Holidays From Hell

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The most wonderful time of the year? Says who? Read on as locals recall less-than-perfect holidays marred by toxic turkeys, sick pets and other disasters.

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If a Norman Rockwell holiday is what we’re all striv-ing for, why do we look more like “The Simpsons”?

That’s what many of us have to ask ourselves on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s, when some of our best-laid plans—assuming we thought to plan in the first place—blow up in our faces, dashing our expectations of perfection.

Far be it from me to petition for changing the lyrics to some of our most cherished holiday songs, but why dream of a white Christmas when you’d settle for a vomit-free one? And chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Easy for you to sing if you’ve never had a holiday centerpiece go up in flames just as the first party guest arrived at the door.

And let’s not get started on the stratospheric pres-sure to whoop it up on New Year’s Eve. Some of the worst nights of my life have occurred on the cusp of the new year, including the time I—a fervent “the more the merrier” subscriber—ended up double-booking dinner at my house with two guys who’d asked me out for the evening. The three of us sat squirming in awkward silence as the two young men glared at each other over a meal of microwaved Tyson Chicken Cordon Bleu—the best I could do at the time. Neither called me for another date, much less stuck around to ring in 1986.

If there’s any consolation to be had here, it’s that Homer Simpson and I aren’t the only ones yelping “D’oh!”  

FEAST WITH THE LEAST

Perhaps because the holidays are a time for so much feasting, many tales of disaster revolve around food—or a lack thereof.

Sharon Gerber of Land Park recalls her trip to New Or-leans with her mother and daughter in December 2004. The three planned to stay until the 25th, when they’d fly to Los Angeles to have dinner with relatives.

“Technically, being Jewish, we don’t celebrate Christmas,” Gerber says, “but any reason for Jews to gather and eat is always a reason to celebrate!”

But lo and behold, Christmas morning dumped snow on New Orleans for the first time in decades, causing flights to be canceled and leaving travelers stranded.

Says Gerber, “I found a hotel not too far from the airport that could put us up for the night. Our luck: There was no coffee shop in the place and there was one hotel van that was not available for use until later that evening. And we were starving! Finally, the van arrived and took a group of us to look for sustenance. The only thing open was the minimart at the Shell station. So we loaded up on Vienna wieners, chips, frozen burritos, beer and other assorted items of junk-food status. It actually turned into quite a party in the lobby of the hotel.”

Lucy Eidam of East Sacramento has a story about the year she and her staff at her public-relations firm, LucyCo Communications, neglected to assign dishes for the annual office Thanksgiving pot-luck. They ended up with one HoneyBaked ham, courtesy of Eidam, and nine—count ’em, nine—pumpkin pies from the Safeway down the street. Nothing else.

“I guess we could say great minds think alike,” Eidam says with a laugh.

DECK THE HALLS

That was just what Molly Wiese had done to her East Sac-ramento home in preparation for the 2005 Holiday Home Tour to benefit Sacred Heart Parish School.

“We worked for months making the home ready, in-cluding reupholstering the living room furniture, paint-ing, etc.,” Wiese says. “Our home looked so wonderful for the tour, and we were thrilled to be able to celebrate Christmas with the beautiful holiday decorations and our newly revamped living room.”
But as family and guests sat down to Christmas dinner, they glanced into the living room, only to gasp in horror.

Wiese’s 3-year-old son Henry had opened one of his pres-ents—a large set of children’s paints—and was unleashing his inner Matisse all over the sofa, chairs and carpet.

Says Wiese, “I now know, unfortunately, that ‘washable’ paints will stain fabrics, and our furniture to this day bears the evidence.”

CRITTER COMMOTION

Animals are responsible for the inauspicious beginning to many a holiday celebration.

Nicole Baxter
of Elk Grove recalls Thanksgiving 2003, when her extended family was gathered at her father’s house on a hill overlooking Fremont, in the East Bay. Dinner was cooking on all burners and the turkey was in the oven when the power abruptly went out. The loss of electricity was a mystery until a PG&E worker summoned to the premises revealed the cause: A wild turkey had flown into a nearby power line, killing itself and knocking out power in the neighborhood. The family improvised during the three-hour ordeal by lighting candles, going to the store to buy charcoal and finishing their cooking on the barbecue grill.

As for the electrocuted fowl, it didn’t become part of the feast. “It definitely wasn’t a Butterball,” Baxter says, laughing.

A “fried” turkey is one thing, but a chocoholic pooch is another—and no laughing matter for Nancy Greenlee of East Sacramento. She recalls one Christmas Eve during the early 1980s that could have ended badly for her Irish setter, Murphy, but thankfully didn’t.

Greenlee and her husband, Algy, were living in New York at the time and had been given a box of See’s chocolates by Nancy’s sister in California. The couple stored the candy in the refrigerator, savoring the treat that always had been an important part of their Christmas festivities but was not then available on the East Coast.

