What I Did on My Christmas Vacation

Every year the residents of this St. Catharines road go all-out with the Christmas decorations. The street's actual name is Rio Lane but it will always be Griswald Avenue to me.

Every year the residents of this St. Catharines, Ontario road go all-out with the Christmas decorations. The street’s actual name is Rio Lane but it will always be Griswald Avenue to me.

I know what you must be thinking… “We’re into June and HoaiPhai is just getting around to doing his Christmas post-game show. He must have had one hell of a vacation!” The short answer to that question, which if you were paying attention you would have realized wasn’t even a question in the first place, is “yes and no”.

Gone are the days when I’d go to a New Year’s Eve party and sometime around the middle of February wake up in a ditch penniless and hungover with a new crop of cold sores and my pants on backwards. This Christmas wasn’t one for the record books in that sense but, hey, I only got two extra days off work this year.

While it lacked the excitement and debauchery of Yules of yore, I had a fine Christmas just the same… it was incredibly involved with various layers of sub-themes, cameo appearances, and turkey. I had several hints well in advance that things would turn out that way so I sprung into action in early November and bought myself a lot of presents. My new toys will feature prominently in future posts if I can ever get this getting-bigger-and-bigger-every-time-I-work-on-it post up.


No matter how humble, every Christmas involves extensive planning.

The Traditional HoaiPhai Family Christmas

Usually Christmas at Hoaiphai’s place is fairly low-key with a tiny fake self-lit tree (which is kind of funny considering that in my yard there are three forty-foot pines just twenty feet away from where we keep the fake indoor one), some presents, a turkey, and some old movies on DVD with just me, the wife, and my son in attendance. About every second year my friend The Dane spends a couple of days with us, too.

I usually drag myself over to my brother’s house on Boxing Day to catch up with the family. My siblings tend to gather there because they know where to find his well-stocked liquor cabinet. It is for this very reason that I hide my booze in the basement, in the cabinet above the fridge, and in another secret location I’m not even going to tell you about, leaving only weird imported beers and Hpnotiq in plain sight. The genius behind my three-location caching technique is should one of my relatives ever find one of my hidden reserves, it alone won’t be well-stocked enough for them to want to make my home a regular haunt. The gang wouldn’t even get “saturated” by the contents of just one of my caches and would have to move on to another watering hole.

A week of turkey leftovers typically follows Boxing Day, signalling the end of the Christmas Season and heralding in the three month long I-keep-writing-the-wrong-year-on-cheques-and-other-important-documents season I like to think of as Doofusary.

Yes, I did subject Mrs. HoaiPhai to all these traditional rituals but there was something extra special about this year’s Christmas.

Alice in Wonderland
Alice enjoying a quiet afternoon.

This is a picture of Alice from last summer. Remember?

I don’t know if you remember my wife’s nine-year-old grandniece Alice from last summer’s staycation series of posts but she spent Christmas with us.

In October my wife got a call from Alice’s mother asking if Alice could come spend some time with us over the Christmas holidays. She had asked Alice if she would like a vacation abroad (they live in Korea) as a Christmas gift from her parents and gave Alice the choice of going to her aunt’s place in Los Angeles or to us here in the wilds of the Canadian Niagara area. She immediately chose to spend time with her grand-aunt (or is that great-aunt?) and yours truly.

At first Mrs. HoaiPhai refused, saying that it was going to be tough to take care of her, what with us being too poor to not both have to work, and that there would be nothing for Alice to do here during the winter. When I caught wind of this, I reminded my wife that we would have plenty of time to watch the kid because that magical time of year would soon be rolling around when my wife gets laid off work until spring. Besides, I reasoned, wouldn’t it be great to have a child, especially a Korean one, in the house for Christmas?

Derailing the Story with a Bit of Back-story

You have to understand why I specified a Korean child at the end of the last paragraph. You see, Christmas is not as huge in Korea as it is over here. The Koreans, however, do (Lunar) New Year in elaborate ways that are head and shoulders over our spending way too much cash on a dinner and bubbly wine just to have one’s vision all blurry while trying to watch a ball drop, and then having a fight with your date about the intensity with which you kissed that strange girl at midnight, and then not being able to find a taxi to take you home to your lonely, empty apartment while your date cashes in your drink coupons with that guy in the shiny suit she met at the party while breaking up with you and calling in all loans.

