Chapter 12 – Penguin Play

When morning dawned, the forest was covered with a blanket of sparkling, powdery snow.  Holly felt it on her leaves before she opened her eyes.  And when she did open them, she gasped in delight.  It was almost like waking on a different world.  Every branch and reed was etched with snow, and the ground was smooth and rounded under the soft covering

Holly chose one of her happiest morning songs to wake her fellow forest dwellers, and she could hear them laughing at the surprise and pleasure of the sight.

It was the deer’s day to prepare breakfast for the guests at the camp, and they quickly whipped up big servings of warm porridge.  They sweetened it with maple sap and stirred in crunchy pine nuts and acorns, and soon the visitors were lining up to enjoy their breakfast feast.

So many guests had arrived that it took a couple hours to feed everyone.  But the winterbirds had come to sing Festival carols and the rabbits came to dance, so the time passed swiftly.

When the last guest was served, a large buck stepped up to the platform that was used to stage the entertainment, his antlers gleaming with a covering of snow.  He was reading a list of activities that the forest dwellers had arranged for the guests when a ripple of jingling bells sounded.  Instantly everyone in the forest grew still to listen for the magical voice.  “Greetings, Friends,” it said, filling the air everywhere.  “This is your ten-minute alert.  Today’s surprise guests will be her shortly.”  Everybody whistled and cheered.

The great buck quickly explained to the new comers that they were in for a treat.  Magic was about to unfold and they would see visitors from the Home World.   He asked them to set aside whatever they were doing and get ready just to listen and watch when the guests appeared.

The jingle bells sounded again.  “Five-minutes,” the voice said.  All the forest grew quiet then while everyone waited, full of excitement, for what would happen next.

Suddenly, the snow, which had stopped just before dawn, seemed to be falling again.  Everyone could see it, but no one could feel it on their fur or feathers or leaves.  Then, right in the center of it, two baby penguins popped into a clearing.

“Hello!  Hello!” they sang.  “We’re Paul and Polly Penguin, come from the winterlands of Home World to greet you!  We hope you like the snow!  Little Pine said that it would be a fine treat for you, especially for your visiting bears.

“We love the snow.  We live in it all the time, and we have legends about it,” Paul Penguin said.  “We say it is the breath of the Yes laughing, frozen by the cold air.”

“We like it so much,” said Polly, in a sweet and merry voice, “because it’s like sparks of the Great Light, falling to brighten our spirits.  Just seeing it makes us so happy that all we can do I play!  We ski and sled and skate.  We make great castles of snow and make up pretend stories to act out in them.  And it’s all great fun.”

“Little Pine asked us to bring you greetings from the Spirits of Fun, by the way,” Paul continued.  They’re great friends of ours and often visit us in our winterland.  They’ve told us as much about you as Little Pine has.  And they sent a special gift for you, in honor of the happiness in your hearts.  we’re delighted to see for ourselves all the joy in your hearts, the Light that each of you shines into the world.

“Hold on to that good cheer, friends.  Every world needs it; yours more than many.  Your happiness has the power to comfort and soothe and heal many wounds.  And we have come to thank you, for being who you are, and for understanding in your hearts that life is meant to be lived in gladness and joy.”

“Now, before we go,” Polly said, “here is your gift from the Spirits of Fun.  From this moment on, for the rest of the day, each snowflake that touches you will fill you with bubbling light that will make you grin and giggle.”

“Farewell now, and Happy Festival!” the penguin babies sang.  And they faded away in a swirl of snow, that continued to fall the rest of the day.

Chapter 11 – The King of the Elves

“Do you think one of Little Pine’s friends will show up today?” Mother Pine asked Mother Red Leaf as they shared their cups of winterberry tea.

“Oh, I hope so!”  Mother Red Leaf said.  “As busy as I was yesterday, all I could think about was who would be popping in next.  I think everybody in the whole forest is humming with anticipation.”

She was right about that.  Everybody was waiting for noon to arrive to see what would happen. The word had spread among the visitors about the magic that was taking place, and they, too, were eager to watch it unfold.

Happily, the morning passed quickly.  The chipmunks had come to dance for the guests while they ate their breakfasts, and they were all so entertained that they hardly noticed the time at all.  The forest dwellers kept their attention on the projects they were doing for Festival Day and the hours flew past for them, too.

