Glitter, gambling, glamour. It can only be Vegas.

Las Vegas. An oasis of guilty pleasures in the middle of the desert. Glitter, gambling and glamour. Right? Well, sort of.

Last year the call went out. My mother wished for nothing more than to return to her homeland, and wanted my sister and I to join her for an American Christmas – in Las Vegas. This is where mum’s sister and her family have lived for the better part of three decades. For Aunt Joanne and Uncle Tom, and their children, and their children’s children, Las Vegas is home; it is where they live, work, go to school, buy groceries, do chores and play.

I hadn’t been there since before I was of legal drinking age (I was 19), so I was looking forward to reconnecting with my family, as well as discovering what all the fuss about Vegas was about. I was not disappointed on either front.

I was delighted to meet (again) my beautiful Aunt Joanne, who has the wisest and kindest eyes I have ever had look upon me, and my Uncle Tom, whose wit is drier than the desert he lives in. I laughed a lot with my cousin, Mary, and loved meeting her daughter, who I had nursed on my lap, now a young woman with a sharp wit of her own. What an ease there was between us, even when time and distance had separated us for 20 years.

My sister flew in from London, Ben flew in from Minnesota, Cousin Cathy flew in from Phoenix, and my mother was overjoyed to have us all there to celebrate Christmas together.

But, I couldn’t shake the question running through my head at a rate of knots: “What is Christmas in Vegas going to be like?” I mean it was LAS VEGAS and I was there to celebrate one of the holiest events on the Christian calendar – not that this is why Christmas is my favourite holiday – but that is beside the point. I was just fascinated by the irony!

I would soon discover that Las Vegas is a city of contrasts, where the beauty of the landscape far outweighs that of the ‘beautiful people’, and much of the fun happens well off The Strip. And Christmas in Vegas? Well, that was all about contrasts too.

We watched White Christmas; we fired handguns. We drove around looking at Christmas lights, and saw a topless review. We spent part of Christmas Day people-watching along The Strip, and the rest hanging out at ‘home’ and consuming an enormous Christmas feast with the family. Oh yes, we squeezed every ounce of goodness out of this particular holiday.

We did fire handguns – Ben, Vic and I. A few days before Christmas we walked through the doors of a gun shop and shooting range on the outskirts of the city. We were greeted exuberantly by a man called John, a gentle bear with no backside to speak of, so his jeans hung dangerously low.

Now, my sister and I had never shot a hand gun before – we were gun virgins – whereas Ben has handled firearms (responsibly) since he was a boy on hunting trips with grandpa and at target practice with dad. The process that day was pretty straightforward. We filled in photocopied forms with basic information, and between the three of us, we produced exactly 0 pieces of identification. Ben opted for the high end stuff; he shot a 50 calibre Desert Eagle and an MP5, which is an automatic. Vic and I were given a .22 and a Glock (.38), respectively.

The shooting range was just a small room with cinderblock walls, partitions and a simple pulley system for flying the targets to the other end of the room. When we walked in, the semi-automatic shotgun one man was firing tore through the sound-proofing of our ear protection. The ‘boom’, ‘boom’, ‘boom’ was felt right through our bodies too. My sister started shaking and spent most of our session in the safety of the gun shop. I stuck it out in the range to watch Ben fire high powered weapons, his back muscles straining against his T-shirt (sigh). Then it was my turn.

I was guided to the end partition, and John helped me load the clip into my gun. It was like it is in the movies. Gun in one hand, clip held in the palm of the other hand, and the two coming together with that ‘ratchet’ sound. Marvelous. I thought back to 15 minutes earlier when I had received my not-so-extensive instruction: right foot back, right arm nearly straight, left arm bent, lean into the gun, left hand cupping right, squeezing palms together to keep the gun steady and gently squeezing the trigger. “Pop”. Not quite the ‘boom’ of the semi-auto shot gun, or the short bursts from the MP5, but a satisfying feeling. I squinted down the room to my target. “Did I hit it?” I wondered. I squeezed the trigger a second time.

