Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: “A Wedding”

It was a fine, warm day in summer when the dove appeared. Suzie had been sitting by herself on a park bench, quietly reading, and then suddenly a flap of wings caught her notice. No sooner was the bird there then it flapped away, but left on Suzie’s lap was a torn-off piece of thick creamy parchment.

You are invited to a wedding, Winslow Forest Preserve, 5 o’clock today.

Well now, that was strange, wasn’t it? Suzie had never been invited to a wedding by bird, much less a wedding without a named bride and groom, or bride and bride or groom and groom or whatever combination of people was about to take vows. She made to crumble the thing up and toss it in the rubbish bin—but something stayed her hand. A curiosity? No, a compulsion. Now that she had read this note, she couldn’t put it out of her mind. She even tried using it as a bookmark and returning to her reading, but across her mind it would blip, over and over, You are invited to a wedding, Winslow Forest Preserve, 5 o’clock today.

“Well, this is silly,” Suzie told herself. “I’ll just go.” Five o’clock was only half an hour away and she sat, incidentally, in the manicured park that abutted the forest preserve. She wasn’t dressed for a wedding, in her stretchy black pants, blouse, and flats, but then, if her hosts wanted her dressed appropriately, they should have sent the message hours ago, and perhaps by e-mail.

Dog-earring her book, Suzie marched across the turf towards the forest path, oblivious to the other park-goers having their pleasures. The grass felt springy and light beneath her shoes, and she had the sudden urge to remove them, so she did. My, she was having strange fancies today. But the grass was lush as a carpet to her bare feet, and even the path, when she gained it, only a little gravelly and coarse.

She walked along into the forest. It was more luscious than she had ever seen it, thick green algae carpeting fallen logs, branches clustered close with shiny green leaves, wildflowers peeking up between the brambles. A heady scent soon had her feeling calm and comfortable, even as she diverted from the forest path and made her own way into the depths of the forest. Where was she going? Well, her feet seemed to know, so she followed them, even as the tiniest blip of a warning signal buzzed in her brain, alerting her that something strange was going on.

She lost her book somewhere in the process of climbing over a fallen tree. “Oh bother,” she said, but didn’t mind it much. It wasn’t a terribly compelling book, and she could always get another. She continued to scramble with bare feet and hands over fallen logs, through questionable patches of plants, until she seemed to be in quite an old part of the forest. The trees here scraped the sky and their girth could have accommodated a small car, and between them it was all lush thick foliage, fiddle ferns and other primordial plants. Suzie was just despairing of growing lost when she caught a glow out of the corner of her eye.

At last! The wedding! Suzie clamored towards the glow and found herself very suddenly in a clearing hung with fairy lights. Two sections of chairs had been fitted up for the guests, leaving a central aisle studded with wildflowers. A tinkling music lilted over the crowd from seemingly nowhere.

And what a crowd it was! There was a shirtless man with a faun’s legs; a woman adorned in rushes and reeds, dripping as though she had just emerged from a pond; a person with skin the color and texture of river rocks. And more, until Suzie realized she was staring and that she should take her seat; it was almost five o’clock, and the wedding would be beginning. She chose the left side, and sat primly next to a lady in a mouldering wedding gown. Well, now, that was a bit of a faux pas, wasn’t it? At least Suzie was wearing black.

Just as Suzie’s watch buzzed the hour against her wrist, the music crescendoed and floated into the familiar wedding march. When Suzie wasn’t paying attention, a man had appeared at the end of the aisle. He would have seemed ordinary, except for his pointed ears and unusual attire, a black suit that could have been comfortable in a museum, covered in cobwebs, and black lip stain that emphasized the pallor of his skin. He stood in wait next to a man with antlers who seemed to be playing the role of priest. My, what interesting costumes! Suzie wished she’d had advanced notice. She loved to play dress-up.

Then from the midst of the forest came the lady. She was radiant in a white gown studded with the palest pink flowers, roses and rhododendrons, whose train, when she reached the front, covered the length of the aisle. She too had pointed ears and creamy-pale skin that set off long strawberry blond tresses. Glittering dust gave her skin an intense luster that had Suzie blushing in her seat.

She and the cobweb man looked into each other’s eyes as though no other people existed in the world.

The man with the antlers announced, “My friends, we are gathered here today to witness the union of Celestine and Noxfern. May their blessings be many, their troubles few, and their table always full.”

The antlered man took from his pockets a length of scarf that he used to tie together the forearms of Celestine and Noxfern.

“May the gods grant legitimacy to their union and luck to their life!”

The guests clapped, so Suzie clapped too. She seemed to come back into her body; the wedding had transfixed her.

The antlered man beckoned with a hand. “Susan Price, please approach the front. Our special, our honored guest.”

Me? Suzie mouthed, and when the antlered man nodded, she quickly left her seat and tripped up to the front, where Celestine and Noxfern were smiling beatifically. The bride and groom bared sharp, pointed teeth.

Said the groom, “Ah, my dear, here has arrived our dinner.”

Then they lunged.

