This is a short story for children.
It's longer than the other Christmas pages.
So, gather the children around and plan to spend
about 15 minutes of family time, reading to the young ones.

~ Chapter One ~

The cold wind whistled outside the cabin door. This had been the worst blizzard in more than fifty years. It would soon be Christmas, and the little town was silent. The merchants could not open their shops for business. Even if the store were open, the village people could not get there to do any Christmas shopping.

Janna was almost five, and she wanted more than anything to see the Christmas lights of the small village. Her brothers and sisters had told her all about Santa Claus with his long white beard and his bright red suit.

Janna was too young to understand the real meaning of Christmas, but she got excited when she heard about Santa's big snowsled that would be loaded with presents. Now, her heart was filled with disappointment, because Christmas was only one week away, and the snow was still falling. The chances of going into the village between now and Christmas looked very slim.

Mother took down a story book and sat near the fire place. All the children gather around to listen to their favorite stories while they strung popcorn to drape around the Christmas tree.

Janna heard someone knocking at the front door.

Mother continued reading and no one seemed to notice that someone was standing outside in the cold.

"Somebody's knocking," said Janna.

"I didn't hear anyone knocking," said Father.

Janna heard the knocking again and went to open the door. There stood an old man with a long beard, stooped with age, who looked to be almost frozen.

"May I warm myself by your fire?" He asked.

Janna took the old man by the hand and led him into the house. He smiled at Janna and walked over to the fireplace.

"I told you there was no one knocking," teased her big brother.

Janna waited, expecting her father to offer the stranger a place to sit; but no one spoke or even acknowledged his presence. They acted as if he were not even there.

Janna had no way of knowing that she was the only one who could see or hear the old man. And Janna had never seen her family treat anyone in such a rude manner.

The man looked tired, as he stood in front of the fireplace, briskly rubbing his hands together before the open flames.

Finally, Janna stood up and said to the man, "You may have my chair." With that, she pushed her chair right in front of the fireplace and sat down on the floor right next to it.

"Thank you," said the old man. "That is most kind of you. What is your name?"

"My name is Janna," she replied.

Everyone looked at her. "Be quiet," said her sister, "and listen to the story."

Janna tried to be quiet, but the old man smiled at her again and made her feel all warm inside. "What's your name?" Asked Janna.

Father gave Janna a stern look. "You must be quiet while your mother is reading," he said.

"I'm sorry," said Janna. "I was only trying to be polite."

The old man gave a slight nod of the head and a friendly wink of the eye. "Just call me Mr. Whiskers," he whispered.

Janna giggled a little, and her father gave her another stern look.

Mother had just begun reading again, when Janna noticed the old man was still shaking from the cold.

"Would you like a cup of hot tea? Asked Janna. "Perhaps it would help to warm you a little faster."

"That would be most kind of you," replied the man.

Janna turned and looked at Mother. "Could Mr. Whiskers have a cup of hot tea?" She asked.

"Janna, this is not a time for make believe friends," said Mother firmly. "This is story time for the family."

"But Mr. Whiskers is awfully cold," Janna insisted.

Mother looked at Darla, who was the oldest of the children. "Perhaps a cup of tea would be nice for everyone," she said.

Darla went into the kitchen and put the tea kettle on the stove. When she returned, she brought a cup of tea for each member of the family.

"But you didn't bring tea for Mr. Whiskers." Janna picked up her cup and set it on the small table near Mr. Whiskers. "Here," she said, "you may have my tea. I'm sorry that Darla didn't make a cup for you."

"That is quite alright," said the man, and he smiled again at Janna.

Janna sat wide-eyed and watched the old man intently as he moved his feet a little closer to the fire.

Mother picked up the book and read the rest of the Story. Then she announced that it was bedtime for everyone.

Janna looked at Mr. Whiskers. He sat very still, gazing into the flames in the fireplace. His mind seemed to be on something far away.

"What about Mr. Whiskers?" Asked Janna. "Where will he sleep?"

"Play time is over for the day," said Mother. "It's time for bed."

Janna looked at Mr. Whiskers. "You can sleep in my bed," she said.

"Thank you," replied Mr. Whiskers.

Janna looked at her mother. "May I sleep in your bed?" She asked. Mother smiled and said to Janna, "Just for tonight; then it's back to your room."

Janna took Mr. Whiskers by the hand and led him upstairs to her room.

"You are very kind to give your room up to a stranger," said Mr. Whiskers with that same twinkle in his eyes.

Janna smiled and told Mr. Whiskers good-night.

Then she ran into her mother's room and snuggled into bed beside her mother.

"Mr. Whiskers was very glad to come inside and warm himself by our fire," said Janna. "He was very cold when he came to our door."

"I'm sure anyone outside would be cold tonight," said mother.

