Bryan Furuness

Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?

By Bryan Furuness

Prompt, by Helen McClory: Write about the most moving thing you have seen at festive time (can be totally fictional of course).

When it comes to Christmas Eve services, you can have your non-denominational inspire-a-thons, your Catholic pews jammed with the sweaty lapsed, your Lutheran sopranos keening like red-tail hawks on the descant in "Angels We Have Heard on High." For sheer production value, you can't beat the Episcopalians.

Trinity Episcopal, my church in Indy, is big on beauty. It's just that, for most of the year, the beauty is understated, almost austere. The building looks like it was airlifted from a village in Yorkshire. Think: stone walls, oak doors with iron hinges, dark wooden pews on stone floors, all capped by rafters painted as brightly as a calliope.

Classy. Timeless. The church goes to work in a dark suit with a red tie. Until December, when the church leaves work and changes in a Speedway bathroom to head to a drag show.

The transformation starts with a process called "greening," which involves coiling about fifteen miles of evergreen boas around every knob and pole in the sanctuary. On Christmas Eve, these garlands bristle with candles, actual flaming candles (forget virgin birth; the real sacred mystery is how the church has avoided going up in a massive sap-fire). In their vestments of heavy brocade and tall pointy hats, the priests look like they wandered off the set of Alice in Wonderland. Trumpeters trumpet triumphantly while a dude in a crushed velvet hat whips around a censer of incense like he's the white Bruce Lee.

Pageantry? We're one torch song away from being a musical.

Or maybe the service is a musical. After all, it features several showstoppers. "Adeste Fidelis" is the Anglican "Freebird." If you haven't heard "O Holy Night" sung by children twisting their hands and rocking up on the toes of their Hush Puppies, then you have not heard "O Holy Night," my friend. And then there was the service a couple of years ago when the church pulled out all the stops during "We Three Kings." At first it seemed like a standard production, an excuse to let the men of the church let loose their most profundo basso, but then, lo! What was coming up the center aisle? Three Kings! Dressed in shimmering robes made of mermaid scales and hats that looked like Jiffy Pop post-pop. One of them had a service dog. And the dog was wearing a Jiffy Pop hat, too.

People were moved, man. Episcopalians don't shout or flop around or anything so unseemly, but eyes were shining. Hands were squeezed. Glances were exchanged that could be translated as Oh, man. This is really something. I'm feeling it hard.

In my pew, I exchanged glances dutifully, but I was not feeling it hard. I mean, I liked it. I appreciated it. I cataloged it as Very Nice. But that was it.

By the time the last star of wonder, star of night faded, even the crusty verger was swiping at his eyes in annoyance. Meanwhile I was wondering if my son, the acolyte, was in place to serve communion, and speaking of bread and wine, what were we going to eat after the service? 


I wasn't always this way.

When I was a boy, church was full of ecstasies. I would stare at the eternal flame and tell myself I am real, I am actual flesh that God has made, this life is not a dream until I was thoroughly weirded out. All year I looked forward to the Good Friday service that ended in total darkness with the pastor slamming shut the Bible with a sound like the end of the universe, making my whole body prickle with goosebumps. At Easter, I would sing the Hallelujah Chorus with the choir, and we would whip ourselves into such a frenzy near the end, gnashing at the words—Forever! And ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!—until it felt like we were all going mad.

And then it went away. I don't know when, exactly, but by the end of my teens, church didn't transport me anymore. Not just church, either. I could no longer fall into a book like it was a dream. In a movie theater, I could no longer forget that there were people around me, that I had a body, that I was separate from the screen. 

"The first twenty years of life contain the whole of experience," wrote Graham Greene. "The rest is observation." I don't know if that's true for everyone, but by the time I went to that Christmas Eve service, the one with the three kings and the service dog, it seemed true for me.

Greene also said that sometimes his faith was that his faith would return. So I kept reading. I watched the screens. I warmed the pews. In my cynical moments, I wondered if I was just going through the motions for a reminder of how these things used to make me feel, the way you might keep around an old girlfriend's shirt for an occasional sad sniff.

But even if I knew that to be true, I wouldn't stop. It's better than nothing. And in some burnt pit of my mind, an eternal flame burns a vigil for the return of awe. 


Back to the service in question. Time for communion. Eli must have been in the right place after all, because he ended up next to the priest, ready to hand out wafers. The two of them worked the drive-thru lane of communion—you walked up, got your body, got your blood, and you kept on walking. When I reached the head of the line, Eli handed me the Eucharist and said, "This is my body, given for you," and then he smirked because that's what happens to his face when his lips are trying to smile while he's trying to stay serious. I know this because my face does the same thing. So there we were, smirking at each other until my wife nudged me. I gave him a wink and went back to my pew.

How much time passed before I heard the crash? Could have been two minutes, could have been ten. The communion line was long and I was trying to remember if we had the ingredients for skillet cornbread, but the clang of metal on stone brought me out of that daydream. Before I could tell what was happening, my wife was pushing past me to get to the aisle. The church murmured. I stood stupidly.

I can still close my eyes and see the scene: my boy laid out on the stone floor, looking woozily up at the rafters, his face as white as his alb, wafers scattered all around. The priest, a grandmotherly black woman, is kneeling next to him, cradling his head. My wife is on the other side, her fingertips on his chest as though telling him to stay down. The man in the crushed velvet hat cranes over the scene, looking on in concern. The dog whines. The congregation falls to a hush.

