There was nothing extraordinary about Christmas Valentine—except for the fact that she was about as white as you could get without being diagnosed as an albino. Her skin was so pale you could almost see all the way through it. Christmas always showed a blush of baby-petal pink in her cheeks, and the skin beneath her eyes was streaked through with teensy-tiny pale blue lines that brought to mind miniature icicles, like the kind that grow all skeewampus on your roof edge during a really bad blizzard, going all which-away they want, totally ignoring gravity.
Christmas had pale green eyes, the color of the underside of a baby alligator. That’s how they knew she wasn’t really albino. But although her eyes were pale, compared to the rest of her, they looked almost electric green, which was such an unusual color for eyes, that if she were more than nearly nine years old, people would swear she was wearing colored contact lenses. But her eyes were real—as real as rainbows. And so was her name. Born on Christmas Day to Jack and Judy Valentine, her parents couldn’t agree on a name. But when Grandma Lacie held her for the first time, she called her a Christmas angel and that’s what ended up on her birth certificate: Christmas Angel Valentine. No one realized in those first moments of her life, that Christmas’ skin would take that name as a challenge and try to match it, snow for snow.
Christmas was so frog-bellied white, she couldn’t go outside when she was a baby. They discovered she had little to no darkening ability when they brought her home from the hospital. It was an unusually sunny day for the season, bright light glaring off snow drifts and sending rainbow prisms everywhere. During the twenty-minute drive home, that poor baby’s face blistered with near second-degree sunburn. The doctors poked and prodded poor Christmas for over a year, until she hollered like a hellcat on fire every time her parents took her out of the house. That was when Grandma Lacie put her foot down and told her son to quit letting them doctors poke on her Christmas Angel. Which was just as well because all those book-learned specialists threw their hands up in complete and total surrender. They couldn’t figure what was wrong with Christmas, not one bit. It wasn’t one of those famous diseases; her body seemed capable of making bucket-loads of melanin, but it just didn’t want to. Under the order of the highly skilled yet still confused experts, her parents kept Christmas indoors, only going out with her at night.
On the day Christmas turned four, Grandma Lacie came to live with her forever. Grandma’s heart nearly broke over the lonesomeness she saw in those big green eyes, and she decided it was time for a miracle. Grandma was reknowned all throughout Marion County for her ability to pray miracles into existence. She prayed and prayed, and then she consulted her great-great-granny’s healing diary that had been handed down for generations. When she wasn’t reading through it, it sat on her night table right beside her very creased and marked up Holy Bible.
Grandma Lacie spent a couple of days a-mixin until the kitchen smelt like a chicken farm on a hot summer day. But when she was done, she had a miracle all right. She smeared that smelly stuff all over Christmas, then took her outside every day right after it got dark. Every new week, Grandma would take Christmas outside exactly one minute earlier than the week before. She worked Christmas into the sunlight so gradually that her skin was right tricked into toleratin’ it. By the time Christmas started school at age five and three-quarters, she could stand the sunlight well enough to get to and from church and school and other necessary outings, just by wearing a big floppy hat and slatherin’ on regular store-bought sun block. Christmas didn’t much care for the hat, but she thought the sun block smelled much better than the chicken farm salve.
Christmas also didn’t much care for the fact that she had to stay indoors during recess most days, while all the other kids got to go outside and rip and run and jump and holler. Some of the kids made a point of teasing her. They would run up to the classroom window, stick their thumbs in their ears and waggle their fingers at her, while singing, “Na-na-na-na-na-nah.” But Grandma Lacie had taught Christmas to tolerate life’s dismays and injustices, while she was teaching her to tolerate the sun. Christmas just ignored the teasing until the kids got bored and moved on to someone else. She found other things to do while the kids played outside—mostly, she watched and thought.
Nope. There wasn’t much extraordinary about Christmas Valentine, once you got past Grandma Lacie’s miracle. And today, at nearly nine years old, Christmas sat in the window of her fourth grade classroom at Boar Hollow Elementary School, watching the other kids play outside. Christmas in the South wasn’t really known for lots of snow, but this year enough had fallen over the weekend that they had to plow it off the blacktop playground making piles about knee high to the kids from her class. Christmas watched them rip and run but it didn’t bother her too much because her birthday—and Christmas—were only six days away.
