Once, when I was a young girl, I had an enchanting dream about being whisked off to the Land of Sweets, a delightful world full of fairies and other lovely creatures. The young Clara I used to be was convinced that her darling Nutcracker Prince and all the events of the night were real, but as I grew up, I came to the conclusion that my adventure was nothing but a dream. Until the dream revisited me last night.
You’ll remember this tale, I’m sure – the beginning, at least, because you were there! I hope this explains why I acted so dreamy for years after Christmas Eve of 1816.
I perched on the velvet window seat, gazing out at the streets of Germany and watching the delicate snowflakes float to the ground. It was Christmas Eve, 1816, and the annual Stahlbaum Christmas party would be starting soon. I tried to peer into the curtained windows of passing carriages, hoping to spot my relatives. Glancing at the oak grandfather clock in the corner of the parlor, I learned that it was only 6:30. The party wouldn’t start until 7:00. I returned my gaze to the window and willed my family to arrive.
The aroma of cooking turkey drifted out from the kitchen. A platter, painted with holly leaves and laden with exquisitely decorated sugar cookies, was positioned on a side table. Pure white candy canes were nestled together in a crystal vase. The Christmas tree, a glorious evergreen, had hand painted glass ornaments, strings of popcorn and cranberries, and flickering candles gracing its boughs. A radiant gold star sat on the peak of the tree. An enticing pile of colorfully wrapped presents lay around the evergreen. Everything was ready – if only my relatives would hurry up!
My little brother, Fritz, raced down the carpeted stairs from the second floor and snatched a cookie from the plate. Ordinarily, I would have scolded him, but it was Christmas, after all. Fritz licked the pale blue icing off the cookie, which was decorated like a Star of David. He shoved the treat into his mouth and made obnoxiously loud mmm noises.
Rising from my spot at the window seat and smoothing out the azure silk skirt of my dress, I strode across the room toward Fritz and affectionately adjusted the young boy’s tawny bow tie. I ruffled his light brown curls fondly.
“Clara,” he whined, patting his hair down, “why are you . . . you’re always . . .” Not sure what to say, my brother rubbed a smudge of icing off the corner of his mouth and wiped his sticky fingers on my bare arm.
“Fritz!” I yelped. He shot me a sly look and dashed back up the stairs. I hurried into my parents’ room and splashed cold water from the basin on the dresser over my arm, then dried it with a cotton towel. Being Christmastime, I decided to forgive my sibling for smearing frosting on me.
In looks, Fritz and I were very much the same. We both had pale skin, rosy cheeks, teal eyes, and curly caramel hair. But personality-wise, we were polar opposites: I was lady-like, responsible, and considerate. Fritz, on the other hand, was unruly, forgetful, and always spoke his mind, no matter how rude his thoughts were.
On my way back to the window seat, I checked the grandfather clock again: 6:37. Barely any time had passed since the last time I’d peeped at the clock! Watching carriages rumble by in a flurry of snowflakes for another twenty-three minutes would drive me crazy, so I headed toward the kitchen, plucking a candy cane from its container on the way.
Mother was taking a perfectly cooked turkey off of the spit in the fireplace when I strolled in. Delicate porcelain dishes painted with tiny pink flowers were stacked on a tray made of dark cherry wood, which was resting on the island.
I lifted my lace-trimmed apron off its hook, slipped it over my head, and tied it around my waist. The candy cane I dropped into my apron’s pocket. “May I help you, Mother?” I asked.
She set the turkey on the counter, a folded towel beneath it, and tucked a loose strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “Thank you, Clara, but I’m almost finished,” she told me. “I just have to make tea and the cranberry salad, and then I’ll be done.”
“But, Mother, you must get yourself ready!” I protested, waving at her sweaty everyday dress and messy bun. “Go put something nice on, and I’ll take care of the rest of the food.” I loved working in the kitchen, and besides, I needed something to do until the party started.
Relief shone from Mother’s weary smile as she untied her apron and kissed my forehead. “Bless your heart,” she murmured, and exited the steamy kitchen.
I turned to the wooden counter, ready to work. I took a pan from the cabinet, threw some sugar and scarlet cranberries into it, and set it on the stove. As I waited for the cranberries to heat, I found a pot and filled it with cold water from a bucket Mother kept in the icebox. Placing it on the stove next to the cranberries, I dropped mint leaves into the pot.
I was just setting Mother’s best ruby-colored teapot on the dining table when someone knocked on the door. Mint tea nearly splattered all over the lace tablecloth as I practically dropped it on the table in my haste to answer the door. Yanking off my apron, I flew across the dining room, into the parlor, and threw open the door. There stood Aunt Katherine, Uncle Raymond, and their daughter, Mercy.