~ Chapter Two ~

The next morning when Janna awoke, she ran straight to her bedroom. Mr. Whiskers was not there, and it appeared that no one had slept in her bed. She ran into the living room and found him sitting in the same chair that she had given to him the night before. "Oh, there you are," said Janna. "You were not in my room when I got up, and I thought you had gone away."

"No," said Mr. Whiskers. "The blizzard is still fierce. I should like to stay until the snow stops falling."

"I'm glad," said Janna. Then she ran into the kitchen where Mother was baking fresh bread. "Mr. Whiskers said he would like to stay until the snow stops falling. Can he stay?" Janna asked.

"Your friend is still here, and he wants to stay until the snow stops falling?" Asked Mother.

"Yes," replied Janna. "It kept snowing all night long, and it's getting deeper and deeper. He can't go anywhere until it stops."

"Oh, I see," said Mother. "Then I suppose he can stay until the storm is over."

"Can I still sleep with you so he can have my bed?" Asked Janna.

Mother smiled, thinking that Janna was using a make believe person as an excuse so she wouldn't have to sleep alone in her own bedroom. "Just until the storm is over." Mother replied.

"Oh, thank you, Mother," said Janna as she ran to hug her mother's neck. "Everyone was so rude to Mr. Whiskers last night, that I'm sure he wants to leave as soon as possible. He's really very nice."

"I'm sure he is," said Mother.

Janna went back into the living room and said to Mr. Whiskers, "Would you like some breakfast?"

"Yes, thank you," said Mr. Whiskers. "If it isn't too much trouble, I should like a glass of fresh milk."

"Is that all?" Asked Janna.

"Well, perhaps a piece of baked bread with a pat of butter and a little honey."

Janna went back into the kitchen and poured a tall glass of cold milk while Mother cut the bread. Then she got out the honey and butter and put it on their best serving tray.

"May I carry this into the living room so Mr. Whiskers can sit in my chair and eat in front of the fireplace?" Janna asked.

"Of course," replied Mother. "I'm sure he will be much more comfortable in there."

Janna carried the tray into the living room and set it on the small table. "I have to go now and tell everybody that breakfast is ready," she said.

Soon the family gathered around the kitchen table. The two boys exchanged glances, pointed a finger at Janna, and giggled.

Father gave both of the boys a looked of disapproval.

When everyone had finished eating, and the table had been cleared, Janna's father called her back into the kitchen. "Where is your friend from?" Asked Father.

"I don't know," replied Janna.

"Where is he going?"

"I don't know," said Janna.

"How long do you think he'll stay?"

"Until the snow stops falling," replied Janna. "But I wouldn't blame him if he leaves before it stops. He wasn't made to feel very welcome last night."

"I'm sorry," said Father. "I wouldn't want anyone to feel unwelcome in our home."

Without another word, Father left the room and went upstairs to have a talk with Mother. "I've heard of young children having imaginary friends," he said, "but Janna seems thoroughly convinced that Mr. Whiskers is real."

"She'll get over it," said Mother. "It's just a phase they all go through."

"I don't know," said Father. "When I got up this morning to build a fire, I happened to notice the tea cup, which Janna set for Mr. Whiskers last night, was empty."

"Maybe one of the boys is getting the Christmas spirit," said Mother.

"Maybe," said Father.

"This isn't the first time Janna's had a make believe friend," said Mother; though she too, had noticed the empty cup.

Janna went into the living room to talk to Mr. Whiskers. "I see you ate all of your breakfast," she said. "Did you have enough?"

"Yes, thank you," said Mr. Whiskers. "Quite enough."

"Did you see the lights in the village?" Asked Janna.

"I think the storm started before the lights could be put up," said Mr. Whiskers.

"That's too bad," said Janna. "I guess there won't be any Christmas this year."

"Oh, that's not what Christmas is," said Mr. Whiskers.

"It isn't?" Asked Janna.

"Oh no, Christmas is not bright lights and pretty paper with big ribbons," he said.

"Then, what is Christmas?" Asked Janna.

"Christmas is in the heart," replied Mr. Whiskers.

Just then, Father came into the room dressed in his big overcoat. "Are you talking to your make believe friend again?" He asked.

"Oh no," said Janna. "I'm talking to Mr. Whiskers. He was just explaining Christmas to me."

"I see," said Father. "Well, ask him to excuse me while I go out and cut some wood for the fire tonight. I don't want anybody to get cold." Then He wrapped his long woolen scarf tightly around his neck and went outside.

Mr. Whiskers smiled and winked at Janna.

~ Chapter Three ~

That afternoon the snow stopped falling. Father put on his overcoat and wrapped his woolen scarf around his neck. Then he went out and hitched the dogs to the sled.

When Father returned, he told everybody to bundle up in their warmest clothing. "The snow is just right for some fun on the sled," he said as he took off his gloves and rubbed his hands together in front of the fireplace.

Darla helped Janna into her warmest clothes and wrapped a long scarf around her head to cover her ears.

