A week before Christmas, the preserve


Dan Mangan strode through the snow-covered preserve, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his black pea jacket and the hunter green hat that Mrs. Vanderpoel had knitted him perched on his dark head. 


It was a cold, clear December day, and his breath puffed out into the air in front of him, preceding every step he took into the forest.  Behind him, he could hear his wife, Nora, and Niamh and Regan, two of his three children, making their way along the path.  Baby Nathaniel had stayed with Mart and Di. It was much too chilly old for him to venture out yet.  As it was, it was amazing that Niamh and Regan could move; they were so tightly bundled into sweaters and mittens, boots, and extra socks.  They looked like chubby elves, their cheeks almost as red as their snowsuits against the pallid snow. 


Dan and Nora each carted a toboggan behind them, one for the Christmas tree they hoped to chop down that day, and one for the children in case they got tired.  So far, though, the two little ones showed no sign of fatigue, struggling valiantly through the light covering of snow and delighting in being outdoors and in search of something as exciting as a Christmas tree.     


At two, Niamh probably only had the vaguest idea of what a Christmas tree looked like, but her four-year-old sister's excitement was enough to carry her along with happy anticipation on their jaunt through the forest. 


"Daniel, are you trying to set a record or what?"  Nora's breathless call rang through the chilly air.


Glancing back, Dan realized he had gotten much too far ahead of the rest of the family.  He paused to let the others catch up, fighting the urge to keep striding ahead with as much energy as he could.   For the past few weeks, he had been battling this instinct; a compelling feeling that urged him to keep going, to wear himself out, to give himself no extra time to think.  


"Yes, Daddy, wait for us!"  Regan yelled. She ran toward him, her long, curly red hair, so like her mother's, streaming out in back of her in a mass of untidy curls as she ran to catch up.  Dan's face broke out into a wide grin, and he caught Regan in one arm, and her sister, who wobbled after Regan as fast as her padded snowsuit and diapers would carry her, in the other.  The girls giggled as Dan whirled them around in a wide circle. 


"Let's see?  Is there a handy snow bank I can throw these two little imps in?"  he asked as Nora came up behind them.  The girls screamed delightedly. 


"Yes, Daddy, throw us in a snow bank!"  Niamh urged, a bit of the devil simmering in her dark eyes.


Dan whirled them around once more, setting them screaming and laughing once again.  "Nope, no snow banks yet.  The snow's not deep enough," he said as he deposited the girls in a heap on one of the toboggans.   They immediately scrambled up.


"More! More!"  Niamh yelled, her green eyes dancing with excitement.


"We have to find our Christmas tree, Niamh," Regan reminded her younger sister. 


Niamh turned in a circle, looking around her.  "Lots of trees," she pointed out sensibly.


Regan shook her head.  "No, Niamh," she said, her voice sounding uncannily like Nora's as she unconsciously imitated her mother's patient-explanation tone perfectly.  "It's very important that we find just the right tree."


Niamh looked around her with a definite lack of comprehension but nodded agreeably.  "Let's go!" she yelled, always game for adventure.


For the next half hour, the four Mangans examined what seemed to Dan to be every tree sitting on the pie-shaped land that abutted the Wheeler game preserve.  He had seen several that he thought would suit the family admirably, but Nora had other ideas.  Every tree either had a bald spot on it, or was too tall to fit into the window niche in their cabin, so full that it would take up too much room in the living room, or too thin and scrawny to even be considered a self-respecting Christmas tree.  The little girls had long since tired of the adventure, and they each sat on a toboggan behind one of their parents, pointing out possible candidates as they swished through the snow.


Dan repressed a sigh, trying to hide his impatience as Nora rejected yet another tree.


Nora turned to him as if reading his mind.  "I know," she said, laying a gloved hand on his arm.  "We're all getting cold and tired and about ready to return to the cabin for some sandwiches and hot homemade chicken soup."


Dan nodded his head, his dark eyes lighting at the thought.


"Just five or ten more minutes. Please, Dan." Nora pleaded with him. "I promise it will be worth it when you see that perfect tree all decorated and lit up."


Reluctantly, Dan agreed.  After five years of marriage, he still couldn't refuse that beseeching expression in his wife's eyes.  "Let's get going then," he said.  "I can almost taste that soup already."


Nora smiled in agreement, and they trudged through the woods side-by-side in companionable silence.  After a few minutes, Nora broke the quiet.  "Is that all that's bothering you, Daniel?" she asked.  "Just the cold and tiredness and endless tree-hunting?"


