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Decking the Halls by Desert Sun

Word Count 3,487


(Note: This 7-page story was written and posted to the Lancer groups on Yahoo in December of 2004.  I’ve made some revisions in December of 2014 prior to archiving in the files of the Lancer FanFiction group on Facebook, but the basic story is the same.  When I originally wrote this story, I gave little thought to being historically correct other than checking to see if the game of pick-up-sticks would have been played at the time this takes place.  During my revisions, I thought of a few other things I should check out, such as the song “Deck the Halls”.  The use of the song however was a necessary part of the story.  Please forgive me if I’m pushing reality by not deleting it.  Although the words had been published in the Welsh and English poetry of 1862, it may or may not have been in use in U. S. until much later.

This story is written from Johnny Lancer’s point of view.  I decided I needed to have him refer to a couple of things by the words he would have used growing up along the Mexican border.  One is the Spanish word tollón, which is a Mexican plant that looks like holly.  The other is palomitas (short for palomitas de maíz), which is the Mexican term for popped corn.  For more information on these two words, please see my reference notes at the end of the story.

Thanks for reading.)


December 23, 1870:

Scents of mint, cinnamon, and freshly cut boughs of pine and fir tickled Johnny Lancer’s nose as he opened the French door and stepped into the main room of the Lancer hacienda.  He drew in a deep breath, took a few more steps, and stood gazing around in wide-eyed wonder.  The parlor looked nothing like it had that morning.  Greenery of one kind or another seemed to have sprouted in every nook and cranny.

Fir boughs holding clusters of pinecones lay on each side of a tall red candle that hadn’t been on the mantle of the fireplace earlier in the day.  More boughs and cones filled the empty spaces of the row of bookshelves that lined the wall to Johnny’s left.  The base of the candelabra in the center of the long dining table was hidden by a red bow and sat in a nest pine and sprigs of tollón.

More tollón bearing clusters of red berries brightened the front corners of the oak desk that was in front of the high arched window on the opposite side of the room.  The tops of most of the small tables were decorated in a similar manner.  Strings of white palomitas lay draped along the edges of these same pieces of furniture while more red ribbons perked up the bases of candle holders, lamps, and the arms of the floor lamp that separated the two wing-backed chairs, which were now dressed in checkered quilts of red and green calico.  The back of sofa in front of the fireplace appeared to be covered by a matching quilt from what he could see of the back of it.

Johnny turned toward his brother, who had followed him into the room and was standing at his side.  “This what ya meant by decking the halls?”

“A portion of it.”  Scott Lancer smiled smugly.  “Cipriano and Jelly still have to bring the tree in . . . and there’s the upstairs.  You’re sure to find it has also changed dramatically since this morning.”

The knowing gleam in his brother’s eyes reminded Johnny of the vast difference in their past lives.  Sometimes that expression riled him.  At other times, it brought a deep burning pain in his chest.  Today, he felt a twinge of both but chose to hide his feelings behind a grin. “Guess your grandfather went all out, didn’t he?  I mean . . ..”  Seeing the smile fade from Scott’s lips, Johnny shifted his eyes downward and kept the rest of the thought to himself.

“I’m sorry–“

Johnny lifted his head and looked up into his brother’s sad eyes.  “What’s to be sorry about?” he said with a hint of irritation.  Scott always seemed to be apologizing for something these days.

Scott glanced away.  His shoulders lifted, and he looked at Johnny.  “I forgot how it must have been for you all those–“

“Look, it ain’t worth makin’ a big deal about.  I never missed all this back then.”  Johnny tipped his head down and wrapped his arms across his chest.  Slowly he lifted his chin so he could see his brother’s face again.  “Besides . . . way I look at it, you’re the one that’s missin’ out the most.”

Scott’s brows hitched upward.  “Me?  How do you figure that?”

“Oh . . . I don’t know.  Guess because I can’t see this bein’ all that much like Boston.”  As he spoke, Johnny swept one hand out and around at the room.

“No.  Not that much . . . but enough.”  Scott avoided Johnny’s gaze.  “In fact, I think this might be the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”

“Yeah?”  Johnny closed his eyes and chewed his lip as he tried to figure out what Scott meant.  A thought took shape, and a lump crept into his throat.  “Yeah,” he said in an awed tone.

