In this rollicking middle-grade novella, 12-year-old Reed has grown up with his family’s annual “Hannumas” (combined Christmas/Hannukah) party, and knows a lot about Celtic celebrations of Winter Solstice and Hispanic Christmas pageants, but kicks against having to lend a hand with preparations. At length he learns that there is something ineffable in the ancient traditions, even for an edgy tweenaged guy.
The moms and my sister started an assembly line. They filled a bunch of those school-lunch-sized paper bags with the sand we’d brought from the arroyo, nestled a short, fat candle in the bottom, and made a double row of farolitos along the portal, out past the gate and along the fence by the parking area. I watched them from halfway up the apricot tree while I peeled the bark off a piece of wood with a knife I kept hidden out there, and waited for Brian. I wasn’t going to do any damn work by myself. They didn’t notice me − too busy yakking and being busy. When Brian trudged up the road I chucked the piece of wood at him, landing it a couple of feet in front of him. He looked up and saw me, and came in the back gate.
“ T’sup?” he said.
“We’re supposed to haul whatever dead branches and stuff we find in the yard over to the fire pit,” I said. “I’ve been working all damn day.”
“I love a bonfire,” said Brian, ignoring my martyrdom. He picked up a splintery plank and carried it over next to the blackened spot in the yard where we always had our fires. “Remember last year when we poured gas on snowballs and threw ‘em into the fire?”
“Dude, that was awesome!” I said. “But I’ll get grounded right up to Christmas if we do that again, Mom already said.”
“How can we reach our full potential in such an atmosphere of repression?” asked Brian, gesturing with arms wide, palms up. I snorted. We tugged together on a pile of branches that more or less moved in a heap. A ground squirrel skittered away. “Sorry about that, little guy,” Brian apologized.
I pulled last year’s Christmas tree into the growing stack of fuel. Something glittered in the dead needles: a little gold image of a milkmaid with the number “8.” “Oh, Laurel’s been looking for that,” I thought, and put it in my pocket.
Mom came out the back door with a handful of newspapers. “Impressive!” she said, reacting to our bristling pile. “Good work. Here’s some paper for fire starter. We’re about done with the sand; can one of you go get the buckets and fill them with water to keep by the fire?”
“I’ll go,” said Brian.
“Grab the shovel, too, please,” my mom called after him. “Reedster, would you like to go through the CDs and find the Christmas ones and that great klezmer collection, and put them by the stereo?”
“No, I wouldn’t like to.”
“Well, would you do it anyway? Come on, Reed, we’re almost done with getting everything ready, and then when it’s a party we can just have fun with everybody else.”
“I don’t see why we have to do all this stuff before people get here! Why can’t they be part of doing it?”
“If we do it that way, it means I have to be running things and finding things the whole time. It’s a lot more fun for me if the organizing gets done up front.”
“Well, it isn’t a lot of fun for me to use up my whole Saturday getting ready for your party!” I yelled, stomping away from her.
“Reed!” she called after me angrily. I ignored her, slammed the back door, and then ran through the house and out the front door. Maddie and Laurel were lighting the farolitos.
“What’s up with you?” asked Maddie. I didn’t answer, but kept on running through the front gate and up the road, pumped with frustration. As I started to break a sweat, Belle joined me, back from her rabbit hunt, happy to have a run together. We raced along the road – well, I was racing, Belle was cruising – past the Bacas’ place with the inflatable Santa on the roof, and other houses with their colored lights. Belle taunted the fenced-in dogs, tearing back and forth along their barrier and barking like a maniac. “Yeah, suckers!” I yelled, backing her up.
Mom would like Belle to be a fenced-in dog, but nothin’ doin’: Belle never met a fence she couldn’t get over, under or through. Okay, so it wasn’t really great for her to be out chasing cars and harassing people’s horses. Tio Juan, our neighbor across the road, said somebody might shoot her some day for bothering livestock. He probably knew exactly who he meant when he said that. I choked up, imagining Belle with all the life gone out of her. Maybe we should try again on the fence thing, and I could take her on a run every day when I got home from school. When I’m at Mom’s house. I guess Mom would have to do it when I’m at Dad’s house.
We slowed to a walk. Belle got busy sniffing. Mom’s house/Dad’s house: here I am twelve and still playing on a see-saw, yanked back and forth with the other parent’s way of doing things every week. TV, no TV. Homework and practice time, or just getting chewed out if I don’t get it done. Grace and table manners, or snacks and restaurants. Jeez, I can see where trying to pack those two lifestyles under the same roof wouldn’t have worked too well. This way, sometimes it’s a real bail-out to leave Dad’s house when we’ve totally had it with each other, or Mom’s house when she’s trying to control every damn thing I do.
We’d come up to the Petersons’ place, with their humongo Christmas display, right down to the reindeer made of wire wrapped with little white lights, lifting and lowering their heads on a regular rythm. Belle growled, and I chuckled and told her not to worry about it. I wondered how Luke was doing. I bet he’d rather have a dad that didn’t belt him than a bunch of Christmas lights out front.
I started to notice the sky was a deep dark blue at the top with an amazing evening star in it, a huge bright diamond -- Venus, I guess. The dark blue graded down to a bright blue with bands of hot orange and red where the sky met the hills. Awesome. No, I mean like really awesome: something that makes you feel awe. Sometimes we use that word for nothing. We should save it for stuff like that sky.
We came in sight of the little white chapel with its blue tin roof. Something was going on: there were a lot of cars in the parking lot and about ten or a dozen neat little log-cabin stacks of firewood were laid all around the church. Guys were just starting to light each of the piles. They were using fire-starter, and it smelled like the first stage of a barbecue, but that thing that happens with a fire in the night was happening there. Serious awesomeness.
I turned around and booked it for home, almost keeping up with Belle on the downhill. At our house, the farolitos were mostly lit, and glowed like a landing strip. “Mom! Hey, everybody! They’re lighting fires up at the church! Come see!”