Duck the Halls by Donna Andrews is a holiday-themed mystery and the 16th book in her Meg Langslow mystery series (available October 22, 2013).
The holidays are right around the corner, and if you’re anything like me, your blood pressure is already on the rise. Who’s hosting Thanksgiving? How about Christmas? Where am I going to find the time to shop for presents, let alone hunt down and decorate a tree? Will anyone notice if my husband and I take the cat and flee to the Bahamas until the madness has passed?
Thankfully, though, this year has the potential to be less stressful than those that came before. Why is that, you ask? Because this year, I have the incomparable Donna Andrews to remind me to keep my priorities straight.
Andrews’ latest, Duck the Halls, finds series heroine Meg Langslow dealing with more than your average share of pre-Christmas chaos. For example, her mother has taken over her house with the intent of transforming it into a Christmas wonderland capable of making Martha Stewart cede her crown:
Looking around, I tried to imagine what Mother could possibly think was missing.
“Didn’t some famous interior designer say when you finished decorating you should take a look and remove at least one thing?” I asked.
“It was Coco Chanel,” Mother said. “And she was talking about a woman getting dressed—not interior decorating, and certainly not decorating for Christmas, where a certain feeling of luxurious excess is quite appropriate.”
She was shuffling through one of the Christmas card baskets, making sure that the top cards were all elegant ones that matched the red, gold, and green color scheme, and banishing any that did not meet her aesthetic standards to the bottom of the basket.
“I’ll leave you in charge of the luxurious excess,” I said. “I’m going to take a nap so I’ll be fit to go to the concert tonight.”
“Splendid,” she said absently. She was holding up both hands making the suggestion of a picture frame and squinting through it at the stairway.
I headed upstairs, resigned to the probability that the hallway would be unrecognizable the next time I saw it.
But there’s a good chance the Christmas feast her mother’s planning will be so over-the-top in its extravagance that Meg won’t be able to consume a single bite:
“Mother’s doing turkey,” I said.
“Fabulous! I like a traditional holiday meal.”
“Which she is cooking in some odd way she read about on one of those food blogs,” I said. “Stuffed with crab, oysters, and lobster.”
“Sounds delicious!” And then his face fell. “For those who can eat it. Is she having a seafood-free option, or has she forgotten your allergies again?”
“Mother doesn’t approve of my being allergic to anything as elegant and expensive as crab, oysters, and lobster,” I said.
And then there’s the matter of the Scrooge-like pranksters who’ve rendered both the Baptist and Catholic churches unfit for occupancy (last I checked, The Twelve Days of Christmas didn’t include verses about “skunks in the choir loft” or “ducks in the sanctuary”), leaving poor Meg to try and find new locations for both congregations’ planned holiday events.
A normal person might let the insanity overwhelm them, but not Meg. Meg knows how important it is to find time— even if it’s just a moment or two—to stop and reflect on what’s truly important:
And then I made myself a cup of tea—the old-fashioned way, by boiling the water in a kettle and steeping loose tea in the pot instead of nuking a mug of water with a tea bag in it—and sat down in the living room with one of the baskets of Christmas cards.
For a minute or so, I had to fight the urge to be doing something useful with them. Entering any new addresses or e-mails in my address book. Or checking the cards against my list of Christmas cards we’d sent so I could fire off belated greetings to anyone we’d forgotten.
“Breathe,” I told myself. It took a minute or two, but I managed to relax and see the cards not as looming chores but as what they were supposed to be—expressions of love and friendship from people we might not be able to see this holiday season.
As crazy as things get in Meg’s latest adventure, Donna Andrews never lets her protagonist—or her readers—forget that it’s not the presents or the tinsel or the “luxurious excess” that makes the holidays special—it’s the traditions. Be it honoring old ones…
“I have a plan,” he said finally. “To satisfy the longing we both have for an old-fashioned Christmas dinner.”