And there I am, standing. Gripping the pew in front of me like I was being electrocuted and couldn't break away.

Then I did, of course. My hesitation only lasted a second or two. I made my way up the aisle and helped him to his feet. My wife and I led him to the common room to get some orange juice and cookies. Within minutes, color was back in his face. After the service, he was treated like a minor celebrity, which he handled with embarrassed smirks. In short, the kid was fine. I wasn't so sure about myself. What happened to me when I saw him on the floor?  In that electric second, I felt . . . something. Or maybe it's more accurate to say I felt everything, overloading my circuits.

A couple of years later, I'm still wondering. What came over me? It's only now, as I close my eyes and picture that scene on the stone floor, that I see how much it looks like a tableau. Like art, or maybe theater. Like an accidental nativity scene. And the feeling that seized me—fear and unbearable love—seems a faint aftershock of the original.  

Bryan Furuness is the author of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, a novel. Along with Michael Martone, he's the co-editor of Winesburg, Indiana. His stories have appeared in New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He lives in Indy and teaches at Butler University.

Submission Guidelines for Letters to Santa

By Tara Laskowski

Prompt, by Bryan Furuness: Submission guidelines for letters to Santa.



Santa's Workshop accepts letters for toy requests, fan mail, original artwork, and poetry. Fan letters, artwork and poetry are accepted year-round. The reading period for toy requests is October 1 to December 24 each year. Letters sent outside of this period will be discarded unread, as our toy shop production schedule shuts down during the months of January through September.

Who Should Submit:

Letter-writers should be ages 12 or under. While we truly appreciate the adult or teen who still believes, toymaking is a thankless job, and our Elves prefer to focus on folks who cannot yet hold down a job and earn money to spend on themselves (so, no, Carl from Trenton, New Jersey, we cannot deliver you a case of Pappy Van Winkle etched with the eight reindeer). However, fan letters from all ages are always welcome.

NOTE: Despite manufacturers claims, Santa's Workshop does not and will not ever have any relationship with Elves on the Shelf. We will not accept letters, requests, or messages from your personal Elf on the Shelf. Elves from any sort of shelf have been prohibited from entering our North Pole property, and any such elf caught trespassing on our grounds will be disposed of by the Abominable Snow Monster.

What to Submit:

Please submit one handwritten letter per season. No electronic submissions, please. Submissions can be in any language—we have Elves who speak fluently in every tongue, from German to Baby Coo.

Content should be heartfelt, genuine, and true. Please send us your best work. We are interested more in letters with one or two very special toy requests, rather than a laundry list of items. We are quite eager for more submissions with requests for toys for people other than the sender.

Please do not send catalogues, coupons, or printed MapQuest directions to stores. These will be ignored and not returned. We are a specialty toymaker, not your personal shopper!

Where to Submit:

Please read carefully! Guidelines have recently changed!

Stamps are not necessary.

Due to the popularity of Santa's Workshop, please direct letters to the proper department for fastest service and response:

  • Address general correspondence to: Santa (or St. Nick), Editor-in-Chief, North Pole.
  • Requests for electronics should be addressed to the Batteries Not Included Department, Elf 7, North Pole.
  • Requests for games, books, or puzzles should be addressed to the Library, Elf 18, North Pole.
  • Requests for dolls, stuffies, doll houses or accessories, building toys, or race/train tracks should be addressed to the Imagination Station, Elf 56, North Pole.
  • Any other gifts or special requests should be addressed to the Experiences Department, Elf 789, North Pole.

Santa's Workshop is an equal-opportunity toymaker and will deliver to all children of the world, regardless of sex, location, income level, race, behavior, or the amount of curlicues, stamps, stickers, hearts, exclamation points, pictures of trees or snowflakes, or different colored crayons used in your submission. Contrary to popular belief, we do not count the number of times 'please' appears in a letter (though we encourage good manners!) and do not cater to begging.

Please note that while we are magic elves, we—and Santa—are really quite busy with our important jobs at the North Pole and do not, no matter what your parents or songs or television shows tell you, watch you while you are asleep. Therefore, there is no need to file a restraining order against us, and no need to log your dream-time as proof of anything—we trust that you are getting the proper amount of REM each night (and hope your parents are, too.)

Other restrictions:

  • We cannot honor requests for autographed photos of Santa.
  • The reindeer, as one group or as individuals, cannot do birthday party or Christmas party appearances, even when the event is mid-week and will be hosted in a building with a runway-like flattop roof (though we appreciate your consideration.)
  • No, we cannot make a time machine out of a DeLorean.
  • Thank you for your suggestions, but we do not agree that elves make delightful doorstops.
  • Though Mrs. Claus blushes with modesty over repeated requests year after year, she simply cannot reveal the secret recipe of her gingerbread cookies.
  • Santa has not, and will not ever, twerk.

Due to the high volume of submissions, we regret that our elves cannot send a personal response to your letter. But know that we carefully read and consider each and every submission to Santa and will try our best to fulfill your every wish and desire or provide a suitable substitution.

Thank you for your submission! We look forward to reading it.

Tara Laskowski is the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons and the forthcoming short story collection Bystanders (Santa Fe Writers Project, May 2016). She has been the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010, and is a columnist and reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. All she wants for Christmas is a nap.