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Making the Best of the Worst

By Keith Joseph Adkins

My best Christmas was also my worst. In 2006 my friend Alex and his wife, Elke, invited me to London for the holiday. And to add thrill to the frill, I was going to jump on the train in London and meet four friends in Paris to bring in the New Year in the City of Lights. A brother was hyper-psyched. I guess that's why it didn't matter that I had a dull toothache when the plane landed at Heathrow.

At first I thought the pain was one of the side effects of traveling at 30,000 feet for nine hours. However, on my second day in London, I was forced to pop over-the-counter pain relievers every two hours to avoid screaming. That didn't stop me from touring the National Gallery, snapping digitals of Buckingham Palace or doing the double-decker over to London Bridge. But on
Christmas Day, the pain was so excruciating that I was ready to find a pair of pliers.

Alex and Elke scoured the phonebook for a dentist open on Christmas. They found one, tucked on a back street in some hard-to-find part of town. In other words, the place was sitting in the middle of shady. The dentist leaned over and poked my tooth with some kind of micro-pin, and I screamed in a pitch I didn't know was humanly possible. I had an exposed nerve and was given a temporary root canal 15 minutes later. I spent the rest of my Christmas in London, and my New Year's Eve in Paris, doped up on penicillin and pain relievers — with a swollen face.

A brother wasn't even able to get his sip on, Parisian-style. The best and the worst, without question.

Lost Illusions

By Shiwani Srivastava

Nineteen eighty-seven was a year of new beginnings. That summer we moved into our new house — although 22 years later, it's hard to believe it was ever new. It was also the year my grandmother left India to live with us in New Jersey after my grandfather passed away.

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Maybe that's what made Christmas so memorable that year, for better or for worse. Or maybe it was "The Christmas Incident of '87" — the time my brother convinced me, at the ripe old age of 6, that there was no Santa. Here's how he told me to prove it for myself:

1) Write a letter to Santa, asking for a gift (FYI, I wanted a talking Cricket doll more than anything).

2) Don't tell Mom — after all, Santa knows, right?

3) Expose the truth about the man in red.

Needless to say, there was no 2-foot-tall talking doll under the tree that year (yeah, kinda creepy in retrospect).

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What ensued was a combination of foot stomping, door slamming and general havoc wreaking (along with my dad's yelling and my brother's sniggering).

In the midst of it was my grandmother, bemused by her first American Christmas. I knew she was disappointed that as children, we looked forward to Christmas more than to Diwali. So when she came into my room that morning, I braced myself for a lecture about Diwali, about poor children in India, about cutting my mom some slack.

But instead she just smiled and said, "Your brother put you up to this, didn't he … you just weren't ready to stop believing yet." My Indian grandmother, who might have dressed and talked differently, wasn't quite as foreign as I thought. It's one of my earliest memories of her, the holidays and the house we live in — the first in a series of memories from the 17 years she was with us.

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By Mary C. Curtis

The best Christmas memory is often the simplest. Mine is the search for the perfect tree — just me and my Dad — every Christmas Eve. This late start on holiday decor might seem strange for those who are finished shopping and trimming by Thanksgiving, but remember, the 12 days of Christmas begin on Dec. 25. My family was old school that way.

By the 24th, the stage in our Baltimore row house was set: the platform with the trains that ringed the base where the tree would stand, the ornaments — each with its own memory — unearthed from the back of the closet. That left only the star of the show.

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As the youngest of five children in a big, busy household, for me the best part was enjoying alone time with my father. Yes, I was a daddy's girl. We would drive from lot to lot in the cold, looking for a tree that would be a perfect fit alongside the staircase. It had to be full — no gaps — before one strand of tinsel or colored bulb would adorn it.

My dad and I were perfectionists. He always said that I was the only one he could trust to tell him the brutal truth about each tree we considered; I would never settle for good enough. He would hold the candidate in question and slowly twirl it. If a vendor tried to explain away a bare spot by saying we could turn that side to the wall, we would be out of there. No matter how late it got, we would persevere — and we were never late for midnight Mass.

My father died years ago. He never got to meet my son, who has his grandfather's sense of humor, style and same wanting everything just so. Never settling is a lesson that's stayed with me. And though striving for perfection might mean a few disappointments, I wouldn't have it any other way.

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What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?

By Faith Maginley

I drove home for my college's winter break each year, often arriving to find my mom cooking a cauldron of collard greens, baking sweet potato bread and boiling a pot of fresh-picked cinnamon leaves to give the house that sweet-spicy, festive aroma. She always made sure the tree and outside lights were blazing. Luther Vandross crooned our song, "Every Year, Every Christmas" (on repeat) from the CD player. Upon hearing my old Honda pull up, Ma would come out of the kitchen rockin' one of those African-style housedresses, arms outstretched.

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She passed away February 2005, my last semester of college. For the first time in 24 years, I wasn't going to be home for Christmas. Sure, the house was still there, but there'd be nobody listening for my car to pull up. No one to leave a "Merry Christmas Baby Girl" note on the table for those times I showed up post-midnight, well after sleep had taken over.