A Korean Christmas, on the other hand, might amount to little more than a couple of presents and a nice dinner in which the involvement of a turkey and/or cranberries is almost unheard of. Even kids don’t think too much about Santa. I really wanted to give Alice a Christmas to remember.

And besides, Korea is generally pretty tough on kids (from the perspective of a former Canadian kid who grew up with very little supervision). School is very competitive and stuff you do in elementary school, and even which elementary school your parents get you into, affects which university will consider accepting you and, ultimately, the type of job you’ll wind up in. School is held eleven out of fourteen days, meaning you only get every other Saturday off. And you’re not finished learning when school lets out because chances are your parents have signed you up with after-school tutors to get you up-to-speed in your weak subjects and make you shine in subjects you’re already good at. The bright side is that schools give credit for things you do outside of school hours, like spending six weeks overseas in the company of a grand-uncle (or is that great-uncle?) who feels kids should have the opportunity to just be kids.

Back to the Actual Story Involving Alice

So the next morning [we were talking about my wife declining an invitation to host young Alice over the Christmas holidays, remember?], my wife got on the phone with Alice’s mom and asked if it was too late to change “our” mind. Alice’s mom laughed, saying that the night before when she told Alice that Mrs. HoaiPhai said that it wouldn’t be a good idea for her to come for a visit, Alice calmly told her, “Let’s wait a day or two. Uncle will welcome me, I just know it! He’ll make Auntie HoaiPhai change her mind.” She was right. I predict that in a few years Alice is going to be really scary in that cool, mature, intuitive, womanly, psychic know-it-all way.

So ten-year-old Alice voluntarily committed herself to travel half-way around the Earth, all by herself, to spend six weeks with people over four decades her senior. I knew that I was going to have fun but I soon began to think about how deeply scarred she would be at the end of her vacation. Being the sensitive guy I am, I soon forgot about it and ate dinner, I guess. I dunno… I don’t remember.

In the days that followed, I checked with Alice’s mom to see if she (meaning Alice, of course) still believes in Santa Claus and was told “Sort of, but she is beginning to doubt him.” The fact that, as a Korean kid, she never had a real reindeer-on-the-roof, coloured-lights, turkey-and-cranberry Christmas seemed so tragic to me. That coupled with the prospect that this was possibly the last chance that she could ever have one involving Santa elevated my goal from a simple little plan to give Alice a nice Christmas and inspire in her a little Christmas Spirit into a personal mission to whip young Alice into a frenzy of Santicipation.

So the weeks flew by, we picked her up at the airport, and once back home and immediately after Alice helped Mrs. HoaiPhai sock away all the food that was sent over from Korea to supplement my wife’s presumed ramyun-, kim chee-, mince draw garlic-, and chili powder-deficient Canadian diet, I began my plan to cultivate in Alice a little “Christmas Spirit”.

“So, Alice, are you looking forward to Christmas? Did you send Santa your letter?”, I asked, hoping to squeeze some gift ideas out of her that Mrs. HoaiPhai didn’t get out of Alice’s mother. The response I got was something along the lines of, “Yeah, Christmas will be nice. I gave the list of things I want for Christmas to my mother, I think. Can I have some juice, please?”

Now this was less than three weeks from Christmas and a ten year old is more concerned with self-hydration than with what Santa is going to bring her? This kid was going to take some serious work to make her appreciate this most jolly of holidays!


Alice watching The Three Stooges. The first step in dealing with a preteen burnout is to allow Curly, Shemp, Larry, and Moe to scrape off some of the hot carbon from the child’s psyche.

So the first step was to rekidify Alice, and there’s no better way to accomplish this than to sit the subject down in front of a TV (this method also imposes very little wear-and-tear on the adult administering this therapy). Luckily, I didn’t have to endure endless episodes of “My Little Pony” or “Dora the Explorer”… Alice is crazy about classical cinema, like The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, and The Pink Panther movies. Between “Curly Classics” disks I began to talk to her about Christmas.

“I sure hope there’s a lot of snow at Christmas”, I said.

“Why?” She seemed really puzzled.

“Having to land and take off from dry rooftops takes extra time, so Santa can’t make as many trips back to The North Pole to reload his sleigh. More snow, more presents. ”


“Yup. But you probably wouldn’t notice the difference even if there’s not much snow. You see Santa is Canadian so we get more presents here than anyone else in the world.”

