My earliest Christmas memory was me, age five, watching a Sesame Street holiday special. Big Bird was ice skating to the song “Feliz Navidad," and I was twirling around and singing along. Mom marched into the room and flipped off the TV.
“We celebrate Christmas in this house!” she shouted. She didn’t know “feliz navidad” was, in fact, a Christmas greeting, and instead thought it was one of those war-on-Christmas holidays like Winter Solstice or Hanukkah. Even a hint of “Happy Holidays” made Mom crazy, because we were Evangelical Christians.
Though, admittedly, we were pretty terrible at it. We were lazy, we were undisciplined, we abandoned abortion protests for bagel runs. That’s probably why my folks tried to pass by obsessing over the details. Growing up, my little sister Brittany and I weren’t allowed jeans, TV, music, or the Sweet Valley High books, because Mom thought the girls on the cover looked slutty.
Then we moved to the suburbs when I turned 13, a teenager in a world aching to corrupt and seduce me, and my parents suddenly got very worried that I’d rebel against the deprivation by shooting Nine Inch Nails into my veins or something. To head me off, they got way too enthusiastic about what they believed to be safe, secular pop culture.
The goal of our suburban adventure was a big suburban dream house with window boxes and a three-car garage. We were too broke to pay a construction company, so we decided to build it ourselves. We’d renovated houses before — how hard could it be? Pretty damn hard, apparently, particularly for people like us. We had electricity but no switch plates, so we avoided using the lights, as turning them on caused a minor shock. We had water but no sinks, so we brushed our teeth in the bathtub. Unfortunately, we also had a rust problem, so we had yellow water, and brushing our teeth in the bathtub was like brushing in a big vat of urine.
On Thanksgiving, we ordered Chinese. We couldn’t cook — our refrigerator was stranded in the foyer after an abortive attempt at sanding the kitchen floor. Halfway through moo shu and apropos of nothing, Dad said, “Girls, what do you think about going to a gospel show instead of doing Christmas this year?”
“There will be secular artists there, too!" Mom added. "Lots of them! Sheena Easton will be there!”
The “there” in question was a concert, a stop on the “Colors of Christmas” tour featuring BeBe and CeCe Winans. Dad worked for a Calvinist book publisher, and they had comped him some tickets. Strangely, though the Colors of Christmas tour stopped in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we lived, the free tickets were for a show several hours away, in Gary, Indiana.
I wasn’t sure what to think and requested some time before I RSVPed. Brittany seconded that request, and our meeting was adjourned.
That night, I crept out of my room and tiptoed to Brittany’s. “Knock, knock!” I whispered. We didn’t have doors.
She rolled over right away. “What?”
“We should discuss this concert thing.”
Brittany nodded. “I think it’s a good idea.”
“Christmas here isn’t gonna be fun without the fridge.” She had a point. We told our parents yes.
The day of the concert, we left early. The plan was to drive to Indiana, see the show, then drive back the same night to avoid paying for a hotel. After a few hours, the scenery shifted from the gray nothingness of Michigan to the abandoned smoke stacks and burned-out buildings of Gary.
Brittany wrinkled her nose. “Gary smells like cat food.”
Mom ignored us. She was reading the concert’s promo material. “It says Sheena Easton did a song for a Bond movie — that’s sexy right? And secular?”
The show was good. Sheena Easton and the headliners, BeBe and CeCe Winans, stood upright and were fine, if a little glazed over in polite professionalism, but it was the rest of the bill that charmed me, the no-name gospel singers who were frantic with cheer, writhing around the stage, crawling through the audience and demanding, screaming, “Clap your hands! Clap your hands!” Taffeta was big in Gary, and as the audience moved to the music, the shoosh of their sleeves joined in.
My good mood lasted until we left the church and saw that it had snowed while we were inside. The locals were thrilled at the whole white Christmas thing, but we had a long drive ahead of us, and our car, while built Ford tough, had been built ten years earlier and was less than authoritative on bad roads.
“We’ll have to get a hotel.” Dad sighed.
Brittany and I sighed, too. Staying the night in a hotel meant sharing a room with Mom and Dad, which meant spending the night staring up the ceiling, awake in our bed while Dad snored and Mom said “Joe, you’re snoring — roll over” every ten minutes.
We coaxed our car into the Best Western parking lot and idled while Dad disappeared into the reception area. When he returned, he handed Mom a key and then turned to the backseat and gave one to me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“A room for you and Brittany. Merry Christmas,” he grinned.
Once inside, Brittany dove straight for the remote, falling on MTV. I barricaded myself in the bathroom, ran a bath of clear, clean water, drained the tub and did it again, just because I could. I brushed my teeth in the sink five times.
I floated from the bathroom, scrubbed and pink, and lounged on the empty bed. Brittany had moved from MTV to a Spanish channel.
“You don’t speak Spanish,” I reminded her.
“Shush, it’s amazing,” she said.
It was amazing. It was color and shrieking and pratfalls, and we’d never seen anything like it. We sat for an hour, bathing in the ambience of the Spanish network like I had bathed in the clear Best Western water.
“Feliz navidad,” I said to my sister.
“This is the best Christmas ever,” Brittany replied, her gaze still fixed on the TV. “God bless us everyone.”
Brea Tremblay lives in New York and writes about television. She likes hanging with her dog Betty.