Antoinette Stockenberg's 2011 Christmas Display

Dedicated with affection to "Papa Ted" Althof

If you've been to my Home Page, then you know I've begun to convert my out-of-print novels into eBook format. It's no coincidence that in November I released KEEPSAKE, a novel of romantic suspense, for all the e-reader formats out there. Much of the novel takes place during the Christmas season, so I decided to recreate its opening scene in my mantel village this year.

santa(15K) My novel is set in a Connecticut village called Keepsake. When the story begins, it's nearly dark and it's snowing. Tonight is the annual tree lighting, and the village center is bustling. Holding court in the town's charming gazebo, Santa Claus is welcoming young ones and hearing their wish lists. Children are everywhere -- waiting on benches, perched on fences, arriving by horse-drawn sled. Santa's deer (borrowed from a petting zoo for the evening) are waiting in a nearby pen for their next handful of feed from some eager child. People are chatting, shopping, skating, enjoying hot drink and food. Keepsake loves Christmas.

Keep_Cover(5K) And that is the scene that Quinn Leary, the hero of my novel, comes upon after an absence of seventeen years. Quinn is a townie, the son of an estate gardener accused of a slaying he didn't commit. Gardener and teenage son had fled Keepsake one step ahead of an arrest, and now Quinn has returned to clear his father's name. At first Quinn doesn't notice a charming shop in Keepsake called "Miracourt". It's a newer shop, filled with beautiful fabrics -- and it's owned by Quinn's old high-school rival, Olivia Bennett. Olivia is the daughter of the wealthiest man in Keepsake, a mill owner and a man who was able easily to afford to keep Quinn's gardener father full-time. Olivia's little shop also has a place on my mantel this Christmas. For the rest of their story, click here to find out where to download the novel.

But in the meantime, the regular cast of characters from mantel villages in years gone by are all still here, and their latest chapters continue in this season of 2011.

Christmas in Keepsake
The 2011 Christmas mantel.
   For closeups, click on the church, the gazebo and each of the thirteen houses.

Antique Christmas cardboard house putz (village) on fireplace mantel at night (200K)

The Financial District Scene (Houses, 1, 2 and 3):

santa(15K) Keepsake, Connecticut may be enjoying one of its most festive evenings of the year, but there is still business to be done. A group of the town's movers and shakers are clustered in front of the bank, hardly aware of the merriment at the town's center just a block away. They are deep in discussion over the hospital mess. The plan was once so simple: a year ago they had planned to buy John Hooks's farm on the edge of town, level the farmhouse, and build a hospital on the acreage. Everyone would benefit. Mayor Albert Pittman, young and ambitious, would score major political points. His wife Lavinia -- the wealthy benefactress who agreed to pay for it all -- would assume her predestined role as Queen of the Village, and all the townspeople would fall on their knees in gratitude. Doctor Nicholas Greene, the mayor's friend from their college days at Yale, would have a spanking new building in which to operate. And attorney Pettifore would assure himself a steady flow of income, because he would be retained as General Counsel to the hospital.

Just one problem: Farmer John Hooks refused to sell. Ramshackle or not, the farm at the time of the Hospital Commission's offer had been free and clear of debt. santa(15K) Then February came, and the dairy cows began dying one by one from a mysterious cause. In March a fire, equally mysterious, burned down the barn. Farmer Hooks borrowed the money to build a new one and start a new herd, but with no money to pay back the loan from the bank except for whatever his sailor son Johnny can muster, the farmer has fallen more and more in arrears. So now it's up to the bank. Foreclosure, or not?

The bank President is no stranger to calling in loans (Harmony Anderson, for one, lost her house after her merchant husband went down with his ship at sea). He's ready and willing to do it again. A burly, cigar-smoking giant of a man, Max Schurster likes to think big. "The greater good," he insists to the others, "we must consider the greater good. A barely productive farm, or a hospital for the community? The answer's clear as day."

