Most of us have holiday traditions that—good or bad—we take part in each year. My recent trip home reminded me that in my house, an important custom is the telling and retelling of family stories. The favorites—the ones that never seem to die—are those in which one of us has fucked up but good. We love reliving the times we made an awful mess of things.
In high school I had a friend that was a few years older than me who had come home from college over winter break. So I stopped by his mom’s house to say “hi” and catch up—it was the first time I met his family. They were decorating the house and putting ornaments on the tree—an important ritual that they had saved until my friend came home from school.
At some point, his mom very excitedly pulled out a box and proudly showed the rest of the family the brand new angel she bought for the top of the tree. It was this big, puffy white mass of satin and lace and gold garland trim and it was like her Christmas present to herself, she was so stoked about it.
The stoke levels registered much lower with her sons.
My friend, who had mastered the dramatic monologue, told his mom in no uncertain terms that the angel had no business on their Christmas tree. He held up this 1970s-era fiberglass star—flecked with rash-like patches of glitter remnants and specks of paint that could only serve as a sad reminder that it once had color. He then launched into an impassioned speech about how that star/abomination had been on their tree every Christmas for as long as he could remember. He said, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without this star on the tree.”
His mom and that puffy angel never stood a chance. She tried to make a case at first, but you could see in her face that she knew she was fighting a losing battle. This sad, rusty old star symbolized the very meaning of Christmas and the angel would never even leave the box.
Triumphant, my friend tried to place the star on the top of the tree, which was just out of his reach. After watching him make a few attempts, I (FOR SOME FUCKING RIDICULOUS REASON THAT DECADES LATER I HAVE YET TO UNCOVER) offered to help.
I mean, sure — he was a foot taller than me and, oh yeah, I had ABSOLUTELY NO BUSINESS GETTING INVOLVED! But at the time it seemed perfectly natural to step in and take possession of what he had just very elegantly demonstrated to be an irreplaceable family heirloom.
I don’t think I held that star in my hands for more than four seconds. To say that I “broke” it would be a gross understatement—like saying Nicolas Cage “breaks” movies. I crushed it. I reduced it into a glittery pile of sentimental dust and assassinated the ENTIRE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS while my friend and his family watched in horror.
That star was Kennedy and my hand was a magic bullet and we all stood silently in the Dealey Plaza that was their living room for what seemed like an eternity. I held out the handful of shiny garbage pieces while my face turned red, wishing I could just disappear, or die, or install a flux capacitor in my Chevy Nova and relive the last minute of my life like it was Opposite Day.
There just wasn’t a “whoops” big enough to express my regret.
My friend very politely pretended that it was no big deal and that he hadn’t literally spoken the words, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without this star on the tree” only moments before. I left his house faster than Nicolas Cage makes terrible decisions.
Every Christmas as I’m trimming my own tree, I think about that night and wonder if the Franco family’s Christmas traditions, which I assume feature a satiny, lacey, gold-garland-trimmed angel tree topper, include the telling and retelling of the story of the year Christmas was ruined when some interfering ditz came over and made an awful mess of things.