When I was a child my family would travel to the north country in December to visit my mother’s family. We always stayed with my Aunt Raina who lived across the road from a railroad track in an old farmhouse at the edge of her village. Aunt Raina cleaned houses for a living and so was not very wealthy but she was one of the most generous people I have ever known. She bought me my first guitar, took in orphaned children and would go out of her way to help anyone in need if she had the means. I loved her like a second mother.
There were always fresh cookies baking when we arrived, the air filled with the scent of cinnamon and cloves, honey and raisins. Big thick molasses cookies and tiny butter morsels filled her small kitchen where we feasted on tea, laughter, cookies and tears of joy.
One night the year I turned eight Aunt Raina asked if I would like to take a walk and surprise someone. I loved walking in the snow, loved surprises even more so of course I said yes.
“For this surprise we have to wear costumes,” she announced with a grin and a twinkle in her eye. “This one’s for you.”
She handed me a wool suit the color of dark moss with spots of black woven through then a hat with bells on its long pointy end, brown fur tucked into its opening. The costume fit perfectly as if it were made for me which, knowing my aunt’s sewing skills, it may have been.
We walked silently up the road in the cold wintry twilight of an early northern December, inky clouds spilling over dark purple sky, snow softly crunching under our boots.
“Where is your costume, Aunt Raina?” I couldn’t hold in the question any longer.
Here I was decked out in elfin finery, Aunt Raina’s glitter sparkling on my pink nose and cheeks, a foot long leather strap of huge jingle bells hanging from my green woolen mittens and she looked like she always did; nothing out of the ordinary.
She winked, took my hand glancing toward the darkening sky, “There’s magic in the air tonight. That’s all the costume I need.”
Just as the first star was visible we came to a small house where a candle flickered in a side window. We walked toward it.
“When I squeeze your hand ring the bells till I squeeze it again,” Aunt Raina whispered.
I nodded, excitement climbing into my throat making speech impossible.
We arrived at the window as Aunt Raina squeezed my mitten clad hand signaling my other hand to start shaking the strap of bells.
The bottom of the window was at my eye level so I could see inside the house as soon as the candle was removed from the sill. On the other side of the pane the face of a child appeared with the hand of an adult resting on his shoulder. He looked to be around six or seven years old and when he spotted me he smiled but then his face went cold and white as he looked up at my aunt. At that moment she squeezed my hand again stopping the ringing of the bells. Fear was now very evident on the child’s face. I had to look up to see what was scaring the kid in the window. Surely it wasn’t the face of my lovely aunt whom I cherished.
Surely it wasn’t the same Aunt Raina I had walked to the house with!
Standing next to me still holding my hand was what I could only describe in my child’s mind as a devil. My dear aunt had sprouted the horns of a large goat and the furry face to match them. Her eyes were a glowing orange, and I do mean glowing, like a fire raged within them. All this was frightening enough but then I noticed her mouth had grown a set of sharp pointed teeth between which dangled a long red tongue!
I started to pull away from her grip on my hand when her usual gentle voice whispered to me, “Don’t be afraid, my dear, this scary surprise is not meant for you but for the naughty little boy in the window.”
A calm came over me then. Turning back to the boy at the window, his eyes wide and full of fear I felt the magic Aunt Raina had spoken of earlier. Magic that could turn my sweet aunt into a fearful monster. Magic meant to scare the naughty out of a bad little kid. She squeezed my hand and I smiled, bells jingling as the child turned, crying, running from the window, the candle returned to its sill.
By the time we reached the road Aunt Raina was back to herself and we laughed and talked under the starry sky, our breath like smoke rising to their light.
Aunt Raina told me the boy in the window had been stealing from his mother’s change jar.
“He needed a good scare and Krampus specializes in good scares.”
“Who’s Krampus?” I asked
She smiled down at me squeezing my hand.
“Just ring the bells, dear, and hope you never have to find out.”