The mayor agrees. The attorney agrees. The physician, of all people, has qualms, despite the fact that the temporary clinic he has set up next to his house and across from the bank is woefully short of equipment and space. "You'll excuse me, gentlemen," he says, glancing across the way. Grace Newcomb, the local midwife with whom the physician has more than a passing interest, is standing at the door of the clinic with someone, and Doctor Green does not recognize him. "I have people waiting."

"It's settled, then," says Mayor Pittman after the surgeon hurries off. "We'll take the farm."



The Dueling Carriages Scene (House 4):

santa(15K) Lavinia Pittman is not happy. Besides the never-ending hospital fiasco, the New Year's Eve soiree she has planned will have one less guest than she'd invited: Dorothea Sparks. The table will be lopsided unless she finds a single someone quickly. Vexing! After finally relenting to her husband's requests to include the upstart newcomer in their company ... after all that ... to have the Widow Sparks decline? It was completely unacceptable. And on such flimsy grounds! One did not turn down a glittering, exclusive affair simply because one's son and his wife and newborn child were visiting and would be leaving the next morning. One did not. The mayor may have had his reasons for wanting to include the woman -- Dorothea Sparks was well connected in Hartford and a distant cousin of the governor -- but Lavinia Pittman was not one to be trifled with. It would be the first and last invitation she extended to Mrs. Sparks. And besides, the widow was far too lively for one of her situation: men hovered around her like moths to the light. Did she think no one noticed? Lavinia Pittman had noticed.

And look. Here was the widow herself, approaching in her carriage and with her typically cheerful smile on her absurdly youthful face. Socially, she was quite oblivious. Well, she would get no more than the lift of a chin from the mayor's wife. Was that a Santa's cap her driver was wearing? Really.

The Carol Rehearsal Scene (House 5: the church):

santa(15K) Santa may have center stage at the moment, but the carolers know that their time will come: midnight services will be as uplifting and holy as the visit with Santa is cheery and bright. (Christmas has something for everyone.) So Mildred and Joanna, friends from their grammar school days, practice their most challenging hymn one more time. Mildred has been struggling to hit the high notes ever since she got over her cold, but Joanna, true friend, assures her that she sounds perfectly wonderful. Joanna's younger brothers belong to the choir, too -- musical talent runs in the family -- but right now they're just fooling around and being pests. They don't need to practice at all; they have voices like angels.

The town lamplighter pauses on his route to savor the impromptu performance. If only he didn't have such a tin ear, he would love to join the choir. He could hear music; he just couldn't sing music. He sighs and hurries on his way, both sadder and happier after the wistful encounter.

The City Hall and Gazebo scene (Houses 6, 7, and the Gazebo):

santa(15K) The village center is all abuzz: Santa's here! Right in the gazebo! With gifts! Well, gift-wrapped boxes, anyway, arranged beneath the tree. One little girl has brought her doll to show Santa; she would like a complete new wardrobe for it, and she wants to be sure that he gets the size right. Other children have brought presents to Santa, so that he can distribute them to the less fortunate. (He's faster than the Post Office, they are convinced.) They know that it's better to give than to receive; it's just a little hard to remember that in all the excitement of the season.

santa(15K) The deer in the pen are becoming restless. Do they know something? Is it time to fly through the stars? Or, another possibility, are they feeling stuffed from eating too many nibbles offered by too many young visitors? Jeffrey and Jimmy think that they're getting ready for the long haul through the skies. Jeffrey has convinced his younger brother that the antlers have a magic dust on them that lets them go airborne. Jimmy wants to see for himself, and so up he climbs, onto his brother's shoulders. "Yes! You're right! I feel the dust!" he cries, beside himself with wonder.

santa(15K) Big Billy, hanging back as usual, wonders what it would feel like to ride a reindeer like a horse. He saw a picture of Santa doing just that once, and so he knows it can be done; pictures don't lie. On the other side of the reindeer pen, Mrs. Pettifore keeps her daughter close: there are wild animals near! Eloise has overheard Jeffrey's claim about the antlers' magic dust, and she would just love to feel one for herself. But that will not be happening.

