This story is a part of the Spec the Halls contest for speculative winter holiday-themed fiction, artwork, and poetry. You may find guidelines and links to other entries at http://www.aswiebe.com/specthehalls.html
The Mystery of the Disappearing Christmas Cracker
The Christmas cracker coughed a pathetic bang before it vanished. It was a disappointing sound; a pale echo of the startling and festive pop the first bottle of Methode Champenoise had managed when it’d been opened.
Sarah didn’t see the cracker disappear. She’d clamped her eyes shut as though her family were about to ceremonially fire canons around the table, not pull colourful crackers apart. She had to admit it was a pointless habit. It wasn’t as though a bang would be any less startling merely because her eyes were closed.
It was only when she opened her eyes that she realized that her hand was empty and the cracker was missing.
“Where did it go?” she asked her brother Jeff, noting that there was no trace of his end of the cracker in his hand and becoming suspicious that this was one of his pranks. Although they were both in their twenties now, she held little hope that he would have outgrown playing tricks. After all, her father still believed that relighting birthday candles and putting salt in the sugar bowl on April Fools’ Day was good family fun. Jeff had spent far too many years of their childhood hiding fake dog poo and vomit in her bed for her to trust him.
“Maybe it went under the table,” he suggested with shrug. He held the winning half of the cracker he’d pulled with Grandma Jones in his left hand so he was unconcerned with where the other one had gone.
Sarah checked under the table. It wasn’t there. In fact, it wasn’t anywhere on the floor when she looked.
“What’s wrong?” her mother, Maureen, asked as she squeezed her cracker’s orange paper hat over the mass of her hairspray-cemented perm.
“The cracker’s missing,” Sarah explained.
“Look, there’s a comb in mine,” her dad, Douglas, exclaimed in mock delight. He held up the tiny pink plastic comb between his thumb and forefinger for everyone to see and then started pretending to brush his bald head with it. “It’s just what I need, isn’t it?”
“There’s another cracker in the box,” Maureen assured her daughter, getting up to head for the sideboard.
“It’s OK, Mum,” Sarah replied as her mother pulled open drawers, looking for the box of crackers. “I don’t need one.”
“Here, you can have mine,” Grandma Jones offered from the other end of the table, pushing her half-opened cracker into Jeff’s hands. “Go on then. Pass that to your sister.”
“You don’t need to do that, Mum,” Doug leaned over and told the old lady in a loud voice. “Maureen’s getting her a new one.”
“I don’t need a cracker, not at my age,” Grandma Jones continued, ignoring her son. She always pretended not to hear people who made the effort to raise their voice or speak more clearly.
“Here you are,” Maureen bustled back to the table and placed a fresh red cracker in Sarah’s hand. “Go on. I’ll pull it with you.”
“Hurry up then, so we can start reading out the jokes,” her father urged.
“I’ve got the worst one, I bet,” Jeff looked up from his unfolded scrap of paper with smug confidence.
Sarah pulled the cracker with her mother. It exploded with a gratifying bang and the contents, bound together in a rubber band, flew up and landed on the table. Sarah felt a brief wave of delight when she saw that the folded hat inside was purple, which was her preferred colour, however her attention was soon distracted, as was the rest of her family’s, by the bright shimmering haze as an alien beamed into the room.
Once the alien had fully materialized they saw that it was a tall, thin creature with purplish grey skin and a large round head. It wasn’t terrifyingly inhuman; at least it had enough recognisable body parts that they didn’t feel too alarmed when it shimmered into existence on their floor. Its large shiny eyes were black with diamond-shaped pupils and vertical eyelids that blinked across with bird-like frequency. It had two gangly arms and long talon-like nails grew out of the three slender fingers on its hands.
“I come in peace on a mission of great importance,” it announced in a mechanical voice that pleasingly matched the stilted speech patterns of aliens in the movies. It would have been more reassuring if its lips had appeared to move as it spoke rather than relying on the internal expansions and contractions of its open mouth to make the sounds. It resembled nostril flaring more than speech.
“Wow, did you organise this, Dad?” Jeff asked. “That’s an impressive alien suit. How do you get the tentacles to stand up like that?”
The alien looked down at the three tentacles that formed the lower part of its body, and deciding that it was unsure how to respond to the earthling’s question, it got on with its assignment.
“I have been sent here from the planet Xarfrod to discover the meaning of one of your relics,” it held up a split Christmas cracker and its contents in their sealed transparent containment receptacles. “We have traced the source of these sacred objects back to this exact time and location. Please tell us the meaning of them.”
“That’s your Christmas cracker, that is,” Grandma Jones told Sarah as she peered across from the far end of the room. Her sight was as good as her hearing when it came to important things like seeing what the people across the street were up to or watching soap operas on the television.
“Dad, honestly, is this a trick?” Sarah asked him. “It’s not going to be like when you made Uncle Ralph dress up as Santa, is it?”
While it had seemed like a good idea to Doug at the time to get his cousin to pretend to be Santa for one of the children’s Christmas parties, that had unfortunately been the year before Ralph was checked into rehab and more than one child went home from the party crying because they had seen Santa urinating into the swimming pool or had heard him say that the barbequed sausages they were eating had been made out of Rudolph.
“This is nothing to do with me, I swear,” Doug declared. “I’ve never seen him before in my life.”
“What this earthling says is the truth,” the alien agreed. “We have never met before.”
“You mean you’re a real alien?” Jeff asked.
“Yes, and I have travelled through time and space to discover the meaning of these sacred artefacts.”
“But it’s just a Christmas cracker,” Sarah explained.
“Christmas cracker? We Xarfrodians have received many Earth objects before. There is a worm hole which appears on our planet for only the briefest of moments that allows the molecular transfer of matter from your planet to ours. Centuries ago our people worshipped these as gifts from the gods; however, we have since studied these objects and have learnt much about your civilisation from them. We understand that these artefacts must have been carefully selected to best represent your cultures and societies to us.”
“But we didn’t send the Christmas cracker? It just disappeared,” Sarah told the alien.
“It must be deliberate. Why would humans transport your relics to our land if not to inform us of your ways? We have even discovered that the interval of time between the arrival of each object is exactly one of your Earth years since you sent us your calendar with the twelve depictions of your sacred goddess Britney Spears.”
“If that’s what Earth has been sending you, it must be by accident,” Sarah said.
“But we have received the complete works of Shakespeare, religious texts, books of your history, your science and arts. You even sent us a DVD recording of the biographical account of the earthling known as Macguyver, and only three years later a television to watch it on,” the alien shook its head and its eyelids swept across its glistening black eyes. “We have learnt how to use and apply your technology, gained an appreciation of your art and music. It is only this object, the Christmas cracker, whose significance we have been unable to determine. I cannot return to my planet without the knowledge of the cracker’s function.”
“Why don’t you sit down and have some dinner with us,” Maureen offered to the alien. She could no more bear to see the creature distraught than she could the thought of her cooked meal going cold on the table.
“That’s right. The more the merrier,” Doug agreed. He pulled out a chair for the alien next to him. “Always plenty of food to go round, eh?”
The alien scuttled over to the seat and arranged its grey tentacles on top of the chair as best it could while Maureen set another plate at the table.
“Your food does smell appetizing,” the alien said politely, as Maureen piled turkey and vegetables on its plate.
“Dig in, dig in,” she insisted, as a general directive to everyone at the table.
“Perhaps you might tell me more about the sacred head-dress that I see you are all wearing,” the alien asked as they started devouring the immense feast on the table. “They are the same as this green hat that was sent to us. We have recognised the shape and design as being similar to your crowns, an adornment worn to represent great status and power in many of your civilisations. Do the different colours perhaps denote different levels of prestige amongst your people?”
“Imagine that. It’d be nice to think we were all kings for the day, wouldn’t it?” Doug chuckled. “Of course my hat is blue, so that’d mean that’s the highest colour then, eh?”
“Nah, yellow is definitely superior,” Jeff mumbled with a mouth crammed full of turkey, referring to the hat on his own head.
“They’re just party hats,” Sarah explained to the alien. If she left it to her father and brother, the poor extraterrestrial would be more confused than ever by the end of the meal. “They don’t represent power or anything really. Everyone gets them inside crackers and we only wear them for a little bit before chucking them away.”
“I see,” the alien’s mouth contracted thoughtfully as it ruminated on a roast potato. “What about the small green statue? Our scholars have spent much time analysing this object and we believe it to represent a domesticated canine?”
“Oh, it’s a cute little dog, isn’t it?” Maureen remarked as the alien passed the plastic figurine of a terrier to her in its sealed containment receptacle.
“Douglas used to have a pet Labrador called Sparkie,” Grandma Jones told no one in particular. “It used to roll in its own doings and stunk to high heaven.”
The alien pressed on, eager that his investigations would not get sidetracked.
“We have determined that it is made of a synthetic amorphous polymer,” the alien told the family as the toy dog was passed round the table. “Surely, this idol must have great importance and value in your culture to have been made from a non-biodegradable substance that will not perish in the lifespan of any human.”
“No, it’s just junk really,” Sarah explained, topping up her glass of wine. “You know, a novelty toy. No one really wants them but it’s sort fun to see what’s in your own cracker.”
The alien looked down and was quiet for a few moments.
