Of Pastrami and Frozen Palms

Keep your gingerbread—this is Christmas in Vegas

Although I haven’t lived in Las Vegas for eight years now, I still describe myself as a Las Vegan. In my mind, my Seattle neighborhood of Ballard has become “Extreme North Las Vegas.” Every year since I left, I’ve made an effort to come back home for Christmas. I won’t be able to make it this year, though, and that’s got me thinking about what I’ll be missing.

Mind you, I’m not really a Christmas guy. My family didn’t celebrate the holidays for many years for religious reasons (we were Jehovah’s Witnesses), and while I’ve come around to celebrate a kind of nondenominational holiday mash-up every December, I don’t have that hard-wired American home-for-the-holidays sentimentality. Nevertheless, there’s something about Las Vegas that will forever make it the perfect place for Christmas. For me, the holidays and Las Vegas bring the same words to mind: Friendship. Warmth. Giving. Pastrami.

I’ll explain that last one momentarily.

In the winter of 1989, I celebrated my first Christmas in Las Vegas. By that time I had lived there for scarcely four months, but in that short time I learned several things about the city that heartened me. I learned that it was easy to make great friends here with minor effort. I learned that virtually every single thing in this town—every stick of lumber in the El Cortez, every apple in Smith’s produce aisle—originated hundreds of miles away. And I learned that when Las Vegans get a hold of an imported big-city tradition, like Shakespeare in the Park or, say, Christmas, they do it up. Although it all ends up looking and feeling a bit different than it does in New York, Chicago or Seattle. After all, this is a desert island, and we have to cobble together Christmas with whatever washes up on our shores.

My Vegas holiday traditions will be with me for the rest of my life. I can’t look at the giant Christmas tree in Seattle’s Westlake Center without thinking, “That’s nothing! Down at Bellagio, there’s an entire Martha Stewart-designed Christmas forest in the Conservatory.” I can scarcely get through the season without a Mount Charleston Coffee (Drambuie, coffee, brandy, and vanilla milk topped with whipped cream, cinnamon, nutmeg and a cherry), and if I’m unable to drive up to the Charleston Lodge to get one of those too-sweet concoctions in the only winter wonderland I knew for 12 years, I’ll make one for myself.

And when my friends ask me if I want to drive around Seattle looking at Christmas lights, I think of Christmas 1991, when I introduced some visiting friends to the lights of the Strip. One of them stood underneath the billow of lights at the doors of the Flamingo and said, “No Christmas tree could hope to top this.”

I hate to think of all the great stuff I’m missing out on this year. I won’t be at my friends’ glorious bacchanal of a modern holiday party. I won’t be doing that semi-annual holiday spoken-word reading with my friends Dayvid Figler and Gregory Crosby. And goddamn it, I’m going to miss out on Pastramikah.

Pastramikah is a whole-cloth new holiday tradition created by Double Down Saloon owner P Moss. Every year, Moss orders a huge chunk of pastrami from a New York deli, and sometime between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, he serves it up at the bar. You can pile it up into a sandwich, or just eat it straight, no bread whatsoever, in a judgment-free environment. I think the Double Down also offers $1 haircuts on Pastramikah (though I may be thinking of the Double Down’s equally festive White Trash Christmas), but even if I’ll never get one of those one-buck cuts, it’s nice to know that the option exists. Pastramikah truly contains multitudes.

I’ve tried to get Pastramikah going in Seattle, but it’s tough going. If you want to have a Vegas-style Christmas, you really have to be there. Other cities can pretend to be the North Pole or some kind of freaky gingerbread commune at Christmastime, but Las Vegas at Christmas is stubbornly Vegas—still weird, still wonderful. The city doesn’t have to pretend to be mythic, and it sure as hell doesn’t have to string up lights. We make our own kind of comfort and joy, and it’s one of the few things that Vegas doesn’t import from other places. These feelings are real.

I want to end this piece by telling you a story. On that Christmas morning in 1989, the temperature in the northwest part of town dropped below freezing. My parents’ house had an automatic sprinkler system, which we’d forgotten to turn off, and we woke up to icicles hanging from the baby palm trees. They were beautiful, long pillars of clear crystal, and they so awed us that we weren’t even upset by the fact that the trees probably wouldn’t survive the winter. Without a word, my sister went into the house, got a string of lights, and wrapped up one of the palms.

It was my first Christmas miracle, that of the winterized palm, and it couldn’t have happened anywhere but Las Vegas. How I wish I were there now, under a grand Christmas palm, eating a traditional pastrami sandwich.