How Our Worst Christmas Dinner Was the Best Thing That Could’ve Happened

A frozen bird and a broken oven forced us to let go of our usual expectations as to how Christmas should go.

Hosting Christmas dinner is a big job. A rite of passage, really. I’m in my early forties and, to this day, I have yet to oversee the cooking of the Yuletide turkey. I assume it’s because I don’t have children, as hosting in my family usually falls to the households still getting visits from Santa. Either that or they think I’m a terrible cook.

I am lucky to have a close relationship with my two sisters. Growing up, we tended to seamlessly correspond with birth-order stereotypes. The eldest, Kate, was a responsible, bossy perfectionist. I was the people-pleasing, attention-seeking middle child. And Kerry, the baby, was charming, sensitive and entirely lacking in self-discipline. We were, as much as I hate to admit it, clichés.

Kate wrapped gifts in brown paper, with perfectly tied bows on top, and diligently passed around hors d’oeuvres as people opened their presents. I was unnecessarily effusive about the tube socks and plastic earrings I received from a great aunt: “Wow! They’re for my feet! And it doesn’t matter that I don’t have my ears pierced, I can do that before dessert if you like!” And Kerry would be gushed over by our grandmother because, apparently, she was a genius for knowing how to dress her new Barbie.

As we’ve aged and matured, I like to think our predetermined traits have become more nuanced.

When I was 25, there was a seismic shift as our family was forced to redefine itself. Our dad, who was a beloved, larger than life figure in our world, died from cancer. The hole he left was palpable. Who would become our new sage elder? Who would sit opposite my mother at the table? When our extended family inevitably got on each other’s nerves at the next holiday gathering, who would lighten the mood?

Newly married Kate and her husband, Shane, lived in a split-level house in our hometown of Peterborough, Ontario. A year after our father’s passing, our family’s Martha Stewart volunteered to host her first Christmas dinner at the ripe old age of 27. There would be 12 mouths to feed, our extended family included. The challenge was on!

As a 1980s parent, my mom was a casserole-and-jelly-mould type. At Christmas, our candles were battery operated, our turkey was a pre-stuffed frozen Butterball and our tree looked like the bobble department in Sears had thrown up on it. The holiday was homey and carb-filled.

My sister Kate, on the other hand, prepared for her inaugural hosting sortie by making wreaths, folding napkin swans and decorating her tree with colour-coordinated fabric, tinsel and tiny white lights. And the pièce de résistance: a fresh, not-even-remotely-Butterball turkey.

On December 25, 2005, we gathered at Kate’s and opened our stockings while sipping wine and nibbling on appetizers that looked like they’d been plucked from a magazine spread. My dad, who had a mischievous sense of humour, was famous for his joke gifts, a ritual we wanted to continue after his death. Kerry received a sparkly wand so she could relive her stint in the grade-school baton-twirling club. Mom got a pair of full-bottomed underwear with “Granny Panties” splashed across the derrière. Shane was gifted a bag of BBQ flavoured crickets, because it was just gross enough to be funny.

We were proud of ourselves for carrying on Dad’s tradition, despite our grief. Still, the clock was ticking, bellies were grumbling and best behaviours were starting to fray.

Cooking a turkey is more complicated than one might think. It includes brining and basting and, apparently, math. A bird requires five hours of thawing per pound, and then 13 minutes of cooking per pound after that. This was all too cumbersome for our mother, so when Butterball invented the pre-stuffed, cook-from-frozen fowl, she thought she’d died and gone to Christmas-dinner heaven.

Having never seen our mother cook anything but Butterball, my sister, days earlier, had put her fresh turkey into the freezer to keep it, well, fresh. When I entered the kitchen at 7:30 p.m. for an ETA on the gravy boat, I found Kate in a state of panic. It was a perfect storm: the oven had stopped working and the turkey was still rock solid. She’d been duped by both General Electric and the culinary shortcomings of our domestically challenged mother.

“Everything is ruined! I didn’t know a real turkey needed to be defrosted!” she cried, looking defeated as her oven mitts hung off the ends of her arms like sagging lobster claws. Ever the supportive younger sister, I burst into laughter, grabbed my boots and a shovel and cut a path through the heavy snow to the barbecue. We transferred the bird to the back deck, uncorked more wine and headed into the den filled with starving aunts to break the news.

While the turkey was on the grill, Kerry twirled her baton to the Rocky theme song, my mom donned her new granny panties over her dress pants and Shane passed around handfuls of BBQ crickets—which go surprisingly well with a chilled chardonnay.

At midnight, the bird was ready to be carved, the side dishes were microwaved and the pleasantly pickled guests sat down to devour Kate’s holiday repast. A frozen bird and a broken oven forced us to let go of our usual expectations as to how Christmas should go.

Subsequently, we’d all been freed from our assigned roles. We were all allowed to just…be. No one made passive-aggressive comments about the consistency of the mashed potatoes, no one was told to take their elbows off the table and no one had a bad time. It turns out that hosting Christmas dinner wasn’t so hard after all. It just required everything to go perfectly wrong, so it could be perfectly right.

Next, check out 10 funny Christmas stories shared by our readers.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada