It was one of those inevitable seasons that only a few people liked.
The snow made it difficult to travel, and in some cases even leave
the house. The weather made driving conditions terrible. And the cold
had the amazing ability to make people sick on a whim. The wind had a
serious bite to it as well.
All of this was new to the animals of the hedge, as they were usually hibernating by now, ignoring the changing weather and the toil of the humans as they struggled to adjust. What were they doing awake so late in the winter anyway?
It all began a few weeks ago, when RJ and the others were watching television. Even back then, it was showing Christmas programming and toy commercials like it was the last day on earth to do so.
"Man I love
Christmas. Don't you guys?" RJ asked, looking at everyone else
scattered around the viewing area.
"We really don't know what Christmas is like," Heather admitted. "We're hibernating when it happens."
"You don't know Christmas?" RJ asked, standing in his chair like someone just jabbed his rear with a tack.
"We know what Christmas is," Verne spoke up. "They start talking about it in July, put decorations up in November, and hurry to get shopping done the day before. It's all like one big commercial to me." RJ hopped out of his chair and walked to the middle of the clearing so everyone could see him. He cleared his throat.
"This year, we're not going to hibernate!" RJ announced, drawing slight mummers of protest from the crowd. "That's right! Screw hibernation!" RJ was never one to hibernate anyway. Being a nomad and not a forager gave him those privileges. Sure everyone else would wake up just enough to eat a little something then go back to sleep. But when RJ woke up, he would be up for hours on end, watching television, looking at the stars, or just gathering more food to make their job easier next year. He also thought it odd that red squirrels, opossums, and skunks don't hibernate. Probably a habit they formed over the course of being with the family.
RJ looked at everyone's surprised faces and continued. "Look, I may not be with my family anymore," he said, placing a hand over his heart as if that sentence caused him pain. "But I'll be damned if I'm going to let my new family, the ones so who so kindly took me in when I was down on my luck, not experience the joy of Christmas!"
Hammy's look suggested he was on board with the idea, but everyone else, especially Verne, seemed skeptical.
"Just bare with me, and I'll show you what this holiday is all about!"
Of course there was
more to this than just hearty thanks. Verne knew all to well that RJ
was up to something, but what?
RJ, on the other hand, was busy proving Verne right. He was being extra joyous to try and compensate for something, but for what remained to be certain. It seems as if he was hiding a whole other side of himself.
Verne figured that RJ would open up soon enough.
"The first thing we
need, is a Christmas Tree. Humans usually go out and cut down a real
tree, while others use ones made of plastic pine needles. They then
cover it with flammable fake snow, twinkling lights, and a star or
angel at the top!" RJ had a picture book of Christmas, turned to a
page that displayed a drawing of a couple of kids sitting in front of
a magnificent tree.
The raccoon soon set about house raiding, gathering various ornaments. He managed to get lucky enough to pull a string of lights down off the roof of a nearby house. All he needed now was a cord long enough to pirate power to them. He was going all out to decorate the perfect tree he found near the clearing. The right shape, the right height to put a star on top.
RJ slapped his forehead. Of course! I need a star!
Then there was also the matter of putting presents underneath it for the family, which was next on his list when no one was around. He knew Verne would probably try to hibernate out of protest, and the others would surely follow. But Hammy seemed to like RJ's idea, and RJ didn't want to ruin the magic of Christmas for his innocent little friend.
Though it was hard to explain, he and Hammy shown a love for each other, but not in the way everyone thought. It was like a deeply rooted respect and appreciation more than a romantic fling.
Using his many skills from the past, he managed to jimmy open a window and slip in unnoticed. He'd gotten pretty good at knowing when certain humans weren't home, except those that either had an erratic schedule, those that worked from home, or those that just had a day off work and come in way earlier than RJ had expected. Fortunately this was none of those times. There, standing before him, was a beautiful tree, decorated to the nines. Just like the tree he was planning to make for his own family. He could smell the peppermint from the candy canes hanging off random branches, and couldn't help but to see if the popcorn on the string was fresh.