BY @sarcasmlemons

Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: “Cinnamongate”

I love traditions, especially around the winter holidays. Until I met Fredrik, my silent assassin, kills you with kindness, more tattoos on him than a Victorian noblewoman, Norse hunk of sugar and spice–I thought I had a fairly good grasp on what Christmas was all about. I wrongfully assumed it was mostly the same everywhere. I mean, it is, sort of, but the devil is in the details.

Isn’t it always.

One of the more surreal things about a Swedish Christmas–or Jul, let’s be fair, no one calls it Christmas up here–has got to be the Eve itself. Julafton, December 24th, is the culmination of an entire month of preparation.

There are advent candles everywhere, but don’t you dare light them all at once or you’ll be excommunicated; sweet saffron bread, some with almonds, most with raisins; pepper cookies, mistranslated as gingerbread because both contain ginger; more spices than you can shake a cinnamon stick at; a decorated tree, potentially involving angels, but not necessarily; Every December 13th, children dress up to celebrate Saint Lucia with singing, wearing candle wreaths and long white robes.

Ham roast prepared with mustard and cloves; julegröt obliterated by powdered cinnamon and sugar, devoured for breakfast, lunch or dinner; and the Yuletide cousin of the smorgasbord, the julbord, groaning under the weight of all the weird and wonderful treats of the season. Come Julafton, you’ve had so many julbord already you should be sick of the stuff, but it still feels special on the day.

However, this isn’t a story about Jul in general, but my very first one. The time I almost irreversibly transplanted my foot to my mouth over something as (I thought) inconsequential as spice.

One of the most stressful things in anyone’s life is going to meet the family of the person they love more than anything in the world. Right? The pressure to, maybe not outright impress the parents, but at least leave them with the overall conclusion that you’re a good person. Reflect well on their adult child and their ability to make adult life choices. I think we can all agree on that.

Now, imagine, if you may, how to make it worse. You’re off to see your boyfriend’s family, parents and all, in a foreign country. Daunting! But there’s more.

A foreign country, over the Holidays.

More specifically, Christmas. In a country that doesn’t even call it Christmas.

Sweden, in December. I was about to experience juletid, not as in neopaganism, but an actual, modern Jul: and all the pitfalls associated with unfamiliar traditions.

So. First time I met the parents, we made it there the night before December 24th, as in Christmas Eve. I knew they celebrate a day early by my standards, but although Fredrik told me it was more about the food and the ornaments than anything outright religious, I really didn’t know what to expect. His confidence made me feel less apprehensive, but only by a very slight margin. Apparently, people weren’t all that religious, and especially not over ‘Jul.’

Fredrik even went so far as to say the religious schtick was mostly window dressing, an excuse to carry on with the ‘old traditions,’ whatever that meant. Altars? Winter solstice blood sacrifices? Not so much. I’d tried my hand at research. I know my way around a search bar or two. Saffron in pastries was one of the weirder stuff I’d found. More spices, and in quantities I didn’t expect of Viking country. Cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg, cardamom, hot mustard. But, as I was about to find out sooner than later, nothing could’ve prepared me for the genuine article.

As we stood outside the door in a cookie cutter neighbourhood barely decorated by US standards, everything covered in snow, Fredrik gave me a final flurry of advice.

“If you get the almond in the rice pudding–porridge–tomorrow morning, don’t just eat it. Announce it to the room. It’s good luck.”

And, “Don’t pick the raisins from the saffron buns. Bad form, bad manners.”

And, “Dad insists on lutfisk every year, don’t ask me why, but if you have to try it, go bananas with the sauce. It’s the only edible thing on the plate, including the potatoes.”

But the most important thing, out of all the very many things he said, was this: “Whatever you do, when we have breakfast–don’t forget the cinnamon.”

Ominous as it sounded, I didn’t dwell on it. Surely he was kidding. He’d never been one to care how or what people ate, for whatever reason. I don’t particularly enjoy the stuff, and it’s never been a problem in the past. I figured, to my own detriment, that it was #NoBigDeal.

Mom and Dad, Harry and Agneta, both wore understated knitted sweaters with Norwegian style snowflake motif. They greeted us at the door, with bright smiles and firm handshakes from Mom and a bear hug from Dad, everything was sunshine and happy days. The aroma of strong coffee permeated the small house from decades of shameless caffeine addiction. Coffee, candle wax, and the obligatory pork roast lovingly prepared on this, the night before the big day.

We sat in the living room, getting acquainted, while Dad proceeded to stuff me with a lifetime of treats I’d ‘missed out on,’ and Mom looked embarrassed on his behalf. We talked about work, and the weather, and traditions: Dad talking about Christmas as one big amalgamation of global culture. A national treasure, the Christmas tree, but ultimately imported goods. Just like Santa.

“Yes, we have the bearded man in the red suit,” Dad told me with a twinkling in his eye. “But we also have the Yule gnome. They’ve morphed into the same entity over the years, strangely enough. And every year, we perpetuate the charade that he’s brought Christmas presents. I blame Disney. And Coke! They invented Santa, you know!”