Then ten minutes before noon, the jingling of a thousand tiny bells rippled through the forest, and everyone heard the magical voice say, “Greetings, Friends! This is your ten-minute alert.  A special guest is on his way.”

A five-minute alert shortly followed.  And then, to everyone’s amazement, the sound of royal trumpets filled the air as a purple mist appeared before their eyes.

Quickly, the center of the mist turned clear, and there before them, surrounded by garlands and bouquets of feathers was the bearded, smiling face of the King of the Elves.  “Ho! Ho! Ho!” he laughed in a voice so deep and merry that everyone laughed with him.  “How wonderful to see all of you!  I can’t tell you how pleased I was when Little Pine asked me to be one of his special guests.”  His eyes twinkled with joy as he spoke.  “Your Festival is one of my favorite celebrations.”

“Where I live, we have even longer days of darkness than you do, and we truly know what it means when the Light returns.  So I understand the joy you take in preparing to honor that day when the Light begins to grow again in your world.  It’s a day that marks new beginnings for us all, a day when we begin to dream new dreams for the coming year.

“The Light gives us hope, and brings us new life.  While we rest through the winter days, our dreams grow as the Light grows stronger and stronger, and then, when the longest night has passed, we rise to make our dreams come true.

“It’s a wonderful thing, the cycle of life.  And yes, I love your celebration of it.  I love your merriment and joy.  And I thank you for all you do to make it a happy day for all with your generosity and kindness, and the beauty of all the decorations you create and the songs that you sing.

“I must leave you now.  But before I go, let me extend a special greeting and my thanks to your elves.  Party on, little guys.  You’re the best.”

Then he put his finger along side his nose, and with another boisterous “Ho! Ho! Ho!” he faded away.


Chapter 10 – Carol for the Butterflies

As the sun rose over the eastern edge of the woodland, Holly sang her morning wake-up song to rouse the forest’s plants and critters from their sleep.  Morning was one of her favorite parts of the day.  As soon as she sang the last notes of her song, she loved to be silent as she listened to the forest wake.

The elves were the first to respond to her song, of course, giggling and singing happy elf-songs of their own as they eagerly greeted the new day.  That set the squirrels and chipmunks to chattering.  Then Holly would hear “chick-a-dee, chick-a-dee” and the peeping of sparrows as the wee birds sent their hellos to the forest and the sun.

Today, ducks were visiting the lake and they added their quacking to the morning’s song.  And a fresh, brisk breeze danced through the pines carrying their whispers through the clear, bright air.

It wasn’t even an hour later when Holly heard the unfamiliar sounds of tiny hoof beats coming down the trail behind her.  To her delight, two plaid toy ponies soon appeared.  Visitors!  She recognized them from two years past and welcomed them with glee.

As the day unfolded, more and more visitors appeared and she found herself laughing as she said hello to foxes and badgers, ‘possums and beavers and bears.   She listened to the stories of their travels and directed them to the encampment that the elves had made near the base of Grandfather Pine at the far side of the lake.  They could rest there and enjoy delicious lunches that the forest dwellers had prepared.

Shortly after noon, the parade of visitors stopped and, except for the muted sounds of chatter and laughter from the Visitors’ Camp, the forest grew still.

Then, from the big meadow in the forest’s center where the summer butterflies fluttered among the wildflowers, a beautiful song arose.  The remnants of the wildflowers, silvery goldenrod and the pale gold stalks of milkweed and sweet peas, the yarrow and the Queen Anne’s lace and more, had formed a choir and composed a carol to send to the spirits of the butterflies who brought such beauty to their summer world.  They were rehearsing now to sing it at the celebration on Festival Day.

Holly was moved to tears by the loveliness of the song.  It praised the delicacy and colors of the butterflies and rejoiced in the happiness of their darting dance.  It thanked them for the delight they brought to all who saw them, saying they were surely messengers of the Yes, angels of joy, dressed in rainbows.

She closed her eyes as she listened to their carol, and for a moment, imagined she saw flocks of jeweled butterflies dancing on the notes of the rising song.  “Amen,” she whispered, smiling.  “Amen.”

