Sunday Christmas: Literary Short Fiction By Phebe Kirkham
Phebe Kirkham, author of Sunday Christmas, teaches writing and literature at York College, CUNY. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and lives in Queens. Recent work of hers has appeared in Poydras Review, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, and Newtown Literary.
When we were children, we dreaded Christmases that fell on Sunday. For our father, a minister at a suburban church, the season was always busy, entailing not just one, but two services on Christmas Eve. Just before dinnertime he presided over the children’s pageant—wandering sheep, crying angels, Kings clocking each other with their crowns. Later, he led the 11 PM service: formal, lengthy, every verse of every carol sung all the way through.
The one saving grace of this service was its culmination in a thrilling moment of potential danger: precisely at midnight, the ushers turned out the lights and we all held candles, lighting them each to each until the entire sanctuary glowed. Our mother disliked this ritual, not just because she feared we would set each other’s hair aflame, but because she would be the one to return a few days later with an iron and a rag to blot up any stray drops of wax.
Christmas Day itself was almost always quieter and more relaxed: we were allowed to stay in our pajamas for a casual breakfast followed by presents.
But since Sunday was a workday for our father, a Christmas that fell on a Sunday meant he also had to hold regular sunrise and 11 AM services in the morning. Most of the congregation would skip these—they’d been to church the night before, after all. To a handful of stalwart older ladies, however, these services were sacrosanct.
Changes to them were not to be contemplated. For my brother and sister and me, this meant we’d be trussed up in our stiff church finery and displayed in the pew four times in less than 24 hours. But this wasn’t really the problem—even quite young, we were so accustomed to services and being watched by the congregation that we’d mastered the art of drifting away into our own thoughts while never missing a single cue to stand or sit or pray or sing. No, what upset us was the effect this schedule would have on our morning. On a Sunday Christmas, there was no easy, happy breakfast in pajamas. Worse, there could be no presents until our father returned, late in the afternoon.
Changes to them were not to be contemplated. For my brother and sister and me, this meant we’d be trussed up in our stiff church finery and displayed in the pew four times in less than 24 hours.
Anyone old enough to read this may consider this a petty problem, whining from spoiled children. Most of us, as adults, can’t remember what time felt like when we were young. Yet this doesn’t stop us from envying that relativity after we’ve lost it. Once we’re older and entire years seem to rush past us, we often wish time would move more slowly as it seemed to do when we were children. Nostalgic for that perception of time, we overestimate its benefits and dismiss as insignificant its difficulties: waiting, powerlessness, boredom. We forget that to a child who has been imagining Christmas morning for months, the wait for Christmas afternoon can feel interminable.
My brother, Peter, first noticed in October that a Sunday Christmas was coming. Leap Year had brought it around again early—we’d endured a Sunday Christmas only five years before. According to my brother’s extensive calculations, we’d been especially unlucky being born in our particular decade. While anyone ten years older or younger than us would have their childhoods marred by only two Sunday Christmases due to a glorious 11-year lapse between them (the good side of Leap Year), we’d be subject to four of them!
Our younger sister, Mary, said she didn’t think it would be that bad; Peter said that was because she was too little to remember the previous one. Then they quarreled about how much she remembered from that year when she was three. Peter said no one had memories from that far back; Mary countered by describing her birthday cake, shaped like an apple tree. Peter countered that she should take his word for it; after all, this was his third Sunday Christmas—we hadn’t even been born for the first one that he suffered through all alone. Mary, counting on her fingers, discovered that Peter had been only one that year, so how could he recall any of it? Peter maintained that he was different: he hadn’t forgotten a single long minute of that day.
That this first Christmas after our mother’s death happens to be a Sunday Christmas too seems a bitter twist, especially since our father pleaded with us to spend Christmas weekend at the parsonage so it would feel less empty. He leaned on Peter to bring his wife Deborah and their baby, Eli, even though Deborah is Jewish and for her, Christmas has all the appeal of a re-gifted fruitcake. But Deborah, kinder than us, worries about our father and hopes spending time with Eli will cheer him up. Once she agreed, neither Mary nor I felt we could refuse, despite the fact that I usually travel up only for Christmas lunch and Mary typically spends the holiday with her girlfriend’s extended family.
