Christmas when things go wrong

Baltimore Sun

When my sister, Betsy, and I were in the first and second grade, our mother took up skiing. This was an odd pastime for someone in Illinois to adopt, but she was quite passionate for a time about her newfound pursuit. And as fate would have it, our aunt, uncle and cousins were living in Salt Lake City, and mom decided we should visit them for Christmas so that she could teach us how to ski, too.

There was just one minor hurdle: How to get the Christmas presents to Aunt Carolyn's house without two inquisitive young kids catching on?

Here's what she came up with. As everyone knows, skiing is hard work. You expend a lot of energy, both from the physical exercise and from coping with the cold, and it's really important to keep your calorie count up. So, to be prepared to hit the slopes, she was bringing a whole bunch of candy bars with her.

Yes, a suitcase full of candy bars. Look, she's a lousy liar, OK?

Naturally, this gave us something to lord over cousins Jenny and Suzie, who were a little older and vastly more cosmopolitan, living as they did in a big, exotic city. I can't vouch for the exact quotes, but the first conversation when we were alone together went something like this.

Us: "Our mom brought an entire suitcase full of candy bars!"

Them: "No way."

Us: "Yeah-huh!"

Them: "Show us!"

I would like to be very clear that, to the best of my recollection, Jenny and Suzie were the ones who advocated opening the suitcase. I'm sure Betsy and I would never have done such a thing.

I remember the scene vividly. It was a red, hardbody fake-leather suitcase lying on its side on the carpet in a spare bedroom. I could swear, when we popped it open, that it emitted a soft glow, like the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction."

"We hit the jackpot," Betsy said.

Indeed. Books, toys, games for the Atari, everything we had marked in the pages of the Sears catalog on the assumption that mom would relay this information to the North Pole.

The discovery didn't lead to immediate feelings of betrayal or anger. In fact, we weren't immediately convinced of the conclusion that was begging to be drawn. Betsy and I made a pact to stay up all night on Christmas Eve to find out the truth. We didn't succeed - what little kid ever does - but the high correlation the next morning between the presents supposedly from Santa and those that had arrived in the suitcase left us little choice but to accept the obvious.

Maybe it's because we learned the truth ourselves rather than being told by some obnoxious older kid, but the incident didn't ruin Christmas for us. In fact, that wasn't even the biggest disaster to befall Christmas 1983. For some reason, nobody thought much of the fact that the house wasn't filling that afternoon with the aroma of turkey, so when dinnertime arrived, it was quite a shock to all involved to discover a raw bird sitting in an oven that had never been turned on. And so that Christmas goes down in our memories less as the one when we found out about Santa Claus and more as the one when we had frozen pizza from 7-Eleven for dinner.

I'm sure Aunt Carolyn was mortified, but Betsy and I thought it was wonderful. And maybe that's the real lesson. If we hadn't opened that suitcase, or if Aunt Carolyn had turned the oven on, Betsy and I would probably barely remember it. And if there had been room at the inn for Mary and Joseph, it probably wouldn't have made much of a story, either. We all dream of a perfect Christmas with our families, but it's what we do when things don't go according to plan that makes the memories we cherish.


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