White-Hot Holiday

By: Coleen Kwan

Aaron gave her a rueful grin. “I wish I could say I don’t send Christmas cards to save the planet, but no.”

“Well, it’s a girl thing—the cards.”

He could have nodded agreement and left it at that, but maybe the heat had got to his brain because he heard himself say, “It’s not just cards. The plain truth is, I don’t enjoy Christmas.”

From her horrified wince, he might as well have said he liked torturing puppies.

“Um, wow. That’s a pity.” She busied herself making the tea.

Aaron toyed with the Christmas card, wondering if he should have been more diplomatic. But why should he lie? Even if, for whatever reason, he wanted Naomi to think more kindly of him.

“Don’t you find the whole Christmas thing too commercialized, too hyped-up?” he said.

She set two mugs of steaming hot tea on the table and gestured to him to sit. “I guess it can get commercialized,” she said as she brought a plate of cookies to the table and sat opposite him. “If you let it. But I try not to go on a spending spree. I like making things, like the cards and these biscuits.”

He glanced at the cookies, chose a gingerbread man, and bit off its head. “My mom likes baking Christmas cookies, too.”

Naomi’s face brightened. “There you go. I bet she enjoys celebrating Christmas.”

That was an understatement. If celebrating Christmas were an Olympic sport, his mom would be a gold medalist, and his dad would collect the silver.

“She makes a gingerbread house every year without fail.” With a sigh, Aaron dunked his cookie in the steaming tea and bit into it.

“That sounds lovely.” A puzzled frown settled on her brow. “I still don’t understand why you don’t like Christmas.”

Aaron blew on his tea. He was flying back to New York the day before Christmas Eve and would arrive in Mecklenburg just in time for Christmas, which was exactly how he’d planned it. “You don’t want to know.”

“No, really, I do.” She leaned forward, her face reflecting genuine curiosity, as if she’d never met anyone with his anti-Christmas attitude. “Did something terrible happen to you one Christmas?”

If only he could blame one big catastrophe, but rather it was a string of quiet calamities—some large, others infinitesimal—that had built up his aversion over time, like weightless snowflakes falling on a roof and finally crushing it.

“Nothing like that.” He lifted one shoulder. “But Christmas always makes me feel uncomfortable. Everyone else around me has this rabid look in their eyes and goes into this…frenzy, and I don’t get it. I don’t get the hype. And the expectations. Oh my God, the expectations. Sometimes I feel like Christmas is being forced down my throat.”

“Forced down your throat?” Her reindeer antlers quivered as she blinked at him. “That’s an exaggeration, surely.”

“Of course it’s forced.” He waved his hand. He’d never aired his dislike so bluntly before, and he found it liberating to express himself. “Every year I’m forced to endure an orgy of Christmas because everyone around me acts as if something terrible will happen if I don’t.”

She eyed him suspiciously over her tea mug. “What are you forced to do?”

“What am I not? I have to fight through overcrowded, overheated stores searching for gifts without a clue what to buy. I have to make a four-hour trip through bumper-to-bumper traffic out of the city. I have to wear a ludicrous holiday sweater that no man in his right mind would choose. I have to eat more food than I want, listen to the same carols year in, year out, read bragging letters from cousins I barely know, then chew a Pepto-Bismol while I fix Christmas lights in the freezing cold.” He paused for breath, but the impulse that had loosened his tongue grew even stronger. “Don’t get me wrong—I love my family. My parents are great. My sister and brother-in-law and nieces are great. I like hanging out with them. I like going to church with them. But where is it carved in stone that I have to be with them on December twenty-fifth every year? Why do I feel I’m a traitor for thinking that just once, just once in my twenty-nine years, I’d like to spend Christmas Day anywhere else except Mecklenburg, New York?”

He was steaming, he realized. Literally and figuratively. Where had all this acrimony sprung from? He didn’t hate spending time with his family that much, did he? Confused, he gulped hot tea, which only brought a fresh outbreak of perspiration to his nape. Across the table, Naomi was eyeing him with renewed distrust.

“Look, I didn’t mean to mouth off like that.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s not just Christmas; it’s also returning to my hometown. It’s kind of provincial and”—he sought for the right description but could only come up with— “small.”

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