While a Sunday Christmas is no longer much of an issue to any of us—presents lost their allure years ago and Eli is too young to unwrap a gift let alone anticipate one—it means our father will be on duty both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a demanding schedule for a man of 67.
Three years ago, when our mother was first diagnosed, our father mentioned that maybe it was time to think about retiring and moving somewhere warmer. Turning this remark into an actual plan, however, would have required our mother’s organizational skills and energy. Finding a house, arranging for movers, and packing up all that they owned were tasks quite beyond our father. As our mother got more and more frail, he dropped all talk of retirement and moving. Mere weeks after she died this past March, he told me that it was probably for the best that he hadn’t retired; he needed work to keep him steady.
And he does seem steady, for the most part; he even looks a little chubby, although the dust in the bedrooms convinces me I’d better strip the beds and wash the sheets, and Peter ends up driving to the hardware store to replace strands of Christmas lights that our father insists are still in working order, perfectly fine, just old, but that Peter says are not fine when you have a baby in the house and you prefer that the tree not catch fire.
When Mary and I unpack and put away the groceries, we see why our father is looking a little bigger: every inch of freezer space and half of the refrigerator is taken up by casserole dishes.
“What is all this?” Mary asks, removing a glass pan to make room.
“Oh, the ladies bring them over—Camille St. John and some of the others. I barely have to cook anything. That one’s from Barbara Sampson,” our father says, with a slightly silly look, “She’s a very good cook.”
Mary lifts the edge of the foil, sniffs. “Since when do you like lasagna, Dad? You used to complain when mom made it.”
Our father takes the casserole from Mary. “I think,” he says, with an almost absurd level of dignity, “I think the problem there may not have lain with me.”
Back then, we spent weeks planning how to thwart that Sunday Christmas. Since I was just 9 and Peter only 12, our ideas were fanciful and impractical. Mary, barely 8, was hardly any use at all. Our first idea was to pretend one of us was sick, or better, all three of us. Fairly quickly we worked out that this would backfire—we’d spend Christmas Day stuck in bed and our father would still go off to church.
Mary suggested pulling the fire alarm just before the 11 AM service. Peter pointed out this would only make everything worse—the fire department would be called out and our father would have to stay while they checked the building. We’d likely wind up having to wait even longer for our presents.
What we needed was a way of putting our father out of commission—temporarily, of course, we had no desire to harm him. All we wanted was for him to stay home and let his assistant, Wayne, take over the services.
My best friend, Kyra, thought we should tell our parents how we felt and ask them to compromise—maybe they’d let us to open a present between services. I laughed when she suggested it: I knew our father would never entertain such a request. His responsibilities to God—and thus to his work—came before anything else. Our Christmas morning was like Isaac to Abraham: sacrificed without objection. Just as it never seemed to occur to Abraham that Isaac might not wish to be sacrificed, it would never have occurred to our father to take our feelings into account. And how could it? The message of that story is perfectly clear, especially to any child hearing it: fathers are in charge and they can lie with impunity.
My best friend, Kyra, thought we should tell our parents how we felt and ask them to compromise—maybe they’d let us to open a present between services.
Only Mary agrees to go to the pageant; Peter claims it’s his turn to watch the baby and that even if it is a children’s service, Eli’s too young to make it all the way through—he’ll just cry. I beg off on the grounds that someone has to start dinner. Our mother always managed to put Christmas Eve dinner together around these services, but I’m not our mother and I draw the line at casseroles made of cream of chicken soup. Our father gathers up his white robe and stole slowly as if to show that he’s a little hurt by these defections. Then he and Mary walk across the alley from the parsonage to the church.
