The Christmas Consolation Prize
by Meg Frances
This short holiday story is based on true events.
“I know something you don’t know…” The mother slyly sang this coded phrase. The children, their limbs tangled up across the plastic covered couch like gutted squid at a supermarket in Chinatown, looked up at one another with mounting anticipation. These six words had been the start of a strange family tradition. A private custom that only they were privy to. It meant, this house is holding your unique surprises close to her bosom, hidden in the curves of her brassiere. It meant, pause the silly little worlds that children inhabit and move seriously towards the hunt.
The quest was for the gifts that their mother, unbeknownst to them earlier in the week (and with the help of their cunning father) had squirreled away in the rooms of their two story home. The children scrambled away from the TV and towards the singing voice of this person who loved them.
“I know something you don’t know, Cassie!” It was different when she added each of the cherished names of her three babies. They became primal and competitive. They rushed from room to room, trying to find their personal treasure before the others did. The bragging rights of being first, faster, and more perceptive of Mommy’s vague directives was a much coveted right.
Cassie stepped out in front of Jace and Marco. At eleven, she was the oldest and currently the tallest; as she walked her honey colored braids swung back and forth behind her. In her highly inflated opinion of herself as the first born, she was also the best at this annual game of their mother’s invention. The game was conceived out of guilt and born of whimsy. It was a verbal match with no teams or halftime or goal posts. It was a third hide and seek, a third scavenger hunt, and the last part was like telling a riddle on a road trip. The children had played it for as long as they could remember.
Being a moderately strict Jehovah’s Witness, the mother and her small family did not celebrate Christmas. The rules around this time of year were a patchwork of complicated and confusing commandments. Lovingly enforced, they stood up hard though unwritten. They had to be like the rules, the children. Misunderstood but steadfast and unwavering. “You have to make your yes mean yes and your no mean no. (Matthew 5:37)” she often told them.
They had to be fiercely guided towards The Truth, as any parent who loved Jehovah knew. To fall short of properly indoctrinating the children would be a viewed as a personal failure that the mother would not suffer. The rules were carefully spun from her interpretation of biblical teachings. She considered herself to be somewhat of a scholar, she had read The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures several times, she attended the meetings thrice a week, and even went out on the weekends into Field Service. She’d knocked on hundreds of doors and had spoken to dozens of people about The Greatest Man Who Had Ever Lived and Paradise on Earth. And she knew how much room they had to wiggle in through the teeny tiny loopholes.
Absolutely no Christmas, because Jesus was not born on that day. Christmas came not from the worship of the Christ-child, but from evil pagan rituals that corrupted The Truth. This is how the children remembered why they could not join the class in coloring pictures of Santa Claus, whom they always knew to be a fraud. This is what they told their teachers. “My mom says that I have to go to the library until the Easter/Valentine’s Day/Christmas/Halloween/Birthday party is over.” Or their sympathetic 9-3 o’clock caregivers just quietly sent them there before the festivities began, having been instructed to do so at the beginning of the school year via an authoritative letter from their mother. Complete with scriptural footnotes so they could cross check it with their inferior Bibles at home.
This is why Cassie became such a voracious reader. Spending all her free time with books and consuming them like painkillers. This is when Jace began to lead a double life, asking his friends to save a gingerbread man for him. Cursing rebelliously into the air behind the shed in the back yard. This is the point in time where Marco became a certified Momma’s Boy, spying on the other two children and reporting back to HQ. “Jace has a chocolate with a vampire on it!” The rules said that he must throw it away. You can’t allow your children to accidentally bring Satan into your home.
The rules said that at school, they were marked as different, more other than The Other, or just sad Christmas-less children. Their strange refusals made them decidedly unAmerican too. They never spoke the daily oaths to the flag or to their country. They were instructed not to stand up with their hands over their hearts. They sat still and hoped that no one noticed them, even after 9/11. Cassie was once referred to as “The Girl Who Doesn’t Say the Pledge of Allegiance”, even though she was sure that popular boy knew her real name.
