It was a challenge offered and a challenge, we're happy to report, eagerly accepted.
For this year's edition of our more or less annual holiday writing contest, we asked readers to craft a holiday-themed story with a Las Vegas angle. But, in a bit of a twist, we required that they include a handful of specific words into their narratives.
And, it turns out - and, by the way, we're no longer even remotely surprised by this - we have some pretty creative readers.
More than 60 of you took up our challenge and wrote some pretty funny, pretty moving, pretty (in a few cases) bizarre stories.
As always, selecting a grand prize winner was tough. But, in the end, the honor goes to Sally Niederman of Las Vegas, whose story, "Christmas Carole," distinguished itself by the unexpected and clever ways in which she worked our required words into the story ("mint humbug" and "Taco Bell," for instance).
But we were particularly fond of several other stories, too. As a Christmas present to you, we offer a few of our favorites.
By Sally Niederman, 54, Las Vegas
The Shining Star Inn of Las Vegas was small by today's casino standards, but locals loved the place, even on Christmas Eve. One such local was Carole Jolly, who was sitting at the bar, sucking half-heartedly on a mint humbug. Rumor had it that the hotel was being sold to financier Leon Wisemen, who would undoubtedly close the place. Jolly wondered dejectedly what would happen to the Inn's faithful employees , some of whom had worked here since the place opened over 30 years ago. Jolly had an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. She reasoned that it was because of the rumors, but perhaps the meal she'd just inhaled at Taco Bell was to blame as well.
Sure, the Inn was a shadow of its former self, and it was now home to The Warblers, whose main claim to fame was their dusty one-hit-wonder, "Mistletoe not Missiles, Create Peace on Earth." Jolly shook her head cynically. "What's next?" she thought to herself. "A 'Partridge Family' reunion?"
She was so immersed in her own thoughts that she jumped in alarm when the cocktail waitress tapped her on the shoulder. "Jiminy Christmas!" Jolly gasped. "You scared the dickens out of me!"
"Sorry Ms. Jolly!" said the affable waitress, whose name, Tinsel, was as incongruous as her skimpy uniform, complete with neon-green fishnet stockings. "Do you want another drink?" But Jolly just shook her head. It was time to go home.
On her way out, she passed a bank of slot machines aptly titled "Reindeer Games." Twenty dollars and five Rudolph symbols later, she was 30 million dollars richer! Jolly knew immediately what she was going to do with her windfall. "I think I'll buy a casino!" she exclaimed gleefully, grinning from ear to ear.
"TOWARD THE LIGHTS"
By Sherry Rosenthal, 56, Las Vegas
They had new jobs in Las Vegas so they drove toward the lights.
"Enough lights for a thousand Christmas Eves," she said. Her stomach had settled since morning. Maybe she could eat.
He knew the city some. "They put lights on cactus here."
"That would hurt them."
"No. It's a chocolate factory, big cactus garden out front."
"If it's true, kiss me under the mistletoe."
Amid the glowing cactuses nestled a metal-sculpted star, a bell, stockings, even a partridge bearing Christmas lights. Silver light tubes cascaded like tinsel. A green metallic mistletoe figure hovered high overhead, near a jolly blowup penguin.
"Close enough," she said. They kissed.
"There's a conservatory nearby, too, with Santa and reindeer and wise men all made of flowers."
The fragrance impressed her as much as the decor.
"Where will we stay until our apartment's ready?"
"I made an inn reservation, Holiday Inn. They'll keep it until midnight."
"Take me more places, then. Tomorrow's Christmas, and just past Hanukkah, and almost Muslim New Year. Let's go to a church, a synagogue and a mosque to celebrate."
At the Catholic church she lit a candle for her late graduate adviser, Father Michael, who'd guided her dissertation on Dickens. It would be Michael or Michaela if Brock agreed.
At the synagogue she felt the weight of her heritage but less emotion.
The mosque was last. Here she felt peaceful, but separate. Others around her might feel that way outside here, she mused.
"Do something for me," said Brock when they were in the car again.
"It's your turn."
"Marry me tomorrow, on Christmas, and near Hanukkah and Muslim New Year, our first day here. There'll never be another like tomorrow."