An hour later, Mary returns and without a word, opens the refrigerator, pours herself a full glass of our father’s boxed wine, and drinks it down like water, still standing before the open door.
I make a sympathetic face at her; she scowls at me. Half a day and already we’re regressing, falling into the old patterns, becoming the children we once were.
Our father, however, comes back buoyant—he counted at least 150 in the congregation, more than he’s had for the last dozen years!
“As long as you don’t mind that 75 of them were sheep,” Mary says under her breath.
After dinner we open a bottle of champagne and have a toast in the living room while the baby plays on a blanket on the floor. He’s just starting to sit up, though he tends to fold in the middle after a minute or two.
Our father tries to get the baby to look at the tree, tapping the branches to make the lights move. Peter says he shouldn’t bother—Eli is too young to see colors, but Deborah says actually, by three months, babies can see red. Mary wants to know how on earth anyone knows that—who does experiments on three-month-old babies and what kind of parents let their tiny babies be used in experiments? Peter laughs and says that any parent of a three-month-old would gladly hand their baby over to a researcher if it meant they could have an hour to themselves for a nap. Mary says he’s exaggerating; Peter protests that he’s not, she just doesn’t know what it’s like. She’s been around plenty of babies, Mary is arguing, when there is a knock at the side door, the one the church ladies sometimes use. We all go quiet for a moment, as if we’re hiding. It doesn’t work: the knock sounds again.
Our father holds his glass out to me. “Put that somewhere out of sight.”
“Really, Dad?” Mary says. “It’s just a glass of champagne.”
“You know how some of the ladies are—they don’t like to see their pastor drinking.”
I tuck the glass behind the candlesticks on the mantlepiece.
There’s a spank of cold air as our father opens the door. “Barbara!” he says in his resonant Call-to-Worship voice. Her response is quieter, too soft to make out. She must be protesting because he loudly repeats that she is welcome, very welcome. Then he comes back into the living room, followed by a woman wrapped in a coat the same pine green as the tree.
“Pastor Wes,” Barbara Sampson says, “I don’t want to interrupt your family time. I just wanted to drop off some turkey chili—the recipe completely got away from me—it’s so hard to remember to cook just for one.”
“Nonsense,” our father says. “You know you’re always welcome.”
“Well, if you really don’t mind.” She slips out of her coat and drapes it neatly over the back of the sofa.
I haven’t seen Barbara Sampson in at least ten, possibly fifteen years, but she looks almost the same. That kind of round face under fluffy hair often stays young looking a long time.
She smiles at each of us in turn, then exclaims over Eli. “Oh, Pastor Wes,” she says, “why didn’t you didn’t say your grandbaby is the perfect age? We could have had him up in the manger.”
Deborah stares at her. “My baby, in the manger? You know I’m Jewish.”
“That’s even more perfect—Jesus was too!”
Deborah scoops up Eli, announcing that it’s time for his bath. I offer to help, but Peter says he’s got it. I point out that the taps upstairs can be tricky—sometimes the cold runs hot. Impatiently my brother reminds me that he, too, used to live here.
Our father sighs that parents today make everything so much harder than it needs to be. Why when we were young, our mother used to plunk the two of us girls right in the sink together and she’d manage to make dinner at the same time.
Barbara nods. She remembers giving her son sink baths too. These days parents are much more safety conscious, aren’t they? Why her own son won’t let his daughters sleep in the bunkbeds in his old room even though he slept in that top bunk for years. She’d had to buy an air mattress! Not that it matters this year—they’re spending Christmas at Disney World! She shakes her head over this, confides that she’s not even sure they’re going to make it to church.
Our father says there are actually lots of church services available at Disney World, in fact one of his old seminary roommates is–
“Dad,” I interrupt, “I thought you were going to have a rest before the midnight service?”
He waves his hand at me, “There’s plenty of time for that, Martha.”
“It’s almost eight-thirty,” I say, “and you like to go over early to set-up.”
“There’s plenty of time,” our father repeats. “We have a guest right now.”