In the privacy of their own home, the rules said they could watch the endless parade and the weeklong, colorful, magical marathon of Happy Holidays Family Films. Not every JoHo family did this. Home Alone 2 was Cassie’s favorite. She loved seeing a kid so independent and empowered in a big city where no one knew you. Jace and Marco loved the simple physical comedy of The Santa Clause. Their father, a classic funny guy, liked National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And their mother just liked the time they got to spend together, snuggling on the couch with the fireplace lit.
Sometimes, the mother would make hot chocolate and pile the kids into the minivan. The cream colored used vehicle with side wood paneling was missing a back seat, and the children would roll around, laughing and spilling their warm drinks as the mother drove erratically. The father couldn’t come because he was always working very, very hard. He was a great provider, though he did not share his wife’s religious beliefs. He was sort of raised a Catholic and he didn’t concern himself with the immaterial world and its endless lectures. He was a good man who was nice to people and loved his family. If the mother asked him to pray before dinner, he would make up something very short and positive. If you asked him, which no one ever did, he would admit that he believed in God. But he couldn’t tell you why.
She took them to see the Christmas lights in the rich neighborhoods. At the big one on the corner, every year the elderly couple dressed up as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. They stood in their yard next to the plastic glowing Rudolf and handed out candy canes to passing families. The children never got out of the van. That would be stepping past the rules into the realm of actual participation, which was forbidden. They only drove by slowly, oohing and ahhing at the beautiful lights that they weren’t allowed to hang.
So when Cassie looked her mother in the eyes and said, “Am I hot or cold?” She meant, I am playing along with you. I am pretending that this consolation, always just before or after December 25th, will make up for all those cliche memories that I will never form. Never having wrapped a gift before, she watched in amazement as peers around her deftly folded paper and covered their textbooks at the beginning of the school year. The children had never smelled a real Christmas tree, but thought they all knew what its scent would be like. Cassie imagined the way the air smelled just after it snowed. Jace thought of the pine tree freshener hanging on the rear view mirror in his daddy’s blue pickup truck. Marco, the five year old that he was, said they probably smell like what grass tastes like when you chew on it and spit it back into your hand. Jace punched him in the stomach for being weird.
Cassie moved past her mother and into the kitchen, frantically throwing open cabinets and drawers. Her brothers stared at her, waiting for their own messages. Marco began to chew on the inside of his lip, surprises made him anxious. Jace could barely sit still, he began to turn over the couch pillows in anticipation of finding his gift before being given any hints. Fortune favors the bold, and when you’re the middle child, that’s the best way to shine.
Their mother put her hand to her mouth and feigned a yawn, “Cold, Cassie, so cold.” She was getting really good at hiding things, material and otherwise. She’d gotten the gifts on Lay-Away at JC Penny’s, where she maintained credit and where she took the kids in August for Back to School shopping. It was easy buying things for the boys. They were simple creatures whose interests overlapped in a most convenient way. Dragon Ball Z and silly putty and video games. Nothing with shooting and violence in it. They weren’t even allowed to play with water guns. They still had a good time running around the yard, pulling their index and middle fingers together with their thumbs up and screaming “Bang! Bang! You’re dead.” When no one was looking. Boys were easier to raise than girls; the whole world knew this. Cassie, though, was more complicated than the average little spoiled princess. Like a box of jigsaw pieces from different puzzles, all rubbing against each other in a doomed fate.
Cassie glared at her mother and left the kitchen, deciding to continue the search elsewhere. She had no idea why her mother thought the things that she wholeheartedly did. The notion of the entire planet being evil, that they were not “worldly” people, that they were selected by God like ripe apples in the grocery store sitting upon mountains of fetid pears. It made her feel like a lonely alien. The martian blood pumped bitterness into her young heart. It isn’t that she wanted to be normal. She was smart enough to appreciate the benefits of being perceived as unique. She tried her best to comply, but she had a very curious nature. And she wanted choices. She wanted to be Lost in New York on Christmas Day, riding in a carriage through Central Park with Macaulay Culkin. Belting out carols at the tops of their lungs. Maybe drinking apple cider or something with cinnamon in it. She wanted to go buy real presents for the few birthday parties that her mother quizzically began to allow her her to attend. She hated going through her toys regularly, looking for something a pre-teen could live without, and giving it naked and unwrapped, like her love years later, to some little normal Southern Baptist blonde girl wearing a tiara.
The mother followed Cassie into the hallway whispering, “You’re getting warmer.” The boys trailed behind her train of a silk robe, waiting their turns. She couldn’t give them all hints at the same time as their gifts were scattered around the house like bones at an archaeological dig site. Each one deserved their own window of attention, encouragement, and light taunting in this game. As Cassie began to ransack the laundry room, the mother turned to Jace and wiggled her little finger, signaling that he should go upstairs. He winked at their silent conspiracy and shot around the room and up the carpeted steps faster than either of his siblings could take their next breath. She always tried to make things a little easier for her middle child as soon as she’d begun to notice his mood swings and selfish hoarding behaviors.
Jace began to toss around every object that weighed less than 50 pounds. He was a wiry nine year old, tall for his age, and as pretty as a little bald girl. All of the real girls in his class had a crush on him, even though he was one of the only two black kids in the second grade. And anyways, they said to each other in the hallways as they whisper-giggled their way through girlhood, he wasn’t that black. His skin shone like a new penny, shiny and worthy of being touched, even if it fell on the ground and got a little dirty. Jace went through Cassie’s room, ignoring the bright sign that read STAY OUT & BEWARE THE WRATH OF CASSIE M. CLARK, sandwiched in between two badly drawn stop signs. There used to be a pair of silver glittery skull stickers in their place that Cassie bought for fifty cents in a vending machine at the roller skating rink. Her mother made her rip them off and throw them away citing the fact that skulls were demonic. Cassie received a smack for being disobedient after pointing out, the smartass that she was, that everyone carried a skull around with them every day of their goddamned lives. Goddammit! was her sweet grandmother’s favorite word.
As the older children continued the hunt, Marco began to get hungry. He hated this part and wished that he could just fast forward until the moment when the gift was already in his hands. Last year, he found a Tonka truck in the oven. Because he was the youngest and the smallest, for now, his mother mercifully always hid his items in places that he could reach. Now that distinctive yellow truck was half buried in the backyard somewhere; it had been involved in a terrible five car mash up while delivering mud pies for the poor children in Africa. Marco felt sorry for them whenever he saw those long commercials on TV, which usually came on right when he was about to take a big bite out of his dinner. He felt even worse knowing that when they died prematurely of starvation, they’d stay dead forever. They wouldn’t be resurrected in Paradise on Earth because they hadn’t been baptised in The Truth. Marco was in the same boat, as Jehovah’s Witnesses did not believe in infant baptism. He hoped he could stay alive long enough to make that decision for himself around twelve or thirteen.
He tugged gently on the bottom of his mother’s robe, the one with all the yellow roses on it that her husband had bought her for their anniversary. That was one of the things that it was 100% A-OK to celebrate, along with Thanksgiving, because the father received a free turkey every year. It was a greater sin to waste food, the mother rationalized. She bent down and cupped Marco’s chubby little face into her toffee colored palms.
“Yes, baby?” She cooed. He pointed to the half bathroom, the perfectly clean one underneath the stairs that they weren’t supposed to use because it was for company, and arched his eyebrows into a question mark.
“Hot or cold, Mommy?” he demanded. She kissed him on the tip of his nose and planted a few love pats on the top of his head.
“You’re getting warmer, boo.” Marco smiled at her and ran off to investigate the toilet bowel.
He hadn’t started kindergarten yet, having a late birthday, and the rules didn’t really bother him too much. He liked dressing up and going to The Kingdom Hall. He always wore black, blue, or beige Dickie’s dress pants with a white long or short sleeved button up shirt. On Sundays, his mother made him wear a different clip-on tie. It made him feel important, and plus you can’t go in looking like a bum if you want to impress Jehovah in His house. During the meetings, he flipped through the colorful pages of My Book of Bible Stories and thought about how cool it must have been to have lions as pets. Sometimes he fell asleep; his mother would pinch him and he’d wake up. Kingdom Halls did not have youth geared activities like Sunday School or summer camps, children were expected to worship in the same somber fashion as adults. All the small ones were required to sit still and pay attention quietly for hours at a time. The teenagers were encouraged to bring their own bibles, take notes, and even answer questions on the mics that the young brothers carried through the aisles. Cassie had a crush on about three of the mic carriers, and her pre-pubescent eyes followed them as they power walked up and down the rows. On the ride home, sometimes they’d stop and get pizza because Mommy was too tired to cook and Daddy was always still at work. That’s why he couldn’t come to the meetings with them, thought Marco.