It wasn't, and RJ spat it out, wiping his tongue with disgust. He finally made his was to the top where he was greeted by a shimmering star. RJ had heard, either from television or the humans themselves, that the star on top was part of the "true meaning of Christmas" in which it represented "The Star of Bethlehem". RJ wasn't too clear on how the real story of Christmas went, but learned over the years that a lot of humans take it very seriously.
He reached out, trying not to fall off the tree, and grabbed the star with a shaky paw.
Upon returning though the hedge to the log, RJ found Ozzie was entertaining the three porcupine cubs and Hammy with one of the many Christmas books he had managed to gather to better enlighten them to the holiday they always slept through. Ozzie waved to RJ, who waved back.
"Hey, RJ!" Verne called, approaching the raccoon with a list clutched in his hand. "I read through one of those books and figured that if you're so intent on doing this 'right', you need a Christmas dinner."
RJ bit his tongue trying to resist the urge to tell Verne the real reason he wanted everyone to celebrate. As RJ tried to sort these foreign feelings, he failed to notice Verne was staring at him with concern.
"RJ, are you okay?" he finally asked.
"Huh?" he snapped his gaze towards Verne. "Oh yeah. Yeah! I'm fine…just, stressing about the holidays like the humans do, ya know?" he let out a coarse, almost forced chuckle.
Verne eyed the nervous raccoon for a moment longer, then nodded and walked off, leaving the list of dinner supplies with RJ. RJ looked over the list, and saw a lot of familiar things mingling with new items that he never thought of taking before.
It took nearly all
night, but RJ managed to get a few hours sleep before everyone else
woke up. He could hear their mummers of excitement as they found his
first of many surprises. RJ climbed out of his chair and stretched,
popping his back a few times before he finally sighed in relief. He
causally strolled up to the others, gathered in front of the tree
that RJ had decorated. He remembered various ideas from the trees
he'd seen around the neighborhood, and combined the best ones into
what everyone was now looking at in awe.
What was once a lonely tree, was now the center of attention, its decorations rivaling anything else in the area. Lights glinted, tinsel shimmered, the star, it was so brilliant it nearly outshone the whole tree.
"Where did this come from?" Heather asked, gasping in awe. She looked over to see Ozzie had played dead in the excitement.
"I dunno, magic I guess." RJ said with a sly wink.
"It's so pretty! Can I have a Candy Cane, RJ? Please?" Hammy begged.
"Sure! Everyone can have one!" RJ announced.
As everyone clamored for a peppermint treat, RJ cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. They turned and looked up at their holiday bringer, all with mouths full of Candy Cane.
"This is only phase one! This tree is what the humans use as a signal of sorts to call a man they call 'Santa Clause' to come into their house at night and leave their greatest desires!"
Verne stepped forward in protest. "I've heard that story too RJ, and that's not how it goes! Santa only leaves things for the people who have been good! It's more like a reward system really…"
"You mean bribery." RJ retorted with a snicker.
"Sandy Claws?! Sounds scary!" Hammy bolted towards RJ and clutched his leg, being inadvertently drug across the grass as RJ tried to walk.
"He's not scary Hammy! He gives you stuff!" RJ tried to console the squirrel.
"No he doesn't! Christmas is about family and being together! Not about material possessions and getting everything you want!" Verne protested.
RJ only shook his head. "Someone's being a Scrooge." He muttered.
"ME?!" Verne asked, taken aback by the remark. "You're the one who thinks Christmas is all about greed and toy companies!"
Ozzie took the liberty to step in between the two. Verne with an angered look, RJ with Hammy still clutched to his leg more scared of the fighting than the man with the claws now.
"Let's just let bygones be bygones!" Ozzie looked at Verne. "If you think that's what Christmas is all about, then why ruin it by trying to convert RJ? You know he's as stubborn as you are." He gave Verne a playful nudge.
Verne glanced away from Ozzie to see RJ nodding his head in agreement, knowing that he won this day.
"Fine." Verne finally gave in after seeing Hammy shivering, clinging to RJ's leg like a monster was before him. Verne would play along, but he wouldn't like it.
"Then it's settled!" RJ spoke up, picking Hammy off the ground and holding him around his shoulders. "We've got some Christmas shopping to do!"