaps we can all go out for a visit later on,” she suggested hopefully. Turning toward the wall, she decided to change the subject. “David, have you seen the paintin’ my ma jist acquired?”
“No.” He drew closer to have a look.
“Pa bought it for her for Christmas. Ain’t it magnificent?”
“It surely is.” He gazed at the landscape, noticing how the bluish-purple colors of twilight were accurately represented.
“My ma says that it’s right fittin’ and all. She says that this paintin’, Twilight, symbolizes the transitions we’ve all been goin’ through—the
new Confederacy and two new presidents, talk of freein’ the slaves, and the country splittin’ in two. It’s like the dawnin’ of a new day.”
David stared at the painting, reading her description into the swirls left by the artist’s brushstrokes, and reckoned she was right.
Mrs. Copeland’s high-pitched voice cut through the din. “May I have your attention, please?”
Callie’s father tapped on a crystal champagne glass with a piece of silverware, causing it to ring out. The participants grew quiet.
“We would like for all of our guests to please assemble out back in the garden!” she exclaimed, and motioned invitingly, so the partygoers followed her.
As David walked outside, he noticed the entire backyard had been redecorated. Paper lanterns strung across the length of the yard illuminated the setting, and musicians were gathered on a platform near the back. The violinist had transformed himself into a fiddle player. He was joined by a banjo player and a percussionist, who sat poised atop a stool with spoons in his hand.
“For our first song,” the banjo player announced, “we’re playin’ a fine tune by Stephen Foster, called ‘O Lemuel.’”
Owen guffawed at the reference, jabbing his little brother with his elbow. The music started, and the crowd coupled up. Walking out into the center of the straw-covered yard, they began swirling to the music. The chill in the air seemed to dissipate as the dancers moved in synchronized harmony across the makeshift dance floor.
David watched while a schoolmate, Thomas Halsey, escorted Rena. Jake and Callie took to the floor, as did their parents, even though Mr. Kimball’s injured leg prevented him from dancing with much elegance. Like he usually did at gatherings such as these, David partnered with his mother and younger sister, dancing to the lively melodies of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Jim along Josie.” He danced with Alice, and once, timidly, with Callie, who complimented him on his stylish grace. When the music changed to a waltz, she stated that she thought he would easily fit into high society with his fancy footwork.
After the musicians took a break, he strolled into the house for refreshment. Owen followed, confronting him in the kitchen.
“Think you’re quite the rooster, don’t you? Dancin’ with every gal at the party.” He stared provokingly with penetrating green eyes, his blond hair tussled atop his head.
David whirled around to face him. Owen had always been a showoff, and was constantly teasing him because he was left-handed, and trying to outdo him at every opportunity.
“That ain’t none of your concern. Savvy?”
Owen snorted. “You’re worthless. You ain’t nothin’ but a weasel. All you can do is hide behind them skirts!”
Rena entered to see her brother bristle at his adversary. “David …” she warned.
“Not now, Rena,” he growled back.
“Recall what we discussed.” She could see from across the room that her brother’s eyes were darkening from hazel to brown, which to her was a bad indication.
“I want to have a word with you out on the veranda, Ridgeway,” David stated.
He tromped off through the house. Owen grinned, traipsing behind. David heard his mother’s voice as she entered the kitchen.
“What’s goin’ on in here?” she asked.
“Dere’s ‘bout to be trouble out front, Miss Caroline,” Isabelle explained as she gathered a trayful of dirty dishes.
“It’s Owen Ridgeway again, Ma,” added Josie.
Caroline growled, “I’ll put a stop to this.”
“No, Mrs. Summers,” Jake intercepted. “Allow me.” He sauntered through the house as voices outside escalated, and went outside to see David and Owen glaring intensely while throwing verbal spears at each other.
“I know it was you who killed my dog last winter!” David roared. “You did it jist to spite me, because you were jealous!”
“Why would I be jealous of you?” Owen mocked a laugh.