Chapter Nine – A Visitor Says Hello

Tears of joy were streaming down many of the forest dweller’s faces after the vision of Little Pine faded away.  Everyone was so glad to have seen him again, and so touched by his words.

It was the elves who broke the spell.  They let out cheers and started tumbling through the forest, whistling, whooping, and turning somersaults in sheer glee.  Pretty soon everyone was laughing and singing as they returned to the projects they were working on before Little Pine appeared.

For the rest of the day, the forest was humming with chatter and laughs as its dwellers talked about seeing Little Pine and how he had touched their hearts.  They put more effort than ever into decorating their surroundings, rehearsing their songs, and preparing treats and gifts.  Little Pine said his friends would be popping in, after all, and they wanted to be at their best for them.  Plus, new visitors were appearing every day, critters of every kind, many of whom had traveled for days to reach the forest.  And the dwellers went out of their way to make all visitors feel welcome and comfortable.

As the sun sailed behind the western edge of the forest and the stars rose in the sky, Holly noticed that her neighbors were having trouble settling down.  Softly, she began to sing the traditional Festival songs that everyone knew and loved.  Little by little, quiet spread throughout the woodland as its dwellers finally drifted off to sleep.

Holly continued singing even then, in case some of little ones or visitors were still awake.  Her quiet voice floated up past the tops of trees and across the still surface of the lake.  Finally, she let her singing turn into a sweet, soft hum.

That was when, to her surprise, she heard a tiny peeping in the bough of a neighboring pine.  Looking up, she saw a tiny cardinal sitting in decorated nest.  ‘Why Hello!” she said to the little red bird.

“Hello, Ms. Holly.  Your songs are so beautiful!  I’ve never heard anything like them before.  We don’t have holly trees where I come from.”
“So you’re one of our visitors!” Holly said.  “Welcome!  It’s a delight to have you with us for our Festival.  Have you met our cardinals?”

“Thank you, and yes, I have met your cardinals.  They’re the ones who decorated this beautiful nest for me. They’re very gracious. They built special nests all over the woodland for us visiting birds.  It turns out we’re cousins!”

“Did you just get here today?” Holly asked.

“Yes.  I have been flying and resting for days.  But it was worth the trip.  Your forest is even more beautiful than the stories we’ve heard about it.  I just had to come and see it for myself.”

“You must be tired, then, after all that travel,” Holly said.  “Would you like me to sing you to sleep?”

“Thank you!  That would be wonderful, Ms. Holly.  Everyone here is so very kind.”

“I’m glad you came, pretty red bird,” Holly said.  “Let’s sing together until you fall asleep.  Would you like that?”

“Oh yes!” said the tiny cardinal.  “I would like that very much.”

Holly began a simple Festival song, and for a few moments, the little bird sang along.  Then it snuggled deep into the soft bed of pine and down and floated into dreamland, full of joy.

Chapter 8 – Little Pine Appears

A little past noon, snow began to fall.  It was the first snow of the season, and the creatures of the forest welcomed it with delight.  It added a special sparkle to everything it touched.   A little while after it had begun falling, a wondrous tinkling filled the air, sounding like the ringing of a thousand jingle bells.

Everyone stopped what they were doing to listen.  Then a voice spoke.  No one could tell where it was coming from, and although it was soothing and soft, it was heard in every nook and cranny of the forest.

“Greetings, Forest Dwellers.  I am pleased to announce that your friend Little Pine will be appearing in ten minutes.  Please be prepared to set aside your tasks then.  You will see him wherever you are.  You may wish to join your loved ones for his appearance.”

The forest dwellers were stunned.  Ten minutes!  After standing in shock for a moment, each of the creatures figured out what they had to do to be ready.  They put down their baskets, stopped their decorating and rehearsals, and scurried to be with their families and friends.

“Five minutes,” the mysterious voice sounded.  A thrill of anticipation rippled from one end of the forest to the other.  Everything grew perfectly still as the forest dwellers waited, watching the falling snow.

Then a trill of chimes sounded, and right there in front of every pair of waiting eyes, Little Pine suddenly emerged from a soft, coral mist.

“Hello, my friends!” Little Pine said in a voice that those who had known him remembered well, full of cheer and kindness.

