Sunday, January 22, 2012

Jingle Jangle

Yes, I know it's a little late for a Christmas story, but just pour yourself a cup of hot cocoa and put on a Santa hat. You shouldn't notice the difference.

There are some stories of Christmas that aren’t well told, stories that St. Nick tries very hard to keep under wraps, stories not fit for the ears of little boys and little girls. However, a curious soul among whispering elves learns things that should not be known, and a curious soul cannot keep secrets forever.

Among my travels to the North Pole, I happened upon the Gingerbread Hollow in Santa’s Workshop. It is a delightful place that smells of cinnamon, ginger, and vanilla, hanging so heavy in the air that one breath is a bite of a crisp gingerbread cookie. The ovens keep the air warm against the arctic chill, and the elves are fat and jolly from their frequent tastings of their product. However, as shadows grow long and the day grows old, the faces of the elves descend and hold tight against their chins. They become jittery and nervous, checking over their shoulders with increasing regularity.

Never before had I seen such nerves among such happy elves. I could see how anxious they were to end their tasks, and their speed increased exponentially by the minute. However, one group slowed with each passing minute, their actions becoming ever more deliberate and methodical. Their hands shook in what I soon discovered to be fear, the hands of the gingerbread men cookie cutters.

I stopped one of the elves to find his face white as the snow blanketing roof and swirling in the air outside. His eyes betrayed nothing less than fear beyond fear. He placed his cookie cutter down with nothing less than reverence reserved for death.

I begged him to tell me the cause of this uneasiness and dread. What could turn such joyous creatures into bowed, shivering souls? He did not tell me at first. All the elves listening glanced right and left in quick succession. They whispered to each other. They bickered and argued. However secrets of this magnitude cannot be held. They are too powerful to keep in, but must be shared.

A young elf, barely up to my hip, was the one to speak. She had such large eyes and a mouth that quavered with every word. It seemed as if she might faint and the elf beside her placed a hasty hand over her mouth. However, she was not to be silenced. She shrugged the interloper away. She approached me, all large, solemn hazel eyes.

She began in quiet seriousness. “It is the legend of the headless gingerbread man.”

There once was an elf named Jingle. He was a tall, lanky, happy elf who always wore a long, stocking hat with a ring-ting-tingle bell on the end. Every step he took, a cheerful little jangle would follow. He had worked long in the world of elves, and has been given the prestigious job of kitchen supervisor.

All the livelong day, he would bounce around the kitchens with a chipper jangle, instructing elves on the proper ratio of cocoa and sugar in hot chocolate or how to whip cream just so for frosting. He was a kind elf who always had a smile for everyone, especially one Miss Twinkle Star from the construction department.

Twinkle was a very beautiful elf, with round cheeks and perfectly pointed ears. Her silvery eyes sparkled like stars, and her golden, curls framed her face like starshine. She was also the best toy truck builder that the North Pole had ever seen, and she knew it. She had a smile that could light up an arctic night. Many a young, eligible elf had his eye on her. However, she was young at three hundred and eighteen years old, and a vixen-like coquette.

She would bat her long eyelashes at all elves that came her way, sending them head over heels for her in that single glance. One such elf was Jingle. Another elf was Merry.

Merry was a mischievous elf and part of the wrapping department. One of his favorite activities was creating intricate knots in ribbons that were all but impossible to untangle and taping wrapping paper very soundly, leaving children frustrated and wailing on Christmas. He was a burly and unusually tall elf, with dark, black hair and coal-like eyes. However, he had such a boyish, ruffian charm about him and a merry laugh, that many a young elf was left to swoon in his wake.

He could have had Snowie or Blinkle, but he yearned for the chase. He only wanted Twinkle. The problem was that Twinkle and Jingle had taken to long walks through the kitchen at night. Twinkle would twinkle her starlike eyes and Jingle would jangle his long hat, and they would talk about everything and nothing. Some of the elves gossiped over hot apple cider that Twinkle wasn’t just flirting with Jingle, but might have actually fallen in love.

Merry did not like this. He did not like it one bit. Twinkle was the most beautiful elf, and he deserved the best. Most elves would have taken their problems to good ol’ Saint Nicholas, but that was not the way of Merry. Merry had different plans.

Over the years, the holidays had been spreading. Once, Christmas had only lasted a day, then Christmas Eve was pulled in, then all of December. Suddenly, Christmas was infusing the days before Thanksgiving and lingering past New Year’s. While no elf could complain about such a joyous holiday lasting longer and longer, the problem was that Christmas wasn’t the only holiday spreading.

Halloween also spread.

It was said the miasma of ghosts and ghouls was very hard to rid once it had touched a day. And, in all honesty, Halloween had only infiltrated into Christmas once when the elves were not prepared for the intrusion. Since then, Thanksgiving was fortified as a solid buffer, and by the time the Christmas tree was rolled out, no one spared a thought for the wicked witches of yestermonths.

However, there had been one that sickly touch of Halloween.

Merry cornered Jingle as he was instructing the gingerbread man cutters on the proper positioning of cookie cutters. Jingle was a good, patient teacher, slowly going over each step himself before guiding his apprentice in his wake.

Jingle was very busy when Merry approached him, but he was also a very thoughtful elf. He tried to keep an ear on Merry, an ear on his apprentice, and an eye on his work, but his facial features fought him in the task. He ended up looking up and down and all around many times, attempting to keep everything under observation.

With Jingle so distracted and night hastily approaching, Merry spoke solemnly of the holiday spread. Jingle knew all this of course, he knew almost everything, but he thought it polite to listen to Merry tell his tale. Jingle did not know, however, how sticky the fingers of Halloween were, which Merry explained to him with a impish grin.