Christmas turned away from the window. The glare of the sun bouncing off the snow hurt her eyes just a little. As she walked back to her desk, she pushed her long white hair back behind her ears. It hung limply to her waist, the scrunchie Momma had pulled it back with this morning was now languishing about half way down her back. There wasn’t a barrette or a rubber band invented that would stay in place longer than ten minutes in hair that was still as fine and thin as a baby’s. Grandma Lacie called it angel hair, and said you could tell angels had long fine hair because in all the paintings of the nativity, their hair was billowing out behind them in a great cloud of glory. If angels had regular hair, it would hang down toward the earth in locks so heavy the angels wouldn’t be able to fly. Grandma said that Christmas’ long white angel hair meant she was something special, that she had angel blood in her. Christmas wondered if that meant that some day she’d be able to fly like an angel, but so far, when she jumped off the front stoop, stretching her body out as long and thin and angel-like as she could, she only landed with a thump, flat on her tummy just like any normal person would.
Today, Christmas wasn’t the only person staying in from recess. Today, Mitchell Haywood was there too. He was was held in from recess because he was a little bit of a bully. Not that he beat anybody up—at least, not very often. He was just ornery talkin’ to the other kids at school. Because he and Christmas spent lots of recesses together, she had plenty of time to watch him. And even though they rarely spoke, she probably knew him better than anybody else did. Mitchell didn’t like to wear flannel shirts because they itched his neck. She knew that because he was always pulling at the collars. When Mitchell was mad, the tip-tops of his ears turned just a little red. And when he was sick, Mitchell got just the faintest shade of blue-gray in the pockets under his eyes—sort of the color of a storm brewing on the far away horizon.
Today, a Monday, the blue-gray under Mitchell’s eyes was much darker than usual. Christmas stared at him trying to puzzle out the reason, until he stuck his tongue out and turned his back to her. That’s when she noticed the tiny drops of perspiration on the back of his neck and the little bit of red on the tops of his ears. Christmas knew if Grandma saw those clues, she’d say a big sickness was brewing in Mitchell and it was about to pop open like an angry volcano.
“Mitchell, you know you’re sweatin’ like a stuck pig?” asked Christmas.
Mitchell looked at her over his shoulder and huffed. “Pigs don’t sweat, stupid.”
And that was the end of that conversation.
Sure enough, on Tuesday, Mitchell wasn’t at school. Christmas noticed first thing after the Pledge of Allegiance that his chair was empty. On Wednesday, the teacher announced that Mitchell was home with the chicken pox and they’d probably all been exposed. On Thursday, a few more kids were out with poxy sores. And on Friday, the last day of school before Christmas break, the teacher told the class that Mitchell was doing poorly. He was having an unusually bad case of pox, with sores inside his ears, mouth and throat. It was cold and blustery outside that day, so the children spent their recess time making Mitchell get well cards. Christmas drew a picture of an angel flying over a snow-covered house with a big holiday basket in her hands. Then she added holiday greetings to her get well wishes and put her card with all the others.
When Grandma picked her up after school, Christmas told her all about Mitchell having the chicken pox.
Grandma tsked, then said, “Darlin’, I do believe I know just the thing to clean those poxy sores right up.”
As soon as they got home, Grandma pulled out her great-great-granny’s healing diary and let Christmas read her the recipe for poxy tea. Then the two of them together started a-mixing and brewing.
The next afternoon, which was Christmas Eve, the poxy tea was done. Grandma poured it through a funnel covered with a thick straining cloth, and Christmas watched as the bright green tea dripped into several large canning jars. When they were full, Grandma screwed the lids on tight and labeled each jar, ‘Chicken Pox Tea: Mix half tea and half hot water. Sip a cupfull every three or four hours.’
“Grandma, can we put the jars in a great big basket?” asked Christmas.
