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A Very Vegas Christmas

She was 22 and far from home. How would the holiday spirit ever find her there?

Michelle Mahnke with a plate of homemade Christmas cookies
Credit: David Bowman

I picked up my drawing pencil and studied the young couple in front of me. Which of their features would I accentuate? I made the first tentative lines on my sketch pad but I couldn’t concentrate.

It wasn’t so much the flashing lights of the Las Vegas casino where I worked as a caricature artist. It was the song looping in my head. Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright….

I’d heard it on the car radio on my way to work. At first, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Silent and holy? Life on the Strip was the total opposite—Illustration by Michelle Mahnkeraucous, hectic, exciting. Neon signs, crowds 24 hours a day, bells and whistles when someone hit the jackpot.

I was a 22-year-old Minnesota transplant, taking a year off from art school to make some extra cash. I loved my job, making goofy portraits and helping people laugh at themselves. My artwork hung on refrigerators around the world—how cool was that?

Yet for the first time since I’d moved to Vegas, my heart ached for home. If only I could afford to fly back!

I longed for icicles glimmering on the eaves. The piney smell of the tree in the living room. I even missed shoveling snow. I’d never spent the holidays away from my family.

There was only a week until Christmas, and I hadn’t done a thing. No carols. No ice skating. Worst of all, no cookies!

I had a big family, and they were big on cookies. People started baking right after Thanksgiving so they would have plenty to give away. Delicate Swedish krumkake made with a special iron. Russian tea cakes. My Grandma Wisch’s cut-out cookies, favorites for four generations.

Was there any way some of that holiday spirit could find me here?

Ding-ding-ding-ding! Someone won on the slots. The noise jarred me back to reality. I focused on the couple I was caricaturing, exaggerating his strong jaw, her dimples.

At work I was too busy to dwell much on how badly I missed Christmastime at home. But that Sunday in church, in the candlelit sanctuary, my gaze fell on the crèche—Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the sheep, and Baby Jesus.

The children’s choir sounded like I imagined the angels did that night in Bethlehem.

Afterward I got into my car and simply drove. Before I knew it I was outside the city, and the landscape had changed. Instead of flat sand and red rocks, mountains and evergreens surrounded me. Cold air swooshed down from the mountaintops, bringing a little snow with it.

This is more like it, I thought, sighing.

An idea came to me, drifting into my mind like a snowflake settling on still water. Would my coworkers go for it? During my lunch break on December 23, I walked up to a group of girls.

“I know it’s short notice,” I said, “but is anyone interested in getting together tonight to bake Christmas cookies?”

I wasn’t the only one who was homesick. Everyone said yes. One of the girls, Kate, even offered to host. I couldn’t believe it!

One by one we arrived at Kate’s apartment, each with a favorite holiday recipe and a grocery bag filled with ingredients.

There was Shada, a single mom who worked as a belly dancer at the casino. I’d seen her dance hundreds of times, but I didn’t know much about her life outside work.

“These are my daughter’s favorite,” she said, love shining in her eyes as she prepared traditional Lebanese cookies called ghraybeh, crescent-shaped and flavored with orange-blossom water.

She dusted powdered sugar on them with a flourish, her movements as graceful as her dancing.

Then there were my fellow caricature artists: Kate, an Illinois farmer’s daughter, and Ruth, a native New Yorker. Ruth drove a Volkswagen hippie bus and grew wheatgrass in her kitchen.

She made a health-conscious, gluten-free version of her Jewish grandmother’s thumbprint cookies using organic, sugar-free raspberry jam and wild harvested maple syrup. Kate had spent her childhood milking cows and only drank whole milk.

Like the capable farm girl she was, she expertly rolled out dough for cut-out butter cookies, a lot like my grandma’s.

Maria, a high school student who was a cashier at the casino, was the only one in her family who didn’t speak Spanish. Her parents were from Mexico, and they wanted their child to be a typical American. She lived among loving relatives and loud celebrations, but she often felt alone.

Madeleine, a thirty-something portrait artist from Quebec, had motorcycled to Las Vegas. She was working just long enough to continue her journey west. Tanika, an African-American college student, was also a cashier at the casino. A military kid, she had no ties to any geographic home.

And then there was me. At the last minute, I’d decided to make a gingerbread house—except, instead of a house, I was making a crèche like I’d seen at church.

I sculpted the dough into a nativity scene, complete with Mary, Joseph, shepherds, sheep, and a newborn baby in a manger. The warm, sweet scent of our baking filled the apartment.

“Michelle, I can’t thank you enough for getting us all together,” Kate said. “I was beginning to think it was impossible to celebrate Christmas in Vegas!”

“Me too,” I said. “I’m glad I was wrong.” I looked around the apartment at the plates of cookies, a smorgasbord of different tastes and cultures, and at my newfound friends, all of us feeling a little lost and lonely until we came together.

Everyone’s faces seemed to glow in the light of the candle Kate had put in the window. All was calm, all was bright.

Try Michelle’s Christmas cookie recipes!

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