I didn't want to be alone, but I didn't want to fake merriment, either. I headed to my sister's in Atlanta. We went to church Christmas morning, and our cousin came over afterward for a dinner of Kroger fried chicken and heated-up vegetables. We mixed hot cocoa and bourbon and called it "Bitches Brew" after Miles Davis' epic composition.

Christmas Baby

By Jonathan Pitts-Wiley

My birthday is on Christmas, so as a kid, I consistently gave the side eye to people who lumped my gifts together. Thankfully, my parents were cool and always made a point of separating my birthday from the supposed birth of Christ. Greatest gift: the Jordans I got for my 8th birthday. I liked them so much, I fell asleep in them that night.

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In my late teens I cared less about presents, so the best experiences revolved around listening to Freddy Jackson's Christmas CD while my family cooked and talked junk. Freddy Jackson. Who knew?

Stranded by a Boyfriend

By Afi-Odelia Scruggs

My worst Christmas: Dec. 25, 1983. I'll never forget the experience. My "boyfriend's" family had a dinner, and I wasn't invited. He didn't even ask because it would "make them uncomfortable." He promised to see me later.

So I sat alone in Richmond, where I had no family and few friends. I must have called my mother in Nashville 10 times that day — and this was before we had unlimited long distance. There was no Webcam, no IM, nothing that allowed me to create a virtual presence. I was broke and lonely in my little apartment. I vowed it would never happen again.

I don't understand why I didn't drop him immediately. Blame it on love. The next year, when he wanted to spend time together on Christmas, I checked my schedule. By then, I'd started volunteering at the Virginia State Penitentiary, and I visited a couple of inmates whose families weren't able to see them. After that, I dropped by to see friends from the church I'd joined. I saw him later that day. Every year since, I've made plans for the day — even if the plans are simply reading and relaxing.

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A Period of Adjustment

By Michael E. Ross

A close friend from back in the day — we'll call him J. — resurfaced recently, after a rough patch in a personal wilderness in which darkness was truly visible. A mentor of mine, J. was a sounding board, a colleague, someone who seemed to navigate the velocities of Manhattan with ease, and a brother who made my journeyman's life in New York bearable — and often enjoyable.

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A few weeks ago, in the run-up to the frenzy of Christmas, I discovered from a mutual friend that J. had attempted to take his life. The particulars I'll keep to myself; suffice it to say that he was discovered and saved in time, and is just now rebounding after a period in a mental hospital.

We hadn't spoken for years: J. held his own in Manhattan; I moved west to California and, ultimately, Seattle, where the frequent trademark rain paints everything a seasonal gray. "How can you stand it out there, with rain all the time?" he once said to me by phone.

"You adjust," I told him.

But just days ago, J. sent an e-mail, its tone matter-of-fact, witty and quietly thankful for the friends who'd rallied to his side, even people he hadn't heard from in years. Friends like me.

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I'm glad J. decided to stick it out, glad that this Christmas I'll be spared that call announcing the passing of an indispensable part of my past — another brother gone. Not everything falls apart. I'm hoping to tell him that myself, and I will when we renew a friendship that never should have fallen asleep. He may even start in about Seattle again; this time he might well be talking about his own heavy weather and that of our country, shivering in its own overcast. How can we stand it, with rain so much of the time? And I'll tell him, like I hope I can tell myself, "You adjust, bro. You adjust."

Lost and Found

By Teresa Wiltz

Last Christmas my husband, Rollie, and I decided to spend it in Manhattan with his aunt, who'd just had knee-replacement surgery. To help her out, I offered to do Christmas dinner. All of it — pies, rolls, etc. Never mind that my idea of cooking is stir-fry.

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Meanwhile, deep, deep, deep in Brooklyn, my great-great-aunt was celebrating her first Christmas in a nursing home. She was about to turn 100, and I feared that this could be her last Christmas. So in the middle of the day, I put all the cooking and baking and chopping of veggies on hold. Rollie and I hopped in the car and made for Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in what we thought would be a quick trip to see Aunt Eleanor.

And we got lost. Super-duper lost — touring-all-the-boroughs-but-Staten Island-on-the-Brooklyn-Queens Expressway lost. Squabbling-over-my-cousin's-vague-directions lost. It took us well over two hours to get to Aunt Eleanor's nursing home. By then we only had an hour to spend with her before we had to hit the road again. But how sweet it was, spending time with Eleanor, her daughter Joan, her son-in-law, and her grandson and his new bride. Then we turned back around and made the mad dash back to the Upper West Side. I pulled the last sweet potato pie out of the oven at 9 p.m.

I'd worried that this would be Aunt Eleanor's last Christmas. I was wrong about that, but I was right to worry about trying to hold on to people before you lose them. That visit to the nursing home was the last time I saw my cousin Joan alive. She died this fall — suddenly, shockingly — at the age of 71. That crazy Christmas sprint up and down the BQE was so, so worth it.