The French doors rattled and Johnny felt a gust of cold air.  He opened his eyes in time to see one of the glass doors swing all the way inward.  Cipriano appeared in the doorway while a voice called from outside.  “You sure this ain’t gunna be too big?”

“It will be fine, Señor.  You will see.”  The bulky vaquero guided the butt end of a tree into the room.

“Allow me to give you a hand.”  Scott rushed forward and nearly disappeared in amongst the branches.

 Johnny stood rooted in place as he stared in open-mouthed wonder as the giant fir was squeezed through the opening.

The tree wobbled, and Scott called out.  “Johnny.  Think you could help us?”

“Uh, sure.  Where ya plan on puttin’ it?”  Johnny glanced around.  Somehow the room seemed to have shrunk in size.

A muffled voice spoke from somewhere near the far end of the tree.  “T’resa said it goes in the corner by the fireplace.”

“The fireplace!  How’re we supposed to get it there?”  Johnny choked back a laugh.  Jelly had to be kidding.

“No problem.”  Scott stepped into full view, reached for the nearest chair, and scooted it out of the way.  “We just move a few things.”

Johnny backed up to the sofa.  “Which way you takin’ it?”

“To your left . . . around the end of the dining table and between the sofa and wall.”  Scott walked past Johnny and stopped at the far end of a small table.  “We better move this out of the way first.”

Johnny scowled.  Surely Scott didn’t mean to move the table with the ship on it.  All those little details and the tall mast made the model look delicate.  Hadn’t Murdoch warned him often enough to be careful around it?

Scott frowned.  “Are you going to help me, or not?”

“Can’t we get around it where it is?”

“Not without moving that chair and the sofa.”  Scott pointed at the furniture that was a few feet away from the table.  “Besides, we have to put Murdoch’s chair somewhere.  It’ll look better here against the wall than anyplace else.”

Johnny supposed that Scott had a point.  The large, leather chair that was in the corner to the left of the fireplace would look out of place sitting out in the middle of the room.  “Guess you’re right . . . only where ya plannin’ on puttin’ that?”  He took a step closer and paused to motion at the table with the ship.

“Behind the sofa.  It’s a much better place for it . . . don’t you think?”   Scott’s chin rose.

Johnny opened his mouth to tell his brother to quit being so bossy.  Before he could speak, Jelly Hoskins called out in an agitated voice.  “You two gunna stand there jawin’ all night?”

“Don’t go gettin’ yourself in a pucker, Jelly.”  Johnny grasped his end of the table and walked backwards in a wide arc.  “If this gets broke, I ain’t taken the blame . . . and I ain’t gunna be the one to tell the old man, either.”

“Tell the old man what?”  Murdoch’s deep voice came from somewhere behind Johnny.

Johnny twisted enough to look over his shoulder toward the hallway beyond the fireplace.  His father was walking toward him, a deep scowl pinching his face.

The table tipped and Scott shouted Johnny’s name.

Johnny felt the weight shift more to his left hand.  He quickly turned his head to face the table.

The ship tottered and its sails made a wide arc toward the floor. 

Johnny let go of the table with his right hand and grabbed for the ship’s hull.  He felt the edge of the table slipping from the fingers of his other hand, and his heart lurched.   As the ship rocked against his hand, he saw a vision of the majestic vessel lying in a heap on the floor, slivers of wood piled in a tangled mass like the sticks of Teresa’s game that was made from rounded splinters of kindling.   There was nothing he could do to stop it.

A large hand clasped the edge of the table and another steadied the ship.  Murdoch’s shoulder was inches from Johnny’s left eye.  “You mind telling me just where you’re going with this?”

Johnny let out a deep sigh.  “Behind the sofa.”  He then gave his brother a chilling glare.  “But we can put it back where it was, can’t we Scott?”

Murdoch continued to support the ship and the table.  “And just what was wrong with where it was?”

“It was, uh . . . we needed more room . . . to get the tree in.”  Scott gulped.  “I thought we could, uh, move it over behind the sofa.  Where it would be out . . . uh, safer.”

Johnny couldn’t remember when he’d ever seen his brother look so flustered.  Scott’s cheeks were even turning pink.  He bit his lip to keep from laughing and glanced up at his father.  Now probably wasn’t a good time to be joking around.  Not with Murdoch so close by.