“We run away and eat with Mrs. Fenniman?”
“Better,” he said. “We cook our own.”
“And have three Christmas dinners?” I shuddered slightly. “I’m not sure that’s much of an improvement.”
“We could do ours on Christmas Eve,” he said. “Remember that little basement apartment we lived in before we found the house?”
“It’s vacant at the moment. And the owner of the house is a friend. He’s trying to decide whether to rent it out again or remodel it as part of his house. I’m sure I could arrange for us to borrow the apartment.”
“And do what?”
“Cook our own Christmas dinner,” he said. “Just you and me and the boys. Not a big dinner—the kitchen’s pretty tiny. But I can drop by the turkey farm and get a small bird.”
“It takes a while to cook even a small turkey,” I pointed out.
“And you’ll probably be swamped with more church-swapping chores,” he said. “So I’ll pick up the ingredients, and the boys can help me get it started, and then you can join us in the basement apartment for our own little Christmas dinner. The four of us. And then when the tryptophan in the turkey starts working on the boys, we bring them home, put them to bed, and assemble the train tracks and whatever else in a fabulous mood.”
“It’s a crazy idea,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
making new ones…
Still, it was cozy. And filled with the most delicious smells—turkey and gingerbread and pumpkin pie. And decorated just as extravagantly as our house was, though clearly by different hands. The bathroom curtain had been drawn aside to reveal a skinny six-foot spruce tree occupying the shower stall—one of the few spaces large enough to hold it. The tree, the rest of the bathroom, and the whole apartment were decorated with red and gold paper chains, lopsided stars cut out of gold paper, and garlands of evergreen held together with Scotch tape, from which I deduced that Michael and the boys had picked the vegetation themselves. A papier-maché Santa and nine papier-maché reindeer hung from the ceiling. The power cord to Rudolph’s flashing red nose was wrapped in tinsel and taped across the ceiling and down one wall until it could reach a vacant outlet. And taped to all the walls were Christmas posters painted by the boys. Wise men riding on beasts that looked a lot more like llamas than camels. Mary and Joseph bending tenderly over a baby Jesus who seemed to be occupying a car seat rather than a manger. Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and the elves surrounded by a three-foot-high avalanche of presents— including what I suspected was a giant hamster cage. A giant Christmas tree almost hidden by the wrapped presents piled around it. A mantel from which hung a line of stockings large enough for giants.
“Did you guys do all this?” I asked. “It’s beautiful!”
or some combination thereof:
As Michael continued to narrate and the organist played softly, Mary and Joseph, seventh-graders chosen for good behavior, entered from the right and headed for the manger. Mary was leading, rather than riding, a donkey whose sneaker-clad rear feet had an alarming tendency to step on the heels of the snow boots his front feet were wearing. Mary abandoned the donkey once she reached the manger, which was right in front of the altar. As soon as the donkey came to a halt, its stomach began to writhe alarmingly, until Joseph kicked both sets of feet several times and stage-whispered “Cut it out, you idiots!”
While her husband was disciplining the donkey, Mary reached under the manger and matter-of-factly pulled out the doll that represented the infant Jesus and plunked him down in the straw. But then she remembered her character and assumed a beatific expression as she gazed down at the doll.
On this cue, all the animals filed in. In addition to the boys in their dinosaur costumes, the denizens of the stables included a brightly colored parrot, an elephant, a Wookiee, and Winnie-the-Pooh. They all took turns peering down at baby Jesus while the choir led us through all six verses of “Friendly Beasts,” after which the Wookiee chivvied the rest of the creatures to the right side of the stage, where they all took their seats on hay bales placed there for their comfort.
As long as you’re with the ones you love, it has the potential to be the best Christmas ever. It doesn’t matter if your tree’s in the shower or there are Wookiees in your nativity; if you just take a beat to relax and enjoy the moment, maybe you’ll discover that, given the chance, you wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for Crimespree Magazine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.