Christmas 59 is the basis for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It was written by Christmas Vacation Producer John Hughes.
There were sixteen relatives in four bedrooms…
by John Hughes
All in all it was a pretty exciting Christmas, what with the relatives and the presents and the fun and the cops and Aunt Hazel’s dog blowing up in our living room. Mom and my Aunt Martha wanted to have one of those fun old-fashioned Christmases that people on TV have, where everybody wears ties and sweaters and sits by the fireplace and makes Christmas-tree ornaments out of food. But as Dad said, the only reason those people have fun is they’re getting paid for it.
I was just about positive I was getting skis and boots and poles for Christmas. It was the only thing I asked for, and when a kid asks for only one thing, its awfully hard for parents not to buy it, because of how disappointed the kid would be. Unless they bought him a BB gun or a horse instead, and the only way I’d get a BB gun was over my mom’s dead body and we didn’t have enough room in the garage for a horse. But it’s too bad we didn’t have a horse in the garage, because then Grandpa Pete and Grandpa Swenson would never have gotten into their big fight about who got to keep his car inside.
My sisters and I spent most of the afternoon of the day before Christmas Eve sitting in the front window watching the road for our grandparents. At about four o’clock we heard what sounded like a drag race. And, sure enough, it was a drag race, and it was between Grandpa Pete and Grandpa Swenson. It was pretty cool to watch that Rambler Ambassador and that Studebaker Regal whip around the corner and into the driveway so fast that the grandmas were screaming and holding on to the dashboards.
“God darn you, Pete!” Grandpa Swenson yelled at Grandpa Pete. “You drive like a maniac!”
“Me?” Grandpa Pete yelled back, as the two of them sat in their cars parked in front of the closed garage door.
“Judas Priest!” Mom said, running out the front door. “They leave from two different houses in two different cities, three hundred miles away, racing like idiots — it’s a miracle they got here in one piece!”
Anyway, Mom told the two grandpas to pick which side of the garage they thought the empty space was on, and they both picked the same side. So Mom made them flip a coin and Grandpa Pete lost.
“Two out of three!” he demanded. But Grandpa Swenson wasn’t about to risk his parking space, especially with all the rain we were getting.
We’d had about five inches of snow the week before, but the rain had washed it all away. Instead of looking like a Christmas card, with snowy trees and icicles, our house looked like a regular house, only worse, because of how terrible the Farleys’ dog’s stuff looked defrosting all over the lawn. It bad taken a lot of work to keep everybody off our snow, and I even had to threaten my little sister, Amy, to keep her from screwing up the snow by making angels. Oh, well. It was just mud and brown grass now. Also, the manger scene in the front yard looked pretty stupid sitting in the rain, especially when it was thundering and lightning.
Grandpa Pete and Grandma Alice made a big fuss about having to carry their packages into the house in the rain. Grandma Alice complained about how the raindrops were staining the wrapping paper, and Grandpa Pete said, “It’s typical, Mama. What did you expect?”
All Grandma and Grandpa Swenson had to do was carry their packages right into the kitchen from the garage, and they had help, too. His name was Xgung Wo, and he was this guy who went to college at Michigan State who spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house because he was from Thailand and was very lonely. Grandma Swenson invited him to come along to our fun old-fashioned family Christmas so that he wouldn’t have to sit all by himself in his dormitory on a holiday and feel sad about World War II and how terrible it was to his family. Mom said she was delighted to have him, and she shook his hand and talked in her phony, “How do you do” voice.
“I’ll sreep in your base-ments,” Xgung Wo said, bowing to Mom.
“Don’t be silly,” Mom said. “You can sleep in Johnny’s room.”
That was bad news for me. Not only was he all grown up, but he had huge beaver teeth, glasses like my Grandpa’s, and he buttoned his shirt all the way up to the top. He also had his sweater on backward and he wore red socks with sandals.
“Your grandma has tord me you are an exerrent base-a-bore pitcher,” Xgung Wo said to me. “Maybe pray for Detroit Rions one day!”
Then he laughed in this hysterical, high-pitched, Woody Woodpecker voice and nodded his head and displayed his giant teeth.
“Huh? Huh? Huh?” he said, rubbing my head.
I didn’t get much time to worry about Xgung Wo sleeping in my room because my cousins arrived just after my grandparents. There was my Uncle Dave and Aunt Martha and my cousins, Darby, Kate, and Dale. The only one I really liked was Aunt Martha. Uncle Dave was crabby all the time, and his idea of a joke was to yank your underpants up your crack and when you tried to get them out ask you if you were going to the show, because you were picking your seat. My cousins would whine all the time and wouldn’t eat anything unless they asked a million questions about what it was, what was in it, how it was prepared, and what it tasted like.
