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The Wild Side: A Christmas Eve to remember

By Scott Shalaway
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Everyone has special Christmas memories. This is one of mine (first published in 2008).It was the night before Christmas about 20 years ago. Nora was barely 10 years old, and Emma was still dreaming of kindergarten. We had just gotten home from a Christmas Eve church service.About two inches of snow had fallen the day before, and it was cold, about 25 degrees, so a white Christmas seemed assured. All that remained was a long winter's nap, but the girls were too excited to sleep.My wife, Linda, suggested we take a walk in the woods. "That will tire the girls out so maybe we can at least sleep until dawn," she hoped. "Besides, the moon is bright. With the snow on the ground it really does give a 'luster of midday to objects below.'"The girls thought it was a great idea. "Maybe we'll hear the animals talk," Emma suggested. "Mom says on Christmas Eve animals can talk." Nora smiled a big-sister smile.So we bundled up and followed our favorite trail. About a half-mile later we came to a huge fallen tree, a favorite rest stop. "Let's just sit for a few minutes," I said.It was a gorgeous night. Chilly, but not too cold. The air was still, the sky crystal clear. A thousand stars winked and blinked. The moon was so bright it cast shadows from the tall white oak trees that surrounded us. A pair of great horned owls dueted in the distance, a reminder that the beginning of the nesting season was just a month away.As we watched and listened, a breeze picked up and blew flakes off the snow-covered branches above. Though the sky remained clear, it seemed to be snowing -- on Christmas Eve.After about 15 minutes, our feet began to get cold. The thought of hot chocolate and a few cookies was too much to resist. So we got up and headed back to the house. We hadn't taken two steps when we all heard a distinctive, high-pitched sound."What was that?" Emma asked.
"I don't know," Nora answered. "Maybe the animals are starting to talk," she added with a sly grin.Before I thought better of it, I almost spoiled the moment. "I think we're hearing flying squirrels. They have high-pitched voices," I explained. "I know they live in the woods. Remember, we found a few nests in the chickadee boxes last spring."In the brightness of the moonshine, I confirmed my suspicions. All around us a half-dozen flying squirrels jumped from tree to tree. As they sailed, the flaps of skin that run from ankle to wrist billowed with air, and the fliers glided skillfully from one tree to the next.Upon landing, they instantly scurried to the back side of the tree trunk -- just in case a owl was in hot pursuit.
Linda and Nora saw the movement too, but just as I was about to point it out to Emma, she exclaimed, "Those aren't animal sounds, they're elves!" She was still focused on the squeaky noises we had heard moments earlier.Now I faced a dilemma. Do I grab the teachable moment, or do I go for holiday magic? I opted for magic because I knew we could see flying squirrels another time."What are you talking about, Emma?" I asked. "What elves?""Santa's elves. I don't know why they're in the woods, but we need to get back home, and I need to get to bed," she explained.Emma took off up the trail like a fox on the run. It was all we could do to keep up. By the time we got back to the house, we were exhausted.After a cookie and a quick cup of hot chocolate, Emma put on her nightie and jumped into bed. Her cheeks were still rosy and cold.
Before I even opened our dog-eared copy of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," she was sound asleep. It was a Christmas Eve to remember.Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033, or by email at
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