Learning to Celebrate
Rhema the Blue Draik picked up a card and turned it over in her hands. An hour ago, the bell had rung for the last Neoschool day of the year. She and her friends had waved each other goodbye as they ran home, smiling at the thought of all the holidays ahead. But not before they had given each other many different cards, wishing their friends happy and restful holidays in the weeks ahead.
Hope you have a good Christmas, Katie. See you next year! From Emma. The card was decorated on the front by a picture of a White Shoyru with a long beard, wearing a red hat, red jacket, and red trousers. Father Christmas, of course. She seldom received a card that didn’t have him on the front. But although she liked the picture, it gave her a small jolt on the inside, the feeling she always had when it was near Christmas.
Rhema and her mother came from Shenkuu. There, Christmas wasn’t as important on the calendar. She didn’t usually get Christmas cards from her friends, and the shops weren’t decorated with tinsel. Some people still gave each other presents, and when they did, it was received gladly. But it wasn’t particularly important — just another time of the year.
When they moved to Neopia Central a few years ago, Rhema had been surprised by what a big deal was made out of Christmas by everyone else. She saw a Christmas tree for the first time in her life, in a shop. The school halls were decorated with tinsel. Raffles and guessing competitions were held. But although these celebrations surrounded her, they never really touched Rhema. Her mother — a tired and constantly busy Red Draik — was never enthusiastic about that kind of thing.
“It’s just another time of the year to waste money,” she said. “You don’t mind not getting presents, do you?”
Rhema shook her head. “Nope.”
“There you go, then. It’s not really important. Just have a good holiday and use the time to rest.”
And Rhema hadn’t been lying when she said that. She had been brought up to be a miser, and she knew it. Every time she saw something expensive being bought, used a lot of money herself, or held a lot of money in her hand, she felt uneasy. It was hard to explain, but she didn’t like the thought of wasting so much money. Unlike her friends at school, she didn’t get an allowance, but she didn’t mind at all. If she did get one, what would she spend it on? And the thought of her mother handing over five hundred neopoints a week to her... she knew that money could be put to better use than to rot in her top drawer. They were tight on money all the time.
But looking over the card now, Rhema wondered if it would be nice to celebrate Christmas ‘properly’, for once. To leave cookies and a stocking out for Father Christmas in the night. To wake up in the morning and find a decorated Christmas tree, lights shining and all, with beautifully wrapped presents underneath it. To eat a Christmas breakfast, a Christmas lunch, and a Christmas dinner. And... what else? She didn’t know how much more there was to it.
“Forget it,” she told herself. “It’s the holidays.” Sitting down on a chair, she picked up the book on the coffee table, flipped it to the page where she had left the bookmark, and started reading — all thoughts of Christmas gone from her mind.
Snow had fallen onto the paths that winded through Neopia Central, covering them in what looked like a sheet of white cream. Rhema’s foot sank right through the snow, her boot hitting the ground with a crunch. Smiling, she walked onwards.
“Rhema! There you are!”
Grinning, Rhema turned in the direction of the voice, her eyes meeting with that of a Blue Cybunny’s. “Hi, Katie.”
“Are you going to join our snowball fight, then?” she said.
“Of course! That’s why you asked me, isn’t it?”
Katie started to nod, but before she could say anything else, a round, cold ball of snow hit her face. She wiped it off, spluttering, and had to blink a few times before she could see the glee on Rhema’s voice. She grinned, her long blue tail dancing around her. “It’s war, eh?”
“Yeah?” Katie grabbed a fistful of snow and chucked it at Rhema, who dodged it. Rhema laughed and picked up as much snow as she could, too, but her sharp eyes spotted someone from a small distance away — a Green Aisha. She patted the snow into place, not looking up as she said, “Hey, Emma!”
Emma ran forward. “Rhema! Hi!” She turned to Katie. “I heard your mother calling. You gotta go back — singing carols, or something.”
Katie’s face lit up. “Yay!” She turned to Rhema. “Sorry, I have to go now. You can stay here with Emma.”
Emma shook her head. “Actually, I have to go to the carol singing too. Aww, Rhema... what will you be doing?”
“I dunno,” she said, shrugging. “Nothing, I think.”
“How about you come with me, then?” Katie said. “There’s still some time until the carol singing begins. I’ll be home for a while yet. Do you want to come and see my house? It’s been decorated really nicely.”
Rhema glanced at her watch, then nodded. “Sure!” She pulled her coat more tightly around her, and hurried after Katie and Emma.
They rounded a corner and arrived at a line of houses that looked as if they couldn’t be real. Tinsel and baubles hung from every corner, a string of lights were flashing, and a Father Christmas model had been put on the balcony. Katie walked up the steps and pushed the door open.
Inside, the walls were not the creamy-silk colour at Rhema’s house, but had been covered in red, white and green-striped wallpaper. Banners saying ‘Merry Christmas’ surrounded them. Katie turned around. “Like it?”
“Yeah,” Rhema said. “It’s — um — my first time seeing something like it.”
Katie looked puzzled for a moment, then her expression cleared. “My mother will be glad you find it so impressive! Come see the Christmas tree, then.”
