Soon the shops were emptied of the moss coated gifts, their stone plant pots balanced on window sills across the country.
The small packets of feed did not list the ingredients, but smelt of old frying pans and rotting herbs left to long in the rain. No-one cared. To not have the new candle sticks in your house? Well, one didn’t want to be behind the times. One didn’t want to be off trend.
As darkness came on the 24th mothers and fathers gathered excited children around the living candlesticks to light the wicks.
Flames caught and the bark fell away, exposing the mummified skin underneath, grey and shrunken against preserved tendons. Bones outlined underneath taut, dried out veins.
Smoke rose from each burning finger of the Hand of Glory, and reached the lungs of the waiting families. Across cities and villages parents and offspring fell asleep. The one handed thieves with rope burns on their necks were free to empty houses of goods and gifts, and when the families woke with the dawning of the sun, the only present left was a single mummified hand with fingertips scorched to charcoal.
When the old woman and old man arrived in the town there had been no winter for three generations. They called all the citizens to the marketplace and promised to bring snow to the streets in time for the solstice. The people were cynical and did not believe them, but promised to do what the couple said if it winter returned.
First, the couple asked the families to bring them all the cow horn and brass they had in their houses. Once all they scavenged stood in the centre of town the man began to thin the horn to translucent. The woman cast the alloys into strips, then pinned and hinged them in place.
The old man called the town’s children to him.
“Paint snowflakes on these panels,” he said, holding out the lamp horn.
The children looked at their shuffling feet.
“We don’t know what snowflakes look like,” they said, and in this they told the truth.
The old man opened his coat and took out a fold of wax paper.
“Look and memorise, because you won’t have long,” he said, and held out the tiny bundle. Inside was a single snowflake.
Though the children wept at its beauty they memorised the shapes of the arms, and delicate branches, even as the snow melted away.
When finished, the old woman fitted the panels into the lanterns and climbed the lamp-posts that lined the streets. Removing the bulbs, she hooked the lanterns in place and lit the candles inside.
As the sun shuttered for the night, snow fell from the glowing lamps, and the children danced below catching snowflakes on their tongues. And with the snow came other things. Hearth fires and stories. Shadows of antler figures on the edge of the woods, and barrels of glühwein between the houses.
When the sun came up the streets were white with snow and full of stories. The people could find no sign of the old man and the old woman, except for two smiling figures shaped from snow stood right in the middle of the town.