“I’m so happy to be able to visit you this Festival season!  I can’t stay long because it takes a lot of energy to create this magic.  But what a joy it is to see you, even if it’s only for a few minutes.  You have no idea how beautiful each of you looks to me!  I can see the light in your hearts as clearly as you can see the light of the moon and stars and sun.

“First of all, let me tell you that our Home World, where I am now, is far more wondrous than any of you can remember or imagine.  It’s full of beauty and love, of peace and adventure.  There’s something new to learn and to do every day.

“This is your Home World, too, and one day each of you will see it again.  But for now, cherish your life on the Earth World, for it is giving you precious experiences that you can gain nowhere else.   Its contrasts of night and day, pain and pleasure, loneliness and friendship deepen your appreciation for the value of the good, the true, and the beautiful and motivate you to reach for them in all that you do.

“And I must say that what you do, you do with such enthusiasm and joy.  That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to be with you again, just to taste your wonderful spirit.

“To thank you for the joy you gave me during my time on Earth World, I have a special surprise for you.  Several days between now and your Festival Day, I will be bringing  some of the friends I’ve met here in Home World to greet you.  I’ve told them so much about you that they wanted to come and meet you for themselves.  We’ll be coming at about this same time.  And just like today, the bells and chimes will sound to alert you.

“Thank you, my dear ones, for being exactly who you are.  Each of you matters so much more than you know.  Each of you is more beautiful than you can begin to suspect.  I must go now.  But I leave you my love.  And Mother?  Here’s a kiss just for you.”

Little Pine blew a kiss that burst into a thousand golden hearts.  Then, laughing, he faded away.

Chapter 7 – A Castle for the Fairies

The whole forest was abuzz with excitement and activity. Knowing that Little Pine would be a part of their Festival filled everyone with extra happiness. But no one lost sight of the Festival itself.

It marked the Return of the Light, after all, and was the merriest and most meaningful time of the year. From the smallest bug and plant to the mightiest of trees, the Return of the Light meant the beginning of another cycle of life, the time when new dreams were born for the year ahead. It reminded everyone that they were an important part of the never-ending song of the Great Yes, which brought everything into being and sustained it.

Their Festival Day was known far and wide for the sheer joy of its celebration, and guests traveled great distances to join in the pageantry and fun. The song that Holly had sung to them, telling them to be prepared, spurred everyone to work especially hard to get ready, and it made their work great fun.

The squirrels were stuffing the hollows of trees with pine nuts and acorns in case bears came again. The winter birds were building and decorating nests for visiting birds. Deer and rabbits cleared the woodland’s trails. Mothers of every species were cooking up stews and desserts, and the fathers were hunting up berries and vines for making decorations.

But busiest of all were the elves. They were the ones who decorated all the forests’ stumps with moss and tiny stones, pine cones and needles and colorful bits of fallen leaves. On Festival day, ten thousand fairies would come to dance on the stumps, their tiny feet setting the rhythms for the day’s songs.

The creatures of the forest had a special fondness for the fairies. And this year, the elves went out of their way to build a special castle where the fairies could rest and sip their fairy-nectar while they waited for Festival Day to come.

They set it in a sea of oak leaves, and built hundreds of rooms in dozens of towering spires. And finally, they showered it with glowing stars. When it was finished, the elves laughed with glee, sure that the fairies would be surprised and delighted with their castle-like hotel.

And I’m sure, too. Aren’t you?

Chapter 6 – Excitement at the Nursery

Holly woke at dawn, brimming with anticipation. “Mother Pine! Mother Pine!” she called across the lake to her friend. “I have wonderful news!”

“Good Morning, Holly,” Mother Pine said. “What’s your news?”

“Our guest! I got the word last night! Oh, Mother! It’s Little Pine! Little Pine is going to appear!”

“What?! Little Pine! Oh, my! How can that be?”

“He won a wish, and his wish was to visit us for the festival, and they’re setting up some magical system that will let us see him! He’ll be here in about three days! And he’s bringing friends with him, too!”

Mother Pine pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. She would get to see her Little Pine! What could be a better Festival gift than that!

“It’s true!” Holly said, laughing with glee. “The cardinals will tell everybody today so they can get ready and so they won’t be dazed when he shows up.”