A tree the size of the school flag pole stood in the middle of the living room. A star, gold in colour, was at the top. All around the tree were baubles and Christmas lights.
“I’ve got food here,” Katie said. “Rhema? Do you want some?” She laid out something round and upright on the table, with cream on it. “Here ya go! Help yourself, we’ve got heaps.”
Rhema frowned. “What is it?”
“What do you mean, what is it? It’s Christmas pudding, of course!” Katie grinned. “How can you never have had Christmas pudding before?”
“Mmm.” Rhema hesitated, then said, “I don’t really celebrate Christmas. At least, my mother doesn’t.”
Katie sat down beside her. “You don’t celebrate Christmas? How is that possible?”
“It’s a bit hard to explain. For one thing, you know I’m from Shenkuu, and Christmas isn’t so important there. But that’s not only it. My mother doesn’t even care much about the Lunar Festival. She thinks that, like Christmas, it’s just another time to waste money, and that all the decorations and that sort of thing aren’t important.”
The Cybunny’s mouth fell open.
Rhema sighed. “It’s just the way we live, and Christmas is just another day to me. But sometimes — I kind of get the feeling that I’m missing out.”
“I definitely would,” Katie said. “Seriously? So you don’t get Christmas presents?”
“I can’t even begin to imagine that. Isn’t it... lonely? Sad?”
The honest answer? “Yes. All the time. I’d just like to be able to... celebrate. You know? Have fun. Maybe get presents. Even though I’ve never experienced it myself, and don’t know what I’m missing out on... it would be nice if I could do something Christmassy.”
Katie nodded. “I definitely would. If that was the way... gosh, I’d be all like, where are my presents? And you don’t even complain! You didn’t say anything about it before now!” She paused. “Rhema... tell you what, I’m going to make sure you get at least something this Christmas. Do you want to come with me to the carol singing?”
“But I don’t know any carols,” Rhema said.
“Doesn’t matter, there will be books with the words.”
There was no way she was going to pass it up, then. “All right! I’ll come with you.” Finally — her first chance to taste what it was like to experience Christmas!
“Whoa. This is more popular than I thought.” Katie scanned the crowd. “Look — Emma’s there! And Brett! Hey, guys!” She slipped through the throng of Neopets with carol books, calling out their names.
Rhema looked around. “Katie? Katie?” That girl could disappear so quickly in the blink of an eye!
It was a familiar voice, but it didn’t belong to Katie. Rhema couldn’t quite place it, but she turned around, and found herself facing her old teacher — Miss Hart, a young Speckled Acara with glasses.
“Hello, Rhema. You’re singing carols today, too?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“I’ve never seen you here before. Why have you never come? All the Christmas gatherings — you’ve never been at any one of them.”
Rhema nodded. “It’s because... well... I don’t really get to celebrate Christmas.”
She thought she would have to explain more, but Miss Hart seemed to understand immediately. She said, “Lack of money and enthusiasm, is it?”
“Pretty much. I just always want to be able to get presents, sit by a Christmas tree, eat a Christmas dinner, hang up streamers and that sort of thing. To celebrate.”
Miss Hart smiled. “Celebrate, is it? That’s interesting, how you look at it.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s... well... first of all, Rhema, you know that Christmas is really called the Day of Giving, right?”
Rhema’s expression clouded. “Um... I think so. I might have heard it somewhere.”
“You don’t hear it often anymore. Nowadays, it’s all about Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. Me getting presents, me getting to eat turkey. I am definitely not saying it’s a bad thing — I celebrate myself, putting up tinsel and lights. But that’s not what Christmas is truly about. It’s about giving.”
“Giving.” It was almost strange to think of it now, after she had shown her determination to be a part of the seasonal festivities. Christmas was about giving. But had she ever given anything on the day? “I don’t have any money to spend to give someone a present.”
Miss Hart shook her head. “Rhema, material things aren’t the only presents you can give. It’s about —”
She was cut off that moment as music sounded up from a short distance away. All the Neopets quietened. They looked down at their carol books. Rhema did too, and sung along with everyone else:
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
And a Happy New Year.
Good tidings we bring,
To you and your kin.
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
And a Happy New Year.”
The music continued to play while the Neopets paused in their singing. Rhema looked at the different words on the carol book, then up at the picture above it.
A family of Pteris were sitting around a table together. They were all smiling and laughing. Presents sat on the table, half-unwrapped, but...
They weren’t really giving each other presents. That wasn’t what ‘giving’ meant. And the Day of Giving meant more than just Christmas celebrations, too. Rhema looked around at Miss Hart, and smiled. The smile had too much unspoken feelings through it for her teacher to not know that she had understood.
The Day of Giving wasn’t about ‘wasting money’, as her mother had put it. Nor was it about prettying everything up, hanging tinsel around. It wasn’t even about getting into the Christmas spirit. It was about giving everyone friendship and support, about wishing others a happy Christmas, and to sing — whether literally or internally — to the joy of this one day in the year.
And celebrating the Day of Giving? An image had already formed in Rhema’s mind. An image of her inviting Katie and Emma into her house, just for a little while, of her talking and laughing with them, not a string of lights in sight. Giving them warmth and friendship and companionship — that was the true way to celebrate the Day of Giving.