Lynn and Jim wiggled their toes as the oozing, sucking sand completely buried their feet in the middle of a galloping white wave. As the wave slid back into the sea, the two laughed at the sight of their feetless legs. They looked like two pairs of skinny straws drinking up sea foam.
“It sure doesn’t seem like Christmas, does it?” said Jim.
“No, it sure doesn’t,” his sister agreed. “California isn’t at all like Michigan.”
Lynn and Jim had lived in Michigan all their lives until one day Dad had announced that they were going to move to California. The whole family had been excited at first because they had never been to California. But now Lynn and Jim missed their old friends and the woods where they used to play. It was Christmastime, but there was no snow to play in, no frost to nip their noses when they went caroling, not even any icicles hanging from the rooftops to look at. They missed the proud pheasants and redbirds that came to feed in their backyard, and the frisky squirrels that played tag in the sugar maples. Here at the sunny beach it was hard to remember that it was Christmastime.
Lynn stooped to pick up a shiny white shell. “These shells are awfully pretty, though. Let’s see how many we can collect.”
Soon they had collected so many shells that they could hardly carry them all.
“You need a bag,” said a voice behind them. Turning around, Lynn and Jim saw the oddest-looking couple that they had ever seen. Both had sunburned faces with more wrinkles than a hound dog. The woman’s hair was a scraggly gray mass tucked underneath a patched straw hat; she was carrying a plastic bag. Her dress was shapeless and worn. His clothes were even scragglier, and he was carrying two fishing poles and a small, battered creel. The woman removed a couple of old books from her bag and handed it empty to the children.
“Thanks,” said Jim, dumping the shells into the bag. “But don’t you need it?”
“Oh no,” the elderly woman assured him. “I have plenty more at home.”
“Do you live near here?” Lynn asked.
“Our home is only about a half mile that way,” the elderly man said, pointing up the beach. “We like to come down and read and fish once in a while. We don’t ever catch much. But today we got lucky and founded something special.” He carefully pulled a small, star-shaped object out of his creel.
“It’s a starfish!” Jim exclaimed, reaching out to touch the dead creature.
Lynn gently took the starfish from the man, admiring it. “There are all kinds of beautiful things to collect on this beach,” she declared. “You know, we’ve never collected shells at Christmastime before. We just moved here from Michigan.”
“Well, Christmas is the very best time for collecting shells,” the woman told them.
“I’d rather have snow at Christmas,” Jim complained. “It’s not Christmas without snow.”
“Now, there’s where you’re wrong,” the man responded. “Do you have any pails and shovels?”
“They’re back there.”
“Well, if you’ll get them, there should be enough time before it gets too dark for you to help with one of our favorite Christmas traditions.”
Lynn and Jim ran over to a sagging sandcastle and grabbed up the spoons and cans that they’d been using to build it.
“Now,” began the man as they returned, “have you ever seen a sand tree?”
“Well, we’ll show you how to build one.”
Soon the foursome had scooped up piles and piles of wet sand into a mound as high as their arms could reach. Then they began shaping it, first into an upside-down ice-cream cone, then into a fir tree with tiers of branches.
Lynn and Jim were delighted. “Let’s decorate it with our shells,” Lynn said.
The elderly man smiled. “Now you have the idea.”
Carefully, Lynn and Jim placed their shells on the tree. Some were pearl-colored with orange around the edges. Others were dark blue and lavender. They were shaped like fans, teardrops, icicles, and buttons.
“Oh, wait till Mom and Dad see it!” cried Lynn.
“Why don’t you bring them here later, and we’ll have a bonfire, too,” suggested the woman.
Lynn and Jim rushed home to tell their parents all about the sand tree and their new friends.
By the time the family returned with blankets, a huge thermos of hot cocoa, and a plastic container filled with sandwiches, darkness had set in. The elderly couple had already started the bonfire near the sand tree. In the firelight, the shells gleamed like tiny moons. And there was a surprise—on top of the tree shone the little starfish.
“Ohhhh!” they all gasped. The sand tree was too splendid for words. Lynn and Jim quietly sat on a blanket close to the fire and gazed up at the Christmas starfish. Then Lynn nudged Jim and nodded slightly toward the elderly couple. The woman had on a raggedy shawl; the man, a threadbare jacket. They were both shivering.
Jim and Lynn got up; then Jim took their blanket and placed it around the couple while Lynn and their parents poured the cocoa and passed around the sandwiches. After he’d eaten, the elderly man began to sing in a deep voice:
The woman’s clear voice joined in on the second line, and Lynn, Jim, and their parents began singing also. Before long, other people who lived along the beach were gathering around the sand tree, singing. Before they knew it, Lynn and Jim had almost forgotten about snow and sleigh rides.
“You can have the Christmas spirit any place,” whispered Lynn.