“That IS wonderful news, Holly! Oh! I’m going to make the best, biggest batch of winterberry muffins I’ve ever made. He loves them, you know. Thank you, Holly! Thank you!”

Meanwhile, the cardinals were flitting through the forest spreading the word. You could tell where they had visited already by the laughter that rose into the morning air.

At the pine nursery down the shore from Holly, the young pines who were in training there were giggling and dancing to the eruption of laughter from pocket after pocket of the forest. “What’s happening?” they asked their teachers.

“Everybody is learning that our special Festival guest is going to be Little Pine. Not long ago, he was a young pine just like you. He’s gone to the Home World now, but he won a wish to come and visit us for Festival, and we’ll be able to see him in three days.

“Everybody is excited because they loved Little Pine so much. He was full of fun and cheer and kindness, and wise beyond his years. He made us all laugh and he made us feel loved. He was helpful to everyone, passing out comfort and joy wherever he went.

“Little Pine embodied the Light that we celebrate with our Festival. So it’s a wonderful gift to us all that he will be our special guest.”

The young pines clapped at the story and continued with their giggles and dance. And pretty soon, the whole forest was chanting, “Little Pine! Little Pine! Little Pine!”

Chapter 5 – A Hint of Things to Come

Cardinal Angel

As the sun began to sink behind the forest’s western edge, Holly stopped singing her song and hushed the singing trees. “Well done, my friends. I’m sure that everyone knows now that we are in for a special Festival season. Thank you for making the day’s work of preparation so merry! Rest now, and may each of you enjoy sweet dreams.”

The trees had so much fun singing throughout the day that it took them a while to settle down. A few of them were still humming softly as Holly drifted off to sleep.

At first, she dreamed about how alive the forest had been with song. But then her dream grew restless as questions began repeating in her mind. What wishes had been granted? And what guests would arrive?

Suddenly, a gust of wind blew through her dreams pushing her questions aside. In their place, a brilliant white mist appeared. Then, in its center, a vision appeared and slowly came into focus. It was a cardinal sitting on decorated, snow-covered pine branches.

“Greetings, Holly!” the red bird whistled. “I am the Spirit of the Cardinals, and I have come to tell you about things to come. But first, let me tell you how much the cardinals of your forest enjoyed the singing today. It filled them with special joy, and they were astonished at all the preparations that the forest’s inhabitants were able to do as they sang.

“I, of course, am a dweller of the Home World. You might consider me a certain kind of angel. My spirit watches over all the cardinals of your world. Those who make a home in your forest find it a delightful place, and I must say that I can see why. It’s a place of great friendship and peace.

“Not long ago, a special member of your forest returned to the Home World, and from him we have learned much about the depth of friendship and kindness here. I am speaking about your old friend Little Pine.”

Holly gasped at the mention of Little Pine’s name. She had been thinking about him all day, imagining what delight he would have taken in the forest’s song. To hear about him now from the Cardinal Angel gave her quite a start.

“Little Pine was recently granted a wish, based on the extraordinary cheer he spread wherever he went here in the Home World. His wish was to be able to return here for a visit during your Festival season. And I am very pleased to tell you that he is on his way.

“He will not appear as a solid, earth-tree. But the vision of him will be clear to everyone who lives here. And he is bringing with him some of the new friends he’s made in the Home World. He’ll introduce them to you when he comes.

“In your time, it will take about three days for the system that will make him and his guests visible to you to work its magic. So you have some time to prepare for his coming, and I have arranged for all the cardinals in your woods to spread the word that he will soon arrive.

“I am very honored to share this announcement with you, Holly. I understand that you hold a special place in Little Pine’s heart. He wanted you to be the first to know.

“Rest well, now, child, in the peace of the love that connects us all. Good night.”
And with those words, the vision of the Cardinal Angel faded and Holly fell into a soft and beautiful sleep.

Chapter 4 – Getting the Word Out

Shortly after Brother Elf scampered away, Holly realized she may have asked too much of him. The elves, after all, were among the busiest creatures in all the forest when it came to preparing for the Festival of Light. Now she had asked him to tell everyone about his vision as well.