“Why, sure we can,” said Grandma. “And we can dress it up all Christmas like. We’ll make that Mitchell a nice surprise.”
Grandma put all the jars of poxy tea in a big basket, stuffed some silver tinsel around them, and tied a bright red ribbon to the handle.
Christmas wanted to deliver the poxy tea herself. As soon as it got dark, she pulled on her big puffy white coat, put on her white boots and white mittens, and climbed into the car with Grandma. They drove over to Mitchell’s house, listening to Christmas carols the whole way. Grandma parked across the street so she could keep a good eye out and Christmas carried the heavy basket up to the front door and set it down on the step. She stood there a minute chewing on her bottom lip and jiggling her boot. All the lights were on in Mitchell’s house and she could see through a big gap in the front window curtain that Mitchell was asleep on the couch. His skin was pale but his cheeks were bright pink, and his face was covered with near a hundred reddish-yellow poxy sores.
Christmas thought about how Mitchell mostly ignored her except when he stuck his tongue out at her when she tried to talk to him. Maybe he wouldn’t be happy to see her. Maybe he felt too sick for visitors. She took a deep breath and rang the bell. When she saw the curtain start to twitching, she lost her nerve and jumped off the stoop, stretching her body out as long and thin and angel-like as she could. She felt she was near flying as her feet raced across the snow covered walk toward Grandma’s car, with her straight, white hair billowing out in a big cloud behind her.
Christmas jumped into the car and slammed the door just as Mitchell’s front door opened. She and Grandma watched Mitchell’s mother pick up the basket, quickly look around in the darkness, then step back inside and shut the door. It was then that Christmas noticed Mitchell’s face peering out the big front window. He was looking right at her. Even though she knew he couldn’t see her in the darkness, she scootched down in the seat, hiding until Grandma drove away.
Christmas was on a Sunday this year and after church, Christmas and her family celebrated both the holiday and her birthday. The day after Christmas there was a huge storm, blowing gigantic snowflakes all over the place. Christmas watched in fascination as those flakes seemed to fly up and down and sideways, and covered the ground in a deep blanket of white.
On Tuesday, Christmas woke to find a wonderland outside her window. The snow was crisp and white, but the big blue sky was hidden behind gloomy gray clouds that blocked out the sun and threatened to break open with another storm at any minute. Snowy, gloomy, wintry days like this were some of the few times when Christmas could actually go outside to play for a bit. And what she loved to do most on these rare winter days was to go sledding. When she was on her sled, sliding out of control down the big hill by the school with her eyes closed and her silky hair whipping out behind her, Christmas almost felt like a real angel.
Christmas put on her puffy white coat, her white boots and white mittens, and grabbed her sled. Grandma drove her to the big hill where kids met to go sledding. The reflected light from the snow hurt her eyes a little bit, but not nearly as much as usual. Christmas drug her sled over to a group of kids her age who were gathered in a big circle. She was surprised to see Mitchell in the center of it. Bundled up in an oversized blue coat, with a red knit cap and black snow boots and gloves, he certainly looked quite a bit better. His face glowed a rosy pink, the dark shadows under his eyes were gone, and the few sores that were left were completely scabbed over. He sounded like his normal self, too, as he told everyone about his narrow escape from certain death, which included having to drink the nastiest pond water he’d ever tasted delivered on Christmas Eve by an honest-to-goodness Christmas angel.
As the crowd of kids broke up and began to wander off, Mitchell cut his eyes toward Christmas. He gave her his standard bully smirk, then a quick nod but didn’t say a single word to her as he turned to walk away. But that was okay. Christmas had watched Mitchell long enough to know that the smirk and the nod really meant “thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Christmas shouted after him.
“Shut up, stupid,” said Mitchell, but then he paused for a second and smirked over his shoulder at her again.
Nope. Most people wouldn’t think there was much extraordinary about Christmas Valentine, once you got past her coloring. But Mitchell knew better.
Christmas just smiled at Mitchell’s retreating back, grabbed the rope on her sled, and headed off to the hill.