Merry Christmas my friends! I am thankful for this day to celebrate my dear Savior’s birth! I hope and pray that all of you are having a blessed day. I am thankful for you! It is so encouraging to know that my work is being read and (hopefully) enjoyed by people I haven’t even met. It is an honor. :o)
Today I want to share a short story I wrote a few years ago when I was contributing to a(n amateur) literary magazine. About four to five years ago, a group of girls including some friends and myself had monthly columns where we shared short stories, and this was one of my Christmas features. I drew on some fairytale, bedtime story, and fable-like influences to craft a cozy sort of story that is to this day one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy!
The Twelve Days of Christmas
Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a king named Leopold. He was a kind and generous man who treated both the rich and the poor with fairness, because he had learned that people are more important than possessions. Indeed, his most precious possession was a person: his only daughter, Princess Hermione.
The king and his princess were inseparable companions and had been since the death of Queen Catherine years before. Hermione accompanied her father on hunts, joined him in games of chess, and was frequently found arguing with him over books and philosophy. Throughout the land everyone knew of the king’s love for Hermione, and because of his love and care she grew wise and beautiful.
The years passed until Hermione was a fair maiden of sixteen. The king noted with bitter sweetness that his daughter was no longer a little girl, and that he must soon give her over to be married. With this knowledge he purposed to find the bravest, kindest husband that could be gotten for the princess.
Soon winter came to the land. Snow fell thick until the entire country was white. Hermione began decorating for the coming Christmastide, while in the meantime King Leopold was busy sending invitations to all the noble and royal families he knew, especially the ones with sons. His plan was to host an impressive Christmas Eve ball where Hermione would doubtless find among the wealthy young men a husband who deserved her. With this thought in mind, the king summoned his daughter to the throne room one cold winter morning.
“Good morning my dear,” he greeted her with a kiss. “I trust you slept well?”
“Yes, very well, papa,” Hermione replied with a smile.
The King sighed. He hated the thought of parting with his daughter, but knew that the time had come for her to marry. “I have something very important to tell you, Hermione.”
“What is it?”
So Leopold proceeded to tell Hermione all that had been running through his mind in the past few months. When he finally finished, he was alarmed to see that she looked quite upset.
“What is wrong, dear? Please, tell me,” he begged earnestly.
“Well, I am thankful for the care you’ve shown in trying to find me a husband,” Hermione replied, “but don’t you think it is a little soon for it?”
“Of course not!” Leopold rejoined. “Your mother was sixteen when I wedded her, and if we wait too long you will lose all chances of finding the right husband. I don’t want just anyone to have you as a wife, dearest. I purpose to find only the best man in Christendom!”
“I appreciate it,” Hermione said, “but there is no such thing as a perfect man.”
“To be sure, but I’d like to find the closest thing to it,” the king replied. “I want you to be happy.”
“But I am already happy.”
King Leopold had nothing to say to that.
“Papa,” she asked. “Would you allow me a proposal?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I will marry as you wish, but I will only marry the man who passes a test.”
“I am willing to agree to that. What sort of test do you have in mind?”
“Every day, from Christmas to the Feast of the Epiphany, the man who wishes to win my heart must provide me with a gift, twelve gifts in all.”
“That is simple enough, but I fear that it is too simple. Any common man could give gifts.”
“Ah, yes, but only the best man in Christendom will be able to give the ones I accept.”
The king looked dubious. “Are they difficult to acquire?”
“Not for the right man,” Hermione replied.
The king gazed intently at his daughter for several minutes, then nodded. “I agree to your terms, Hermione. At the ball Christmas Eve I will announce the contest. And every day, for twelve days, you will announce that day’s gift, and the man who gives the best of all the gifts will become your husband, whoever he may be.”