"I have been working a lot since the baby was born," Dan admitted.  "You know I can't refuse the overtime."


"I know that," Nora said, her green eyes containing a hint of anxiousness.  "I just hope you're not working too hard."


"I'm okay," Dan stated, not wanting her to worry.  The truth was that he had felt run down and a little overwhelmed over the past few weeks.  He just wasn't getting as much joy out of the little things, such as chopping down the family Christmas tree, as he usually did.   


 "I'll be okay once all this craziness is over," he said, trying to believe the words as he stated them.


"The holidays?"  Nora questioned as she paused to examine a tree just off the path. 


Dan nodded.  "Do you like this one?"  he asked in an attempt to draw the conversation away from himself.


"It's not bad," Nora answered.  "Let's take a closer look."  They veered off the path, the toboggans with Regan and Niamh aboard sliding along in the snow behind them. 


Nora stopped directly in front of the tree.  "I was hoping you'd enjoy the holidays," she confessed as she examined the tree critically.   She glanced at Dan, a look of stubbornness in her green eyes that let him know she wasn't giving up on the previous conversation that easily. "I thought if you enjoyed them; it might help you a bit."


Dan looked sheepish as the girls got off their sleds to examine the tree with their parents.   Had his feelings really been that obvious?   "So, what do you think?" he asked, mostly to cover up his embarrassment.  "It's not too short or too skinny or anything."


"Yes!  We like it!"  The girls shouted, looking hopefully at their mother. 


Nora smiled at Regan and Niamh, and then at Dan.   "I think it's unanimous," she said. 


The girls still looked puzzled.  "I think that means yes," Dan told them in a loud aside.  Finding their second winds, the little girls jumped up and down and hugged each other. 


Dan took out his axe and motioned toward the area he wanted Nora and the girls to stand in, so they were safely out of the way.  He shrugged out of his coat.  Still in good shape from chopping firewood, his muscles strained with effort through his ski sweater.  Once he put his strong arms and broad shoulders into the chore, it only took a few sharp blows of the axe to fell the tree.  The three women in his life cheered from the sidelines, and then the girls "holped" their parents haul the tree onto one of the sleds. 


Soon, Nora had Niamh and Regan settled on the other sled, and they were heading through the woods once again, this time toward the little log cabin in the preserve that Dan had called home since he had arrived in Sleepyside over ten years ago. 


As they finally approached the log house, Dan felt the same swelling of pride as he always did, thinking about the work he and Mr. Maypenny had done on it to make it more suitable for his growing family. 


He had always been grateful that Nora hadn't minded living in a cabin in the woods; he somehow hadn't been able to imagine living anywhere else.  Yes, he had gone away to college and only suffered a minimum of homesickness then, but he had always known he would come back here. It was where his heart was now.  It was home.

Lately, though, he had begun to have some doubts.  Whenever he opened the front door of the cabin, as he did now, the house seemed quiet and somehow empty, despite the fact that it was currently filled almost to the brim with not only his wife and daughters, but Mart and Di and their two girls, Alyssa and Hannah, awaiting them with baby Nathaniel. The Mangans' golden retriever, Molly, barked and ran in circles around the humans, adding to the noise and confusion. But despite all the people and noise, there was still one person missing, and Dan felt the lack of his presence almost constantly when he was here.


Nora managed to divest the excited but tired children of their outerwear and hung it up by the fire to dry before turning toward the kitchen.  "Lunch will be ready in a jiffy," she promised.  "Come and wash up, girls."  Di followed her, still holding the baby, and Hannah and Alyssa trailed behind their mother.


Meanwhile, Dan and Mart made several trips up to the small attic storage room under the eaves and dragged down the tree stand, as well as several boxes of lights, ornaments, and other decorations.   Despite Mart's clowning around and the kids running back and forth every few minutes to check their progress, the two men were able to get the tree into its stand by the front window before lunch was on the table. 


The group all enjoyed the lunch of hot chicken soup and ham and cheese sandwiches, and then Mart's family stayed to help decorate the tree.  Finally, when the lights had been turned on and every ornament was on the tree, the Beldens said good-bye, and Nora and Dan tucked their exhausted daughters in for their naps. 


"They could hardly keep their eyes open," Nora said as they walked back to the living room together. 


"Yeah, they were pretty tired," Dan agreed. "This one's still up, though."  He bounced the baby gently up and down in his arms.  "Any chance we can get him to sleep, too?" he asked, raising his eyebrows at Nora suggestively.


Nora laughed. "I wish!" she said, "But I need to feed him. Here, let me have him." 


