The fine folks at indieBRAG asked me to write about my favorite Christmas carol for this blog hop, but the first carol that came to mind is one I can't stand: "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
Maybe it's the crassness of it that has always bothered me, even at an early age, or the cliché image of a grandmother as a doddering, wig-wearing, egg nog-guzzling dodo who gets herself killed by Santa. I mean, Grandma receives short shrift in this tale, while Grandpa, on the other hand, "we're all so proud of" for "taking this so well." The vague misognyny, the lyrics, the music, everything about the song makes me cringe.
So I used my intense dislike for it in fiction.
In Framed and Burning, 78-year-old renegade grandmother Amazing Grace shudders when her granddaughter cues up the song to play at a party. Grace uses the opportunity to check in with her erstwhile beau, Ernesto:
Grace despised the song, deep down in her bones. She hung back as the rest of the crowd laughed and began to carry on. Grace hooked her arm through Ernesto’s and squired him to the balcony.
“Horrid excuse for music,” Grace said, shaking her head.
“Yes, well, it is Americana at its worst.”
There was a pause as they gazed at the moon casting a beam of light on the waves far in the distance. Then Ernesto turned to Grace, swept his arms around her and said, “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too,” she said instinctively, though she realized she was only being polite. She’d been so wrapped up in the case that she hadn’t had time to miss him.
I'll stop there, since what happens next yields crucial, plot-spoiling information about the case Grace is working on. The point is that it was satisfying to juxtapose the schlocky grandma from the song next to my sharp, savvy Amazing Grace.
That whole Christmas scene was great fun to write for another reason as well. I lived in Miami for two years and celebrated two Christmases there. Holidays in the tropics can be strange for anyone from a Northern climate, as the typical trappings of merriment--snow, snowmen, sleighs, evergreen trees--can seem out of place amidst palm trees and sunshine. It's a quirkiness I've always enjoyed, probably because my earliest Christmas memories are of growing up in Arizona as a military brat. In the Chandler town square back in the Seventies, they used to erect a Christmas tree out of tumbleweeds spray-painted white.
That experience informed my thinking on the matter of how to celebrate Christmas when one's locale is far from snow and evergreen trees. One of my favorite Christmas carols is Big Crosby's tribute to Christmas in Hawaii, "Mele Kalikimaka." I've also tried to be environmentally sensitive in my domestic practices, so I've rarely ever purchased a Christmas tree that would only be discarded at the end of the season. So my Miami tree for two years running was a potted hibiscus:
Christmas in Miami, 2000 or 2001.
The bright blooms of the hibiscus lent themselves to quirky pairings such as this:
In Framed and Burning, the Christmas tree becomes a way to memorialize the friend they've lost:
...Cat and Mick came home bearing a small, potted hibiscus tree. Its tangerine flowers resembled umbrellas that would unfurl in full bloom, a decadent pistil of pollen beckoning from its center.
“Let’s set it here, in the window,” Grace said, beaming at her two lovely family members.
Mick and Cat carried the hibiscus together and set it down delicately. They stared at the tree for a moment.
“I’ll go get the other swag out of the car,” Cat said.
“I’ve got some bling upstairs to add to this thing.” Mick winked at Grace and slipped out the door.
“It’s perfect, isn’t it?” Grace said this to Rose, who was stroking one of the soft blooms.
“It smells like tropical Christmas.” Rose stuck her nose closer to the flower and inhaled.
Cat came in, her hands full of shopping bags, which she dropped onto her chaise lounge, now clear of paperwork related to the case. She reached into a bag and withdrew a box of retro bubble lights. Together, the three of them strung the lights onto the miniature tree. Once the lights had warmed, Cat, who said she had experience with these kinds of lights, tapped or inverted them to get them to bubble. Their effervescence made the room sparkle.
In came Mick with a canvas drop cloth he placed around the bottom of the tree as a skirt. He also brought down a box, which he offered to Grace. “Will homemade ornaments work for your solstice party, Miss Pris?”
“Oh, Mick.” Grace took the box and reached inside. He’d fashioned the most delightful ornaments out of bits and pieces from his studio: a few spines of an old Chinese fan tied together with red velvet ribbon; a garland of driftwood and shells; a vintage toy car hung with glittery string. The four of them decorated the tree together, marveling over Mick’s creations.
When they were done, they stood back to admire it, and Rose said, “We need a star.” She looked at Grace and smiled. “I know you’re not hot on the Jesus story, but that star of Bethlehem, it always makes me weepy to think about it, a beacon in the night.”
“I’m not against those aspects, per se,” said Grace. She thought about the church sermons of her childhood, the fire and brimstone and talk of sinning. “There’s a reason they’re always claiming it’s the greatest story ever told. I think it resonates with us to think of God as not just a man, but a small baby in a manger. He’s nothing but potential.”
“I think I have an idea for our star,” Rose announced. “Mick, come and help me.” The two of them left....
In the book, there's more here, but I'll cut right to the next Christmas tree scene. Readers of the novel know by this point in the story that Donnie, who died in a fire in Mick's studio, has been cremated, his ashes stored in an urn:
...Rose and Mick resurfaced, Rose holding something delicately between her hands. “I got to thinking about the star of Bethlehem, and the wise men, bringing gifts of frankincense and myrrh. Well, we don’t have any of that, whatever it is, but we have something better.”
She moved her top hand to reveal a star crafted out of thick white paper stock backed by tracing paper. There were cutouts in the thick top layer of paper so that the lights from the tree would shine through the tracing paper, dotting the star with glints of light. It was a six-pointed star with beams emanating downward. She shook the star softly, and fine glistening grains of sand filled the beams of light like stardust.
“Did you use beach sand?” Grace asked. “It looks sugary, like it came from Bahia Honda.”
“No,” Rose said with a glowing smile and a wink at Mick. “That’s Donnie.”
Miami tree at night.