Now I voiced my thought aloud, “Did I hit it?” John informed me that I was firing high and just clipping the top of the target. “You need to follow through, just like as in tennis. Although with firing a gun, the ‘follow through’ means that you must keep the gun level and steady, even after you have fired it. This will keep the bullet on target.” Good to know. I tried it again and this time hit somewhere in the midsection of my target. I turned to John with glee on my face. “I did it!” I exclaimed. It was so gratifying.

I continued through the rest of the clip, aiming as best as I could for each shot. This particular gun will fire off round after round quickly, but I was purposefully aiming. At the end of the clip, I felt ‘done’. I still had another clip to go, but I didn’t want to shoot it, so Ben did. Inexplicably, I just didn’t want to shoot anymore. I had achieved what I wanted to achieve: I can now say that I have shot a hand gun. It is a peculiar feeling having that much power in my hands. I came away feeling contented, and with sore biceps.

I had already been out to see Vic and talk her into having a go, but she was teary and adamant that she was not going to. I went back into the range to collect my things, and John said he would talk to her. I thought he had no chance, until a moment later, there was my little sister (all 5’1” of her) geared up and firing a .22 – with a silencer.The silencer was the key. She was good too – a far better aim than me, and she seemed pleased that she had gone through with it.

How odd – and oddly rewarding – an experience. And no I.D. required! Days later I would need photo I.D. to enter Ben’s health club in St Paul as a guest, but I could fire a deadly weapon in the state of Nevada with nothing more than my signature on a photocopied form.

We commemorated the occasion with photographs of us holding automatic weapons, and with our rolled up targets in hand, we bid the boys at the gun shop and shooting range farewell. As we left I noticed the tinsel decorating the shop door. Oh yes, it was Christmas! I was so caught up in the incredibly cool thing I had just done, I had almost forgotten. “Happy Holidays,” I called out as we left.

The contrasts didn’t end there. Ben and I have had really different Christmases throughout our lives. We would be blending our own traditions to have our first together. Now, obviously, Christmas in Australia is hot. My family starts the day with a breakfast of champagne and cold seafood – prawns and crayfish (shrimp and lobster for my North American readers). The champagne was not much of a hard sell, but in our hotel room just off The Strip (The very lovely ‘Renaissance’) we opted for ripe red pears with our champagne, instead of seafood. We sipped the champagne while we opened our presents – mine to Ben a stocking stuffed with lots of smaller gifts (a Barker family thing), and his to me a stunning Sapphire bracelet (I am not sure if this is a family tradition, but it certainly took my breath away). Then we made our way downstairs for a full cooked breakfast, with coffee, which was more Ben’s style.

And the topless review? It was one of my gifts to Ben. Front row, baby! And it was spectacular. Sexy, sassy, a little cheesy, and a lot of fun. The women were every type of gorgeous, from natural fresh-faced beauties to heavily made up bombshells. Did it set feminism back 20 years? No. It celebrated the power of feminine beauty, and was a brilliant night out.
We also saw Cirque du Soleil’s Mystique – tickets were a gift from Joanne and Tom – and as a child of the theatre, it absolutely delighted me. I did not know where to look as the spectacle was all around us and above us. The stage transformed several times, and the journey we were taken on, a gift in the realm of surrealism. It was very easy to get lost in it.

We did gamble a few times, and we wandered The Strip, watching the people – a collection of folks from everywhere you can imagine. We went to M&M World, a merchandise playground for those with an obsession for M&M’s (um, me). My sister and I tried to out ‘cute’ each other with each successive thing we pulled off the shelf. I am such a sucker for that stuff. I found that I absolutely could not live without a Green M&M ruler, and matching keyring. They see us coming for miles, I am sure. They do not give out samples, which is a crime against humanity.

Yes, Las Vegas at Christmas time is a little unusual. The sun is shining and there are no clouds in the sky, yet it is cold, but not cold like it is in Minnesota that time of year. So, perhaps it was the perfect place for Ben and I to spend our first Christmas together – he got his cold weather and I got my blue skies.

And the real reason I love Christmas, is because it is a time when family and loved ones come together. I missed my dad, my step-mum and the rest of my family and loved ones back in Australia, but I am so glad I had my wonderful, bizarre, and love-filled Christmas in Vegas.

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