A Christmas Story: Eight Hens Roosting

Excerpt from the memoir titled Nettles and Roses

Sixty-four Year Old Santa Under the Christmas Tree

(Henry David, a vintage doll, sits next next to Santa. Henry (named after Thoreau) was rescued from an abandoned cabin shortly before it was demolished.)

After the house burned and while we were living in a one room tar-paper shack, Papa got an offer to transport house trailers between Florida and Indiana, an offer he couldn’t turn down. This job gave him something he yearned for, the opportunity to travel. Mama did not protest when Papa explained that the trucking job meant he would have to spend time away from home. If the job made Papa happy, she was happy.  

Ted and I were thrilled by the stories that Papa shared when he returned from a trip. Ted was twelve and I was ten. Papa described trees draped in Spanish moss and brought home samples of the moss to hang from a nail in the shanty. He brought a cypress tree table lamp. Mama picked up a shade for it at the Salvation Army store. He brought pecans and oranges. One time he brought home two baby alligators, one for Ted and one for me. 

Ted opened the small crate his was in first and gently lifted the little creature while saying, “Cool! An alligator.” I hurriedly opened my crate only to find that mine had died. When tears welled in my eyes, Ted said, “Here, Judy. You can have this one.”

“No, Ted. That’s yours,” I protested.

“It’s ours,” he replied. 

We didn’t keep this exotic pet for long. Being a cold-blooded reptile, he had to be kept warm, and the shanty was far from warm. Ted and I took turns sleeping with him at night, after tucking him inside a wool sock. Feeding him was also troublesome – he would only eat if submerged and would only eat raw hamburger. Neither Ted nor I objected when Mama traded him for a parakeet.

When Papa left on a haul in mid-December, Ted and I quietly discussed our concern that he might not return before Christmas. Overhearing our conversation, Mama assured us that he would. 

“Are we going to have a Christmas tree?” I asked. 

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Mama answered. “This year I think we should have a live tree, one that that can be planted in the yard in the spring. We can get one at the greenhouse.” 

And that’s what we had, a foot-tall spruce tree in a bucket. Mama set the tree on top of the small black and white TV that Papa had brought home after one of his trips. She wrapped a towel around the bucket and hung tiny blue baubles on the tree.

But another type of tree filled a corner of the shanty. It was made of ascending poles placed across a corner of the room, the longest at the base, and shorter ones toward the ceiling. This was a chicken roosting tree. December was extremely cold, so cold that at night the chickens’ feet were freezing in the coop, so Mama decided to let them roost in the shanty, with newspapers spread beneath their roosting area. During the day, they were returned to the coop. We made a joke of it singing, “On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight hens a-roosting.” We didn’t mind sharing space with chickens. It was the right thing, the kind thing to do. We were also awarded each morning by one hen that chose to lay an egg at day-break. She always sang her egg-laying song afterward, “Puck puck pu duck! Puck puck pu duck!” 

Schuler Pharmacy on Main Street in a nearby town displayed and sold toys in the upper level of the store at Christmastime. Several days before Christmas, Mama stopped there with Ted and me. 

“You may each pick out one gift for yourself and a game that you can share. After you have made your decisions, let me know what you want,” she directed.

Ted and I each knew what we wanted. We had looked through the toy selection earlier in the week. Ted wanted a BB gun, and I wanted a stuffed foot-tall Coca Cola Santa Clause with a realistic hard rubber face holding a miniature Coke bottle. But we took our time studying the games before deciding, eventually settling on the Marlon Perkins’ Wild Kingdom Trivia Game. 

Papa arrived home late in the afternoon on December 24th, and shortly afterward, he and Mama left to get Ted’s and my presents. Schuler’s stayed open until six on Christmas Eve.

“We’re going to Schuler’s,” Mama said. “We won’t be long.”

While they were away, Ted and I put fresh newspaper under the chickens, straightened the dishes and pans, and made our cots. After smoothing every wrinkle from the bedspread covering Mama’s and Papa’s bed, we placed the gifts we bought for them on their pillows, a wool scarf for Mama and a pair of socks for Papa.

Finally, the door burst open, and Mama and Papa blew in with snow and icy air. They quickly closed the door and placed the bags containing our unwrapped presents on the bed. 

Ted was given a BB gun, and I was given the Coca Cola Santa. Sixty plus years later, I still have this jolly old elf, though his face is grimy with age, his cloth body has cotton protruding through holes, and the tiny Coke bottle was lost long ago. Each Christmas I wrap him in a soft yellow blanket, my oldest son’s baby blanket, and tuck him under my Christmas tree in a judicious spot where he can watch what’s going on without being seen and having his feelings hurt when someone asks, “Why do you have that under your tree?  Looks like he should have gone up the chimney a long time ago.” But for me, when I see this dear old Santa smiling at me from under the tree, I am reminded that blue baubles on a small tree growing in a bucket are more memorable than those on a grandly decorated one, that Christmas is as thrilling for a child receiving a few gifts as for one receiving many, and that waking to the cackling of a hen gifting an egg on Christmas morning was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.