The year that Andy and I got engaged, he agreed to join my family in New Hampshire for Christmas. My family is huge and disjointed, however, so he would only be meeting three sisters and my Ex-Stepmother.
A week before Christmas, I spotted the ultimate in Yuletide perfection. A neon green headband with furry moose antlers that LIT UP with red and green lights. I pounced. That night, I showed Andy my prize.
He recoiled. “That’s hideous.”
“It gets better!” I pressed a button in the middle of the headband.
Andy watched in horrified fascination as the colored lights did their best to emulate Vegas. “You aren’t going to wear that, are you?”
“Only for sex.”
“Haha, no, it’s gift for Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister.”
“I thought you liked that sister.”
“I do.” The light show faded and I carefully packed the Vegas Yuletide antlers away.
“Then why are you giving her that terrible Christmas headband? It’s not like she would ever wear it!”
“She’s the stylish one with the red Mercedes convertible, right?” Andy shook his head. “There’s just no way.”
We weren’t married yet, so I didn’t tell my fiancé that he was wrong. I just smiled and closed the suitcase.
She was totally going to wear those tacky antlers. And like them.
My mother was crap at many, many things. Family planning tops that list, followed by planning of any kind. She was chronically late. Her homemade Halloween costumes never survived more than an hour. We arrived at Easter egg hunts 5 minutes into the hunt, when the eggs were all taken.
But there was one holiday at which my mother excelled – Christmas. She organized neighborhood caroling parties on Christmas Eve. They were potluck, ensuring that other, craftier, more competent mothers would bring gorgeous cakes in the shapes of Christmas trees, or elaborately frosted sugar cookies.
I have the best memories of those Christmas Eve parties. We’d strategize over song selection as we trooped down the block: did the house have kids? “Rudolph” or “Frosty the Snowman!” An older couple? We would bring them to tears with “Silent Night,” especially with the youngest, blondest, sweetest-looking girls in the front row. They’d be so overcome, they might pass out fudge.
The party would wrap up at our house, and a piece of the Christmas tree cake would be mine. There would be sodas, and laughter, and undoubtedly a ton of alcohol for the parents. Sometimes the party was cut short by the inevitable ER trip, like the year Future Brilliant Lawyer Sister was less than brilliant and shoved some of her new beads up her nose. (In her defense, she was 4.)
Then it was off to bed for a sleepless night spent listening for sleigh bells and Santa.
Santa always came through. For 11 months of the year, my many siblings and I slid through the cracks – late, sometimes lunch-less, often left to walk a mile home from school across Washington D.C.’s busy streets. (Yes, I did it alone. In kindergarten. More than once.)
But on Christmas, Santa nailed it. Whatever we were yearning for, we got. Train sets, video game consoles, a giant panda? We found them by or in our stuffed stockings on Christmas morning (along with the useless, ubiquitous orange that none of us ever ate). I suspect my wealthy grandparents often helped Santa out.
Yes, our Christmases were magical. Even after our parents divorced, my mother kept the holiday special. We sang Christmas carols in the car as we shuttled between houses. We strung popcorn on the trees. We “borrowed” holly from the Lutheran church down the street and tied it to our bannister, never mind that it skewered anyone who actually had to grab the bannister for support when descending the stairs. Future Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister and I snuck gifts into each other’s stockings in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
And then, when I was 14, our mother died.
Our Future Ex-Stepmother tried to keep the holiday special. She had Christmas Eve parties. She played the guitar and we sang. She made far better cookies than my mother ever did, and she made a ton of them. We got lovely presents.
To no avail. We were miserable, angry Scrooges. For many, many years. Because Christmas was when we missed our mother most. And not even Future Ex-Stepmother’s fabulous spritzes could fill the hole.
But time made the pain bearable. The memories of our happy Christmases became more sweet than bitter. Especially for Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister and me. We made sure we were always together at the holidays, and we gave each other silly gifts — the more ridiculously Christmassy, the better.
One year, I bought her a Santa hat. The next year, she bought me one with glitter (I vacuumed glitter up for weeks.) I retaliated with a truly garish sparkly orange “Tigger” hat from Disneyland. I didn’t think Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister could beat Disney for tacky, but she showed up with a spring-loaded reindeer antler headband with jingle bells the following year. When I wore it, she laughed until she snorted. She was sure I could never top her headband.
So was I. Until I found the Vegas Reindeer Antlers.
It was Christmas Eve in Nowhere, New Hampshire. The snow was deep, the carollers were assembled. I held a bag. Maggie, Ex-Stepmother’s best buddy, handed out drinks with one hand and sipped on her own with another.
A few kids chased each other around the house, pretending the caroling candles were guns.
Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister stood by the door. Her boots were Italian leather, her coat was expensive wool, and her scarf was cashmere. I tapped her on the shoulder.
“Guess what I got you!” I sang as I reached into my bag.
Andy, who had met Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister that morning, shook his head and mouthed, “Never” at me.
Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister took a sip of her drink, set it down, and said, “Hit me. You will never beat the jingle bell antlers!”
I pulled out the Vegas Antlers. Her jaw dropped in a thoroughly gratifying way.
“But wait! There’s more!” I carolled, and hit the button in the center of the headband. The lights went crazy.
A candle kid stopped cold, entranced. “Ohhhh. Pretty. Can I have that?”
Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister immediately said, “Sure!”
I shook my head. “Sorry guys, this is a very special Christmas present for my sister.” I handed over the antlers.
She put them on. “How long does the light show last?”
“About a minute,” I told her, in between chortles. “Then you have to hit the button again!” I demonstrated by smacking her in the
It was too much for Andy. He laughed until he cried.
And then, as he wiped the tears out of the corners of his eyes, I reached into my bag once more.
“After I saw just how much you liked them,” I explained, “I got one for you, too!”
I pulled out a second set of Vegas Antlers and offered them to Andy.
Andy gave me a betrayed look. He made no move to take his antlers. So I turned them on and put them on his head. He stuck out his lower lip in his patented sad pout.
Brilliant Blonde Lawyer sister cracked up.
Maggie turned just in time to see pouting reindeer Andy. She spewed a mouthful of alcohol all over the candy kids. They shrieked and ran.
That night, every time Andy looked at Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister’s headgear, he would laugh. She would reach over and smack his headband so his lights lit up.
Then she would laugh.
Andy would pout, then smack her headband back. In fact, they repeatedly smacked each other’s heads as we carolled our way through the snowy streets of New Hampshire.
Their festive headgear undoubtedly netted us some extra fudge. And at one house, a guy even tried to give us money (though it might also have been a bribe to get us to go away).
There might not have been magic, but there was family. And laughter. So much laughter, in fact…
…that it was truly a Merry Christmas.