"Here feels like home."
"Yes finally, then?"
"Twice over, yes."
By Yesenia Maqueda, 15, Las Vegas
Once a woman named Kate, who lived in Las Vegas, had everything: a husband, three kids named Juliet, Simon and Jonathan, and money. One day, her husband disappeared and never returned.
They left their home and passed the night in an inn, decorated only with tinsel, for the holidays were fast approaching. They soon found a little apartment, already furnished, and settled in. Kate decided to wash her laundry, but the washing machine was broken. She took her kids and a little wagon to put her laundry in and headed out. When she finished her laundry, she found that it had snowed.
Grumpy, she decided to go home, for the kids were getting hungry. In the middle of the way home, her wagon fell, and all her clean laundry spilled in the mud. "It's all humbug! Why the dickens do I try?" she said. Frustrated to the point of crying, she put the laundry in the wagon and went home.
After she got home, she prepared dinner and left the kids eating, and went to her bedroom, where she started crying. After 30 minutes, a knock came through the door, and Jonathan came in, clutching a piece of paper. He laid the piece of paper on her bed and kissed her cheek. She looked at the drawing, and went to the kitchen. She saw her children separating her clothes, seeing which were dirty and clean, their faces not losing their jolly happiness.
She decided her holidays were not going to be so bad after all, and they weren't. There was a partridge, stockings with bells, glow-in-the-dark reindeer, plastic wise men, a huge tree with a star and presents. Mistletoe hung from the ceiling, and her little angels slept well on Christmas Day.
By Mark Morris, 58, Las Vegas
SUBJ: Violation of HOA Agreement, Sec. 1225 - Seasonal Decorations
Dear HOA Member:
We are contacting you regarding a reported incident that would put your property in violation of the HOA contract and covenants that you agreed to when purchasing your home. This specific violation concerns Section 1225 of the above-mentioned agreement, which deals with acceptable seasonal decorations.
As is stated (in part) in the regulation, "the following decorations are permitted: reindeer; sleds; partridges (and similar aviary creatures); stars; bells; balls; Dickens characters (animated or stationary); mangers, creches, or inns (not more than 1/32 scale); wise men (three max.); sheep and cattle (nonliving). Artificial tinsels and garlands are permitted, as are live plants. Acceptable plants include pines, firs and spruces; mistletoe; and holly. Live characters, including animals, are not permitted."
As to your alleged violation, on or about Dec. 24, it was reported by your neighbors that out on your lawn there arose such a clatter, that they had to go see what was the matter. Then, to their wondering eyes did appear, a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. Then (they report), out from the sleigh jumped a jolly old elf (it gave them a scare), who proceeded to put presents under your tree and filled your stockings with care. Finally, with a whistle, he shouted and called them by name, and dash away, dash away, they went away.
Your HOA board understands your enthusiasm for the holiday season and we do not want to be a humbug. However, as you can see from above Section 1225 quotation, the use of live characters and animals is strictly prohibited. Please refrain from any further violations of your agreement or you could be subject to fines and other levies.
Thank you and have a happy holiday season.
"BEST CHRISTMAS EVER"
By Alba Arango, 43, Las Vegas
The crowd outside looked anxious. It was 6:55, Christmas morning.
I sighed. "Five minutes till utter craziness."
My fellow cashier shrugged as she adjusted the tinsel on the small tree next to her. "Well, as Charles Dickens once said, 'Wise men say, only fools rush in.' "
"First of all, Star, that was Elvis, not Charles Dickens. And second, those 'fools' are responsible for our paychecks."
Star laughed. "Then we should thank God for fools."
I had to agree with that. The recession had hit Vegas pretty hard. We were both just grateful to have jobs.
At 7, the doors opened. A jolly, gray-haired woman rushed up to me. "Excuse me, where can I find reindeer poop?"
There's something you don't hear every day.
"Third aisle, halfway down, between the mistletoe and stockings."
No sooner had she walked away when a handsome thirtysomething man, wearing a red Christmas hat with the words "bah humbug" written on the trim, approached me.
"Hello," he said in a sexy British accent. "Are you Amanda?"
