Apollo Christmas

“Tell me a story, Daddy?” Eleven-year-old Elizabeth was sprawled on the carpeted floor beneath the Christmas tree. When the family lived aboard her father’s spaceship, the Cousteau, they had a holographic tree that held virtual copies of all the real ornaments. But now they were in their house on Centaurus, so the whole tree was real, and she loved to lie beneath it and breath in the piney scent.

Basil glanced across the room at his wife, and the pair shared a look. They knew their daughter would soon be too old to ask for stories, but it was Christmas Eve, and even a synthetic lifeform was willing to indulge his daughter during the holidays.

Still, he hesitated. Seasonal tales were not really in his oeuvre, and he knew the night was special to the organic members of his family.

“Do you mind if the story comes from me?” his wife asked, saving the night for all of them. “I have a family story that might appeal to you, Lizzie-Bee.”

The little girl rolled over and sat up, smoothing out her brand-new dress as she did so. “That would be acceptable,” she said, sounding uncannily like her father.

“Alright then.” Zoe put down the tablet she’d been reading from and centered herself by taking a sip from her mug of tea. “This story takes place many years before you were born, or before I was born, or before Gramma Emily was born. It’s older than Grampere. It’s even older than Nonna. In fact, it’s from Nonna’s, Nonna’s, Nonna’s Nonna. Or even a few generations before that.”

“What’s it about?”

“It’s about family, and Christmas, and space.”

“I wanna hear that story.”

Zoe smiled at her daughter. “Alright then, let’s take a deep breath—” and she drew in an exaggerated one “—and begin.”

December 24th, 1968 –

They could have gone to mass at the local church, as they always did. St. Agnes had been the family’s parish of choice for decades. It was an old building, formidable gray stone on the outside, but once you were inside the vestibule it was all wood and warmth, and the bulletin boards were hilarious, reminding you that there was still time for a turkey raffle, or that the scout troops earned money if you ate at Burger King through the first of the year.

But Uncle Giovanni – Nonna’s brother – also known as Father Pescatore – had been back in town after being sent to serve elsewhere, and a private family mass seemed appropriate. So, they’d set up an altar on the ironing board, and prayed for the people, and the world leaders, and the pope, and the world, and then they’d said a special prayer for the astronauts in space.

We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

They watched the newscast and heard these men of science read words of faith, and they saw the camera feed of the men in the giant aluminum can hurtling toward the gray surface of the moon.

And maybe they thought about the way God exists in each of us as a spark of divine self-gift, or maybe they just went through the ritual out of habit. But no matter what they thought, their eyes were riveted on their tiny television screen, and their thoughts were in the stars.

Christmas Eve – 2269

The family continued to grow and change, but the one thing they all shared was a fascination with space. They watched as the first lunar orbit became the first lunar landing. They watched as Mars became the first planet to be populated entirely by robots, and then the first to host human colonists.

As space travel became something accessible to everyone, part of the family embraced the unknown, and joined the first colonization missions to Betelgeuse and Centaurus.

The latter planet was destined to become the family’s new home. They were Harrises now, instead of Morellis, having married and bred and married and bred through the ages, and their faith was not so formal as it had been a century before on Earth, but when the first church was planted in Beach Haven, they joined their community for Christmas Eve services.

“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

Christmas Eve – 2368

“I don’t think that’s much of a story,” Elizabeth said.

“That’s because it’s not finished yet,” Zoe explained. “We’re going out, sweetie.”

Basil had left his chair while she’d been speaking, and now he offered his daughter her coat. “It is cold out tonight. You must dress warmly.” He assisted the child in putting on her winter gear, then repeated the process with his wife.

Together, Basil and Zoe guided the young girl through the front door. “We’re not taking the flitter?”

“Nope. We’re walking.”

The night air was cold, but it was also clear, and each star seemed to shimmer more brightly than the last. As they walked toward the center of town, first along the coast road, then turning east, away from the water, the small family was joined by friends and neighbors, all making the same short journey.

Our Lady of the Sea and Stars was as gray as the old stone church on Earth, but it was built of titanium from the hulls of the first colony ship, and its surface shimmered like a more delicate version of the starlight.

Almost the entire community gathered inside, and there were many greetings exchanged with Captain Harris and Ambassador Harris and all the oldest relatives gushed over Elizabeth, cooing over her advanced age – “Eleven? Wow! Who said you could get so old?”

As they took their seats, the little girl nudged her mother. “Church? Seriously? The end of the story is church?”

“Not quite.”

The congregation hushed as Mother Celeste entered with the processional and took her place on the altar. “Welcome friends,” she began. “About a hundred years ago, the members of this community came together in this building for our first Christmas Eve. We were blessed, then, to be in a new home. Since that time, our community has grown. The founding families have been joined by newer additions. But we still gather here, to share the same words, and sing the same songs, that people of Earth have been sharing and singing for generations.”

She paused and scanned the rows of pews, apparently meeting the eyes of each person seated there. “Before we begin, I’d like to share with you some other words. Words that aren’t part of the Christmas tradition, but are attached to it. They were read four hundred years ago by a group of men who were on one of the first journeys to Earth’s moon, and they’re from the Book of Genesis.”

She nodded to an unseen media technician, and after a moment, scratchy audio filled the green-garlanded and candle-scented space.

“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.”

Elizabeth listened to the ages-old recording, and – at least for that moment in time – understood her mother’s message, and her father’s dedication to the Star Navy.

Later that night, with bedtime cocoa still staining her lips, she kissed each of her parents goodnight. “Merry Christmas,” she said. “I love you.”

Basil and Zoe replied that they loved her too, and would see her in the morning when they would discover what Santa might have brought.

“Did you know,” Basil asked, once he and Zoe were alone in front of their own crackling fire, “that the Apollo Eight recording would be shared?”

“I did,” Zoe admitted. “Mother Celeste is descended from one of the astronauts. She’s been waiting to share that audio clip since she moved here. She thinks her ancestor would have approved, and I think she’s right.”

“And the ironing board story?”

“Totally true,” she said, “I’ve heard Mom tell me about it only a thousand or so times.”

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

Notes: The audio clip from the Apollo 8 mission features the voices of William Anders, James Lovell, and Frank Borman. The mass on the ironing board was a memory shared by my mother earlier tonight. You see, my great-uncle Eugene died last night. He was a Franciscan priest, and he was old and sick, so his death is a release in many ways. I don’t have any specific memories of him, except that he was kind and funny, but I wanted to mark his passing and mom’s story gave me the idea.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Apollo Christmas by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.