“Isn’t this just the greatest?” Aunt Martha said, putting her arms around Mom and Grandma Swenson. “The whole family together for Christmas”
“Where are Mama and me sleeping?” Grandpa Pete interrupted. “Not in any darn bunk beds!”
Mom quieted down everybody and explained the sleeping arrangements. My sisters started to cry because they wanted to be in their own room for Christmas.
“Let the girls sleep in their rooms,” Aunt Martha said. “Dave and I’ll sleep in the family room.”
“The hell we will!” Uncle Dave said as he reached for the back of my underwear.
Just before Dad got home, Mom and Aunt Martha went into the kitchen and drew a diagram of the house and rearranged everyone, and it was just about the same except Dale and I were in the family room and Xgung Wo was in the basement. Mom seemed very happy to get that all taken care of before Dad got home, because he was in a bad mood when he had to park on the street. He also had gotten some bad news from work.
“The company really found that old Christmas spirit this year,” he said to Mom in the kitchen.
“You got your bonus?”
“Yeah,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “A cigarette lighter with my name on it.”
“It’s spelled wrong,” Mom noticed.
Dad took off his coat and hat and tossed them on a chair. He opened the liquor cabinet and started taking out bottles. Xgung Wo must have heard the clink of the glass because he stuck his head around the corner and said, “Vodka martini, two orives, prease.”
After a dinner of ham, which made everybody thirsty, we all went into the living room. Mom and Aunt Martha brought in big bowls of cranberries and popcorn and needles and thread.
“We’re going to make fun old-fashioned Christmas-tree trimmings!” Mom announced. Nobody seemed to care very much. Grandpa Pete and Grandpa Swenson were mad at each other again, because Grandpa Swenson accused Grandpa Pete of skipping dessert just so he could get dibs on the big wing chair.
Mom and Aunt Martha really put on the pressure for us to have a good time making the decorations. But it was hard getting a needle through a cranberry, and it was hard not to eat the popcorn, even though it didn’t have salt or butter on it.
“Can you put on some Christmas music, Clark?” Mom asked Dad.
He looked at her like she was nuts.
“Let’s sing ourselves!” Aunt Martha suggested.
“Great!” Mom said, clapping her hands. Then she and Aunt Martha broke into “Deck the Halls.”
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly!” they sang. “Come on!…Deck the halls … Everybody! Sing! Deck the halls with…”
But nobody except Xgung Wo joined in.
“Put on a record, Clark,” Mom said in a voice that was half angry, half sad.
Dad grumbled something and turned on Amy’s record player, which Mom had brought downstairs. He fished through the records and put on “Jingle Bells” by the Singing Dogs and turned it up real loud.
“Everybody bark along!” Dad shouted. He and Uncle Dave started barking. Then the kids joined in. It was fun, but Aunt Martha and Mom just sat there and looked mad. Then they quietly took the bowls of popcorn and cranberries into the kitchen and made coffee.
After the song was over, Dad and Uncle Dave went into the family room. They stopped off in the kitchen to apologize to Mom and Aunt Martha and to tell them how much fun they had making old-fashioned decorations. Then Dad mixed drinks.
“Gung Ho!” he called to Xgung Wo. “What’re you drinkin’?”
The pre-Christmas activities concluded with everybody crammed into the family room watching, Christmas a la Perry Como.
“He’s the only, s.o.b. who has fun at Christmas,” Dad said, referring to Mr. Como.
I had a ball that night. My cousins and my sisters and I waited until everybody went to bed, then we went downstairs and looked at our Christmas presents. Dale was kind of a clod about his presents, just rattling them and trying to guess the contents.
“No,” I told him. “You carefully take the tape off and look inside. Then you put the tape back.”
I demonstrated on a package that was on the top shelf of the downstairs hall closet.
“Holy cow!” I said. “It’s a BB gun!”
I was getting a BB gun! Dale wanted to take it out right away and go outside and shoot a bird or a car, but I told him it was one thing to peek at your presents and another altogether to play with them. My little sister made a mess of one of her presents and then started crying because she knew she was going to get caught.
“I wonder where my skis are?” I said.
“Probably in the basement,” Dale said.
“You can’t go down there,” my older sister, Audrey, said. “Zing Zoo is sleeping down there on the couch.”
That made it all the more fun. The girls were too scared to go down, so Dale and I went alone. It’s weird how a normal house can get very scary when there’s an Oriental guy in the basement.
“Shh!” I whispered as we tiptoed down the stairs, trying not to make the old wooden steps creak.
“What if he’s really a jap?” Dale said.
When we got to the bottom of the stairs, we saw the beat-up green couch and some blankets and a pillow, but no Xgung. Then we heard a noise in the utility room. I peeked in the door and saw Xgung standing on a chair reaching into the crawlspace. He was putting a bunch of Dad’s tools into an old suitcase and was just stepping down off the chair when he saw us. He dropped the suitcase and jumped down off the chair.