“No, no,” Barbara says. “I understand. Pastor Wes, you’ve got a very busy night and day ahead of you—your daughter is right. It’s a good thing your kids are here to take care of you.”
Hoping to take advantage of the fact that she seems to be on our side, I explain that we tried to convince our father to let his assistant take the sunrise service this year. He’s talked about how wonderful she is; surely he doesn’t need to keep doing all the services himself.
“Well, now,” Barbara says, “it’s true that Pastor Yanghee is well-meaning, and she’s really come to embrace our traditions, but just between us,” and she leans forward, the rasp of her stockings somehow terribly intimate, “she doesn’t have your father’s talents. I mean, one has only to look at Pastor Wes to see the way grace shines in him.”
Our father beams; Mary starts to cough.
Barbara waits for me to respond. When I don’t say anything she says, “of course, Martha, you don’t need me to tell you how special your father is.”
Right before Thanksgiving, Kyra came down with chicken pox. One moment she was taking her homework up to our teacher, Mrs. Gard; the next minute, Mrs. Gard was ordering our whole class to stay in their seats while she took Kyra down to the nurse. That night Kyra’s mother called to warn that I’d been exposed. Our mother made me soak in the bath for an hour, then ordered me to stay in bed and not let Mary anywhere near me.
I didn’t get sick though; none of us did. After Thanksgiving, when they finally let Kyra come back to school, she pulled up her shirt in the bathroom to display the fading spots on her stomach—pink and red speckles like someone had flicked a paint brush at her.
That was what gave me the idea. It seems so laughable now that I’m ashamed to explain it. At the time, however, my nine-year-old self thought the plan was not just achievable, but actually brilliant. Peter warned me it was stupid and claimed to have a better idea. I just assumed he was being an annoying older brother, especially since he wouldn’t tell me or Mary what his idea was.
My plan was simple: we would convince our father that he had chicken pox. If he woke up on Christmas morning and saw red spots on himself, he’d think he was sick. Believing he was contagious, he wouldn’t risk going to church.
I puzzled for a long time over how to get the spots on him. I thought about sneaking in while he was sleeping and painting marks onto his face. But I worried he—or our mother—might wake up in the middle. Besides, most of Kyra’s marks had been on her stomach. Then I remembered how we had made wrapping paper with potato stamps for arts and crafts—you cut a potato in half, carved a raised shape into it, then dipped the cut side into paint before stamping it on butcher paper. Obviously I couldn’t attack our father with a cut potato, but what if I painted the inside of his pajamas? They’d act like a stamp, transferring the marks to his body while he slept.
Since one of my chores was to put the laundry away after our mother did the wash, it wasn’t difficult to get ahold of a pair of our father’s pajamas. Two days before Christmas, I pulled his favorite green pair from the laundry basket and hid them under my bed.
The next day, while our mother was busy fixing the wings on Mary’s angel costume, I went up to my room and took out my paint set. I mixed red and white tempera together with a tiny bit of yellow. Then I spread our father’s pajama top open on the floor and dabbed at it with my smallest brush. When I was finished, the dots looked impressive—a field of speckles just the right dark salmon color.
I carefully closed the flaps, fastened the middle button, and refolded the top. Then I stood in the doorway of my room for a minute to listen. When I was sure our mother wasn’t coming up the stairs, I dashed into our parents’ bedroom, leaving the pajamas just where our father liked them, on the chair next to his side of the bed.
At the pageant that evening, as I stood next to the manger in the cow costume I had not wanted to wear (If I’d outgrown being a sheep, why couldn’t I be a shepherd?), I closed my eyes and imagined the moment our father would come down the stairs to announce that he wasn’t able to go to church. He would be sad, but he would want us to make the best of it: he would tell us we would just have to go ahead and start our Christmas morning.
Later, during the midnight service, my imagination sailed farther. I saw our father, stretched out on the sofa, relaxed in his robe, declaring that this was the best Christmas ever. Every Christmas should be like this, he would say. From now on, he’d always let his assistant take the Sunday Christmas services.