“Because I’m smarter than you, and you know it.”
“You cheated on those school exams so you could graduate! You lied about your pa fightin’ at Manassas, too! You’re spoiled and soft!”
“I’ll have you take that back!”
“Now, boys,” Jake interrupted, “there ain’t no need for—”
Suddenly, Owen lurched at David, who threw a punch into his attacker’s face. They were immediately wrestling on the veranda, tumbling over each other while grunting, cursing, and yelling. Members of the party dashed outside, alarmed by the commotion. Jake managed to break the two apart, and held his friend’s arms behind his back. Lemuel seized his brother in the same manner. The two opponents snorted like bulls, their faces red with vehemence. A trail of scarlet blood trickled from Owen’s nose.
“Take it easy!” Jake hollered.
Mr. Copeland stepped in. “What is the meaning of this?! I will not have you two behave this way at my gatherin’!” He stomped over to Owen and took him by the ear. “I’m throwin’ you out, young man! You’re no longer welcome here!” Leading Owen to the steps, he thrust him toward the yard. Lemuel meekly scurried after his brother. “Off with you now, and don’t come back!”
The brothers staggered toward their wagon, climbed in, and rode off down the lane.
Turning toward David, who was panting to catch his breath, Mr. Copeland sighed. “David, I thought better of you than this.” He walked past him and went inside.
The words stung more than any expulsion could. Frowning, he looked at his startled family, at Jake, who simpered at him, and at Callie, who scowled at him. He knew what he had done, although it was unintentional, and he felt deeply ashamed. He had ruined Callie’s Christmas party.
Soon, the family decided it was best to leave. Barely speaking to each other, they returned home and retired to their bedchambers. The next morning, on their way back from church, Josie broke the silence.
“How come Owen Ridgeway don’t like you?” she asked straightforwardly.
David shrugged. “He never has, and I don’t cotton to him, neither.”
She chuckled faintly. “I reckon you would if he was nice to you.”
He shrugged again. It was a situation he assumed he would likely never know.
On Christmas Eve, he hitched Joe Boy to the wagon before leading him into a thicket. With much consideration, he chose a pine tree that would suit his family, cut it down, tossed it into the wagon bed, and drove down the hill to where the saddlebag house sat nestled in the valley. The sun shone brightly, giving no indication it was a winter’s day, other than the fact that the hardwood trees were bare.
He arrived home, extracted the tree, and struggled to carry it into the house. Wrestling it through the door while it poked him with pine needles, he finally squeezed it through. He set it in the stand he had prepared, and stood back to admire his accomplishment. The tree was glorious. In his eyes, it rivaled Callie’s. Freshly cut pine instantly scented the air.
The family proceeded to decorate it, using what few ornaments they had accumulated over the years, most of which were handmade from wood, as well as strands of dried berries. They placed tiny candles in tin holders on the boughs and lit them. The tree glowed with inviting luminosity.
“I wish your pa was here to see this,” Caroline sighed.
She gathered her clutch into the front room, where she read the story of Christ’s birth from the Bible, just like Hiram did every Christmas Eve. As she drew to a close, her voice broke, and she sniffed back tears.
“It’ll be all right, Ma,” David assured her, gently stroking her arm. “Pa’s thinkin’ of us right now, too, I reckon.”
She nodded in agreement. “Well, let’s git to bed. Santa Claus won’t be able to come if y’all are up late.”
The children sniggered. They had been told the truth about Santa years ago, but they played along for their mother’s sake, and promptly went to their rooms. David lit a fire in the fireplace and crawled into bed, but he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned, staring at the gauze-covered window. Pale moonlight cast an eerie glow, enticing him to investigate. He arose and peeked out into the empty yard, but it was too dark to distinguish anything, so he climbed back into bed, folding himself in the covers. He thought of past Christmases spent with his family, and
imagined what his father must be going through, camped in a tent in the middle of nowhere.
At least Bud is there with him, he thought. Finally, he dozed off.