“Yessssssssssssssss!” The prolonged hiss was a mixture of Jace’s excitement and the slur that he was still working on in speech therapy. Cassie looked up from the middle of a heap of clean towels that she’d just pulled from the dryer. Marco put down the cookie that he’d picked up while searching through the pantry. They both ran towards the stairs, where Jace was descending victoriously, a sparkling black piece of wood over his head.
“I got a skateboard! I got a cool skateboard! And you can’t play with it! Na Na Na Naaa Naaa!” The vindication rang out from this teasing melody. He’d found it wedged between the mattress and the boxspring in Marco’s room. He hadn’t even bothered to put the pillows and blankets back on the bed before hurrying downstairs to gloat.
“One down, two to go.” Their mother reminded them.
“Dang it!” cried Cassie, as she rushed back to the laundry room, determined to come in second at least. Marco shrugged it off and went back to Mommy for more hot/cold hints. He was getting tired of all this and besides, skateboards didn’t interest him. As he and his brother grew older, their common activities began to separate like conjoined twins receiving the final surgery of independence. Jace began to spend more time outdoors, skating and running around their small town with a bunch of suburban Jackass wannabes. Marco stayed inside, watching hours and hours of television, and inviting his friends over for lengthy video game parties. Cassie did her own thing, whatever that was. She lied constantly about her whereabouts.
Jace’s find indicated that the gifts this year would be three big ones. Sometimes, they discovered a lot of small ones and then there was the issue of figuring out what belonged to whom. With just one grand prize per child, Marco would have to keep looking for a little while longer. Then he could play with his new toy and go back to watching TV again.
A thin caramel colored hand, its nails covered in mauve nail polish with silver sparkles, reached up to turn on a lamp. Something cast a distinct shadow on the inside of its upside down A shaped shade. Cassie let out a very loud burst of relieved joy. “Oh My God!” she expressed a phrase that her mother disliked one, because it made her sound like a white girl and two, because it took the Lord’s name in vain. She ran towards the kitchen carrying a big hunk of pink and purple plastic. She hugged her mother around the waist, said a brief thank you, and ran upstairs to explore her gift. It was the Password Journal that she’d recently seen in a Nickelodeon commercial, the one that had a voice activated lock that only its owner could program. This was a perfect gift for Cassie, due to the exhausting network of hidden keys, metal locks, and paper diaries that she’d been forced to reconfigure after catching her brothers giggling uncontrollably, clutching a juicy journal of hers. She regretted teaching them to read.
After setting the controls to only respond to a high pitched “Merry Christmas, you filthy animal”, Cassie turned to the first page. Holding a red Pilot pen, her favorite tool of writing, she set it to the virgin page.
December 23, 1995. Got this cool diary for Not Xmas this year. Wonder how she knew I wanted it. Sometimes she gets me, but most of the time no. Not even a little bit. I am the mystery wolf in the skin of the good girl sheep. I smile and stay quiet, but there is a fire for real truth. Not some stupid stories written by dead Bible men. I don’t believe in God anymore. Only love and truth. I wonder what it will feel like to kiss someone on the lips. Like fireworks or wet fish?
Downstairs, the mother watched as Marco paced around the living room, stroking his smooth baby chin in faux philosophical concentration. He’d checked off the kitchen, all three bathrooms, the laundry room, and the pantry. His brother found something in his room, so he deduced that it was unlikely to harbor anything else. His circular walking brought him near the television, which he usually gravitated towards on any other normal day.
“You’re getting warmer…” Suggested his mother from a barstool at the grey marble-topped island in the kitchen. She was sitting there sipping the third mimosa of that morning. After the game, she’d probably garden for an hour, take a nap, walk their chihuahua Fifi, and then finish off another bottle of her favorite champagne. She wasn’t an alcoholic because she didn’t drink hard liquor. Just a little bubbly to calm her nerves and relax for a few hours after work.