“Herro!” he said with a big, toothy grin.
I opened the door and stepped in. Dale was behind me, practically shaking with fear.
I was worried that Xgung would tell my parents that I was down in the basement in the middle of the night and that my parents would figure out what I was up to. So I told Xgung that Dale and I were looking for a game to play with, and he said, “Ha! I’m doing exactly the same thing.”
In the morning, that Christmas cheer people talk about was all over the house. People were humming Christmas songs. Even the grandpas were getting along, after discovering that they both hated the governor of Michigan. It wasn’t always easy to be pleasant with the house so crowded. It seemed like every time you went to do something, someone was already doing it. Especially in the bathroom.
“All right!” Dad yelled. “Everybody get their coats! We’re going for a tree!”
“Take Xgung,” Grandma Swenson said. “He’s never seen anyone purchase a Christmas tree before.”
Xgung threw down the last of his Bloody Mary and put on his sweater backward. Dad went out the front door and just disappeared. It wasn’t magic, it was ice. Somehow all that rain had turned to ice and it was bitter cold and as slippery as a hockey rink. Dad hit the porch and his legs went out from under him and he landed buttfirst.
“Goddammit all!” he yelled. Everything was covered with ice as thick as thumbnails. It took Dad, with his sore butt, and Uncle Dave, who could hardly stop laughing, and all of us kids half an hour to get the ice off the car windows. Dad was starting to get mad all over again. Especially when he caught Xgung chipping ice off the trunk with a stone.
“I married one hell of a genius,” Dad said as we looked at three frozen, drooping Christmas trees. “‘Let’s trim the tree on Christmas Eve,’ she says. ‘It’ll be lots of fun.'”
“I like this one, Daddy,” Amy said. She pointed to one of the trees. It looked like one of those bushes Italian people have in their front yards, the kind that are just a stick with a ball on top.
“This is it, sir,” the guy at the Christmas-tree lot said.
“How much?” Dad asked.
“Twelve fifty “
We drove all around looking for better trees but didn’t find any trees at all. We even tried to buy one of those fake, metal trees, but the only ones left were missing branches and looked worse than, and cost twice as much as, the crummy ones we saw before. So we went back to where we were first, but there were only two trees left and the price had gone up to twenty-five dollars.
Mom was furious with Dad for not buying a tree. The girls were crying at the prospect of a treeless Christmas. Uncle Dave was mad that we wasted most of the afternoon and ended up with nothing but a bunch of bellyaching kids.
“We can put the presents under a table, for Pete’s sake!” Dad said in a feeble defense.
“We are not going to have Christmas without a tree! Everybody has trees!”
“Oh, balls they do!” Dad argued. “Gung Ho, you don’t have Christmas trees over there in Hong Kong, do you?”
“I’m from Thai-rand, and yes, we have Christmas trees, but we don’t have much hoopra, just appreciation of Jesus and rots of famiry rove.”
Mom and Dad argued for a while and Grandma Swenson scolded Dad for yelling at Mom.
“You didn’t even bring home a Christmas bonus!” she sneered.
Dad reached into his pocket and took out the lighter. He flipped open the lid and fired it up. He waved the flame at Grandma.
“Yeah?” he said. Then he got a funny look in his eyes, put on his hat, and went into the garage.
“You want a tree? You’ll have a damn tree!” he yelled from the garage.
Mom tried to cover up all the arguing by gathering everybody into the living room to make a chain out of construction paper. It was kind of fun except for all the glue on the carpet. Uncle Dave was still laughing about Dad falling on his butt, and he kept showing his exactly how Dad fell and landed. He started laughing twice as hard when he saw Dad out the window.
“Clark!” Mom screamed. She ran to the door and flung it open.
“Get inside here! Right now!“
“You want a tree? You’ll get a damn tree! “
Dad was chopping down one of the pine trees in the front yard. Mom ran upstairs crying and Aunt Martha went up with her.
“What an irresponsible goofball,” Grandpa Swenson said, shaking his head.
“Well, if your damn daughter hadn’t hounded him so bad all these years, he wouldn’t be out there now!” Grandpa Pete said, defending Dad.
Dad brought the tree into the garage and attached the stand. He was in a much better mood. He always is after he does something really stupid.
I had to take that tree down anyway,” he told me. “May as well save twenty-five bucks, huh?”
“We’ve got a lot of pine trees, Dad.”
“What do you think the pioneers and old-timers did? Go to a church Christmas-tree lot? Heck, no. They used one of their own trees.”
After a while Mom came downstairs, and the tree was so pretty and Dad’s talk about pioneers and oldtimers fit so well with the idea of a fun old-fashioned Christmas that Mom gave him a kiss and said she was sorry, and all the cheer and stuff came back and lasted until the bird flew out of the tree.