"Yeah," I answered, surprised. Who was this gorgeous man and how did he know my name?
"Excellent." He flashed me a smile. "A little partridge over at the Holiday Inn told me I could find you here."
"Might that little 'partridge' be Yvonne, perchance?" Yvonne was my sister who enjoyed sending patrons from her hotel to my store to harass me. Granted, this time, I didn't really mind.
"As a matter of fact, yes. I know this sounds strange, but I need a date for a company party tonight and Yvonne suggested you. It's at the hotel lounge. Eight o'clock?"
"I'll be there. With bells on." I smiled.
He looked relieved. "Thanks. I owe you one." He nodded and left.
Overtime pay and a hot date. Best Christmas ever.
"A CHRISTMAS POEM"
By Craig Hoppe, 62, Las Vegas
Twas the week before Christmas,
When through the North Pole
All elves spoke in unison,
"More benefits ... more dough!"
The wise men Santa visited,
Counseled bankruptcy as the key
"Bah-Humbug!" replied Santa,
"No Twinkies solution for me!"
Santa thought long and hard,
How to work through this terrible plight?
His plan, first find banks that would offer some loans,
Then go all in, but do it up right!
He pledged his assets to lenders afar,
From reindeer to tinsel and mistletoe.
He pawned his partridge in a pear tree,
Adding to his burgeoning cash flow.
He ended amassing 'bout half what he needed,
Step two was set to begin!
His stockings were filled with the money he raised,
As he flew into Vegas and checked into an inn.
Thereafter he studied the football bowl games,
When to his wondering eyes should appear
His alma mater was scheduled against number one,
That's my bet, he said, have no fear!
He strode to a betting window,
Plopped down the moolah he had,
Then sat to watch the game unfold,
Near the end it looked real bad!
For Dickens was his team's star player,
Who had his bell rung on a blitz.
With precious few seconds left on the clock,
Santa found himself down by six!
Then it happened, the television picture turned white,
With one snowflake, two, then many more.
A blizzard of epic proportions had come,
Who could see, did Santa's team score?
A true Christmas miracle, indeed they HAD SCORED!
And finished with the extra point!
Santa was jolly, he cashed in big,
As bedlam rocked through the sports joint!
Santa soon departed Las Vegas,
And was heard to loudly exclaim,
"Merry Christmas to all, especially former number one,
Ho-Ho-Ho, nice try, great game!"
By Brooke Phillips, 10th grade, Silverado High School
Elizabeth's eyes popped open, and a jolly expression immediately engulfed her face when she realized that it was finally Christmas morning. Elizabeth grabbed her reindeer toy before lumbering out of bed to wake up her grandparents so the Christmas festivities could begin.
When Elizabeth and her grandparents were settled before the Christmas tree with the big golden star shining bright, Elizabeth began to excitedly go through her stocking. Out she pulled a book of nursery rhymes about three wise men in an inn who always mutter "Bah humbug" while eating partridge under a pear tree.
Then there was a sudden ringing of the tinsel bells from under the mistletoe that scared the dickens out of Elizabeth. Elizabeth looked up from her stocking toward the doorway where the chiming of bells came from. Her eyes got huge when she saw Lieutenant Jackson, in full uniform, set down his duffle bag.
"Daddy," she yelled with surprised joy. Elizabeth put down her stocking, got up, and ran into her father's arms for the first time in 11 months, getting all she wanted for Christmas.
By Paula Lawlor, 62, Las Vegas
Joe and Maria headed home from Pine Creek Trail, knowing how early the sun sets in the Spring Mountains on this, the shortest day of the year. They had to rush to the mall and complete their to-do list: tinsel, mistletoe, stockings, lighted reindeer.
Creating a jolly Dickens' Christmas scene on Desert Inn Road was not easy when a gloomy, humbug spirit prevailed with one less paycheck coming in. Heck, if they spotted "a partridge in a pear tree," they'd have to shoot it for dinner. It had grown harder to hold onto the dream of brighter days ahead.
As the rainbow sherbet colors of sunset faded, shadowed silence again reigned in Pine Creek Canyon. Cautiously, cottontail rabbits crept out and headed up the trail toward the looming peak of Mescalito. A covey of quail emerged, then a pair of mule deer, joined by a trio of burros, all gathered on the meadow. The deepest black of the longest night of the year seized all in a death grip.