I immediately left the living room, headed into the kitchen, and turned to call to her in the living room to ask if she’d like a cup of hot chocolate, something she goes nuts over. The hot chocolate question didn’t even register with her. “Santa’s Canadian? No, I don’t think so.”, she said.

I could see a glimmer of Christmas magic in her eyes — the prospect that she was close to Santa, even if that meant that she was in the same vast country, really got her to thinking. I listed the evidence that Santa is Canadian just to seal the deal…

  • He lives at the North Pole and if that isn’t in Canada, which country does the North Pole belong to?
  • We have plenty of reindeer here (I showed her a standard-issue Canadian quarter which has a caribou on it but she thought it was a reindeer. Please don’t tell Alice.).
  • Santa has an official Canadian address (I had the Canada Post website pre-loaded at their page telling you how to write to Santa. His address really is Santa Claus, North Pole, Canada. Postal Code: H0H 0H0. I’m not making this up.).
  • What colour clothes does Santa wear? What are the colours of the Canadian flag? Coincidence? I think not.
  • The Canadian Air Force escorts and tracks Santa on his Christmas Eve flight, and I promised to prove it on Christmas Eve.

She was so hooked at that point.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas I was asked all kinds of questions about Santa, The North Pole, elves, reindeer, and every imaginable aspect of Christmasology. Mrs. HoaiPhai was kept busy giving baking lessons to her young charge, constructing gingerbread houses, and shopping. For the first time in years I put up all the lights. It was great!

So Christmas Eve rolled around and Alice was so wound up I thought she was going to bust her mainspring! We had a simple dinner that included tourtière. Alice was as unimpressed with the meat pie from my home province as she was with most Canadian food — Alice taught me that hamburgers were not the universal favourite of the under-twenty crowd I thought they were.

After dinner we watched a couple of Christmas classics on TV with frequent checks at the Canadian Forces’ Santa tracking website. We also had a special iPad app that pinged us developments and showed us, in real-time, Santa zipping around the globe. There were even counters tallying how many houses had already been visited and how many gifts had been placed under trees. So when Santa started delivering gifts to little children two time zones away we sent Alice off to bed with thoughts of buns filled with red bean paste (or whatever treat Korean kids associate with Christmas) dancing in her head.


The shingling of a gingerbread house. [Photo was taken using a lens Santa pre-gifted me during a November Nikon glass sale]

I had a few last-minute gifts to wrap, which took me about four hours to finish (because I was exhausted, had a couple of Kahluas in me, and was watching “Dragnet” on DVD), and then I went to bed.

In about the same amount of time it just took your eyes to skip from the last paragraph to this one, Christmas Morning had arrived and my wife was trying to wake me up so we could open presents. [Only heretics open presents on Christmas Eve… that’s like consummating a marriage at the engagement party] So, Alice opened the contents of the very first stocking she ever got and was very pleased. She loved all her stocking-stuffers and was especially impressed with the chocolate money.

Opening the stocking.

Alice was very impressed with all the crap Santa stuffed into her stocking.

We motioned her over to our pretend tree and sat her down in front of the small heap of gifts Santa had brought her. She couldn’t believe it…

“More? For me?”

Yes, Alice. There is a Santa Claus and he wants to spoil you this year.

The "big" present.

How did Santa know I wanted a Pegasus?

So she delicately unwrapped gift after girly gift of dolls, stuffed animals, leg warmers (whatever they are), sweaters, etc. I orchestrated he handing-of-the-gifts so she would get last that thing she wanted most, the thing that she hadn’t even dared ask Santa for… a Pegasus (in any form). Well Santa had read her mind and brought her a very special silver Pegasus necklace that appealed to both the child and nascent woman in Alice.


Alice wasn’t the only one who got gifts… she bought me my very own raccoon!

Once the gifts were all opened, I slipped upstairs and got into a Santa outfit. I didn’t want to impersonate Santa but to dress like him in homage. When I came back down the stairs I was in eye-shot of Alice who was sitting on the living room chesterfield. When Alice recognized the suit she was awestruck — she just stopped speaking with her aunt mid-sentence. I sat down beside her and put on a bit of a Santa voice. She was beaming but still aphasic. I didn’t want her to catch me trying to convince her that I was Santa so I reverted to my normal voice. She squinted and tried to look past the fake beard when she recognized my voice. I’m really thankful that she didn’t feel duped but appreciated my putting on the Santa suite as part of the whole Christmas theme.