“Perhaps it is the final item that will provide the most significant understanding between our two races,” the alien held up the scrap of paper in the transparent container in a three-fingered triumphant grasp. “We believe that this is most likely a quote from one of your most revered texts but none of our kind have been able to fathom its meaning.”
The Jones family looked up from their meals and gave the alien their full attention for it had made a slight cough as though it was preparing to announce something of the utmost importance.
“On which side does a turkey have the most feathers?” the alien read from the paper in a grand oratorical tone and then left a dramatic pause before reading the answer. “The outside.”
The family emitted a simultaneous groan.
“Wow, you win. Your joke’s the worst,” Jeff said, giving the alien a brief round of applause.
“I do not understand. You are referring to your sacred and profound riddle as a joke?” the alien asked.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing profound about it,” Sarah replied. “Jeff’s right. It’s just a joke.”
“You see when you ask which side has the most feathers people think it has to be either the left or the right,” Doug told the alien as he was used to having to explain his own jokes. “But then it turns out it’s neither. It’s the outside of the turkey, not the inside.”
“The wording of the question allows for this misunderstanding because there is an ambiguity in the language used that is not anticipated by the listener?” the alien considered this discovery.
“I guess you could put it like that,” Sarah nodded.
“Surely, this failure in communication could be resolved by including all of the possible answers in the phrasing of the question itself?” the alien suggested.
“But it wouldn’t be much of a joke then, would it?” Doug snorted, as he drowned his second helping of turkey in a pool of gravy.
“So the vague and misleading construction of the question is deliberate?” the alien blinked its eyes as it struggled with this revelation. “And this is humorous to you?”
“Well, no. Not funny, not really,” Sarah shrugged.
There was an awkward moment of silence as the alien struggled to assimilate what it had learnt about the true meanings of the sacred Earth items. It placed the objects in their receptacles down on the table and declined Maureen’s offer of more turkey.
“Well, I think it’s time for dessert then,” Maureen announced as soon as she spied that all the dinner plates had been emptied.
There was a short period of chaos as the table was cleared of one course and the numerous dishes of desserts were brought out. Sarah breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that her mother had decided to go with a reliable store-bought Christmas pudding this year. Last year, Maureen had been inspired after watching a Martha Stewart special on TV and tried to make her own pudding. Unfortunately, she’d helped herself to too much cooking sherry whilst making it and must have misread the quantity of brandy in the recipe. The resulting pudding had been like a doughy Molotov cocktail with a few inebriated raisins passed out in the middle.
The Jones family and the alien sat around the table together and piled pudding, ice cream, brandy butter and wine into their already full stomachs. They read the rest of the Christmas cracker jokes and while the alien could not come to understand them as humour in the truest sense, it did at least obtain some degree of pleasure in groaning along with the humans as each punch-line was delivered.
Once it was clear to Maureen that everyone had gorged to the point where they could only groan polite refusals to her insistent offerings of second and third helpings, she declared that it was time to clear the table and then ushered everyone through into the living room for the opening of the presents.
“So tell me,” Doug started, as he stationed himself by the drinks cabinet and poured himself a post-dinner brandy. “How did you find your first Christmas dinner, lad?”
He thought it best to presume that the alien was male although it didn’t possess any obvious indications of its gender, if it had one; at least none that Douglas could recognise.
“It was an informative experience,” the alien replied as it tentatively lifted the tumbler of brandy that Douglas had thrust into its hand towards its mouth. “I shall have much to tell my fellow Xarfrodians when I return.”
“So your trip wasn’t a waste of time. You feel like you’ve learn something about Christmas?” Sarah asked, refreshing her wine glass with the half-full bottle she had carried in from the table. She had to take advantage of the fact that it was Christmas and as such that her mother had bought some decent wine. Normally, Maureen preferred wines that came in boxes and weren’t pretentious enough to identify themselves as anything other than ‘medium white’.
“Yes, I believe I do,” the alien replied. “You pull open crackers to get a novelty toy you don’t want, read out jokes that you do not find amusing before gorging on food until your stomachs ache. Then you sit around a dead or fake tree, exchanging gifts in celebration of the birth of a messiah in whom many of your kind do not believe?”
“Well, it sounds a bit pointless when you put it like that,” Doug objected.
“Christmas isn’t just about those things,” Maureen said, bustling in from clearing up in the kitchen and wiping her hands on her red chequered ‘Mrs Claus’ apron. “It’s about spending time with family.”
“Peace on Earth and good will to all men,” Grandma Jones said, raising her glass of sherry as though making a toast. “That has to be the meaning of Christmas. It’s in all the carols.”
“It’s the season of giving and the most wonderful time of the year,” Jeff smirked. “That’s in a lot of the songs too.”
“I see,” the alien blinked its vertical eyelids.