The Miracourt and Shops Scene (House 9):

santa(15K) Keepsake is a mill town, and mill towns make fabric. The only mill left in the riverside village is owned by Olivia Bennett's father, and its days in Keepsake may or may not be numbered, depending how willing the council is to grant tax relief to Mr. Bennett. In the meantime, Olivia's shop, Miracourt, is filled with exquisite fabrics and passamenterie, because Olivia knows much about the mill trade, and especially what sells. santa(15K) Today the shop is holding a discreet pre-Christmas sale and is enjoying a brisk business among certain of the town's women who perpetually have an eye out for new drape and slipcover fabric.

santa(15K) But Harmony Jenkins isn't one of them. She has visited the shop, it's true -- but mostly to look. Even on sale, the prices are much too dear for the modest budget that she and Will live on. Besides, she still feels guilty for having splurged in Miracourt on yards and yards of fine fabric for the window of the baby's room. The twill is heavy and well made; it does an excellent job of keeping the draft from the crib. But, oh, the cost! Will was wonderful about that. He indulges her every whim, complaining only that Harmony doesn't have enough whims. "But still," she confesses to a neighbor she's run into at Miracourt, "the cost!"

A short distance away, Will cradles the infant he loves as dearly as he does his wife. Baby Felicity is a gift he could not have hoped for back when he was an unhappy bachelor. But he's older now, near forty, and he feels utterly humbled by the blessings rained down on him in the past two years. Harmony and Felicity -- surely the two most beautiful females ever to grace the earth. He loves to hold his infant child and gaze into the depths of her eyes. His! A creature so sweet, so innocent, so helpless, so ...

Hungry. The baby, tired of no one answering her polite whimpers, escalates to a howl. "Doesn't anyone understand baby talk around here?" she wonders, wailing now at the top of her tiny lungs.

"Uh-oh. Shh, shh, Felicity ... shh. Mama's nearby; she'll fix you right up," Will promises in a frantic whisper. And he heads with his bundle of crying joy for the steps of Miracourt and the woman who's the light of both their lives.



The Horse-drawn Sleds Scene (House 10):

Farmer John Hooks and his mare Bessie are heading for the gazebo with yet another sled load of eager children. Some of 'em are repeaters; that, the farmer knows. The one with white boots -- he remembers her from earlier in the day. Well, the Council is paying him to haul 'em all, and that's what he's going to do. He had actually considered refusing the offer of the job this year, but by now it was a tradition, and a good-paying one at that. Anyhow, he had to get money from somewhere. The farm was in jeopardy, and didn't he know it. The way Mayor Pittman averted his gaze when he offered Hooks the work -- that wasn't good. And when he went hat in hand to the bank to ask for yet more time, Max Shurster practically pushed him out of the office. No good, no good, no good.

The old man sighs and shifts his weight on the hard seat of the sled he rides. "I'm too old for this ... too old. Where's my son? Johnny needs to leave boats once and for all and come back to the farm. Things is desperate and I'm alone. If Johnny was here, he could help me figure it out, what to do ...."

The Skating Scene and Food Court (House 11):

While they wait their turn for Farmer Hooks's sled-ride into town to see Santa, the children take advantage of the frozen pond. Truth be told, the ice is a little iffy this year -- lumpy and ridged and rough. Last night's wet snow sure didn't help. More people are falling on the ice than gliding on the ice. Especially the grownups -- too old, too big, too slow, the kids decide. They're just in the way.