Janna wanted to be the first to ride. Father picked her up and sat down on the sled. He held her close as the dogs began to pull them forward. Janna felt safe in her father's arms as she pressed hard against him.

The dogs were gaining speed on the downhill grade. Janna squealed and laughed as the sled jostled her up and down.

Suddenly one of the dogs tumbled in the snow and the sled skidded over a steep cliff.

Mother, Darla, and the two boys ran to the edge of the cliff and saw Janna lying face down in the snow. She was not moving. Father was on his feet, trying to get to Janna. A stranger was bending over Janna. "Who's that?" asked Darla.

"I don't know unless he's the man that recently moved into the old farmhouse just beyond the ridge," answered Mother.

"Is she alright?" Mother called to the stranger.

"She is unconscious and has a bad cut on her head," the stranger answered. "She has some broken bones and there may be some internal injuries."

The man took off his heavy coat and wrapped it around Janna to protect her from the cold wind. Then he carefully lifted her in his arms and carried her back to the house.

"We must get her to a Doctor," said Mother.

"That would not be safe," replied the stranger. "Further exposure to this weather could be fatal to her. I can set the broken bones and watch over her until she is better. "Are you a doctor," asked Mother.

The man did not answer but rather turned his attention to Janna. He cleaned the wound on Janna's head and set the broken bones. Then he made splints to hold the bones in place. When he had done all that could be done for her, he pulled a chair up close to her bed and sat down. "Nothing more can be done for now," he said.

"You must be our new neighbor that moved into the farmhouse just beyound the ridge," Mother said. "We're certainly blessed that you were there when the accident happened."

The man nodded his head slightly. "Glad to be of service," he replied.

For the next five days, the man watched over Janna while she lay in a coma.

Christmas eve came, and Janna was still asleep. No one spoke of the bright lights in the village, for it all seemed to have lost its meaning. Nothing seemed more important than Janna waking up.

Father sat and stared at the Christmas tree. The hand strung popcorn seemed to mock the very branches that held it in place. Only a few days ago all these things had seemed to have such great importance. Now, their meaning was lost somewhere behind his grief and worry.

Mother came into the room and saw Father staring at the christmas tree.

She picked up the story book and said, "Why don't we all go into Janna's room for our story tonight?"

"I think that's a splendid idea," Father said as he got up and followed her and the children upstairs to Janna's room. Everyone gathered around Janna's bed.

"Tonight, I would like to read Janna's favorite story," said Mother.

"I think everyone would be willing to hear it again," said Father.

Mother turned the pages quickly and began to read the familiar story. It was not about bright lights or tinsel on a tree. It was a story about a little princess that Janna loved to hear more than any other. Mother tried to hold back her tears, but they fell down her cheeks in an expression of deep sorrow.

The man looked at Mother and patted her gently on the shoulder. "Don't worry," he said, "I'm sure Janna will wake up soon."

Mother closed the book and sat quietly, looking down at Janna. Then she reached out and took Janna's hand. "Please wake up" she said. "Tomorrow's Christmas. If you'll just wake up, you can tell me all about Mr. Whiskers or any other make believe friend you want to talk about. I'm sorry for brushing you aside and not sharing the things that made you happy. Your Mr. Whiskers sounded like a very nice person. Please wake up and you can tell me about him."

Mother turned and looked at the other children. "I know you were all looking forward to seeing the lights in the village," she said. "This will be the first time that we will have no gifts for Christmas. for me, it would be Christmas to have Janna wake up."

"That would be Christmas for me too," said Father.

"Me too," said Darla and the two boys.

"Isn't that what Christmas is all about?" asked the stranger? "Loving and caring for one another. Not one day, but every day?"

"Yes," said Father. "I think that's the greatest gift we can give or receive for Christmas."

"Why don't we all come and celebrate Christmas here in Janna's room in the morning?" asked one of the boys. "That will be our gift to her."

The old man smiled as everyone left the room to get ready for bed.

The next morning everyone got up early. "It's Christmas!" shouted each of the children.

They all started upstairs to celebrate Christmas in Janna's room. But just before they reached her door, they saw the old man leaving her room. A feeling of hopelessness swept through each of them.

"Is something wrong?" cried Mother.

But the old man walked on without saying a word.

Everyone rushed toward Janna's room. All hope of Christmas had vanished and their dream of celebrating was gone.

Mother looked down at the small form on the bed and saw a look of peace on Janna's face.

Father chocked back the tears as he rushed to Janna's bed.

Just then, Janna opened her eyes and waved her hand. "Good-by Mr. Whiskers," she said in a faint voice.

Everyone turned to look at the old man, but he had simply disappeared.

Father turned pale and leaned back against the wall. "Mr. Whiskers?" he mumbled in a hushed voice. "Was that Mr. Whiskers?"

THE END

by Mildred L. Music October 27, 1992


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