Dan handed the baby over, and Nora flopped down onto the couch and opened her shirt.  Dan sat beside them, watching the process for a few minutes.  He let out a yawn as he stroked the baby's head.  "When is he going to grow some hair?" he asked lazily.


"He has hair!"  Nora defended her son.  "It's just so light that it's hard to see it." 


"Well, there's not much of it, anyway," Dan disagreed.  "I can't remember the girls being this bald at this age."


"He's a boy," Nora said.  "He doesn't need hair as much as the girls did." 


Dan laughed.  "I guess."  He got up, roaming restlessly around the room, finally stopping in front of the Christmas tree.  He laughed again.  "That's really quite the tree," he said, taking in the hodgepodge way the decorations were hung, mostly on the lower branches that were within the kids' reach. 


Nora smiled.  "I'll have to redecorate it later," she admitted, "but the kids get an A for effort, anyway."


"The kids?"  Dan echoed.  "The kids did fine.  But what about the way Mart hung that string of lights near the top? I kept telling him they were crooked, but he insisted they were fine."


"They are fine," Nora stated.  "You and Mart did a great job, and you have to admit, it's a beautiful tree."

"You always pick out a good one," Dan agreed, "but I still say the lights are crooked."


"Come sit down and look at it with me," Nora urged as she skillfully transferred the baby to her other breast.  "But turn the lights off first.  It always looks better with the lights out."


Dan flicked the lights off, and then sat down next to Nora, putting his arm around her.  The sun was already starting to go down on the winter afternoon, so the room was dark except for the diffused glow of the colored lights on the tree, and silent, except for the quiet sounds of the nursing baby.   


"It is a beautiful tree," Dan stated, his voice soft to match the hush in the room.  "I wish--" 


He stopped.  He had almost said Mr. Maypenny's name out loud, and he didn't want to burden Nora with his sadness during Christmastime.


Nora's green eyes studied his face perceptively.  "I wish he were here to see it, too."


Dan turned to his wife in surprise.


"It's okay to talk about it, you know," Nora remonstrated softly. "It's natural that it's on your mind."


"I know."  Dan shook his head.  "It's just--it's just that I've been thinking about him so much, seeing him in every corner of this cabin.  I don't want to ruin everyone else's happiness during Christmastime by bringing it up all the time."


Nora reached up one hand to stroke his face, her fingers soft against his cheek.  "It's not even been two months since he died.  We all miss him," she reminded him.  "And you haven't even had time to grieve, what with work, and the new baby, and the holidays."


Dan could feel tears in his eyes at the softness in Nora's voice and her gentle touch.  He blinked them away and bit his lip, hard.  He looked again at his baby son, and the sight undid him even more.  "He never even got to meet his namesake," he commented, his voice husky.  He tightened his grip around Nora, drawing her closer and kissing the top of her head, nuzzling his face in her soft curls.


"He would have loved Nathaniel," Nora said, her own voice choked with emotion.  She cleared her throat.  "When the girls wake up, let's go up to the cemetery," she proposed.  "We can bring some holly and greens to decorate the grave." 


"I don't know."  Dan hesitated.  "I really don't want to weigh the girls down with all this.  They should be able to enjoy this time of year without thinking about graves and cemeteries."


"They grieve, too, you know," Nora informed him.  "They may not talk about it much, but I'm sure it's on their minds."  At Dan's nod, she continued.  "I think they would appreciate visiting the grave and having a chance to spend some quiet time with just us."


Dan still hesitated.


"Christmas isn't only about fun and games," Nora reminded him.  "We should remember the spiritual side of things.  Visiting his grave could become a new Christmas tradition."


"I guess," Dan said, still not totally convinced.  "I just wish we could have a tradition of his to hand down to them.  I don't want all the girls' memories of him to be associated with the graveyard."


Nora bit her lip, thinking.  "Did the two of you have any Christmas traditions together? I can't remember any since I've lived here."


"Not really," Dan admitted.  "Just maybe getting the tree, which we've done."  He glanced at Nora.  "Do you have any Christmas traditions from your family?"


"I don't think so," Nora said, frowning with thought.  "We did used to go to the candlelight Christmas Eve service," she ventured.


Dan nodded.  "We should do that this year," he urged her.  "Traditions are important.  Maybe we could get your dad to come with us.  He could spend the night--or even a few days."


Nora gazed at her husband thoughtfully.  He had lost so many people and traditions in his short life.  "We will go," she said with determination.  "It'll be part of our Christmas tradition this year and every year."