Merry told him of how that particular finger reached toward the innocuous sweets abundant in Gingerbread Hollow. A misplaced cookie cutter, a fiery oven, and a monster had been born. The headless gingerbread man was said to stalk to the Christmas kitchen counters as the midnight hour grew near, searching for the poor soul who beheaded a gingerbread man so carelessly so that headless gingerbread man might take his head in turn.

Jingle was an honest elf, which lead him to be a little naive. Merry had gotten beneath his skin, but he refused to tell Merry that. He kept his face firm and kindly asked Merry not to try to scare the gingerbread elves. However, the hesitancy of his hand revealed his unease. As he went to place the next cookie cutter, he placed it a little too forcefully, slid it at the wrong angle, and the thin little neck of the gingerbread man broke.

Merry made a large show of mock horror at Jingle’s mistake while Jingle hastily balled up his mistake to be rolled out again later. Merry left without another word, leaving Jingle to finish his instruction to the frightened gingerbread elves. He attempted to assuage their fears and assure them there was nothing to worry about, but Jingle was not a good liar. He finally settled on letting the elves go early as they worriedly scuttled from Gingerbread hollow.

Meanwhile, Jingle and Twinkle met for their evening walk in the striping room where Jingle was overseeing the production of the candy canes for Christmas stockings. He saved the best for Twinkle, which he presented in a large, beautiful bouquet. She blushed at the extravagant preasant and inhaled the deep, sweet smell of peppermint. Together, they walked along the quiet corridors of Santa’s Workshop. However, Jingle could not shake Merry’s story from his mind, and every time he tried, his hat gave a little jangle.

Twinkle knew it was not like Jingle to jangle quite like that, so she asked him what was wrong. He assured her nothing, but he was not a good liar. Twinkle knew he was keeping something from her, so she demanded that he tell her. He tried again to tell her it was nothing. Eventually, their disagreement grew to a tussle and then to a fight.

Twinkle left in a huff, leaving Jingle all alone.

Jingle jangled his hat once, then twice, trying to remove the legend of the headless gingerbread man, but he could not for Halloween’s long fingers were sticky.

Jingle carefully looked around the next corner, and finding the coast clear, he carefully slid into the hall. He would just slowly make his way back to his bedroom. He had accidentally beheaded a gingerbread man earlier that day, but surely others had done that before without facing the headless gingerbread man. Maybe Merry was just playing a merry joke on him. Maybe there was no reason for Jingle to jangle so.

He took an easier breath out, glancing around the next corner. He was being silly. A headless gingerbread man, who would of thought of that? He had almost convinced himself to forget the legend when he heard a distinct, light footstep behind him accompanied by the subtle crunch of a cookie.

Jingle whipped his head around, his hat jangling in fear, but there was no one there. Only dreadful shadows in which headless gingerbread men could hide. He called out to the shadow, welcoming any elf to show him- or herself. But there was no answer. Nothing moved. All was silent besides Jingle’s jangling hat and his doubled-timed heart.

It took him several minutes, but eventually he calmed himself. He would go talk to Santa. That was it. Santa knew everything. He could help him with his gingerbread fears.

However, Jingle didn’t want to backtrack past the place where he had heard the cookie crunch. He would take a long, circuitous route around the dark hallway. Yes, that was it. That’s what he would do.

Jingle slowly jangled his way to the next corridor, with plenty of checks all around for mysterious cookie-crunchers. He stopped suddenly, holding the ring-ting-tingle bell on his hat. He heard that light step and the cookie crunch stop a moment too late, revealing its location behind him. It was following him.

Jingle looked around slowly. Only shadows met him and the horrible, heaviness as if something’s eyes were digging into his neck.

By now, he could not convince himself it was nothing. He could not control his fear. Jingle ran with a frightful jangle, as the steps and the crunching grew louder behind him. He knew the headless gingerbread man must be getting closer. He could smell the cinnamon and the ginger and the vanilla.

He wanted to assure the headless gingerbread man that he hadn’t mean to behead that little gingerbread man earlier that day, but he was too frightened to speak! Instead, he ran faster and faster. With each step, the realization that he would not make it to Santa before the headless gingerbread man caught up with him grew a little stronger. He would have to go somewhere else.

Then, something caught Jingle’s long stocking hat mid-jangle. It fell off Jingle’s pointed ears, and he knew he must escape with haste. He grabbed the door next to him and fell through it, eating a large mouthful of snow. He could not stop now, though. He smelt the gingerbread behind him and the cookie crunching was echoing in his ears. He jumped to his feet and continued his run deep into the arctic night with the dreadful steps of the headless gingerbread man echoing after him.

The next day, Jingle was nowhere to be found. The elves searched high. The elves searched low. The elves searched everywhere in between. All that could be found was Jingle’s long stocking hat with his ring-ting-tingle bell.

Merry had a knowing laugh and a tight squeeze of his new wife, Twinkle, for each time the story was told. Some of the elves, like those I met in the wrapping department, said Merry had tried to scare Jingle, and Jingle was so ashamed of being so frightened he had ran off to the world of men, now playing the part of elves in Hollywood. Those elves I had met in the kitchen (and kitchen elves always seem to be the most astute) still claim the headless gingerbread man ran after him and spirited him away to the dreadful place where Christmas and Halloween intertwine.

Whatever it may be, at Santa’s Workshop, the elves now take great care to keep their gingerbread men intact and their heads firmly on their shoulders. When, it gets dark and late, when the nights wax long and the days wane short, the legend of the headless gingerbread man is always quick to their lips and fast to their hearts, and all listen for the characteristic cookie crunch.

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