Some of the grownups agree and have decided to preserve their dignity, and their bones, by seeking refuge at the refreshment end of the pond. Florrie is there with her hot chocolate stand, of course; it wouldn't be winter without her big brown kettle heating on the wood stove. This year, though, Florrie has replaced the usual mulled cider in her white kettle with something even more warming: hot rum toddies.

santa(15K) Mr. and Mrs. Woodcut like the new offering just fine! Seated on a nearby bench, they toast one another, Florrie, and the season as they take in the scene. Observant as ever, Mrs. Woodcut sees that Old Man MacGowan has a cat. Why would a grouchy old hermit like him have a cat? He's even cajoled a bit of milk from Florrie to feed the animal. Now, that is something new: old man MacGowan, feeling kindly. Except for Florrie, Mrs. Woodcut has never seen him be friendly with anyone, much less anything. A cat! "Very sweet," she murmurs to her husband. "Very."

santa(15K) Old man MacGowan has never had any truck for animals; they just slow you down and nail you in place. Dogs more than cats, of course. The old man tamps his pipe as he watches the cat beside him lap the saucer dry. There's just something about this cat, he muses. Come out of nowhere, follows me home, and Bob's your uncle: suddenly I own a cat. Florrie teased him -- just the one time -- about going soft in his old age. But he liked to snapped her head off (for which he later apologized) because nothing and no one was going to come between him and his independence. Except ... maybe ... this cat.

The cat isn't the only creature enjoying a meal. Mrs. Jack Jones's dog Rusty is about to be rewarded a rare treat. Old and arthritic he may be, but Rusty's sense of smell is keen as ever, and he smells sausages. So while Mr. Jack Jones avails himself of some of Florrie's hot chocolate -- or did he get the hot toddy? -- Mrs. Jones orders a fat bratwurst. Not for her, not for her husband, but for dear Rusty. Because she isn't sure that her beloved dog and trusted companion will be around next year for such a treat. It breaks her heart to think it, but facts must be faced.

santa(15K) The butcher wonders at the extravagance but smiles and fills her order. He's there to make a little money on the side, feeding hungry skaters. Dogs, too, if an owner is daft enough to pay. The kettle is only half full by now, not bad for a middling-ice day. Of course, the tree lighting later has had everything to do with the size of the crowd. The butcher decides to throw in another chain of sausage links; best not to run out while there are sales to be made.

Poor Sam Rickens. He's supposed to be cleaning up the ice, but he forgot his shovel and has only his broom. Useless. But then, a shovel wouldn't be much better, the ice being so bad and all. Oh, well. He's being paid by the hour by the Christmas Committee, so he just keeps sweeping.

santa(15K) On the porch of their pretty house decorated with a giant wreath above its door, Clyde and Margaret are celebrating their first anniversary. Clyde is about to lift Margaret up carefully and carry her over the threshold, just as he had exactly one year earlier when they were newlyweds. Except that now Margaret weighs twenty-four more pounds. The baby is due in three months.

In the very center of all of the action on and around the ice, Johnny Hooks stands perplexed. He'd come here straight from his ship with only one thought in mind: to see Sonja skate and hold her in his arms again. santa(15K) The last time he saw her he deliberately ignored her, hoping to send the message that he wasn't interested in a serious relationship. Later, in the lonely confines of his berth aboard ship, he realized what a fool he'd been. Maybe he wasn't serious, but maybe he was. How would he know if he didn't allow himself to find out? And now ... no Sonja. Where has she gone? No one knows. He's been to her house and to the village green and then back to the pond, all without seeing her. He's exchanged quick greetings with his father -- who did look bad! -- but somehow he's managed not to see Sonja. His disappointment cuts like a knife. Where was she? He decides to go back to the village green one more time.

And so life in the little New England town rolls steadily along, as life always does. Holidays come and go, babies are born and the elderly pass on, and pets get old and teenagers fall in love. And the silken thread that connects them one to the next is the same as it's been from the dawn of time: the simple, driving need to care for and to be loved.

For earlier chapters of this Christmas tale, click on the links to previous mantels:

2016 Christmas Putz

Xmas Candle(102K)

2015 Christmas Putz

2014 Christmas Putz

2013 Christmas Putz

2012 Christmas Putz

2010 Christmas Putz

2009 Christmas Putz

2008 Christmas Putz

2007 Christmas Putz

2006 Christmas Putz

2005 Christmas Putz

Antoinette's Main Christmas Page

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