“Goodness, is that you, Miss Clara?” Aunt Katherine said with fake surprise. “Why, I can hardly recognize you, you’ve grown so much!”
My aunt and uncle had seen me at Thanksgiving, and I hadn’t changed in the least bit, but I nodded politely anyway. “Come in!” I stepped to the side so they could enter the house. Hopping up and down in excitement, I squeezed my cousin Mercy in a hug. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen you!” I exclaimed, grinning at her.
Mercy hugged me back and brushed snowflakes out of her long raven braid. She untied her sugar cookie-colored cloak, and as it fell off her shoulders, I got a good look at her dress: it was dark violet, with black lace making patterns across the bodice and full length skirt.
“Do you like it?” Mercy asked softly, twirling timidly. The skirt fanned out, and a few stray snowflakes sailed around her.
“Oh, you look lovely, Mercy!” I cried gleefully. The purple fabric looked astounding against her pale skin and chocolate eyes.
Mother glided down the stairs elegantly, smiling at Katherine, her sister. She was beautiful in her crimson holiday dress, a string of pearls around her neck. Her blonde hair tumbled over her shoulders.
Katherine embraced Mother the second she set foot in the parlor. “Marie! It’s wonderful to see you. The tree is amazing! How hard you must have worked . . .”
As the ladies chatted, Father came down the stairs holding Fritz’s hand. Fritz’s bow tie was crooked again, and I wished to straighten it.
“Samuel!” Uncle Raymond bellowed, trotting up the stairs to shake Father’s hand. They shook, clasped each other’s shoulders, and burst into merry conversation. Fritz managed to wiggle out of Father’s grasp and scampered down the stairs.
Soon, everyone had arrived, and after a lively feast of delectable foods, it was finally time to open our gifts. The children were forced to wait for the adults to look at their presents first out of respect for our elders. Once the women neatly unfolded the colorful paper wrapping their gifts and gasped in pleasure at the handkerchiefs and dishes they received, and the men grunted in satisfaction at the axes and boots they had been given, the young ones were allowed to rush to the tree and find their presents.
I’d only just picked up a parcel with Clara written on it when the front door was flung open, and in a swirl of frigid air and snow, a person stepped inside the Stahlbaum house. The person was outside the circle of light thrown by the candles in the Christmas tree, so I could not tell who he was; the others were as confused as I was. Who was this character, to come into a home on Christmas Eve uninvited?
The person walked toward the tree, and as the face became illuminated with candlelight, I could see who it was: Godfather! He had a burlap sack slung over his spindly shoulders, and a mischievous grin danced across his wrinkled face. His tangled white hair and bushy eyebrows were littered with snow.
Other than Mercy, Godfather was my favorite relative. I dropped the package I had begun to open and bounded over to him. “Godfather, Godfather!” I cried, grabbing his hand. “You’ve missed dinner!” I pulled him into the circle of guests surrounding the Christmas tree. Everyone except Fritz shrank away from Godfather, looking frightened. Perhaps he did appear to be rather shabby, with his wild hair and paint-stained clothes, but that was simply because he made toys for a living, and he sold his knickknacks for meager portions of money.
“Darling Clara,” Godfather said, “I have something for you.” He dropped his sack to the floor, rummaged around in it without letting anyone see its contents, and drew out a nutcracker.
I accepted the nutcracker from him and stared at the toy in awe. It was a stout doll with a potbelly, and he was dressed in a red hat, a luxurious coat with fabric of the same color, cerulean pants, and shiny black boots. A fake sword with a bejeweled handle hung at the nutcracker’s side, and underneath the lush blonde horsehair on his head was a wooden lever, and when it was pulled on, the toy’s mouth would open wide.
Squealing joyfully, I hugged the nutcracker to my chest. “I shall call him the Prince – the Nutcracker Prince!” I whispered.
The other children had warmed up to Godfather once they had seen the wonderful gift he had given to me, and he worked his way around the tree, presenting one-of-a-kind toys to each child: dolls, wooden soldiers, rocking horses, stuffed animals. Shouts of happiness ran out as the young ones played with their gifts.
Fritz, who had been given a set a hand-painted soldiers, was glaring at me as I twirled around the room with the Nutcracker Prince. Suddenly, he snatched a huge walnut from a dish on the side table, lunged at me, and shoved it into the nutcracker’s mouth. He jerked the lever on the toy’s back down, but the walnut was too large for him to break. Instead, what broke was the Nutcracker Prince’s two front teeth!
A strangled shriek of horror escaped my lips as the petite teeth plummeted to the floor. Sobbing, I wrenched the nutcracker from Fritz’s grip and scooped the teeth off the ground. Not wanting to be punished, my brother scurried into the dining room and blended into the crowd of cousins. Adults swarmed around me, brushing my shoulders sympathetically and murmuring comfortingly.