“I didn’t pick a tree with a bird in it!” Dad shouted at Mom as he chased the bird around the living room with a paper bag.
“Are you nuts?” Uncle Dave said. “You’ll never catch a bird in a bag. You need a broom!”
“Don’t kill it, Daddy!” Darby shrieked. “It’s somebody’s state bird!”
“Eek! Cover your hair!” Audrey screamed. “It’ll lay eggs!”
“That’s a bat,” I told her.
“I’m not taking chances!”
“Open the windows!” Dad yelled as the bird swooped back and forth across the living room.
“It’s freezing cold outside!” Grandma Swenson said.
“Well, go upstairs!”
“Don’t be a snoot!”
Uncle Dave came running into the living room with a broom and in a matter of seconds put three big broom marks on the walls. Mom grabbed the broom away from him.
“I just had these walls painted! Darn you!”
“He was just trying to help!” Aunt Martha said.
“Well, help he didn’t!”
“We’re sorry! If Clark hadn’t been so cheap, you wouldn’t have a bird in your living room!”
Dad heard that, and he turned to Aunt Martha and gave her a dirty look that was dirtier than the marks on the wall. And Aunt Martha gave him one back.
“There he goes!” Grandpa Swenson yelled as the bird flew out the living room window.
“Here he comes!” yelled Grandpa Pete.
The bird had flown a big loop from the front of the house around to the back and in through the opposite windows and was back in the house again, swooping up and back.
“Here he comes!” Dad yelled to Grandpa Swenson. The bird whooshed across the living room. Grandpa Swenson slammed the window shut just a split second before the bird got all the way out.
By the time the problem was all over and the bird had been flicked out in the yard, it was just about time for Dad and Uncle Dave to go pick up Aunt Hazel. Aunt Hazel, by the way, was older than even my grandparents, and nobody was really sure how she got to be an aunt of ours, but she’d been around for so many Christmases that it didn’t make any difference anymore. She was very nice and just sort of sat there in her seat and watched everything. She always brought over presents that nobody liked. I think she just wrapped up stuff she had around the house. When I was seven she gave me a bib, a rattle, and a box of handkerchiefs.
“Anyone for oyster stew?” Mom called from the kitchen. Everybody made faces except Grandma and Grandpa Swenson. They both said, “Yum!”
“I’d rather eat dirt,” Grandpa Pete said over the top of his newspaper.
“You don’t know good eating!” Grandpa Swenson said.
“The Swedes do?” Grandma Alice asked.
“Hell, yes, we do!” Grandpa Swenson said. “You Norwegians don’t know your mouth from your…”
“Dad!” Mom said, wiping her hands on her apron. “I wonder where Clark could be? Its been over an hour.”
He’s probably having a drink somewhere,” Grandma Swenson said through her nose.
Mom glared at her.
“Don’t look at me like that! He’s had a snootful every night we’ve been here.”
“I can’t imagine what happened to them,” Aunt Martha said, biting the tip of her thumb. “I’m getting worried”
Grandpa Swenson told her that she ought to start worrying about the turkey in the oven. He said it looked like it was about to blow its stuffing into the next county. Aunt Martha is a real swell person and a real cool aunt, but she’s a terrible cook. Nobody could figure out what she did to the turkey to make it explode, but it did. No one was hurt or anything like that; it’s just that the turkey kind of came apart down the middle, and a lot of the dressing ended up on the windows of the oven.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Aunt Martha said as she scraped dressing onto a plate. “What did I do wrong?”
“It’ll be fine,” Mom said, to make Aunt Martha feel better, even though I could tell she wanted to cry. She’d bought parsley and everything to make the dinner look like a page out of Better Homes and Gardens. But instead, as my cousin Dale said, it looked like a dinner that got tortured by the Apaches.
Mom and Grandma Swenson had just finished sewing up the turkey with string when Dad and Uncle Dave and Aunt Hazel arrived.
“Oh! That was fun!” Aunt Hazel said. “I love riding in cars!”
“Where on earth have you been? I’ve chewed my nails to the quick worrying,” Mom said in the nice/angry voice that she uses around company.
“It’s all my fault, dear,” Aunt Hazel confessed. “I moved across the street in September… no, January, and it completely slipped my mind to tell you when you called.”
Dad made the cuckoo sign behind Aunt Hazel’s head and mouthed, “Nutty,” and Mom gave him a dirty look.
“Where’s Dave?” Mom asked just as Uncle Dave came in the front door with an armload of presents.
“Shee-it!” he mumbled as he struggled under the weight of the stuff.
“Oh, Aunt Hazel, you shouldn’t have.”
“What did I do, dear?” Aunt Hazel asked. Aunt Hazel was what you’d call a cute old woman. Even someone as young as I was called her cute. No one ever minded when she gave out kisses. It was just a shame that she wasn’t a little more on the ball.