If only there was some way she could help, she thought. But she was rooted in one place, unable to scurry through the forest like a squirrel or an elf. Her only gift was that of song.

“That’s it!” she said to herself as an idea flashed before her. “I’ll sing the message. And I’ll get all the trees to sing with me! Let’s see. It will have to be an easy tune, and one that all the trees can join in. Hmm.”

She thought for a while, and then she suddenly remembered when a group of human children had come to the lake with their teacher last summer. They picnicked on the grass beneath Mother Oak, and after they ate, their teacher told them a story and taught them a song.

It was an old French carol, the teacher said, about a monk who was supposed to rise with the morning bells to perform his duties. But he had overslept, and the song was sung to wake him. The French version of the song was addressed to Frère Jacques, she said and she sang it to the children. Then she sang the English version, which was called, “Are You Sleeping?” and taught them how to sing it as a round.

Holly hummed the melody to herself and then laughed. It was perfect, exactly what she needed. “Listen, Pines,” she shouted as loudly as she could shout to the trees surrounding her. “I’m going to sing a song, and I want you to sing along with me. I’ll sing it once through, then when I start singing it a second time, you join in—but start your singing after my second ‘Be Prepared.’ I’ll wave my boughs to cue you.”

“Mother Oak,” she called across the lake to her friend. “Did you hear what I just told the pines?” The oak said she had heard and couldn’t wait to hear them all singing.

“Pass the word on to the other oaks, and have them tell the elms and maples and the beeches. We’ll get everyone singing as they work, just as if we were all giant elves!” Holly laughed, imagining her fellow trees
as elves. But then she cleared her throat and began her song.

“Be prepared,
Be prepared,
All who hear,
All who hear,
Wishes have been granted.
Guests will be arriving.
Be prepared.
Be prepared.”

And sure enough, when she got to the “All who hear” part and waved her boughs, the pines joined in. And when the pines got to “All who hear,” the oaks started singing. And before you could say Brother John, the whole forest was awake with song and everyone began their preparations with music and joy.

Chapter 3 – A Message for the Elves

Holly was talking with the Mother Trees who lived across the lake from her. They, too, had awakened to discover surges of new hope in their hearts and a rush of enthusiasm for preparing for the Festival.

It had been a difficult summer in the forest. Storms had swept through and the families of trees and critters had suffered the loss of several of their kin. They knew, of course, that their loved ones lived on in the Home World. But still, as they looked ahead to the joyous Festival ahead, they felt twinges of sadness that some of their family and friends wouldn’t be here to celebrate with them.

Mother Pine was just saying how the morning’s gifts of hope and anticipation felt like a miracle, when all of a sudden a commotion of some sort raced through the woods behind Holly, rushing toward her. “Holly! Holly! Wait ‘til you hear!” the high-pitched voice of an elf cried.

When he appeared in the small clearing behind her, Holly laughed at the expression on his face. His bright eyes were wide with excitement and he was panting from his dash through the woods. “Hello, Brother Elf!” she said through her laughter. “What’s happened?”

“A messenger came to my brother last night in a dream! He was a holiday elf, dressed in a costume as red as your berries, and he carried a wand topped by a shining star. He popped right out of a mist, and he said, ‘Be prepared! Be prepared! Wishes have been granted. Special guests will come!’ and then he faded right away. What do you think it means, Holly? What wishes? What special guests? Have you heard anything from the birds?’

The little elf was breathless as he told his story, and now he stood at Holly’s feet looking up at her with his sparkling eyes.

“Well, Brother Elf, that’s quite a message! All I know is that the whole forest seems filled with new hope and joy this morning. I haven’t heard anything about wishes or guests, but I think that all of us should do our best to prepare the finest Festival ever.

The pine and oak mothers were just telling me that they can’t wait to begin preparing their Festival gifts. And I predict that if you ask others on your way home you’ll hear that a magical excitement is spreading through the forest. Tell everyone your news. All of us need to get busy. Festival, after all, is less than three weeks away!”

“Thanks, Holly. I’ll tell everybody. Let me know if you get any more news, okay?”

“I’ll make sure to tell you right away, Sweetie,” Holly said.

“Okay! Thanks again, Holly,” the elf said. And with that, he scampered away.