Godfather rushed to my side and gently pried the nutcracker’s teeth from my trembling hand. “I can fix him, Clara,” he promised. “Your nutcracker shall be as good as new before the party ends!” He lifted the Nutcracker Prince from arms, selected several tools from his ever-present sack, and hurried away.
Sniffling, I wiped at my eyes and wandered back to the tree, where I opened the rest of my presents. They were all quite wonderful, but not nearly as grand as the nutcracker. I wish Godfather would hurry up! I thought.
All too soon, the children started yawning and their parents shooed them out the front door in a flurry of cloaks. Uncle Raymond, Aunt Katherine, and Mercy were some of last to go, but they left too. The Stahlbaum house, which had been full of laughing relatives gorging themselves on holiday treats minutes before, was silent except for the steady tick, tick, tick of the grandfather clock.
As Fritz and I were climbing the stairs to the second floor, a shadowy figure appeared on the landing. We screamed and practically tumbled head over heels down the stairs in our haste to get away. My heartbeat pounded in my head. A ghost!
“Wait, children!” called the shadow. Moments later, a blinking flame materialized on the landing, and Godfather’s face was bathed in wavering candlelight. He moved down the stairs, his old joints creaking in rhythm with the squeaks of the staircase. “I have mended your nutcracker, Clara.”
I took the nutcracker from him with one hand and hugged him with the other. “Thank you, Godfather. I love the Nutcracker Prince so much!”
Mother grasped Godfather’s hand in her own and led him to the door. “You didn’t have to spoil Fritz and Clara with those extra gifts of yours,” she told him. “They already had enough presents for this Christmas, the next one, and their birthdays!”
“They’re children, Marie!” Godfather said. “And they shan’t be for much longer. I’ll spoil them while I can.” He kissed Mother’s smooth hand and ducked outside into the chill December night.
Once Godfather had left, Fritz scampered up the staircase to his room, but I stayed on the bottom step, one hand on the railing. The Christmas tree, still aglow, was alluring, and I didn’t want to leave.
Mother turned away from the door and focused her arctic blue eyes on me. “Go along, Clara, off to bed,” she ordered.
I hopped off the staircase and begged, “May I please sleep on the couch tonight, Mother? Just this once?” I placed the nutcracker on the ground and clasped my hands. Please say yes . . . oh, please, Mother, say yes . . .
Mother opened her mouth to object, but Father put a hand on her shoulder. They had a silent conversation with facial expressions, and Mother relented. “Fine, you may sleep on the couch. Only tonight, mind you, so don’t get used to it.”
I bounded over to her. “Thank you, Mother!”
She laughed softly and kissed my head. “Run along and put your nightgown on, and when you come down, Father and I will have made the couch into a bed fit for the queen.”
Upstairs, I let my hair down and changed into my new nightgown, which swished around my ankles when I walked and was made of airy blush colored fabric with a silver sash around the waist. I slipped silently down the stairs, picked the Nutcracker Prince up off the parlor floor, and walked toward the couch. Mother was waiting there beside the Christmas tree, and when I reached her, she complimented me on how lovely I looked in the nightdress.
A blanket, crocheted with sea foam and pearl-colored yarn, was draped over the couch. Two fluffy pillows were set at one end. Mother pulled back the blanket and I slid onto the couch. The cushions puffed up around me, embracing me in a hug filled with sleep. My eyes would hardly stay open, and I didn’t hear Mother bid me goodnight. I was already asleep, the nutcracker in my arms.
The Christmas tree was growing rapidly, reaching for the ceiling, and its branches expanded until the pine needles were as thick as the shafts of quill pens. Someone was perched on top of the tree, cackling and waving an arm around wildly. It was Godfather!
My head snapping back and forth, I saw that everything in the parlor was growing larger – everything except for me, that is! The toys scattered beneath the tree had become the same size as their real equivalents. Then the dolls began to bend their wooden and fabric joints, and the stuffed animals made noises that sounded like yawning. They were alive!
A doll, dressed in red, strode around the tree, shaking the other toys and commanding them to wake up. It was the Nutcracker Prince! He spotted me out of the corner of his eye and waved for me to join him at the base of the tree.
I jumped off the couch, landing on a stray pillow on the floor, and ran to him. Was this real? Had all my toys come to life? Laughing a bit hysterically, I screeched to a halt by the nutcracker.
He put a hand on my shoulder and announced, “This is Clara Stahlbaum!”
The other toys crowded around me, shaking my hands and saying hello. Suddenly the Nutcracker Prince shouted in alarm and pointed to the other side of the parlor, and the toys froze.
An army of hundreds of mice had appeared, baring their teeth and pounding their spears against the ground in a menacing drumbeat.
I hate to stop there, Mercy, but I’m about to run out of ink! I shall write again soon with the rest of the story.