“On Christmas Eve, we went to the midnight candlelight service,” Greenlee recalls. “When we returned home, we found Murphy sprawled on the floor, in front of the Christmas tree, his stomach grotesquely bloated and looking quite ill. There was the 2-pound box of See’s candy, opened with scattered brown papers everywhere, and not a candy in sight. I gave him two Pepto-Bismol tablets and sat up with him most of the night. He eventually started throwing up and having diarrhea but by morning was much better. Chocolate can kill dogs, so we were very lucky that Murphy survived.”

But a mystery remained: How had Murphy opened the refrigerator door?

Greenlee’s husband was able to clear up that question. He had arranged for another box of See’s to be sent from Cali-fornia so he could surprise Nancy on Christmas.

“He carefully wrapped it and put it under the tree just before we left for church,” Greenlee says.
 All Murphy did was follow his nose.

DOCTOR, DOCTOR

What beats the Grinch at wrecking holidays? Illness and injury, of course.

Al Livingston
of Elk Grove remembers his New Year’s Eve as a new UCLA grad looking forward to a dinner-dance with his date at a private club. Alas, his date fell ill and had to cancel, and all his friends and family had other plans. Livingston decided to stay home.

 “We lived on a hillside and were unable to get any TV reception,” he recalls. “I was home alone with a radio to keep me company. I listened to a couple of ‘midnights’ from time zones in the East and Midwest, but I could only take so much of that. What to do? Aha! I pulled out the forms and receipts and ushered in 1954 by doing my income tax returns. A fitting climax to my ‘holiday from hell!’”

Sacramento magazine Dining Diva Paulette Bruce of Land Park had a taxing holiday experience of a different sort. She talks about the time she fell and broke her shoulder at a Christmas party. 

“Fortunately, my three sons were all home from college and were able to cook Christmas dinner for 30 while I perched on a bar stool in the kitchen giving them directions, in and out of the haze of pain pills,” Bruce remembers. “It was very interesting, fun and one of my best Christmas dinners.”

Karen Gunby of East Sacramento wishes she could say the same of the Thanksgiving when she was 10, celebrating with her parents and three siblings in Mississippi. That was the year her mother “almost killed the entire family,” Gunby says.

Not intentionally, of course. According to Gunby, the family had eaten Thanksgiving dinner at noon, as is customary in the South. Gunby’s mother—not exactly Martha Stewart—thought she was being clever when she stored the leftover turkey in the oven to free up refrigerator space for the other leftovers.

When it was time to pull out the leftovers for the evening meal, the harmful bacteria in the improperly stored turkey and dressing had multiplied. By midnight, the entire family was jostling for position around the one toilet in the house, thanks to a violent bout of food poisoning.

“We were sort of dancing around the bathroom waiting for the next person to get out,” Gunby says. “At the time, it wasn’t too funny, but now it brings up funny memories of our mom who didn’t know how to cook very well and still doesn’t.”  


HOLIDAYS FROM HELL, CELEBRITY EDITION—
Local members of the media have experienced their fair share of  holiday mishaps. Here, three tell their tales. By Elena M. Macaluso

News10 meteorologist Monica Woods and her husband, KCRA 3 anchor Walt Gray, nearly had a snafu one year when Santa couldn’t find them. Woods and Gray, with their three young children in tow, were visiting relatives in Rhode Island, then in Indiana, when they realized—due to a miscommunication between families—that there were no gifts for Christmas morning. Thankfully, disaster was averted. “At the last minute—literally—the children had presents under the tree,” says Woods, who sneaked out to Stop & Shop supermarket Christmas Eve afternoon to pick up coloring books, crayons and View-Masters. “Granted, they were some unusual items,” she recalls, “but I will always remember us pulling together to make the spirit of the holiday [come alive]. Two years later, my daughter still has questions about the gifts. Santa is funny like that.”

A Christmas family portrait turned into a Christmas tree toppling for “Good Day Sacramento” anchor Marianne McClary. “We used to get together with relatives on my mom’s side every year for a family gift exchange,” McClary recalls. “One year, maybe [in the] early ’90s, with my fancy new self-timing camera, I got everyone to pose in front of the little Christmas tree my aunt and uncle had put on a table. When everyone was in position, I clicked the camera and ran to get in the picture, perching on the side of the table—only to find that it wasn’t a table at all, but a piece of plywood covered with a tablecloth on top of a bar stool! I realize this as the table is tilting, the tree is fa-la-la-la falling, and the camera snaps to catch the whole thing on film. The tree ended up on the floor, but we knew we’d have a good story to tell for years!”
 
Several New Year’s Eves ago, while working at an East Coast radio station, Mix 96 morning-drive personality Dave Thomson and his fellow on-air hosts took their program director’s request to “make it sound like a party” a bit too literally. Thomson and the other jocks were live, counting down the top 100 songs of the year when, somewhere after song 80, liquid refreshments were brought in. By the time they hit 50-something, things got kinda blurry. “‘Did I play No. 53 last or was that 54?’” Thomson recalls wondering. But luck was on his side. “I make it to No. 51 and then the next guy takes over,” Thomson says. “Turns out, I bailed just before the corks really started poppin’. There were memos and meetings and reprimands on Jan. 2—and strong suggestions that if we were to do that again, it would go on our permanent record.”