:: what christmas means to me ::

What Christmas Means To Me was written in 2005 for “Tales Of The Glories” – it was essentially an advent calendar of Christmas-themed hanfics organised by another hanfic author, Eve. It was my first story to feature the second generation of Hansons – in this case, Taylor’s daughter Penelope.

Winter in England. Ugh.

At that moment, shuffling along the snow-lined footpaths at Roseglen College, that was the sole thought on my mind.

Well, maybe not the sole thought. There was also my current dilemma – finding a place to stay over Christmas break. It mattered not that I was an international student, Roseglen closed its doors a week before Christmas and didn’t reopen until the beginning of January. Unless I was able to talk a fellow freshman into allowing an American drama student to crash on their living room floor during the upcoming break, it was going to be a very lonely Christmas for yours truly.

I had last seen my family at the end of August, which was the price I had paid for choosing to go to college overseas. Why I hadn’t followed the lead of my older brother and attended college closer to home, I still wasn’t sure, and had spent almost every free moment of my first week at college wishing I had gone down that path. This was the first time since my arrival in Manchester that I’d had any doubts, and I wasn’t yet sure if it was because of the upcoming holiday season that those doubts were resurrecting themselves, or if it was my mind playing tricks on me. No matter the cause, I needed to deal with them – and fast.

“Audrey, can I talk to you? Just for a moment?”

My flame-haired neighbour looked up from the book she was leafing through; it looked suspiciously like the textbook that all first-year drama students at Roseglen were required to have a basic working knowledge of, titled The Drama Handbook: A Guide to Reading Plays. “Sure,” she agreed, and I sank down on the couch next to her. “What’s up?”

“It’s just…I’m starting to wonder if it’s really worth it.”

Audrey cocked her head to one side. “What do you mean?”

I sighed and looked down at my hands. I had painted my nails red and green last night, partly to reflect the upcoming holiday season, but mostly as a deterrent. The idea was that if my nails looked nice, I wouldn’t be tempted to shove my fingers in my mouth for a nibble. It was obvious that it hadn’t worked – my nails, which had previously been long enough to be mildly annoying, had been bitten short once more, and the nail polish was chipped and starting to flake off.

“My family is back in America. This is my first Christmas away from them, and I really miss them, more than I would if Christmas wasn’t coming up.” I leaned forward and propped my elbows up on my knees. “I’m not entirely sure it’s worth going to college here, when my family is so far away. I mean, if I was back home, I could just hop in my car and drive back to New York if I wanted to see my family, but I’m here, and they’re there.”

Audrey sighed. “Ellie, everyone feels like that at one time or another. I should know – I went on exchange to Japan during secondary school, and I missed my family every second that I was away. But you know what? It was the best year of my life.”

“You were only away for a year, Aud. I’m stuck here for three years.” I looked at Audrey. “Tell me honestly – is this really worth it?”

Audrey smiled wryly. “I can’t tell you that. You have to decide that for yourself, I’m afraid.”

“I was hoping you wouldn’t say that.” I cast my gaze around the common area of Western Green Hall, which was already decked out with garlands of fairy lights, strings of tinsel, and electric candles in each of the windows. A towering fir tree stood in the corner nearest the fireplace, decorated with tinsel and lights, and topped off with a silver five-pointed star. “Audrey, if I can’t find a place to stay during break, would it be okay for me to crash at your place?”

“I’d love you to, but my family is going to Ireland to visit my grandparents this Christmas.” Audrey gave me an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, Ellie.”

I sighed. “Oh well. I suppose I’ll find something soon enough.”

I wandered back to my room not long after Audrey and I had finished our little chat, sitting down at my desk and tapping through to my inbox. I had fifty new emails, something that wasn’t all that surprising. Making a mental note to go through them later on, I started typing out a new email.

Hey everyone,

Sorry I haven’t written in a while, but school has been a nightmare to say the very least. The weather is the worst part. But Christmas break is coming up, so I will finally have a bit of time to myself. Speaking of which, I’m getting kicked out of halls over break, and when I’ve found a place to crash I’ll let you know, so you can call me or something.

I miss you all loads. I can’t believe how long it’s been since I saw you all. I am enjoying college, but I have started to wish that I was going to school in the States, so that I could come home if I wanted or needed to. I suppose I brought it on myself, didn’t I? Oh well – I can’t exactly back out now. It’ll probably get better soon enough – here’s hoping, anyway.

I’d better go – I want to head over to the international office before it closes and see if they’ve got any places to let over break. Talk to you soon.



PS: If you could pass this on to Ez, that’d be great – the idiot still hasn’t bothered to give me his college email address.

I sent the email and leaned back in my seat, staring up at the large framed photograph that hung above my desk. It had been taken not long before my departure from New York – my parents and older brother stood at the back, and my sister, my two younger brothers and I were at the front.