“Oh, Harry,” said Mom with a genteel smile. “We set out rice porridge for Jultomten on the porch every year, too, so he won’t go hungry. It’s a big night, delivering all those presents.”

Again with the rice porridge. I didn’t say anything about cookies or milk, because I had a sense this was a moment where all I had to do was sit back, listen, and soak up the Yuletide spirit. Jultomten, I was beginning to realize, was a different beast than Santa Claus. By the end of the evening, spent playing Bingolotto until midnight, I’d had so much coffee and spiced treats I couldn’t sleep.

Me and Fredrik slept in the sofa bed downstairs, right there in the living room with the Christmas tree. If Santa left something under the tree, he’d have to’ve pulled a Mission Impossible on us, because I was wide awake for the most part, trying to sort through all the conflicting information about Swedish table manners, Yuletide traditions, what to eat and how. Fredrik reassured me I’d be fine, and I chose to believe him, spending most of the night listening to his soft snores and the gurglings of my own, overstuffed stomach.

Come morning we gathered at the kitchen table in our pajamas and robes. I’d ‘ve worn a hat indoors if I didn’t care about being polite, it was so cold. A pot filled to the brim with coffee shared the space with a carton of milk, and a porcelain dish groaning under the weight of the biggest roast ham I’d ever seen. Next to it sat my Nemesis: the silkiest, fluffiest white rice concoction you could imagine. Dotted around the table were tiny porcelain figures, of little bearded men in blue or gray vests and red pointy hats.

Dad ladled out the stuff, proudly announcing he’d whipped the cream by hand. Mom carved the ham, and Fredrik was already scraping butter over a wedge of crisp bread.

Dessert and sandwiches for breakfast, what a concept.

Between the milk and the porridge, the ham and hot mustard open sandwich (which Fredrik said was a must), and the tiny little porcelain men in somewhat lewd poses staring up at me, I committed what is possibly the greatest sin of all.

Not being queer.

Not wearing mixed fabrics.

Not having meat on a Friday.

Dear reader. I forgot all about the importance of cinnamon.

For about ten seconds, I sat there sampling the strange mix of foodstuffs, thinking no wonder the Swedes love their spices if everything has a sweet/salty flavor profile, until I glanced up at Harry and Agneta. Such polite, friendly, hospitable people, I thought, now replaced by their doppelgangers. Like in that movie. They looked exactly the same, but pale, void of the warmth I’d already come to associate with them. Harry’s eyes were blank chasms, Agneta went paler than the porridge, and my only saving grace was I didn’t know any better.

Fredrik, unsung hero that he is, knocked over the powdered cinnamon right on top of my bowl, obliterating my pristine porridge, and in doing so, kicked up a cloud that covered the entire table. Once the coughing subsided and the bark-brown mists cleared, all was back to normal. Agneta aimed at a polite smile and delicately sipped her coffee; Harry cleared his throat, saying no problem. They had another 470 grams of the stuff.

Crisis averted, we could all go back to initiating me into the weird and wonderful phenomenon of Julafton, including the nation-wide, practically obligatory viewing of an episode of Disney’s The Wonderful World of Disney from the 1950s. Santa’s workshop mingling with Donald Duck trying desperately to take photographs of birds in the wilderness, Goofy’s chaotic attempt to steer a caravan down a mountain, and Robin Hood making an appearance right along Jiminy Cricket, Snow White, and Pluto–engaged as always in a bitter feud with Chip and Dale. No one opens any presents until it’s over, and it doesn’t even start until 3 P.M.

So, what I learned from that first Christmas in Sweden, at my darling Fredrik’s parents’ house, is that the holidays, no matter your religion or lack thereof, are about celebration and cherishing the people we love. It’s about family and friends, in whatever shape or size they come. But in Sweden, Jul is more than anything else about the food, and the treats, and the baking: preparing for the big eve. The otherworldly takes second place. It’s about tradition. Love, compassion, and understanding. From All of Us to All of You.

As long as you remember to put cinnamon on your porridge.

BY @CollideWords

Masterlist (of stories) from Santa’s Secret Pen ’21

I first had this idea on a ferry back home from a five-day vacation to Norway in late November, and I prepared everything while on the ferry, setting up the calls on social media, creating the application form, and figuring out the deadlines and logistics of the event. The concept was, of course, a swap of stories where you gave a prompt and got a prompt. I never thought it would actually be a success, with enough participants than I had expected, especially given the short application timeline, so I am very honored and excited to present to you…


DAUGHTER OF THE RISING TIDE by @sarahwriteaway


BENEATH NOVEMBER SKIES by @dancing_bardess

UNKNOWN NUMBER by @pearlgreylatte

SNOW CAMP by @SeBaran





TIME FOR MAGIC by @AdriaBailton



I WISH TO LIVE by @AlexanderDSoSo

CINNAMONGATE by @CollideWords

A WEDDING by @sarcasmlemons

(the list will be updated gradually as I receive more prompts in the coming days)