“The presents. You shouldn’t have brought presents,” Mom said.
“Well, heavens,” Aunt Hazel said, waving her tiny white hand. “It’s not every day that someone moves into a new house.”
“This new house is just lovely. It’s so much bigger than the old house.”
Dad leaned over and whispered in Mom’s ear, “She thought Dave and I were trick-or-treaters.”
“Hey, what about this stuff?” Uncle Dave said. “Where should I dump it?”
“In the living room, Dave,” Mom said.
“Woof,” one of the boxes said.
Aunt Hazel wandered into the kitchen complimenting Mom on what a swell new kitchen our regular old kitchen was. Uncle Dave set down the packages.
“Either it’s me or the Scotch, but one of these damn boxes barked.”
“Woof!” the package said again.
“Jesus S. Smith!” Dad said, shaking a box about the size of a hatbox. He ripped it open and a dachshund jumped out and ran around in circles, yipping and yapping.
“She wrapped up her damn dog,” Dad said under his breath.
“I wonder what else she wrapped up!” I said excitedly.
Mom went upstairs and changed into her big huge Christmas skirt with the Santa Claus on the front and the reindeer on the back. Xgung came up from the basement and crashed into Aunt Hazel. He apologized about ten times and told Aunt Hazel that she had skin like ivory. She told him that his sweater was on backward and wandered into the dining room. Xgung picked up one of Aunt Hazel’s earrings that got knocked off her ear when he crashed into her. He started to put it in his pocket, but when he saw that I was watching him he laughed and put it on the counter.
Dinner was just as terrible to swallow as it was to look at. Aunt Martha had gotten the stuffing recipe out of a magazine and it had bacon and radishes in it and it was awful. Everybody pretended to enjoy it, though, because either they wanted to be polite or they were so excited about Santa Claus coming that they didn’t care. But it was a hard dinner to eat, especially after Dad found the waxed-paper bag full of guts and gizzards that Aunt Martha forgot to take out of the turkey.
“Well, hon,” Uncle Dave said. “At least you had the good sense to take the bird out of the shopping bag before you cooked it.”
“The dog’ll love it,” Mom said, smiling at Aunt Hazel.
“Did you get a dog?” she said.
About the only interesting thing that happened at dinner was that Grandpa Pete got some pepper up his nose and sneezed, and when he sneezed he blew a huge fart.
“Hail, Mary!” he said with a big smile. Grandma Alice poked him, and Grandma and Grandpa Swenson took their plates to the kitchen. Everybody else kept eating except Dale and me.
We laughed so hard we had to hold our things to keep from wetting our Christmas Eve pants.
After dinner, the women cleared the table and did the dishes while the men and the kids went into the living room. The two grandpas flipped a coin to see who got the wing chair. Grandpa Swenson won, and he said it was justice in action, because Grandpa Pete cheated his way through life. Xgung mixed some after-dinner drinks. Audrey said she overheard him tell Grandma Alice that he was only having a Coke and that the booze drinks were for Dad and Uncle Dave. It started to bother me that such a sneaky guy, who lies to grandparents and who wasn’t even related to me, would witness my personal Christmas glee when we opened presents.
Mom and Aunt Martha’s instructions were that we were supposed to get the tree ready for trimming and when they were all done in the kitchen they would put on records and turn off the lights and we would all trim the tree. Then the kids would go upstairs and wait for Santa Claus.
“Where the heck are all the lights?” Dad said, counting the strands of lights. “There’s only three. There were four.”
He looked at me and I shrugged my shoulders.
“Don’t ask me.” I said.
“Don’t get smart!”
We looked all over, but we couldn’t find them. We also couldn’t find a box of tinsel and the cookie snowmen that Aunt Martha made for the tree.
“Well, hell’s bells!” Dad said as he started putting up the three strands of lights. Uncle Dave sat in a chair and told Dad that he was putting too many lights at the top.
“Would you like to do it?” Dad said angrily.
“You’re doing fine, except you’re putting too many lights on top and you won’t have enough when you get to the bottom.”
After Dad ended up with too many lights at the bottom, he said a swear word and Uncle Dave gave it a try. He got almost as mad as Dad when Grandpa Pete told him he was putting too many lights in the middle. Uncle Dave was in the Marine Corps and he was very particular about things being just so and it really seemed to bother him that the lights weren’t working out.
“Are you ready?” Mom said as the women filed into the living room.
“If you had enough lights, we’d be ready,” Uncle Dave said on his fourth or fifth attempt at making the three strands cover the whole tree.
“We have four strands,” Mom said as she began directing people like a traffic cop. “Aunt Hazel, you sit there on the couch.”
“That was delicious ham, Ellen,” Aunt Hazel said, sitting on one of the cane chairs by the door.