In several days the guests began arriving for the Christmastide festivities. They came in sumptuous carriages with many escorts, guards, and servants. They were dressed in vibrant colors, from festive scarlet to brooding green to royal blue. And when they all entered King Leopold’s throne room to pay him tribute, they beheld Princess Hermione upon her gilded throne, and she, dressed in vivid red and gold, set many hearts astir. Each young man invited to the castle was intent on his purpose to win Princess Hermione’s heart and her father’s trust.
On Christmas Eve there was a grand gala held in the castle’s most lavish hall. Princess Hermione danced with every prince there, some of them twice. At midnight the party raised a toast and wished each other Merry Christmas. It was then that King Leopold addressed the crowd.
“I thank you all for joining us at this happy time. In addition to requesting your company for the purpose of celebrating the birth of the Christ Child, I also invited all of you here in order to find a worthy groom for my dear daughter, Princess Hermione.” The King regarded his daughter with affection. “And so, to any young man in this company who may wish to take my daughter as his bride, we propose a test: Princess Hermione will decide upon a gift to be bestowed upon her each day from Christmas to the Feast of the Epiphany. The man whose gifts Hermione accepts will prove himself worthy to be her husband.”
This announcement brought much excitement to the crowd, as well-meaning mothers whispered to their sons and interested fathers stroked their beards. The murmuring continued until King Leopold held up his hands for silence. Beckoning Hermione to him, he asked her what the first gift must be. The answer she whispered in his ear caused him to turn to her in confusion. “What?” he asked, brow furrowed.
She nodded and repeated what she had said. Shrugging, and with a hint of a smile, he again addressed the crowd: “Princess Hermione requests that her gift on Christmas day be twelve drummers drumming.”
The crowd fell silent, perplexed.
King Leopold nodded, affirming what he had said, then stepped down and rejoined the party, while a great many young men left the party to send out messengers into the cold winter night to procure twelve drummers for the princess.
Christmas morning dawned, and Hermione stole quietly from her sumptuous chambers to the great hall downstairs, where servants were busy decorating for the grand Christmas feast. Looking up from their duties, they greeted her cheerfully.
“Merry Christmas,” she answered them, her dark eyes dancing. “I’ve presents for all of you!” This was a tradition that Hermione had every year; she rose early on Christmas and presented the faithful servants with gifts. This Christmas, even with the many wealthy guests at the castle, she still preferred to spend the morning with those people who had cared for her since childhood. So she brought out a large sack and began distributing the gifts of clothing and tools, helpful gifts.
One by one the laborers came for their gifts and thanked the princess profusely. The very last receiver was a young man a little older than Hermione, a handyman who worked on castle repairs. His name was Will. He had not been at the castle for very long, and so he was unfamiliar with the princess’s tradition. In fact, he had seen only very little of the princess herself. But from what he had seen; her merry face, kind eyes and long, flowing hair, he had fallen in love with her. It was a rather hopeless love, the sort of worship that a person feels when they know the object of their affection could never be theirs, yet continuing to love anyway. Will was honored to receive Princess Hermione’s Christmas gift, a warm woolen scarlet scarf that, as she said, would keep out the cold winter air when he worked outside. He bowed gratefully and then hurried to join the other servants before his adoring eyes would betray him.
After Hermione left to see her father, Will turned to the other workers. “Is the princess not the kindest lass in all Christendom?” he marveled.
The old cook laughed. “Ah, methinks we have an admirer on our hands!”
Will chuckled good-naturedly. “I think that perhaps we should present the princess with a gift today.”
John, the head handyman, shook his head. “Now what on earth could we give Princess Hermione? She is a princess and we’re dirt-poor servants!”
“What about the gift she requested last night?” Will mused. “Twelve drummers drumming?”
Eva, the servant girl, laughed. “Are you entering the contest then? To be the princess’s groom?”
Will looked unsure. “I doubt she would have me. But I’d like to make her happy. That is my only wish.”
The other servants could hardly argue with that.
By midmorning all of the noble guests had assembled in the ballroom and the gift giving commenced. Every guest presented the king and his daughter with an elaborate offering, and the king returned the favor, bestowing gold, jewels, swords, clothing, or the promise of land or livestock. Princess Hermione was acquiring quite a collection of satin dresses, and the king now had a few new crowns to choose from.