Marco glanced in her direction and then back at the living room. Where would his sneaky mother hide something in the room that everyone used the most? Marco watched hours of cartoons every Saturday morning, and he hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. All of the searching was making him very bored. He bent down to pet Fifi as she trotted past.
“You’re on fire!” yelled his mother, catching him off guard. She giggled at his having been surprised by her.
Marco bent all the way over and slid along the cold hardwood floors on his little belly. He scootched back towards the couch that they’d all been sitting on an hour earlier, before the game had been conjured up with their mother’s voice. The beige fringe along its bottom was parted by his hands, like Moses and The Red Sea. His right arm swung under and into the space between the bottom springs of the couch and the floor. After about 5 seconds, he let out a gasp. His left arm quickly coiled to meet his right, and they latched onto something big and rectangular.
“I found something!” He returned half of his body, covered in dust bunnies, from underneath the sofa. Marco looked at the electric blue box now squeezed between his chubby knees. A bright, flame shaped strip of color swirled around it’s shiny packaging. There was a picture of two small, very white boys printed on the background of the bright hues. Their hair was cut into golden chili bowls. They both wore gigantic smiles on their faces and they were looking down at a plastic race car track.
“Hot Wheels! Dun na dun na dun na dun ha, Hot Wheels!” Marco thought that this rendition of the Batman theme song was an appropriate way to celebrate his finally finishing the game.
“Finally, you slow poke dorkface.” Teased Jace, lazily. He was balancing back and forth on his new skateboard. He had been rolling around the house, bumping into different objects while Marco and Cassie continued to search for their presents. He couldn’t wait to show all his friends, most of which had already taken up the dangerous, expensive hobby this year.
“Let’s all tell Mommy thank you.” Marco often orchestrated sweet things for their mother, like breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day, another safe celebration. They surrounded their mother in the kitchen, making a halo around her body with their arms. The free spirit that she really was at her core came to life. She stood up and slowly twirled around in a circle while they danced around her playing “Ring Around the Mommy”, something they had all invented in the backyard one feverish day last summer.
Fifi began to bark vigorously. Her tiny cardboard box tinted body almost seemed to levitate with each annoying vocalization. The front door shook back and forth as the Father tried to unlock it while protecting the translucent bags of groceries in his arms simultaneously. After work, he usually cooked dinner, opened a beer, and watched TV until he dozed off. His snoring was intensely comical to all who heard him. The children and their mother took turns softly or suddenly trying to rouse and convince him to traverse the less than 12 feet between the couch and the master bedroom.
He finally gave up and rang the doorbell with his nose.
“Daddy’s home!” cried Cassie. She was the quintessential daddy’s girl, just thrilled to be near him.
Later that night after a dinner of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, collard greens, Hawaiian sweet rolls and Black Cherry Kool-Aid, the parents decided to go to bed at the same time for once. After their chores, the children began to build something together. It started off very small. A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sleeping bag was zipped together with an old Barbie one and Cassie draped this over the leather La-Z-Boy. Jace then pulled two bar stools over from the kitchen, turned them upside down, and threw them under the tarp to make the tent higher. Marco dragged Fifi’s crate over so that she could hang out too. After it was mutually decided that the fort was now a grand, temporary kingdom, all hell broke loose.
The children turned over the smaller, leather loveseat and used it to create a third wall to the back of their comfy castle. They pulled off all the pillows and used them to create a giant fluffy floor. The fourth wall was the big screen television. Jace grabbed the remote and turned the shale colored behemoth on. After a loud zip and a few minutes of snow, the VCR began to play a movie.
A beautiful, bright Christmas movie. The very special one that almost everyone has memories of watching around this time of the year. The kids huddled close to the screen and began to whisper in chorus. They sang just loud enough to soothe each other, but not enough to awaken their sleeping parents. It’s a song that you know, one that you’ve been humming at least a half a dozen times once a year since you learned how to gleefully conform. It’s your favorite Christmas carol, and its theirs too:
Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!
O what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh. HEY!
Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!
O what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleighhhhhhh