THE CHRISTMAS COUNCIL OF THE WINTER FOLK
IT was the night before Christmas Eve. Ruth lay tucked in her warm bed on the sleeping-porch, watching the round, yellow moon shine through the pine branches.
She heard the big North Wind booming through the trees, sounding for all the world like waves breaking on the beach at the seashore. What was it saying? She pulled the downy quilt away from her ear.
"Woo-oo winter come to-morrow woo-oo come," it roared, rushing past.
"I wonder who North Wind is talking to, and where it wants them to come," Ruth said aloud. The Wind was far off by this time.
"Whee he's talking to me to you to-whoo to me to you," whined a voice from the nearest branch of the pine.
Ruth recognized her friend the Screech Owl, who about dusk every night flitted out of the woods.
"'To me to you?'" repeated Ruth. "Where are we to come?"
"I'll tell you, Ruth." The Fluffy Owl drifted nearer. "To the Christmas Council of the Winter Folk. On Christmas Eve those of us who are awake in the woods gather under the Mossy Oak. It is then, when the old year is almost over, that we report what we have done for the Great Spirit."
"You mean God?" asked Ruth.
"Yes; we call him the Great Spirit. Come at sunset tomorrow to the Mossy Oak, and you shall hear more.
Christmas Eve was still and cold. One bright star hung in the West high above the sunset glow, and in the East the pale moon wheeled over the horizon. As Ruth approached the Mossy Oak she heard a merry chatter of little squeaks and chirps. "Zip zip room on that twig for me?" "Well, Bun, how's your fur this year? I never felt mine thicker!" "Nuts all stored, Reddy?" "Squeak! Keep off my whiskers, please."
At first Ruth could not see a single animal or bird, though there was plenty of light. Then a brilliant red Cardinal flashed out of the bushes to the topmost twig of the Oak, and his whistle rang out clear and loud as a boy's.
"That's the signal for the Christmas Council to begin," explained a familiar voice just above Ruth's head, and she looked up at the little bunch of feathers and big round eyes of Screech Owl.
A large bird flapped softly into the branches of the Oak, and instantly the squeaks and murmurs were hushed.
"Mr. Barn Owl, President of the Council," whispered Screech Owl.
"Birds, mice, squirrels, bunnies and all other wood folk," began, the Barn Owl in a loud, rasping voice, "The last leaves have fallen, the last of our brothers who sleep away the winter have crawled into their warm holes, frogs and turtles have burrowed into the mud, only we who watch through the frozen months of winter are awake on Christmas Eve. First, I will call on the birds. Snowbird, what have you done, in the year that is past, for the Great Spirit?"
A sleek little gray bird with white tail feathers flitted from a bush, and Ruth saw that he was a Snowbird.
"I have raised a beautiful family of four snowbirds," he chirped. "My wife and I have taught them to eat the seeds of weeds that grow on the edges of gardens. Together we have eaten quantities of seeds, and there will not be as many weeds because of us. This we have done for the Great Spirit." As he plunged back into the bushes his family twittered in chorus, "Yes, seeds seeds seeds!"
"Good!" cried the Barn Owl. "Nuthatch, what have you done for the Great Spirit?"
A curious little bird walked head-first down the trunk of the Oak Tree as easily as a fly walks down the wall. He stopped, still clinging to the rough bark with his toes, and answered as though he were talking through his nose:
"Yank yank! I have searched in all the cracks of the apple-tree trunks and branches for worms and bugs that would spoil the fruit. The orchard had more fair and beautiful apples because I ate their enemies. This I have done. Yank yank!"
"Good!" said the Barn Owl. And one after another he called the Cardinal, the Chickadee, the Crow, and other winter birds, large and small. Ruth had no idea that so many feathered friends stayed North through the bitter cold. Each told of his service for the Great Spirit.
"Now we come to the furry folk," cried the Barn Owl.
"They are a little afraid of him," whispered Screech Owl to Ruth.
"Rabbit," called the big Owl, and, with upright ears and quivering nose, Brown Bunny hopped under the Mossy Oak.
"I and my seven baby Buns," began the Rabbit, "have eaten "
"The farmer's lettuce " squawked a mischievous Red Squirrel from overhead.
The Rabbit thumped his strong hind feet indignantly on the frozen earth. "Yes, we may have nibbled a few leaves of lettuce or beans the farmer had rows of them in his garden. But this good we have done for the Great Spirit: we have searched for the broad-leaved plantain and dock that grow on the lawn, crowding and killing out the delicate blades of grass. We have eaten the flat leaves of these pests, so that the grass could grow. This we have done."
"It is good, in spite of the lettuce," said the Barn Owl, as Bunny hopped back to the edge of the circle.
The Star in the West shone brighter and the glow had faded to dull red. Two tiny Mice squeaked forth their report from under a tuft of dead brown grass. The Red Squirrel chattered from the branches, and even a Mole put his head through a hole in a soft bit of ground and told of having eaten cutworms that destroy the roots of garden plants.
The moon flooded the Mossy Oak with silvery light. The Barn Owl cried once more, "The furred and feathered folk of woods and fields have spoken. Are there other voices?"
For a moment there was breathless silence under the Mossy Oak. Then Ruth barely distinguished all around her a murmur as of thousands of muffled voices speaking together, each one so tiny that alone it could not have been heard.
"The Buds on trees, bushes and plants," explained the Screech Owl close to Ruth's ear.
"This we have done," murmured the voices of Buds. "All through the summer we have worked. From the rain and sunshine we have made the beginnings of leaves and flowers. We have packed them safe and tight inside scaly blankets, so that North Wind rattling among the branches can do them no harm. When the sun is warm and spring has come again, we will swell, burst open our scaly blankets, and the world will grow green and flowery once more. This we have done for the Great Spirit."
The Barn Owl turned toward Ruth. For the first time he appeared to notice that she was there.
"Little girl," he said, "you see each has done what he could to serve the Great Spirit who cares for all. Have you anything to say?"
Ruth sat thinking for a moment. These little wood folk had accomplished so much more than she that she felt ashamed. She remembered how often she had been cross and objected to doing the things her mother had asked of her. At last she said:
"Mr. Barn Owl, I have tried to be a good girl, but I have often failed. Next year I will do better."