Prince Francis of Navarre was the first prince in line. With a flowery bow to the princess and king, he gestured toward the great oak doors of the hall. They were opened, and out came twelve drummers, dressed splendidly in the colors of Navarre: royal blue and forest green. They danced an elaborate and skillful dance, drumming an intoxicating beat the whole while. When at last they ceased with a flourish, Hermione, truly impressed, clapped with fervor. Prince Francis was quite pleased with himself, and was self-assured until the next prince, Prince Kurt of Salzburg, brought out his gift, even more elaborate than the first. And so it went on, each better than the last, until Hermione felt overwhelmed. Which ones should she accept?
The line of guests to be presented with gifts was very short now. Thankfully there were no more princes. After the gift exchange was finished, Hermione and Leopold retired to the throne room, which had been shut to anyone else.
“Papa, I feel ill. What am I to do now? I have no idea which prince’s gift to accept. They were all wonderful.” She collapsed onto her throne.
Leopold patted her hand. “It is not as horrible as it seems, dearest. Make a list of the ones you liked the most. They will be eligible to win your hand, while the others will not.”
Hermione deemed this advice wise, and promptly set to doing just that. Hours later it was time for the grand Christmas banquet, after which would be a ball. Hermione, dressed in a deep blue dress trimmed with silver and a silver tiara with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires, entered the dining hall on her father’s arm. The king, taking his place at the head of the table, greeted everyone, led in a long prayer, and urged them all to sit as the food was brought from the kitchen. They all turned their heads to behold the servants. There were about a dozen of them, all carrying covered silver trays. With surprise Hermione noticed that Will was leading the crew, an ironic fact since he was an outside worker. How kind of him to lend a hand in the kitchen on this day, the busiest of days!
Just as the party was about to reach the table, all of them suddenly stopped still. Hermione cocked her head, and Leopold frowned. The guests perked up to look. The twelve servants stood in a line, Will in front. For a moment Hermione half thought they had frozen in the winter air, but then Will suddenly sprang to life. He threw the silver platter up into the air, caught it safely, and balanced it on his head as he grabbed two knives from his apron. With a whirl he jumped, began drumming on the platter’s cover with the knives, and then twirled off to the right. The next servant in line followed his lead, twirling off to the left. On and on it went, the sound of clanging silver growing louder with each added servant until the hall was humming with a musical ring. Then on cue they all suddenly stopped, stood straight, and ran to set the platters on the table, pulling off the lids with a flourish.
All the guests were silent. King Leopold’s mouth hung open. No one knew what to think. Only Hermione understood. The silence was broken by her laughter, startling the wealthy guests.
“Bravo! Bravo!” she exulted, clapping. “That was wonderful! Twelve drummers! Don’t you see, father? There were twelve drummers!” She laughed again.
Will had never been so happy.
After the meal was the ball. Hermione soon addressed the guests. With her eyes shining from the Christmas excitement, she thanked everyone profusely for their wonderful gifts and for their presence during the holiday. “And of course, I deeply appreciate the wonderful displays we saw today of all the talented drummers. It was difficult, but I finally decided upon my favorites…”
All the young men in the ballroom held their breath.
“I accept the gifts of Prince George, Count Michael, Lord Gregory, Prince Henry…” on and on she went, listing about fifty men, finally finishing by saying, “and finally, I accept the gift of Will, who was very creative in finding twelve drummers!”
Each of the princes who had not been accepted nearly suffered a stroke, while Will himself could barely keep his feet on the ground. The princess spoke again. “Now, for those who were accepted, I announce my next gift: I ask for eleven pipers piping.”
