For the Waymeet Yuletide 2006 "Get Cracking" challenge: Choose a number from 1 to 41, and you'll receive a seasonal decoration by e-mail which you are to include in your story. You can do whatever you like with the decoration, interpret it literally or metaphorically. There will be only one writer for each number/decoration.

I chose number 9, and was assigned... candy canes.

DISCLAIMER: Professor Tolkien's wonderful characters don't belong to me, I just get to think about them day and night

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IN INNOCENT HANDS

It had been a long time since Gandalf was around folk who were celebrating Yule, but this year found him at Bag End, visiting his old friend Bilbo. The visit had been peaceful until this evening, when the smial was deluged with invited guests and their excited children. After the feast, the wizard noticed that Bilbo's young ward, Frodo, had organized a spelling game to keep the younger children from bothering the adults.

"Frodo seems quite adept at handling youngsters," Gandalf observed to Bilbo.

Bilbo grinned as he set out sweets on a nearby table.

"He's had a lot of practice with his cousin Merry. That's the enthusiastic one over there, shouting out all the answers."

Gandalf suddenly noticed the contents of a nearby plate. "I didn't realize that the Shirefolk knew about those," he said.

"Oh yes," Bilbo said. "We call them 'Yule canes', or at other times of the year, 'shepherds' crooks'. Men in Bree introduced them to the hobbits living there, and the recipe spread to the Shire shortly thereafter. I have no idea where Men got the idea for such a fanciful thing." He picked up and twirled one of the curved confections, admiring the red and white swirling lines. "They're difficult to make, but the children love them."

"The Elves first made them, long ago. It is many years since I last saw one."

"Elves?" Bilbo asked, surprised. "How interesting."

"Indeed," Gandalf murmured. "On the original 'canes', the Elves entwined three colors -- blue, red, and white."

"Really?" Bilbo asked, distracted. "Gandalf, please excuse me for a moment. Frodo may need something to keep the youngsters quiet a bit longer." He took up a handful of the Yule canes, and went over to where Frodo and the children were gathered.

Gandalf thought about how there was no visit to the Shire that did not reveal something new to him. He didn't know if the Elves still made these sweets, but they had been invented for a most unique reason. Blue, red, and white represented the colors of the gems set in the Three that Celebrimbor had crafted. The half-loop at the end of the confection was, itself, a crude representation of a ring. Certain children, such as Elrond's sons, had been told of the Three; they knew, however, that they must never speak about them. The occasional sharing of foods that carried the gems' three colors – such as these sweets – had been a way of silently honoring those who bore the rings... by those not permitted to speak of them in any other way.

Gandalf's last memory of these 'Yule canes' was of seeing one being enjoyed by little Estel, who had been perhaps five years old at the time. He supposed that it was the Dúnedain chieftains, raised in Rivendell, who had passed on the making of these unusual treats to their own people, and then to the hobbits – with no knowledge of what they originally represented.

"Thank you, Bilbo," came Frodo's bright voice. Gandalf watched as the tween took his smallest cousin – Peregrin – on his lap. Frodo held one of the canes with the curved end in his palm. He took Peregrin's fingers and slowly traced them around the curve, and then up. It was obvious, by their smiles and nods, that the older children had all experienced this same teaching method.

"This is a 'J', Pip," Frodo said. "Can you see the shape? 'J' is for... jolly."

So, Gandalf thought, an ancient tradition has found its way into more innocent hands. The original purpose of these sweets is not known to the hobbits, but the true intention remains – to encourage memory, and teach valuable lessons from one generation to the next. Whatever will the hobbits show me next? What a fascinating and wonderful race.

"Jolly, Fwodo!" Pippin bounced in glee. "'J' is for jolly!"

Gandalf looked around the festive room, filled with laughing and feasting hobbits.

"And 'J' is for joy," he murmured softly. "May the Shire live forever in its glow."

END