“I see.”  The creases in Murdoch’s forehead deepened.  His expression turned thoughtful, and he rocked his head up and down a couple of times.  “I suppose it would be better against the back of the sofa.”  He looked down at Johnny and told him to steady the ship.

Johnny noticed his brother was as surprised as he was that their father hadn’t put up an argument.  Now wasn’t the time to say anything about that either.  He did as he was told while Scott and Murdoch carried the table to its new location.  Then he closed his eyes and silently said a quick prayer of thanksgiving that the ship was still in one piece.


Half an hour later, Scott stood with crossed arms, his head tilted back as he gazed up at the top of the tree that dwarfed the fireplace and more than filled the corner Murdoch’s chair had been in earlier.  “Looks good . . . don’t you think?”  He gazed over at his brother, who was standing next to their father a few feet away.

“Yeah.”  Johnny was sure he didn’t sound very convincing.  Even his smile felt weak.  What was all of the hoop-la over having a Christmas tree?   It seemed like a lot of work for nothing.  In a few days, the needles would be dry and falling off the branches.   That meant a mess for someone to sweep up.

Scott looked at Johnny.  “Of course it has to be decorated yet.”

Before Johnny could reply, Murdoch and Teresa O’Brien walked in with heavily laden arms.

Teresa stared up at the tree for a moment.  A wrinkle formed between her brows and her lips pressed tighter together.  She took a deep breath.  Then she put on a brave smile.  “It’s a lovely tree.”

“Yes, it is.”  Scott reached out and relieved Teresa of her load.  “Jelly and Cipriano made an excellent choice.”

Murdoch set the box he was carrying down on the sofa and opened the lid.  Johnny noticed the man’s face looked a little strained, too.

As soon as the lids were removed from the boxes, Scott handed Johnny several tin stars, each with a string attached to one point.  “Here, Brother.  You can hang these.”

Johnny looked down at the shiny pieces of thin metal in his hand.  “Hang ’em where?”

“Anywhere you want.  Just pick a branch and fish the end of it through the loop of the string.”  Scott picked up a star and hung it on the tree.  “Like that.”

Getting the stars hung on the limbs proved easy enough.  Deciding where to put them took a bit longer.  There seemed to be so few of them for the size of the tree.  Johnny figured they needed to be spaced out as evenly as possible to look right.

While Johnny hung the stars and a few other ornaments, Teresa tied red bows here and there.  Scott, Jelly, and Murdoch draped long strings of palomitas, which they called popped corn, from limb to limb in an upward spiral as far up as they could reach.

As they all worked, Scott began to whistle a merry tune and suggested they all sing.  He started right in without waiting for an answer.  Jelly joined him part way through the first line, and Murdoch and Teresa where singing along with them by the end of the fourth line.

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la la la la la
‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la la la la la
Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel,
Fa la la la la la la la la
Troul the ancient Christmas carol,
Fa la la la la la la la la.”

The blend of masculine tones complimented the girl’s softer feminine voice.  Johnny didn’t know the song, so he just listened while he fastened more stars to the tree.  He couldn’t make much sense out of the words, anyway.  What did they have to do with Christmas?  There was no mention of the Virgin Mary, a lowly stable in Bethlehem, angels announcing the birth of God’s Son, or shepherds and wise men coming to worship the child.   His family’s customs sure weren’t anything like those of his mother’s people.

Johnny stretched upward on the tip of his toes and hung the last star.  There was a pause in the singing.  He felt a hand touch his arm and looked down to see moisture glimmering in Teresa’s eyes.  “Sing with us,” she pleaded.

The others sang out loudly.  Johnny joined on the repeated parts and did his best to follow the tune.

“Fast away the old year passes,
Fa la la la la la la la la
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Fa la la la la la la la la
Laughing, quaffing all together,
Fa la la la la la la la la
Heedless of the wind and weather,
Fa la la la la la la la la.”

A couple more songs followed.  Johnny tried to sing along.  He was tempted more than once to give up.  He didn’t know any of the words.

The last ornament was hung.  Color brightened the tree from top to bottom, and the singing stopped.