Dan managed a grin.  "And we'll go to the cemetery, too," he decided.   "We need all the traditions we can get."    


Christmas Eve, the local church


The altar of the little country church was festive with holly, poinsettias, ivy and brightly colored altar cloths.  Off to one side, a manger scene had been set up, its figures lightly colored and simple, and yet there was a reverence about them.  Mary's robe had just the faintest trimming of gold and the gentleness in her eyes seemed to sparkle with a similar light, or so it seemed to Dan.  Maybe it was just the candlelight that was the only illumination in the chapel; it bathed the congregation in its light, making everyone's eyes seem brighter and their smiles softer. 


"Let us pray."


While the entire congregation rose for the final prayer, Dan took a few minutes to glance around the little church at all the people he loved.  On his left side, his daughter Regan was sitting with her namesake, Bill Regan, their nearly matching heads of red hair shining vibrantly in the candlelight.  As if feeling her father's eyes on her, Regan looked up at him and suddenly giggled.  Dan followed her pointing finger to the baby he was holding; Nathaniel had managed to get hold of his green Christmas tie that was decorated with reindeers and was happily chewing on it.  Dan grimaced as he quickly dislodged the soggy tie from the baby's mouth, replacing it with a pacifier.  Bill Regan grinned over at his nephew and great-nephew.


Dan shook his head, glancing at Nora on his right.  Her green eyes shone merrily as she looked on.  She looked beautiful in the blue velvet, lace-trimmed dress that she had made to match the ones she had found for her daughters.  Even Nathaniel wore a little blue velvet romper.


Niamh stood on the other side of her mother, her cherubic face serious.  She'd been trying hard, Dan could tell, to be extra good throughout the somewhat long service.  Sean, Nora's dad, stood on Niamh's other side, his broad hand resting on her shoulder.  Dan didn't turn, but he knew that the various members of the Bob-Whites and their families were scattered through the pews behind him.


"The recessional hymn is number 30 in your hymnal."


Nora held the hymnbook so Dan could see the words, but he didn't need it. He knew the words by heart.  He heard Nora's clear soprano, and he joined in enthusiastically.

Hark! The Herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king.


By some strange twist of fate, the powers that be had chosen Nathaniel Maypenny's favorite carol for the final hymn of the candlelight service.  Dan felt the tears choke his throat and heard his voice become husky as he struggled to keep singing. He wasn't quite sure if they were tears of sadness or joy.


Peace on Earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconcile.

Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies


Do they have to be tears of one or the other?  Dan asked himself.  Was it possible to be extraordinarily sorrowful and joyful at the same time?


Nathaniel made cooing signs as if singing along to the music, and Nora reached over and caught Dan's hand, grasping it tightly.  He turned to exchange a look with his wife, and seeing his tears reflected in Nora's eyes, he thought he had the answer to his question.  He squeezed Nora's hand in turn as together, they sang out the end of the hymn:

With angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

Hark! The Herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king!



Just a few author notes:

This is, to the best of my memory, the first Dan story I've ever attempted, and it was written for the wonderful Diana, a.k.a. TNDanfan, for the 3rd annual Jix Secret Santa story exchange.   Diana said that there weren't any pairings that would bother her, so I chose to pair Dan with Nora O'Connor, who first appeared in The Mystery of the County Fair, and is also in several newer stories that are still in the works.   Diana, thank you for being so exceptionally patient.  I'm very, very sorry this is so late!

I also owe big thanks to my three editors, Susan, Kris, and Carol, who all came through with speedy edits on very short notice.  Thank you!!!!!

Also, kudos to Cathy for organizing this story exchange, and for all the hard work she and StephH and Terry have done on it.  I wish I had a Bob-White wave to put in here for you!

I thought it fitting to give Dan and Nora's daughters Irish names.  Niamh is the name of one of my nieces in Ireland pronounced Nee-iv, or Neeve.  According to http://www.babynamesofireland.com , it means radiance, luster, or brightness.  The daughter of the sea god Manannan, she was known as "Niamh of the Golden Hair," a beautiful princess riding on a white horse. (And of course, I gave Regan the red hair. *g* )  In 2003 it was the eleventh most popular baby girl's name in Ireland.

The name Regan comes from ri "sovereign, king" and the diminutive -in and means "the king's child" or may come from riogach "impulsive, furious."  Regan may be used for a boy or a girl. Interestingly, the baby names of Ireland website doesn't give a pronunciation for Regan, so you can think it whichever way you prefer (although I know the true pronunciation for this universe. LOL.)