My Christmas miracle came in a highball glass filled with ice and equal parts rum and mai tai mix. At the time, it was clear that the drink had done what it was supposed to do as far as loosening up my husband Mtume (I have proof), but it wasn’t until recently that I came to understand the miracle that had slowly unfolded.
Mtume was anti-Christmas when we met. And not just a little bit. He hated “everything Christmas stands for,” and because his family never celebrated it, there was never any nostalgic pull. During the wooing process over a decade ago, when I invited him to spend the holidays with my family, he participated in our rituals. It wasn’t an easy choice for him, though. He had to talk it out with his sister ahead of time, and in the end he heeded advice to “either do it or don’t do it, but don’t do it and just complain about it.” The strained smile he struggled to maintain that Christmas morning was as good as it ever got.
In the ten years since, Mtume has participated in Christmas like it’s a job to be done. He does what it takes to strap a Christmas tree to the roof of his car and drive it from a lot in Bonita to our home in Chula Vista. He drags it into the house and says, “Where do you want this?” in a tone that clearly conveys, “What am I supposed to do with this waste of good money?” On Christmas morning, while we open gifts, he sits at the edge of the couch exuding unmistakable disdain for the whole affair and refusing to be stirred by the manic enthusiasm with which I’m trying to pass on my (dying) love of Christmas to the kids.
For ten years, it went on this way, but then last year, out of nowhere, he broke.
I’m pretty sure it started with the mai tai my sister-in-law’s mother Maria made for herself around 10:00 on Christmas morning. It was our second day of a weeklong Hawaiian vacation in an Airbnb rental decorated with palm tree and flamingo string lights, and Mtume was already fairly relaxed. When Maria asked if anyone else wanted a mai tai, he said, “Sure, why not? I’ll take one.”
For some reason, as we exchanged presents that morning, whenever someone opened a wearable gift, my boisterous brothers would chant, “Put it on! Put it on!” Then everyone else would join in until the giftee put on the hat or the shirt or the socks that had been in the package.
Mtume’s default personality mode is not Mr. Fun Guy. In the early days of our relationship, when we were past “just dating” but not yet engaged, I pressured him to lighten up at a pool party. That day, he made an effort to be the kind of Mr. Fun Guy who catches the ball in mid-air while jumping into the water. It was as uncomfortable as I’d ever seen him, and I swore I would never again ask him to be anything other than his smart, snarky, introverted self.
Fast-forward to Christmas 2016 at the beach house in Kailua, when my mom presented Mtume with a gag gift. It was a shimmery pink Speedo-type bathing suit that had been purchased through a third-party seller on Amazon. I’d tried to talk her out of it, because he’d never wear it and it verged on an inappropriate gift to a man from his mother-in-law. But my mom insisted, and it had arrived folded neatly in a plastic sandwich bag that, when opened, emitted the scent of stale cigarette smoke. It still smelled that way when Mtume unwrapped it on Christmas morning.
“Oh, my god,” he said, holding it up.
And then my brothers began to chant, “Put it on! Put it on!”
Mtume was two mai tais deep. He put it on and spent the rest of the morning in a dress shirt and his new iridescent pink swimsuit. I can’t remember when the dress shirt came off or how he ended up outside on the skateboard, but it really did happen, and I have photographic proof.
The appearance of Mr. Fun Guy is not the miracle, though. The real miracle was revealed to me a couple of months ago, when out of nowhere, Mtume expressed an interest in helping to choose Christmas gifts for my family. “I really enjoyed Christmas last year and the whole presents thing,” he said.
So he did some online shopping and picked out some gifts, which we gave to my family at Thanksgiving this year. When they opened their presents, Mtume pointed out proudly which ones he’d chosen. I could have cried. It was a big step, one that I think qualifies as a Christmas miracle. But just in case, this year, and maybe every year from now on, I will serve mai tais on Christmas morning.