I was the second-oldest of five children and the oldest girl. Ezra, my oldest brother, was twenty-one and a student at the Juilliard School, with plans of becoming a music teacher sometime in the future. Ava, my only sister, was sixteen and attended a boarding school in West Virginia; my two younger brothers, Joshua and Michael, were both home-schooled. Of all my siblings, I was the closest with Ava – I supposed that the fact that, apart from our mother of course, we were the only two girls in our family had something to do with it.

After I had emailed Ava, I grabbed my thick winter coat from where it hung off of the back of my desk chair and shrugged it on, buttoning it as I headed out into the corridor.

“Excuse me.”

The young woman seated behind the desk in the international office looked up from her computer. “Oh, hello; how can I help you?” she asked.

“I was wondering if you had any places to rent out over Christmas break.”

“Just let me check the computer.” She started tapping away at the keyboard, her long fingernails clicking against the keys. “I’m sorry, all our holiday places have been filled.”

“Oh, okay.” I shoved my hands further into my pockets. “Is there anywhere else I could stay? Like a youth hostel or something like that?”

“Hold on.” She resumed her tapping. “Yes, there’s a few places open at the youth hostel down in Castlefield; I could book you a place if you like.”

“That would be great.”

She nodded and smiled, beginning to tap away again. “Your name, please.”

“Penelope Hanson.”

Five minutes later, I was back outside, my arms wrapped tightly around myself in a concerted attempt to block out the biting cold. My nose was already nearly numb, and my ears were well on the way there. The sun had started its descent, staining the sky pink and orange, and an icy breeze had picked up, whipping my hair about as I hurried back to Western Green Hall.

Audrey was still sitting in the same spot where I had left her over half an hour earlier, though she now had a steaming mug of what I guessed to be coffee in one hand, and a page of the latest issue of Cosmopolitan in the other. “So did you find somewhere to stay over break?” she asked.

I sat down beside her and pulled my coat off. “Yeah. I’ve got a spot booked at the youth hostel down in Castlefield.”

Audrey snapped her gaze to me. “You have to be kidding me,” she said. “Ellie, you’re rich – you could stay at the Lowry if you really wanted to, and you’re staying at a youth hostel? You are insane, my girl – absolutely insane.”

“No, I’m a student, one who wants to be just like everyone else. And if that means staying at a youth hostel over Christmas, then I will take that over staying in some obscenely overpriced hotel any day of the week.”

Audrey shook her head and sipped her coffee. “Like I said, you’re insane. So what now?”

“I’m going to email my parents and tell them where I’ll be staying, and then I need to find somewhere to dump all my stuff when I get kicked out. I doubt that I’m going to need a year’s worth of clothes and books where I’m staying.”

“Probably not.” Audrey turned another page in her magazine. “I do wish you could stay with me over break, Ellie; I really do.”

“Yeah, I know you do – I know. Maybe next year, if I’m still living in halls. Who knows, I might have my own place by then.”

“Who knows indeed.” Audrey drained the rest of the coffee from her mug and set it down on the floor. “So are you looking forward to Christmas, even though your family can’t be with you?”

I shrugged and looked out the window opposite to where Audrey and I sat. “I suppose. At least I’ll have a roof over my head.”

“That’s true.” Audrey nodded, and closed her magazine. “Well Ellie, if I don’t talk to or see you before I leave, merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas Audrey.”

“So what are you guys doing for Christmas?”

“Oh, the usual. I don’t think I’ll be going to the midnight service this year, though. Or any of us, really.”

“Oh? Why not?” I switched my cell phone to my other ear and stared up at the ceiling of the hostel room I was sharing with a girl from Denmark; Ava was on the other end of the phone line. It was early in the evening on Christmas Eve. The hostel, for what it was, wasn’t really that bad – it was warm, the bed I was sleeping in was comfortable, and I wasn’t about to be kicked out on my ass anytime soon.

“No particular reason.”

“Don’t give me that. I doubt Mom and Dad would let you get out of church all for ‘no particular reason’.”

“You’d be surprised, Ellie. Especially when one of those reasons includes seeing your only sister, who you haven’t seen since August.”

“What are you talking about, Ava?” I asked as I sat up. “You’re not here, are you?”

“Come out here and see for yourself.” A click, and the engaged tone sounded in my ear.

Frowning, I hung up and got up off of my bed, slipping my phone into my pocket as I walked out of my room and through the hostel. It was unusually quiet; I supposed that most of the residents had gone out for the evening. Strands of flashing coloured lights had been strung up along the walls, intertwined with garlands of red and green tinsel. As I entered the main lounge area, I saw that a medium-sized Christmas tree had been set up in a corner and decorated in red and green tinsel, silver icicles, more lights and a gold six-pointed star. Soft Christmas music was being played over the hostel’s sound system.

Upon exiting the hostel, I was met with a blast of frigid air, and I cursed – how had I been so stupid as to forget my jacket? It was absolutely freezing outside, and here I was in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt with a T-shirt over the top, and sneakers. “I really am blonde,” I muttered.


