I don’t like Christmas, but I decided to give it a second chance this past year. During my younger years, we were great friends, Christmas and I. I sang “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” at the top of my lungs, played an angel in the church pageants and in return Santa filled my stocking with pop rocks and chocolate coins and the Betty Spaghetti doll I had begged for.
It was 6th grade when I had my first less-than-hallmark Christmas. My family was in Uganda and we discovered cultural differences affected holidays as much as it did everything else. We lived on a hill, and in the valley below an open-air market appeared a few weeks before Christmas, and beckoned customers from all the surrounding villages to shop and celebrate. All day voices bartered for better prices in the back ground as I tried to do my school work. All night, singing and shouts of good cheer interrupted my sleep. Then it started. Here in America, Christmas carols play in shopping centers, homes, and car radios, and it can get a little tiresome. One can only hear “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” so many times before shooting a few reindeer as Santa flies over sounds like a good idea. Yes, Christmas music can be irritating after too long, but let me tell you, disco music is so much worse. From 10am until 6 the next morning we heard the hits of my parent’s childhood at full volume. We thanked God when the call to prayer sounded over the speakers, signaling four hours of quiet until the music would start again. For a full two weeks, all we heard was disco until even my Dad was tired of “Dancing Queen.”
In 7th grade, we decided to escape the disco music, and traveled to Nairobi, Kenya for our winter break. We stayed in a large wooden house with a long banister that my siblings and I made full use of. For the first time in several years, my family enjoyed eating hamburgers. We shopped at a mall where we weren’t the only white people. We even splurged and went to a water park for the first time.
My sister and I spent the evening before Christmas Eve with the home-owner’s daughter, showing her how to make chocolate cake, vanilla frosting, and chocolate chip cookies. We returned to the house and were preparing to attend an evening service nearby when my dad’s phone rang. It was Al.
“Howdy, Howdy!” my dad answered. “Oh, Al! How’re you doing?”
I watched my mom as she watched my dad. It was strange enough that we were getting an actual phone call from one of the relatives, but that it was mom’s second cousin added to the mystery.
Dad held the phone to his head with one hand and covered his exposed ear with the other. He listened for a long time. He said goodbye, and put the phone down. He sat down.
“Grandpa Madsen has pneumonia and the doctors don’t think he’s going to make it.” He looked at my mom. “And your dad has colon cancer.”
“Well, Victor, I think you need to go see your dad,” Mom said. “As soon as possible.”
For the next hour or so my siblings and I sat quietly by while my parents discussed what this would mean. I pretended to do my grammar homework. Occasionally my sister would add a comment, but I focused on section 3 question A: The raccoons snuck or sneaked into the trash?
Finally my parents called us all together. “Since both Grandpa Ragsdale and Grandpa Madsen are sick, we’re all going to all go back to America together,” they said. “We had a furlough scheduled for next year, we’ll just go early.” They called the head of our mission to get approval and figure out a few details, and sent us of to bed.
Christmas Eve we woke up, ate a quick breakfast, and headed to an office with internet connection. All day we looked at plane tickets. I read over my mom’s shoulder, shocked at what the cost would be. After a few hours I gave up and returned to my homework.
Christmas day was much the same. We hastily opened presents, packed them up, and within the hour were back to searching for tickets.
The day after Christmas we finally had some luck. The tickets weren’t cheap, but they were ours. At 11 that evening, we boarded a 6 hour flight to London followed by a 14 hour flight to LA, ending with a 3 hour-too long flight to Portland-layovers not included.
My Grandpa Ragsdale slowly recovered and is still alive and healthy today. Grandpa Madsen did pass away, but he held on for five more months, and the memories we made with him during that time let us forget the cost of the tickets, and all our responsibilities on the other side of the globe. When we had to face them again, my parents made the very difficult decision that we would stay in the States.
The next few Christmas’ were overshadowed by moves to Hillsboro, Newberg, and Troutdale that occurred in the first few years. I remember them vaguely, which I suppose is good because it means nothing too horrific happened. But sophomore year, that would change.
For the first year since our return to America, my parents chose to avoid the hassle of explaining to one side of the family why we wouldn’t be with them for Christmas-we were with you last Christmas, it’s the Ragsdale’s turn-and spend the day in our town, together. In the afternoon, we decided a trip to Mr. Hood to play in the snow would be an enjoyable way to celebrate the holiday. We made the 30 minute drive up, fell out of the van, and began forming snowballs. Here’s the thing with snow though: it’s cold. After 20 minutes, my brother was complaining of the cold, and I wasn’t too big a fan of it myself. Though my parents were obviously not amused by our protest, they decided to let the fun continue by stopping at Timberline lodge for hot cocoa and the experience of watching others have fun in the snow.
Content and warm from the cocoa, we drove down from Timberline, singing carols, but changing the words. After the third round of “Chipmunks roasting on an open fire” my mom hushed us and we looked outside to discover the last 10 minutes had only taken us a 2-minute’s distance. As we continued down the mountain, traffic slowed even further. After an hour and a half and only a few miles, we were low on patience, Christmas cheer, and fuel. A half hour later we inched into a gas station. After our tank was filled, we went into the mini-mart attached and heard the news. A mentally unstable young man had shot his mother earlier in the day and had taken his rifle to the highway to use cars for target practice. The police had blocked off the road, and traffic wasn’t able to move faster than 25mph all the way into Portland. We mustered our sense of adventure, ate a Christmas dinner of breakfast burritos and Arizona Iced Tea, and continued on our way. We figured out an alternate route but the usual thirty minute trip took five hours.
Last Christmas wasn’t what most would consider ideal. To put it bluntly, my family is poor, and last year more than other years. We were able to buy a tree, but there was nothing under it. It was decided getting away from home would be a good plan, so we used the money we had to fill the tank with gas, and spend a few days with my cousins in Bend. We woke up Christmas morning to snow, hot cocoa, and family members exchanging memories from the last year. We gathered in the living room to open stockings. My siblings and I each got an orange, a chocolate bar, and some lifesavers. My cousins each got a stocking stuffed with gift cards, cosmetics, fuzzy socks, and other novelties. Then the presents came.
“A kindle fire? Thanks mom,” my cousin Alina said. “And a new ipod? Dad, come here and give me a hug.”
I sat quietly with a super-glued smile on my faces trying not to think of how much everything must have cost.
“Carmel, why don’t you bring the kid’s presents out and open them now?” my Aunt Julie said.
“We would but we….left them at home,” my mom said.
“Well then you get two Christmas’ don’t you?” my grandma said, smiling.
“Greaaaaat,” I thought.
I love my family, but I was more than happy when that visit was over. The next morning, my grandparents dropped by our house on their way back home.
“We couldn’t figure out what to buy you kids for Christmas this year,” they said. “So we thought we’d give you this instead.” We were each handed $50 dollars.
“Dad’s paycheck came today,” my mom told us once they left. “Merry Christmas!” We were given an additional $50.
“No mom, take it back,” my sister said. “You need it more than we do.”
“I’ll keep mine if you don’t mind,” my brother said, tucking the wad into his pocket.
After a few minutes of argument, a compromise was reached. We would go on shopping for a few hours and buy presents for each other, bring them home, go to a movie, and open them in the evening.
We did. It’s amazing how much $50 can buy when everything is on sale, and The Hobbit was enjoyed by everyone. It’s the best Christmas I’ve ever had.
It’s that time of year again, and our tree is once again empty. My dad lost his job over Thanksgiving break, so I don’t know if gifts will happen or not. It would be a lie to say I’m excited for the holiday, because I’ve hated Christmas for so long. But this year, I decided to give it a second chance.