My family – well, what was left of it – figured that Christmas 2017 was going to be the worst Christmas ever (for us). Dad had died three months before. Christmas is usually about family and tradition, and none of us could stomach facing the traditions that weren’t going to be there anymore.

No Dad getting up early to make blueberry muffins and start the fire. No Dad puttering around in a Santa hat and a tatty flannel bathrobe. No Dad getting distracted in the middle of present-opening by his new book about ancient Rome. So we decided to use the payout from his extremely modest life insurance policy to go be sad in Hawaii. We wanted to get as far away from Maine Christmas traditions as we could without passports. We weren’t going to do stockings. We weren’t going to get a tree. We weren’t going to have our big Christmas dinner.

Our trip to the island harkened back to the very ancient Christmas tradition of “no room at the inn.” We had a long midnight layover at LAX and we spent it at the Bob Hope USO (one of the few perks when your brother joins the Navy).

Unfortunately, approximately one bazillion other holiday travelers had the same idea. There were cots and mats set up, but they’d been claimed by the time we stumbled in. Mom slept under a piano bench. I was the shortest, so I curled up under – not kidding – a Christmas tree. You might wonder how I managed to sleep under those conditions. The answer is, I was pretty drunk. I spent most of this trip either drunk or hungover. I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth. Medicating grief with alcohol is also an ancient tradition.

The first thing I did when I got to Hawaii was buy a box of wine and a jug of pineapple vodka (when in Rome, etc.) The second thing was I ate Burger King for the first time in years. In retrospect, I should not have combined that with 18 hours of travel. The cottage we were staying in had been recently renovated, and let’s just say I put the new pipes to the test.

On Christmas Eve we did not go to church, so we didn’t have to miss hearing Dad’s baritone belting out “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” (which isn’t really meant to be belted, but you try telling my dad that). Instead, my brother and I drove around looking for an open restaurant and eventually found a Thai takeout window. So we ate that while watching “Die Hard” (one Christmas Eve tradition we refuse to give up under any circumstances).


Nobody was expecting Santa to visit. We didn’t have any children with us except my sister, who was 17 at the time so was a kid mostly on a technicality. I’d seen all our suitcases because we had all squirreled away presents in each other’s suitcases. Space was at a premium, and our stockings are enormous fuzzy early-1990s pieces with large teddy bear heads on top. But when we roused ourselves out of beds on the first warm Christmas morning we’d ever experienced, there were our stockings in the living room, filled with gifts we hadn’t packed.

My mom said: “Santa’s reindeer can fly, so getting to Hawaii would have been no problem for them.” I said: “I’m 25 and definitely old enough to know better.” And Mom said: “It’s Christmas magic, you’re never too old for Christmas magic.” And as per usual, my mom was right.

The fact that my mother, whose many skills have not historically included planning and organization, managed to pull off a Christmas surprise like that in the middle of a grief-fog after losing her husband of 30 years, was the best sort of Christmas magic I could ever hope for. Even better than flying reindeer.

That Christmas, we went to a secluded beach that turned out to be clothing-optional (we optioned to stay in our swimsuits). We bobbed in the Pacific. The experience of being able to safely go into the sea in December was a new and strange one. Strange, but not bad. We looked into an active volcano. We went to the movies and made a double feature out of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and that weird Matt Damon movie where he gets shrunk. We watched “All The President’s Men,” which is somehow my sister’s favorite movie.

And at the end of Christmas Day, we all sat around as bedtime got closer and my mom said: “Well, we did it. We got through the first Christmas without your dad.” And that moment was when I knew, for the first time since the doctor had told us the cancer had spread, that the Hugo-Vidal Family was going to be OK. It was the best worst Christmas ever.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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