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Everything I know about Christmas, I learned from my Sister:
A Sibling-Inspired Survival Guide to the Holidays

By Larry Dean Harris

My sister Karen will be the first to tell you that she is not the brains of the family. To this day, she still says "Happy Birfday." And she has a memory like Halle Berry after a hit-and-run accident. There isn't a restaurant or rest stop in America where we haven't had to double back to retrieve her purse.

And yet, when I think of Christmas, I can't help but think of her first and foremost. For somewhere in the merry mayhem and madness, all the wisdom that I cling to for holiday survival originates with her.

This is my holiday gift to anyone who stumbles across these pages. These are the lessons I've learned, with love, from my sister.

There is no Santa Claus. But there is a bounty, if you know where to look.

Karen wasted no time in debunking the myth. For there were presents to be found, closets to be searched. Any opportunity in which my parents left us alone initiated a Hunt for Red December. Why should the magic of Christmas be limited to one day? I'm telling you: if you could pin a shiny red ribbon on Osama bin Laden, my sister could find him by December 20th.

Even the Blessed Virgin Mary had her bad days.

Picture the annual Christmas pageant at church. I am cast as Joseph (I guess even then everyone knew I wasn't interested in sex with girls), and Karen will be essaying the role of Mary. Yeah, I know that's a little creepy, but we were Pentacostal.

So as we're getting ready for church and I'm lamenting the oversight that I wasn't given any dialogue, my sister declares that she's not feeling well. Mind you, Karen doesn't crave the spotlight the way I do, but she cried wolf so many times, how could my parents not think she was simply faking in order to bring humiliation and shame to the family by refusing the most coveted role in all Christianity?

We arrive to the church. The house is packed. Every casual Christian in all of Northwest Ohio has turned out to witness the greatest story ever re-told ad nauseum. Sure, it's no Crystal Cathedral spectacular with angels Flying by Foy, valet parking and live camels crapping on stage. But we did have a multi-racial trio of wise men, which was a real casting coup in a church that frowned on people "not like us."

So unto us a child is born in an effortless delivery (giving my sister a false sense of security that would be shattered a dozen years later with the 22-hour screamfest that heralded the birth of her daughter). All is going according to plan. Gifts are presented. Shepherds bow. Angels shift impatiently in their polyester garments.

And then Karen whispers to me "I'm going to throw up." It was an acting choice I, personally, would not have considered. But as the next scene played out in all of its slow-motion glory and baby Jesus (a doll, thankfully) was splattered in shades of liquid gold, frankincense and myrrh, I developed a new respect for my sister. What better way to say, "Maybe next time you'll believe me."

Ask for what you want. Repeatedly.

While Christmas is about the spirit of giving, try telling that to a nine-year-old. Especially one who has paid his dues. I served my time with music lessons, practice pads and even Tupperware. I wanted that drum set, and I made it known on a daily basis. Karen, unfortunately, was going through that difficult "I hate you" phase that all parents can look forward to with delicious anticipation. And she naturally assumed that the color television of her dreams was in the bag. Santa's bag.

This is the poignant, sobering moment of the story where dreams are shattered. Like when Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father. But shed not one tear for my sister. Santa screwed her big that year -- I got my drums, she got something called a "cowl neck sweater." But in the end, she got the television set, along with the big wedding and a house.

No matter how broke, or how bleak, make Christmas special for those you love.

This is the lesson my sister continues to teach. She will scrimp and save, work overtime, make layaway payments, shop and bake and wrap and mail and do anything she can to make the season joyful for her family and those she loves.

And even when I can't make it home for the holidays, I can count on a bright package at my doorstep filled with carefully decorated sugar cookies and a fun, kitschy item that I know she scoured the antique stores to find.

I'll pick up the phone and dial. "Hey, Sweetie," I'll say. "Hey, Ugly," she'll reply. And then we launch into our routine, laughing and sharing the same old Christmas memories. And, for a little while, we'll forget about the bills that are late, our hearts that have been broken, and the disappointments that come those other 364 days of the year.

Because it's Christmas, and I have my sister Karen. And that's all I need to know.

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