But then, a lively wind sprang up, singing through the pines, making the juniper berries sway like tiny blue bells. The birds' melodic songs rang out, the burros added their discordant braying to the solstice celebration. Suddenly, a dazzling light illuminated the scene, as a star sizzled across the sky over Mescalito and fractured into millions of glistening snowflakes, falling down onto the meadow, down onto the city in the valley below.
Joe and Maria and all the wise men and women who despair of the darkness will awaken in the morning full of joy for the marvel of snow in the desert. They will again hold fast to the promise of returning light and hope, and will gather together to celebrate the ancient magic of the winter solstice.
"LOST AND FOUND"
By Michael Grasso, 86, and Michele Grasso, 60, Las Vegas
Caesar was quickly losing his holiday spirit. "Bah, humbug," he thought, "Las Vegas is no place to be lost."
Caesar, a black schnauzer, had legs so white, he appeared to be wearing stockings. He had escaped from the pound. Inmates there were less than jolly.
Brutus, a mouthy type, scared the dickens out of Caesar, barking, "Move along! No room at the inn." Brutus lunged, and they crashed into the fence, sounding the alarm.
"Saved by the bell," Caesar thought, making his break through an opening in the fence.
Caesar ran for miles, passing wondrous sights: fairy tale castle, Italian gondolas, the Statue of Liberty. Only on the Las Vegas Strip!
Caesar bumped into Rudy, a red-nosed pit bull named for Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. "This dog could clearly guide a sleigh tonight," Caesar thought.
Rudy had just arrived from Tinsel Town to help David Cassidy plan a "Partridge Family" reunion show. But first he needed a drink.
"Hence, the red nose," Caesar thought.
A cocktail waitress appeared, wearing mistletoe in her hair.
Rudy ordered a "Christmas Wise Men Cocktail."
"What's that?" asked Caesar, not having studied drinkology.
"Equal parts Jager, peppermint schnapps, and cinnamon schnapps," Rudy explained.
But Caesar's attention was diverted by something bright in the sky. "Could this star be my salvation?" Caesar wondered.
Caesar pursued this beam of light and arrived at a large pyramid.
"Oh, Mommy, he's so cute!" A little girl, arms outstretched, approached Caesar. Her family was staying at the Luxor, with their female schnauzer, Cleopatra. They would be adding a new arrival to their family this magical night.
Caesar found love, safety and warmth with his new family. And it happened in Las Vegas, where they returned to celebrate all their holidays together.
And so can you.
"WELCOME TO LAS VEGAS"
By Rosemary Cummings, 59, Las Vegas
'Twas the night before Christmas and if I heard my family sing "a partridge in a pear tree" or "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" one more time, I would scream. Our van was filled with bodies, smelly ones, at that. Sally had taken off her stockings somewhere around Primm. Mom even sounded like a humbug.
"Robert, what the dickens was that?" The metallic scraping did not resemble the ring of Christmas bells.
My siblings joined in with: "Yeah, Dad. Reindeer or donkeys are the way you're supposed to travel at Christmastime."
"Can we stay at an inn tonight?" Dad maneuvered the van to the side of the freeway. The shredded front tire had a bent rim. "Rims of aluminum foil would be stronger than this tinsel stuff."
After praying, Dad started walking to the Russell Road exit when three tattooed wise men pulled up in a Mustang convertible. "Looks like you need some help."
Dad quickly turned down the offer with, "I think I can jury-rig this. Thanks."
"We'd like to help."
My dad quickly refused, "I can't pay for a tow truck or anything, for that matter. Getting to my brother's was our only hope of having Christmas."
One of the men said, "I own a garage. This is on me. Merry Christmas."
I blinked twice to make sure that it was a star that I saw, not just the tears that I tried to hide in my teenage eyes.
We went to the garage's Christmas party, mistletoe and all. The walk through the columns took us right into a re-creation of Bethlehem, at Caesars Palace.
That night, Dad was offered a job. The best Christmas of our lives was in Las Vegas and we are still here.