It’s almost nine before our father finally agrees to go up for a rest. Barbara draws on her coat, but insists she can’t leave until she’s helped tidy up. Mary says there really isn’t anything to tidy up. Then Barbara spies the champagne glasses.
“I’ll get those,” I say, but Barbara has already plucked them up; she carries them to the kitchen and sets them down next to the sink. She reaches to turn on the tap and I have to interrupt her, say more forcefully that the dishes are my job. She’s just trying to help, she says, but she backs away and pulls her coat on.
All day my phone kept promising snow, displaying the flake icon under each successive hour, but it’s only now, when I switch on the porch light and open the side door to show Barbara out, that it’s begun to fall
“Oh, it’s beautiful.” Deborah follows us out onto the side porch. “We don’t get snow in the city much. Eli will be excited.”
Mary steps out behind her and tilts her head back, tries to catch a flake.
“It’s pretty, but I hope it stops soon,” Barbara pulls on her gloves, “I wouldn’t want tonight’s service or the ones tomorrow to be canceled. I do so love a Sunday Christmas—when your father does those services—well, you understand—it’s like an extra gift.”
With all of us on the porch, it’s crowded. Barbara’s in front, at the edge of the steps, and all at once, she’s slipping down them. She makes a strange sound, high pitched like the air squeezed out of a balloon. After she lands, everyone is quiet for second, and then we all speak at once, asking if she’s all right.
“I’m okay,” Barbara stands, brushes at the back of her coat with her gloved hand. “Snow can be so slippery—that’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
You’re sure you’re all right?” Peter asks. “You didn’t hurt your back or your knees?”
She shakes her head and bends down to retrieve her bag. Its contents have spilled out over the gravel of the drive and Peter gets down to help her. “Wallet,” he announces and then, “keys,”. Finally, after handing her a package of tissues, he asks if she’s got everything.
“I think so,” Barbara peers into her bag. “Yes, everything. Except, well, I don’t see my glasses.”
Peter glances around him, rakes the gravel with his hand. “No glasses here,”
“Never mind,” Barbara says. “They just cut back on the glare at night—I can see well enough without them.”
“Are you sure?” Peter asks. “Maybe one of us could drive you home.”
“Don’t be silly,” she says. “It’s not a long drive.”
For the first time, I didn’t attempt to stay up after the midnight service. Confident my plan would work, I went to bed eagerly and closed my eyes quickly.
None of the obvious flaws had occurred to me. I wasn’t worried that the paint would dry long before our father put the pajamas on, or that the transferred dots wouldn’t fool him—that he might know they were just paint by the smell, or that their flatness wouldn’t resemble the raised red bumps of chicken pox.
Even if any of those things had occurred to me, I still wouldn’t have predicted what did happen, which was our father waking the whole house shortly after 1 AM by yelling at our mother for messing up the laundry.
Our mother said she didn’t know what he was talking about.
“There are flakes everywhere,” our father said, “look, pink and red flakes everywhere!”
“Wes,” our mother said, “Wes, just come to bed. I’ll deal with it in the morning.” Her voice sounded exhausted.
“Did you wash my pajamas with the girls’ clothes again? You know they get paint all over themselves. Now it’s all over me—it’s all over the floor.”
“Wes,” our mother said, but in the way she did when she’d already given in. I heard her come out into the hallway and descend the stairs. When she came back up, there was the familiar thunk of the vacuum and then the sound of it inhaling the mess I had made.
Back in the kitchen, while I’m putting the dry dishes away and Peter is finishing off the champagne, he tells Mary he won’t say anything.
“Say anything about what?” Mary looks up from the cookies she’s arranging on a plate for Santa, an old tradition that only she insists on keeping up.
“That you pushed Barbara.”
“I saw a hand on her back, just before she fell—you were right behind her.”