The next morning Hermione awoke to the sound of Christmas carols being played on pipes. Laughing, she dressed in a pine green and gold gown and hurried to the dining hall. She found pipers in bright attire practicing trills and complex musical numbers on solid gold, silver, and bronze flutes, some inlaid with jewels and stone. With delight she praised each of them, sending each prince into heart palpitations. By the time she finished reviewing the fifty companies of flutists, it was well after midday, and she was tired and hungry. Excusing herself, she again retreated to the throne room to work on her list.
She’d been sitting in the cavernous and vacant throne room for about an hour, listing princes and then crossing them off, when suddenly a light note sounded from the far end of the room. Hermione half rose from her seat, straining to see into the dim light that pervaded half the room. Another note came, then another, then another, until all had blended into a song. Out of the darkness came eleven of King Leopold’s woodcutters led by Will, all blowing on pipes they had made themselves, carved beautifully with ornate woodworking, with a sound like birdsong or the dancing of the wind. The song they played was one of Hermione’s favorites, a cheerful and jaunty tune. She sat transfixed until the song was finished. Then, with her heart beating hard at such beauty, she complimented their song profusely.
That night she accepted thirty-five gifts, with Will’s among them, and asked next for the gift of ten lords leaping. This caused some consternation among the princes; what lord would degrade himself to the point of leaping? The next day brought no answer to the question, so the men scrambled to find guests who would leap for them. At the dinner feast twenty-five young men presented Princess Hermione with ten leaping lords who had been richly bribed. Hermione wondered if Will would be able to give her ten leaping lords. Surely not, she thought with disappointment. He was poor and could not possibly afford to pay off ten lords.
Suddenly shouting was heard from the kitchen, screeching from the maids, and yelling from the guards. In came a huge rolling barrel, with Will and several other servants chasing it frantically. The barrel, gaining momentum with each second, rolled straight for a group of King Leopold’s guests who were gathered by the fireplace. With a shout, most of them got out of the way, while ten unfortunate lords had nowhere to go… but up. Leaping for dear life, they succeeded in avoiding the barrel (which rolled right on into the next room). King Leopold conducted an investigation and found that the barrel had fallen off a shelf in the kitchen and the servants had been unable to catch it. He accepted this explanation, despite suspecting that other powers had been at work.
And so the days of Christmastide passed. Each night Hermione announced the gift for the following day, and accepted some of the gifts offered. Will’s was always last, but still always included. Hermione asked next for nine ladies dancing, a wish fulfilled when each of the remaining twenty-five princes got the wealthy lady guests to waltz for the princess, and Will had nine of the castle cooks jig. Twenty men were accepted.
Then came eight maids milking. The wealthy men tried to take a cue from the obviously winning Will by having their servants dress in the shabbiest attire and milk the cows that King Leopold had given them for Christmas. Will got eight of the castle maids who had known Hermione since infancy to wear the clothes she had made them for Christmas and to milk the cows she had often fed while on walks through her father’s pastures. Seventeen men were accepted.
Then Hermione asked for seven swans swimming. The princes, confident of the power in their wealth, sent for swans to be shipped from the warm south. Will and the other handymen went to the frozen lake and carved seven swan sculptures, setting them in a basin of water that was colored blue. Fifteen men were accepted.
The next gift was six geese laying. The princes bought the finest geese, decorated the birds with ribbons, presented them upon velvet cushions, and cooked their eggs for Princess Hermione. Will found six of the most common geese he could find in the king’s stables and offered them and their eggs to the princess in a box filled with hay. The princes snickered. But suddenly a crack was heard. Hermione gasped with delight as one by one each egg began to hatch, until there were dozens of tiny goslings covered in soft down. Thirteen men were accepted.
The next day Hermione asked for five golden rings. The princes rose to the challenge, picking from their treasure stores the finest, purest gold rings, encrusted with gems and inlaid with precious metals. But Will, giving a little smile, produced five tarnished rings that were only simple bands. The princes were sure that he was out of the contest until the princess shrieked with glee. Will had found five rings that Hermione’s mother had given to her as a child, but that she had lost as the years went by. Hermione was overjoyed to find them again. Ten men were accepted.