“I’ll sit under the tree so that I can pass out gifts,” Mom said.
“That is, if Santa Claus comes,” Grandpa Pete joked. “I heard on the radio that Santa fell out of his sleigh over the ocean and the Coast Guard is looking for him right now, but the water is…”
“Dad!” Mom said as Amy and Darby burst into tears.
“I’m telling you there aren’t enough g.d. lights for this tree.”
“Just put up what you have, Dave,” Aunt Martha snarled.
“Let’s get the show on the road!” Grandpa Swenson said, lighting a cigar.
“You and your stinkeroos! P-U!” Grandma Alice grumbled.
“It’s so damn dark in here, I can’t make out a thing,” Grandpa Pete said.
“It’s supposed to be dark, Grandpa,” Audrey said. “Like in the olden times when they didn’t have light bulbs.”
“Well, we have light bulbs now, let’s use them.”
He reached over and pulled the chain on the table lamp. It didn’t go on. He felt around on the floor for the plug.
“It’s not plugged in.”
“You can’t decorate a tree with only three strands of lights”
“It doesn’t have to be perfect!”
“Then what the hell’s the point of doing it!”
“Jinger berrs, jinger berrs, jinger arr the way!” Xgung began to sing. “Join in, chirdren!”
Everybody was talking and singing at once. It was like how China must be during a major catastrophe. Then Grandpa Pete found a cord and plugged it in. There was a crackling sound, the lights in the whole house dimmed, and from under the couch came a tremendous yelp and a loud pop!
“Holy Jesus! You blew a fuse!”
Smoke started to seep out from under the couch, and it smelled horrible. Everybody got up off the couch. It was dark and there was smoke and smells and the girls were shrieking.
“What’s cooking?” Aunt Hazel asked.
“Get a flashlight, Clark!”
Of course, we couldn’t find the flashlight, and when we did, the batteries were dead, so Dad had to go down in the basement and open up presents to get batteries out of toys.
“This is why I get so mad when you fool around with the flashlight!” he yelled at me.
“Why didn’t you just put in a new fuse, dumb-dumb,” Uncle Dave said.
“Because they’re all blown, smart guy!”
“Well, put one in. Don’t tell me you don’t keep extra fuses?”
Dad told Uncle Dave that if he had an extra fuse, he wouldn’t put it in the fuse box, he’d put it up Uncle Dave’s rear end. Uncle Dave said it was a good thing he couldn’t see Dad in the dark or else he’d pound him. They went back and forth until Mom reminded them about the smelly smoke under the couch.
Dad and Uncle Dave lifted up the couch while Mom held the flashlight.
“God! No!” Aunt Martha yelped. Then everybody started screaming and the girls cried even louder, Dale and I yelled, Grandma Alice fainted on the couch, and Darby heaved her Jell-O, milk, olives, and dessert.
Lying in the dustballs on the carpet where the couch used to be was what used to be Aunt Hazel’s dachshund. He was lying stretched out with the missing strand of lights going in his mouth and coming out his behind.
“There’s the damn lights,” Uncle Dave said calmly.
“Out! Out! Everybody out!” Dad said between gags.
“What a terrible Christmas this is!” Grandma Alice muttered.
Dad and Uncle Dave put on oven mitts and picked up the dog. He was kind of melted to the carpet and there was a really disgusting sound when they had to peel him off. Like if you put a microphone to a big knee scab.
“How would you like two-hundred amp service shooting out your bunghole?” I heard Uncle Dave whisper to Dad. “I could arrange it.”
After Dad and Uncle Dave got back from burying the dachshund in the garbage can and Mom and Aunt Martha had swept up the balls of dog hair and pieces of glass and the tinsel the dog ate and had opened the windows to let out the smell, all the kids went upstairs to wait for Santa Claus.
We were all lying in our beds listening to the parents and grandparents bring the presents in from the garage and basement. It wasn’t like other years, when Dad would whistle and there would be lots of pleasant chatter. It was quiet and serious. It was sort of like listening to guys at the grocery store stock the shelves. But still, all I could think about were my skis.
Then the old sleigh bells that Grandpa Swenson brought from home every year jingled and we all leaped out of our beds and raced to the stairs. We were halfway down the stairs when Grandpa Swenson shined the flashlight on us and said, “Halt! Pictures!”
We had to get in order, with the shortest at the bottom and tallest at the top. Then my cousins had to get out of the picture. Then we had to wait for Dad to get out the movie camera, and he was so crabby that he wouldn’t let anyone tell him he couldn’t run the movie lights because the electricity was out, so he got it all set up, realized there wasn’t electricity, and got mad and threw the camera in the closet and went in the living room and sat down. Then Aunt Hazel fell down the basement stairs.
“I told you not to let her wander around in the dark!” Mom yelled at Aunt Martha.
“I couldn’t see her!”