So I made her yet another “kids’ coffee”, i.e. a hot chocolate, and real coffees for me and Mrs. Claus HoaiPhai. We spent the rest of the day doing christmasy things things like cooking a giant turkey (Alice had never tasted turkey before but she wasn’t hugely impressed but did eat it. She’s a pretty picky eater and stuck mostly to a limited number of Korean dishes the whole six weeks she spent with us), fiddling with our gifts, and watching Christmas movies when we weren’t on the phone wishing people a merry Christmas.

Post Christmas Depression? Not!

Alice’s return ticket to Korea was for late January and Alice’s mother, partly out of concern that Alice was getting homesick (and/or bored with us old folks, I guess) and partly (I’m sure of this because Alice is such a sweet girl) because she missed Alice, called to ask if Alice wanted to go home early. Alice said told her that she wanted to stay in Canada forever.


I am happy to report that Alice’s enjoyment of her stay with us wasn’t just Christmas-driven. Alice is seen here in early January goofing around and dancing to Mrs. HoaiPhai’s piano playing.

Alice’s mom asked if she wanted to stay in Canada just to avoid having to return to school. Alice replied, “Nope, I wouldn’t mind going to school here. I just love Canada so much!”

“Wouldn’t you miss me, Dad, and your little brother Marino?”

“No,” Alice responded, “not if we all move here! Let’s do it!”

So the final few weeks flew by and the day came that we had to hand Alice over to Korean Air. Alice really didn’t want to go back but in spite of a few verbal attempts to postpone her return to a later date, i.e. “It looks like there’s going to be a snowstorm… we should stay home.”, “The traffic is terrible – we’re never going to make it. Maybe we should turn around right now before we get really stuck.”, etc., we did, sadly, get her to the airport in spite of a near-fatal snowfall of a centimetre or so and traffic so crippling it added a whole ten minutes to our ninety-minute drive.


Moving right along because I’d really like to get this one posted so I can get down to work on my much-anticipated Father’s Day post (at this rate you’ll probably be anticipating it until sometime around Labour Day), Alice is back home and still trying to wrangle her way back to Canada.

There’s so much more we would have liked to have done with her but, you know, winter weather is pretty shitty so you’re more or less stuck indoors in front of either the TV or stove. I’m pretty sure we could even sway Alice’s indifference to non-Korean food if we could just get her here during BBQ and propane-powered, melt-the-ceiling-if-you-use-it-indoors, flame-can-be-seen-from-space wok burner season.

We miss you, Alice. Comeback soon!

About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

9 responses to “What I Did on My Christmas Vacation

  • Ape No. 1

    I am stealing your term Santicipation. Good to hear that Alice has enjoyed another stint in the “North Pole”.

    • HoaiPhai

      Greetings from the land upover!

      Go ahead and use it but please remember where you heard it… I was the guy who coined the term “Generation X” in the 70s, but for my own generation of long-haired rock-and-rollers who were in high school in the mid-70s. We weren’t “real” hippies like our ’60s counterparts in that we were much more materialistic but more down to earth than the 80s’ big-haired rockers and absolutely nothing nothing like those short-lived “Discos”.

  • The Hook

    A brilliant Christmas story in June?
    I loved it!

  • HoaiPhai

    Thank you kindly! The non-smoking programme really hindered my naturally marginal productivity (blog-wise and other), and I’m struggling to get back into the saddle. Alice loved The Falls and there’s an upside-down house on Victoria northeast of Clifton Hill that I really have to get a few shots of to send her) and possibly build a post around.

  • nofrillswrapping

    What a wonderful Christmas story!

    • HoaiPhai

      The most wonderful part of the story is that it it is all true (except some of the names were changed to protect the innocent). Alice must have told her brother all about Christmas in Canada because they both were chomping at the bit to come for Christmas. Unfortunately, their parents had other plans for them. Mrs. HoaiPhai and I are trying to figure out a way to spend next Christmas with them all.

      Happy New Year!

      • nofrillswrapping

        I’m just smiling when I think of the story again. I hope next Christmas happens the way you wish for you all this year.

        Happy New Year to you all too!

      • HoaiPhai

        Thanks so much! If I start saving my pennies now, maybe someone will be able to spend Christmas with someone else. I just hope that they can come to Canada, what with turkeys (and ovens) being available here and Santa not having to pay duty or import taxes, and all that.

      • nofrillswrapping

        You’re welcome.

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