“What is this?” Mary asks, “some new version of the trolley problem?” She tells Peter she isn’t going to get into that with him again—she had enough of his philosophy conundrums at Thanksgiving.
“It was an accident,” I say, taking Peter’s glass from him and rinsing it. “She just lost her footing in the snow.”
We were all extra tired that Christmas morning and the wind as we crossed through the alley to the church for the sunrise service bit at the ankle of my tights. Mary and I tried to keep our coats on in the pew, but our mother peeled them away from us, her face drawn in a way that Peter and I knew was a warning not to argue. Mary, still too young to interpret this expression, kept pulling at the lace on our mother’s sleeve. Couldn’t she open one present after breakfast? What about her stocking?
Our mother shook her head; it would all have to wait until our father got home.
Under cover of the sound the congregation made as they stood for the first hymn, Peter hissed at me that everything was my fault. After my stupid stunt, he couldn’t put his plan into action.
“You didn’t even have a plan,” I said. It was just a retort, but in saying it, I realized it was true.
“You’re a moron.” He jerked the hymnal to the side so I couldn’t see the verses.
“You’re supposed to hold it so I can see.”
“Get your own hymnal,” he said, not whispering.
Our mother grabbed my shoulder, “I can’t believe I have to separate you two today of all days.” Then I heard her draw in her breath. She picked up my right hand and studied my fingers where the tips were still tinged with red paint. Her mouth tightened. “We’ll talk about that later,” she said.
When we get back from the midnight service, the kitchen phone is ringing and our father moves quickly to grab the receiver. He answers with his full name, then listens. “Is she critical?” he asks, then nods through the answer. He says he’ll stop by tomorrow and that he’d appreciate them letting her know this as soon as she’s conscious.
He hangs up the phone and takes off his glasses, pressing briefly at the corners of his closed eyes. Then he takes a breath and explains that Barbara Sampson’s been in an accident. It was relatively minor—luckily she must not have been going very fast. Still, it’s strange, really: she’s the most careful driver he knows.
Peter looks at my sister, then twists his fingers at the corner of his mouth to show that his lips are sealed. Mary scowls at him.
“If she’s going to be all right, Dad,” I say, “couldn’t you have someone else visit her tomorrow?”
“The hospital isn’t far—I can be in and out in forty-five minutes—I go right after the second service.”
I shake my head. “Will you at least go up to bed now? You’ve got to be up again in six hours.”
He nods, absentmindedly taking a cookie from the Santa plate and biting into it. “I have to do the lights and check the locks,” he says.
I offer to take care of it, but Peter strides ahead of me into the living room, switching off lights as he goes. Mary and our father follow him, leaving me in the now darkened kitchen. I turn to set the deadbolt on the side door, but with my hand on the latch, I hesitate. Then I crack the door open.
Sure enough, the glasses are still there, snow dusted, yet visible.
Who knows why one does things? I hadn’t planned to nudge Barbara; there had been no thought of it in my head before my hand gave her just the one, small nudge, just enough to throw her off balance. Besides, I’ve learned better than to plan.
But the glasses—I had seen the wink of their lenses just across the alley. I could have pointed, could have called out. Instead, I’d turned back into the house.
Once the service was over and the parishioners stood about chatting, I managed to slip away from our mother. I couldn’t hide inside the church, but outside in the alley there was a child-sized niche where the transept jutted outwards. I often played there, hunting up bits of fallen stained glass in the gravel that ran under the chancel windows. On my way to my hiding place, I spotted a flash of red among the dark gray and bent to retrieve it. It was one of my favorite kinds—red with a white whirl through it like a peppermint candy. I paused to rub it clean against my coat.
“What have you got there, Martha?” A woman’s voice said. I turned, saw the round, surprised face of Barbara Sampson.
I put my finger to my lips, hoping to signal that I was playing a game and she should keep my secret, but Barbara came forward and grabbed my hand. “Your mother’s looking all over for you, Martha,” she said. “Come along, now, don’t spoil everyone’s Christmas.”
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