“Perhaps it’ll help if you had your own present. It’d help you understand the real Christmas spirit,” Maureen suggested, hurrying over to the piles of wrapped gifts encircling the tree.
She picked out a small, flat present wrapped in red paper with gold stars on it and brought it back to him.
“Here you go. It was supposed to be for Doug but he doesn’t mind, do you Doug?” she gave Douglas a sharp look.
“Well, I doubt it’d stop you if I did mind, love,” he grinned, taking a drink of his brandy. “Go ahead, lad, open it.”
The alien ran a long nail down the length of clear adhesive tape with the delicate precision of a forensic pathologist commencing the first incision of an autopsy. The wrapping paper fell apart, revealing a pair of green woollen socks with reindeers in Santa suits on them.
“Merry Christmas,” Douglas told him, holding up his leg and pulling up his trousers to display his red socks with white snowmen. “They’re good socks these. Lasted three years and there’s not as much as the beginnings of a hole.”
The alien looked around the expectant faces of its hosts and seeing that something was expected of it, it replied, “Thank you. They look very comfortable. I only wish I had feet so that I might use them immediately.”
“You’re welcome,” Maureen smiled. “We couldn’t have you leave our Christmas empty handed.”
“Come on, how about the rest of us now,” Jeff urged, impatient for the orgy of present opening to commence.
The alien remained quiet as it observed the following minutes of unwrapping sweaters, books, chocolates and miscellaneous gadgets of indeterminate use. There were loud thank yous thrown across the room and a chorus of tearing paper drowning out the crooning Christmas carols playing on the stereo in the background.
Before long the living room was strewn with colourful mounds of shredded paper and everyone lay back in their seats, piles of gifts at their feet or on their laps.
“I’ll go get the Christmas cake then, shall I?” Maureen got up from her seat on the couch, sensing that people had not eaten for a good ten minutes.
There were half-hearted pleas not to inflict any more food on their painfully swollen bellies but no one objected enough to stop her.
“I think I must leave you now,” the alien announced as Maureen returned to thrust a plate of fruit cake under its head. “Thank you very much for this day. It has been most elucidating.”
“It’s been our pleasure,” Douglas told him, standing up to shake the slender three fingered hand of the alien.
“I hope we helped you find out what you wanted to know,” Sarah said.
“Yes, I believe I do understand Christmas now,” the alien informed her. “It’s the one day when humans pretend that they do not live in their world but in the place they hope their world may one day become. You embrace the ideals of selfless generosity, universal peace and goodwill not because they reflect your world but because you wish they did. Christmas is a day when an alien could visit and be welcomed as a guest, not regarded as a hostile invader or a test subject for scientific inquiry.”
“It sounds like you know a lot more about our world than you let on,” Jeff remarked.
“As I told, you we have studied earth objects before. We have read your works of Shakespeare, your encyclopaedia and textbooks, and we have also watched three hours of the life of Macguyver many times.”
“Well, I hope you’ll come back and see us again another time,” Maureen urged. “Maybe you’ll bring a girlfriend with you next time. Are you seeing anyone special back on your home planet? We’d love to meet her.”
Sarah and Jeff rolled their eyes. Their mother had known the alien for just over an hour and already she was dropping hints that it should be in a relationship. Soon she’d be knitting booties in case there was any chance for the pitter-patter of tiny tentacles in the future.
“It’s been lovely having you share our Christmas with us,” Sarah told the alien.
“Do you need to use the bathroom before you leave?” Grandma Jones asked in a voice that had become loud with sherry. “You don’t want to realize halfway home that you need to go because there are never any conveniences available when you need them.”
“Our translocation beam means that I can cover light years of travel through space in a matter of nanoseconds,” the alien assured her.
“Well, have a nice trip then, lad,” Douglas smiled at the alien as the family followed it back to the dining room so the alien could return through the precise point of its entry onto this planet.
“Don’t forget your socks or your cracker,” Maureen pressed the gift into its hands along with the split cracker and its contents still in their pressurised containment receptacles. “After all, that cracker is what brought you to us.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t want to leave those behind, would I?” the alien said, squeezing its wide mouth into a ‘gosh-aren’t-I-forgetful’ smile. “Thank you again and Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” the family chorused back in reply as the alien waved to them.
The alien looked down at the socks and the remains of the opened cracker before activating its translocation beam. These earth objects wouldn’t be of much use on Xarfrod, in fact it doubted that they were particularly useful on Earth. However, to leave them behind would have offended the earthlings who were fond of their Christmas rituals no matter how pointless they were. They were tokens of goodwill, and however insignificant the items were in themselves, they represented noble ideals far greater than a plastic toy or an unfunny joke.
The alien considered these objects in the fraction of a second before it returned home. Perhaps they weren’t pointless after all.
(You can find Matt's 'spec the halls' story here.)