“What do you mean, you couldn’t see her?”
“I mean, I couldn’t see her!”
“Shall we let her lie down in the basement while you dumb broads bicker?” Dad said.
“When are we going to open our presents?” Audrey whined.
“Yeah,” Darby added.
Aunt Hazel didn’t die or anything, although Grandpa Swenson pointed out that falling down stairs is just about as dangerous for elderly folks as heart attacks and damp weather. Dad and Uncle Dave had put the couch in the basement because it had the exploding dog odors all over the underside of it and Aunt Hazel landed on it instead of the cement floor. Mom explained after talking to Aunt Hazel that what had happened was Aunt Hazel had opened the door thinking it was the bathroom. She got ready to sit down on the toilet and, of course, there wasn’t a toilet to sit on and she fell backward. She thought she landed on her head and then hit the couch, but she wasn’t sure because she said it was too dark. But anyway, she said she felt fine except for not being able to move her arms.
“Call the fire department,” Mom told Dad. “And make your brother-in-law shut up.”
Uncle Dave thought that Aunt Hazel’s thinking she was sitting on the toilet was the funniest thing he ever heard.
“I’m sorry, but, oooh hooo!” he laughed, until Grandma Swenson smacked him on the knuckles with the silent butler.
“We better not move her,” Dad said to Mom after he called the fire department. “The ambulance will be here as soon as it can. There’re a lot of emergencies tonight”
“This is an emergency, too!” Mom said, patting Aunt Hazel’s wrist.
“Is someone playing a saxophone?” Aunt Hazel inquired.
“We better do something about the presents, Dad said. “The kids are getting anxious.”
After deciding that it would be too much trouble to move Christmas down to the basement and too difficult to move the couch upstairs, we left Aunt Hazel in the basement while we hurried up and opened our presents. Mom felt real bad leaving her alone down there, but Aunt Hazel said she’d be okay.
It was almost impossible to have a good time opening presents in the dark. If you wanted to see what you got, you had to wait for the flashlight.
“What did I get that feels woolly?” Dad asked. “A sweater?”
“It’s a scarf,” Mom answered.
“Yea! I think I got a doll!” Amy shouted.
“Here’s a present for Xgung Wo,” Mom said, flashing the light on a small package. “Xgung Wo?”
“He’s probably in the bathroom,” Audrey snapped. “Keep going!” Audrey was nervous because the total estimated retail price of her gifts was far behind that of the other kids’ and she feared that she might come up short.
“What the hell is this?” Uncle Dave said. “Shine the I light over here, Ellen.”
“It’s a shorty bathrobe,” Aunt Martha said.
“I guess so… This would hardly cover the tip of my…”
“Here’s another present for Xgung.”
Mom flashed the light around the room. There was no Xgung. Grandma Swenson stood up and felt her way to the foyer.
“He’s probably downstairs in his room, feeling homesick,” she said.
“You be careful, Mother,” Mom called.
Dad got a rack to hang his ties on and a pair of socks from me. Grandpa Pete got a fruitcake from the Swensons and a shoe from Aunt Hazel. Then Mom handed the BB-gun box to Dale. I reached up and intercepted it.
“Thanks,” I said to Mom.
“This is for Dale,” she said.
“No, it’s not!”
“It certainly is. It’s for Dale from Dad.”
Dale went crazy when he got the BB gun. He ripped open the box and BBs went all over.
“A gun! I got a gun! A real gun! Cooooool!”
I felt like somebody’d hit a golf ball off my head. What a shock!
“Thanks a hell of a lot,” Uncle Dave said to Dad.
“I just hope Dale enjoys the BB gun as much as John enjoys the bow and arrow set you gave him last year.”
Grandma Swenson banged her way into the living room.
“Ellen?” she said. “Ellen? Xgung Wo isn’t anywhere.”
“He has to be somewhere, Mother,” Mom answered.
“His coat is gone,” Grandma Swenson said.
“Well, to heck with him,” Grandma Alice grumbled. “If he can’t even say good-bye…”
Mom cursed under her breath and got up. She and Grandma Swenson went into the foyer to talk. I heard Grandma Swenson tell Mom that not only was Xgung’s coat gone but so was her purse. She had checked around and discovered that Mom’s purse and Aunt Martha’s purse were also gone. She wasn’t sure but she thought maybe our good forks and, knives and the dining-room candlesticks were gone too.
“I have an announcement to make,” Mom said angrily. “It seems as though Xgung Wo has taken advantage of our hospitality and has robbed us.”
Aunt Martha screamed. Uncle Dave and Dad jumped up and started swearing. Grandpa Pete slapped his knee and yelled, “I told ya! I told ya!” Grandma Alice started sputtering. And Grandpa Swenson went over to comfort Grandma Swenson.
“We’re good people, Mama,” Grandpa Swenson said as Grandma whimpered softly. “We try our best.”
As it turned out, Xgung didn’t get very far. As a matter of fact, he hardly got out of the driveway. I guess over in the Orient guys don’t look over their shoulders when they back up, because Xgung crashed right into the ambulance that was coming to pick up Aunt Hazel. Inside the house we’d heard the siren grow louder and louder and then bang!
We all ran outside and saw the ambulance up on the lawn and Grandpa Pete’s car sitting sideways in the street. Xgung climbed out of the car and started running away with the three purses over his arm and the old suitcase from the basement. But he must have been stunned or something, because he ran like a football player going out for a pass, zigzagging down the street.
“Give me the gun!” Uncle Dave yelled to Dale. Dale ran over with his new BB gun.
“Dave!” Aunt,Martha shouted. “You can put an eye out with that thing!”
“Righty-o!” Uncle Dave chuckled as he pumped and fired. He hit Xgung in the neck, and Xgung dropped the suitcase and the purses and started jumping up and down, hollering in Oriental. Uncle Dave took off across the lawn and tackled him and put him in a headlock.
“Chop, chop!” Uncle Dave said as he led Xgung back to the house.
The ambulance drivers weren’t hurt too much, except for some bloody noses and fingers.
“Would you like some hot coffee?” Mom asked them as they administered treatment to themselves.
“Not right now, ma’am,” one of them said. “But you might want to call the police.”
While Dad called the police, Uncle Dave took Xgung into the living room and held the BB gun against his left eye.
“Don’t move a muscle!” he told Xgung.
“I’m not a climinal!” Xgung said. “I’m underplivileged!”
Grandma Swenson didn’t like the way Uncle Dave was treating Xgung and she told him to put the gun down. Grandpa Pete told her to mind her business.
“If you want to stick your nose in something,” Grandpa Pete told her, “Why don’t you stick it in your checkbook and write me out a check for a new car!”
“You’re not going to talk to my wife that way!” Grandpa Swenson said. Then he slapped Grandpa Pete on the top of his bald head. Grandpa Pete reached back and socked Grandpa Swenson in the truss.
Meanwhile, Mom and Dad were fighting out on the front lawn about why Mom wanted to have a fun old-fashioned Christmas in the first place. Darby and Audrey were arguing about something, and Darby chased Audrey out the front door and hit her in the back with the board to her new Clue game, and Audrey turned around and dented Darby’s braces with her elbow. Aunt Hazel had a hallucination or something and started wandering around the basement. She split open her shins on the hot-water heater and ended up thinking she was talking to Arthur Godfrey on Audrey’s old toy phone. Aunt Martha sort of snapped; she was sitting on the front porch tugging on her wedding ring and mumbling about how nothing in life ever works out. As for the skis I was hoping I’d get, they were out in the street. Xgung had stolen them, too, and when he cracked up the car, they fell out. When the cops showed up they parked on top of them. It just didn’t seem like Christmas could get any worse. It was so terrible around our house that the injured ambulance guys said they’d stay in their car instead of going inside.
Mom was just about to start tearing apart the manger scene in the front yard when she noticed something in the sky.
“Look!” she yelled. “Everybody! Look!”
She pointed to a dot of light in the north sky.
“Do you see it?”
We all gathered around her. Uncle Dave led Xgung outside. Grandma and Grandpa Swenson and Grandpa Pete and Grandma Alice, the cops and Aunt Hazel, Darby, Dale, Katie, Audrey, Amy, and all made a circle around Mom. She pointed up to the sky.
“Do you see it?” she asked, brushing her hair from her eyes. Snowflakes began to fall. “Do you see that star? Nineteen hundred fifty-nine years ago, three wise men saw a star like that.”
“The Star of Bethlehem!” Aunt Martha said.
We all studied the star.
“Let us set aside our bitter feelings,” Mom said. “This is Christmas. The trials and tribulations of our daily life, the chaos of this gathering, the auto theft and the burned turkey, the petty fights and pointless hostilities mean so little on this night. We are family and we are together on this most important night of the whole year. Let’s let our love shine through the hatred so that in the light of that distant star we may embrace the true spirit of Christmas.”
Mom bowed her head and began to sing softly
“Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
“Born this happy morning,
“Jesus, to Thee all glory giv’n,
“Word of the Father,
“Now in flesh appearing,
“O come Let us adore Him,
“O come Let us adore Him,
“Venite adoremus Dominun,
“Christ the Lord.”
We all joined together, putting our arms around each other. Uncle Dave put his arm around Xgung, Grandpa Pete put his around Grandpa Swenson, Dad hugged Mom, I kissed Audrey. We stood staring at the point of light, the snowflakes melting on our cheeks and mixing with our tears.
“You know something, lady,” one of the policemen said. “That ain’t a star. That’s an airplane.“