“It’s beautiful.”   Teresa’s eyes shined.  Then her face clouded and her lips trembled.  She choked back a sob, whirled, and fled the room.

Sadness crept into Murdoch’s eyes.  “Paul always got the tree and helped with the decorating.” He looked down and also left in a hurry.

Jelly’s shoulders sagged and he made some excuse to leave.  For a moment Johnny thought Scott would do the same.  Instead his brother let out a sigh and went over to the table between the armchairs where he poured two glasses of brandy.  “A toast.”  He lifted one glass and offered the other one to Johnny.

Johnny took the glass and held the stem lightly between the thumb and first finger of his right hand.  “To what?”

“To our first Christmas.  May it fill our next one with fond memories.”  Scott’s face was etched with grim determination.  

Johnny had a feeling his brother missed being in Boston, so he hid the smile tugging at the corners of his lips and clinked his glass against Scott’s.  “Yeah,” he softly drawled.  Hopefully the future would hold more pleasant memories for them all.


By the time Johnny headed for his room later that night, a hush had fallen over the Lancer hacienda.  Murdoch and Teresa had both retired shortly after supper, and Jelly and Scott had gone to bed an hour or so later.

Johnny slowly climbed the stairs, eyeing the banister that was garnished with a garland of red ribbon and bits of tollón, or holly as Scott had called it.  When he reached the second floor landing, he looked down the long hallway.  It too had a festive glow with moon-shaped patches of wall tinted a soft yellow from the light of the candles in sconces, which were also trimmed with bits of greenery and ribbon.

At the doorway to his room, Johnny paused and gazed down the hall one last time.  First a tune flitted through his mind and then the words to the song his brother had led them in earlier.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,

Fa la la la la la la la la.
‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la la la la la.

A smile tugged at Johnny lips and a tremor of anticipation ran through him.  Tomorrow was Christmas Eve–a time to join Cipriano, Maria, and the other Mexicans on the ranch and participate in the traditions of his mother’s people.  Then Christmas Day would be celebrated according to the customs of his father and brother.  There would be gifts to exchange and open, and a meal fit for a king to stuff himself on.

Suddenly, the words of the song made perfect sense.   He smiled as he entered his room and closed the door.  Yep!  It sure was the season to be jolly.

Johnny sat on the edge of the bed, tugged off his boots, and flopped onto his back.  A wave of contentment washed over him, and he closed his eyes.  The halls were decked out in grand style.  He had a family, a few good friends, and the new year was looking bright.  This was going to be his best Christmas ever, too.  Fa la la la la la la la la!

~The end~

Research Notes:

While I was going over this and making revisions before uploading to the files for the Lancer FanFiction group on Facebook, I got to wondering if they would have holly in California.  I found the following at

Tollón:  American name is toyon, also known as California-holly, Hollywood, or California Christmas berry.”

The information below came from

According to legend, Hollywood is named after a native shrub growing in the area; Heteromeles arbutifolia, also known as California-holly.  The common name is Toyon.  Some less common names include California Christmas berry and of course, hollywood. 

Toyon is a medium to large shrub, from 6 to 25 feet tall, though usually less than 15 feet tall. It is native to the non-desert mountains and foothills of California and adjacent Baja California. It can be found from sea level to 4000 feet elevation. Typically it is a chaparral plant, but I have also seen it in live oak woodlands. It is evergreen. It blooms in late spring to mid summer, after most other California native plants are done blooming. The flowers are mildly fragrant, and to me smell just like I would expect clusters of tiny rose family flowers to smell – like spirea as I remember it. The berries ripen in November and December. It is reported that birds are attracted to the berries, though I have not found that to be the case at my house. If the berries are not eaten, they will remain on the bush for months. Raw berries are poisonous to humans, though the Native Americans made them edible by cooking them and discarding the seeds. is where I found information on the song Deck the Halls.  I changed the words a little from what I had originally written because the current version used here in the U. S. wasn’t not in print until 1877.


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2 thoughts on “Decking the Halls by Desert Sun

  1. This was a very realistic version of the melancholy that could strike a newly-put-together family who were still just getting to know each other as they prepared for a traditional celebration that had been different for every one of them in the past. Nicely written and it was clear a lot of thought went into it. Thank you.


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