Four calling birds were then requested. The wealthy suitors, confidence waning, pulled out all the stops to get exotic parrots and birds of paradise with songs so beautiful they were sure to win Hermione’s heart. Will, having no money to accomplish such a feat, instead trekked deep into the snowy woods to gently take four birds from their winter homes: a sparrow, a bluebird, a canary, and a cardinal. Hermione was delighted with the exotic birds, but elated to hear the familiar songs of the birds she had missed since summertime. Seven men were accepted.
The next night Hermione asked for three French hens. The princes laughed at the simplicity of it. They simply ordered three of the finest hens they could afford (for by now their traveling purses were a bit low) to be brought from France. And six different breeds were presented to Hermione: Marans, Bresses, Houdans, Crevecoers, La Fleches, and Aquitaines, all in matching trios and wearing tiny silver crowns. Will instead gave her three scraggly little birds who did not even match. Despite the laughter at his expense, Will held up an apple and asked the chickens if they wanted it. The crowd roared. Hermione held her breath. The chickens cocked their heads and began to croak deeply in what sounded like perfect deep-throated French for no, “nohhn! nohhn!” Now the crowd was silent as Hermione roared with laughter. Five men were accepted.
Hermione next requested two turtle doves. The next day the remaining four princes were found in the stable, trying to coax two doves from the rafters. At the end of the day they were soiled and bruised, but succeeded in giving the princess her gifts. Will simply handed Hermione a box. Curiously she opened it, and then burst into laughter. The crowd was perplexed. Weak from mirth, Hermione held up two tiny turtles that had been covered with white feathers. Three men were accepted.
Now, with the Feast of the Epiphany only a day away, Hermione asked for one last gift: a partridge nesting in a pear tree. Prince Ulric of Dover presented Hermione with a succulent cooked partridge set upon a tree of pears and sticks. Lord Joseph the Wise brought forward a live, young, healthy partridge that was nesting in a large pear tree that had been cut from the frozen ground and, being leafless, was hung with glowing candles. But Will approached the princess with humility, and kneeling before her, held out a small crucifix carved out of pear wood. The crowd shook their heads and clicked their tongues. Will had shown creativity before, but this? They were sure that one of the princes had won this round.
Hermione’s mouth opened a little, and her face betrayed surprise and wonder. Gently she took the crucifix from Will and cradled it in her hands. “This is… perfect,” she finally said, to everyone’s astonishment.
Prince Ulric hurried forth in indignation. “What is this, Princess?” he asked angrily. “Do you bring us here to make sport of us? Did you invite us here to play the coy vixen and humiliate us?”
“Do not speak so harshly to such a great lady!” Will chastised him. The crowd gasped, Ulric stumbled, and the guards rushed forward to arrest the servant.
Hermione stood. “Leave him alone!” she thundered, startling everyone. “Will has passed the test.
He shall be my husband.” She turned to her father. “Do you agree, father?”
King Leopold’s face was solemn. “Yes, my daughter. He shall be.”
Lord Joseph shook his head. “But your majesty, he did not give you a partridge in a pear tree, as you asked!”
“Yes Lord Joseph,” Hermione replied, “he did. He gave me a figure of the Christ on a cross of pear wood. The cross is the tree, the Christ is the partridge.”
“I am afraid I misunderstand,” replied the lord.
“The partridge is a bird that will give its life for its family, allowing itself to be killed so that the others may live.” Hermione stroked the wood, deep in thought. “This is what Christ did for us, and this is what I believe my husband will do for me.”
The next day, at the Feast of the Epiphany, Will and Hermione were married. King Leopold could not have hoped for a better man to marry his daughter than the new Prince Will, who, as was said, was the best man in Christendom. The bride and groom lived many years, eventually as king and queen. Throughout their long reign they never forgot that wondrous Christmastide, nor the “partridge” Whom it celebrated.
And neither did anyone else.