I looked up at the sound of my name, and saw Ava standing on the footpath outside the walls. A green woollen beanie was pulled down over her dark blonde hair, which had been pulled back into two neat plaited pigtails. “Ava?” I asked as I walked down the path from the front door. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, hello to you too,” Ava said, sounding vaguely hurt. “Can’t a girl visit her sister every once in a while?”

“Well, yeah…but shouldn’t you be at school?” I saw that she was standing next to a dark blue station wagon, and I frowned. “How did you get here, anyway? I mean, after you so obviously flew over here. The last time I checked, you didn’t have your licence.”

Ava grinned, before tapping on one of the tinted, wound-up windows of the car with the gloved knuckles of her right hand. The window slid down with a soft hiss, and my older brother poked his head out. “What’s this about you calling me an idiot?” he asked, a cheeky grin on his face.

I rolled my eyes, holding back a chuckle, before running to the car; Ezra had just gotten out of the driver’s seat when I jumped at him. “Whoa, easy there sis,” he said, laughter in his voice. “I missed you too.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” I asked as Ava joined in the embrace.

“We wanted it to be a surprise,” Ava replied, shrugging. “Besides which, we didn’t think we could get in contact with you to tell you.”

“Go get your stuff,” Ezra said. I raised an eyebrow at him, and he rolled his eyes. “Did you really think we’d come all the way out here, and then leave you on your own for Christmas?” He shook his head, chuckling in amusement. “I really wonder about you sometimes.”

“Oh, be quiet,” I shot back. “C’mon Ava; I don’t have much to pack, but I’m going to need an extra pair of hands to get it all out here.” Ava nodded and followed me inside.

In almost no time at all, I had packed up my backpack, suitcase and laptop case, and Ava helped me drag it all out to the hostel foyer. She settled herself onto a nearby couch and pulled off her gloves, examining her fingernails as I paid my bill and got a refund on what would have been the rest of my stay. That done, I tucked my wallet into my backpack and shrugged my winter coat on, wound my scarf around my neck and pulled my favourite pink-and-purple striped beanie down over my hair. My gloves were in the depths of my suitcase, and I couldn’t be bothered digging though my clothes to find them; I would just have to jam my hands in my pockets.

Ava and I loaded my luggage into the back of the station wagon and climbed in – Ava took the front passenger seat, and I commandeered the back seat. The sky had darkened considerably, and snow was beginning to fall as we drove off through the streets of Manchester, heading south. Before long, the warmth from the car heater and the movement of the car began to have an effect, and I drifted off to sleep.

At some ungodly hour early the next morning, Ava dragged me out of bed and came at me with a bandanna before I had woken up completely. “Ava, what in the world are you doing?” I asked as she tied it over my face, effectively blinding me.

“Ez and I have a little surprise for you,” she said as she pulled on the knot at the back of my head. “It’s something we cooked up when we realised you weren’t planning to come home for Christmas.” She pulled up the bottom of the bandanna so that I could see her and grinned at me, laughter dancing in her dark brown eyes. “Come on, let’s go.”

Ava led me along the corridor after we had left our room. As we walked, I could hear music playing; when we had reached our destination, Ava removed my blindfold. A strip of pale golden light streamed out into the corridor from beneath the door we stood before, spilling out onto the deep green carpet, and I noted that the music I had been hearing was coming from the room beyond.

“Sounds like someone’s having a party,” I said. Ava merely smiled and opened the door, revealing not just any hotel room, but a hotel suite. Not that I was surprised – with a family as large as ours, it was a sheer necessity if we were all to stay together.


I grinned when I saw Joshua get up from where he sat next to Michael on the floor in front of the TV and run over to me; Michael quickly followed suit, and soon the two of them were hugging me tightly, an embrace that I willingly returned. “I missed you guys!” I said. “I don’t think I need to ask you two if you missed me, because it’s pretty obvious if you ask me.”

I heard the door close behind me, and Michael yelled, “Mom! Dad! Ellie’s here!”

“Please keep your voice down, Michael,” I heard my mother call back. “We aren’t deaf.”

I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as my parents walked out into the main room of the suite. “I missed you so much,” I whispered as the three of us embraced. “You have no idea how much.”

As the seven of us, reunited after so many months apart, celebrated Christmas together, I remembered something that my father had told me when I was much younger, during one particularly memorable Christmas in Germany. It doesn’t matter where you are at Christmas, or what you’re doing, or even what presents you happen to get. What matters above everything else is that you’re with the people that you love and cherish most in the world. And it’s about giving thanks, to whatever higher power you may happen to believe in, for what you have been blessed with. I no longer cared that I was in England – I could have been in Denmark for all I cared. I was with my family, and that was all that mattered to me.

I feel you Christmas
I know I’ve found you
You never fade away
The joy of Christmas
Stays here inside us
Fills each and every heart with love

~ fin ~


Lyric credit:

Where Are You Christmas - Faith Hill