There’s No Place Like Sin City for the Holidays

It was almost the night before Christmas, and the house was winning.

Its creatures were stirring in the secondhand smoke.

A man in a knit Santa hat belly-laughed outside the Bellagio, a cigarette in one hand and a Modelo tallboy in the other. Guests race-walked toward the card tables in reindeer socks and plastic antlers. Small dogs in seasonal sweaters rumbled by in baby strollers.

And my septuagenarian mother stepped toward an inscrutable dragon-themed slot machine — down $60 already but determined to turn it all around.

She mashed a button. Lights twinkled. The contraption purred.

“Yeahhhhhh!” she said as the winnings poured in, narrowly outpacing her initial loss.

“Break-even!” my father shouted.

“I didn’t know you could win money on these!” my wife, Alexis — a newcomer to this family tradition — said from behind them.

We were back in Las Vegas for Christmas, and we were up $1.25. The world was ours.

Every family has its holiday rituals, the choices and tics that can seem inexplicable to even the most open-minded friends. And for some 20 years now, since I was a teenager, my family’s holiday has generally looked like this: a reel of (relative) sin in a Vegas casino, lit in its come-on-down color wheel, scored with the clack of blackjack chips and the Paul McCartney Christmas song (“Simp-ly haaaa-aaving…”) that seems to play above each table as a matter of Nevada state law.

There are, of course, a thousand Vegases tucked within the city limits: nocturnal or outdoorsy, tipsy or kid-friendly, gaming-averse or financially ruinous — well beyond our annual habit of losing a couple hundred dollars (and maybe a couple hundred more) when our cards or N.B.A. picks break bad.

Ours is a Vegas in bed by midnight, mostly sober, anthropologically fascinated with day clubbers and perpetually dismayed at the volume of restaurant music. “I’m going to spin after this guy’s done,” my father said one night, threatening to replace the D.J. at Best Friend, Roy Choi’s fantastic-but-deafening Korean fusion spot at the Park MGM.

For better or worse, I have spent far more time in Las Vegas than in any other vacation destination, absorbing over the years a procession of fateful (or at least memorable) snapshots. There was the time when Jay Leno, apparently surprised to see a pubescent-looking high schooler at his show, called me out (correctly) for inspecting the cosmetic enhancements of the middle-aged woman to my right. There were the regular glimpses of Pete Rose, looking leathery as his outfield glove, signing paid autographs at Caesar’s Palace.

One year, Siegfried (of “and Roy” fame) made our Christmas Day by performatively flirting with my mother when we encountered him walking his animal menagerie at the Mirage. This trip, we visited the hotel to observe a moment of silence for him, before locating the quickie-wedding chapel where my parents renewed their vows in 2014. “If I get emotional,” the officiant asked that day, swelling with practiced sincerity, his swoop of dark hair versatile enough for an Elvis impersonation by night, “is it OK?” No one has ever been better at their job.

Much had changed in the family since our last stay in 2019, before Covid waylaid us: serious health scares, semiretirement, personal loss. “If I had one week to live,” my father said this time. He did not need to bother with the punch line.

That we were joined now by my wife was of special resonance, especially to my mother, who took a liking to Alexis long before we got together after reading a tweet of hers from a work trip in Vegas. “Hopelessly lost somewhere in the Venetian,” the post said. “Send help.” My mother quoted the line in a speech she wrote for our rehearsal dinner last spring.

Alexis, a veteran evangelist for the Vegas food scene from previous visits, steered us to her old favorites: Lotus of Siam, an otherworldly Thai spot off the strip, and China Poblano, upstairs at the Cosmopolitan, for José Andrés’s pork buns and tacos.

At several meals, my parents introduced her to another family tradition: setting odds for details as mundane as the time of day (“over/under 9 o’clock?”), then haggling for so long that the answer changed.

Alexis does not share my family’s affection for medium-stakes gambling, an instinct that we considered a kind of challenge. “You press buttons and sometimes there’s money,” Alexis said of casino games. “I could do way more interesting things pressing buttons. I could start a car. I could launch a rocket.” Her case was admittedly bulletproof — and unchanged even after my father’s four-figure jackpot late on Christmas Eve.

“I got it,” he said softly, as the 10 of clubs completed his royal flush in video poker — his first ever, he believed, after many thousands of lesser hands across the decades — prompting an appearance from a casino attendant for the best kind of logistics: big-winner paperwork. (“Trust me, he can offset it,” my mom said of the tax implications.)

Raised in Louisville, Ky., among racetrack denizens, my father can be a miserable loser and a confounding winner, self-pitying in defeat and sheepish in victory, as if either outcome feels a little unjust. In Vegas, he is at once unmissable and well camouflaged among his own — a man who takes calls on speakerphone in public settings and says, “In the words of Danny DeVito …” before quoting Dustin Hoffman’s character from “Rain Man.”

“You meet like-minded people,” he once said warmly from the Wynn Race & Sports Book, where we high-fived strangers who made the same bet on the Miami Heat.

My mother likewise caught the gambling bug early, watching horse races with her parents as an adolescent and attending college in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a pony haven. She spent enough time at the machines during occasional stops in Atlantic City that a casino once sent her a birthday cake at our home address to salute her patronage. “We have to take Oma to a casino,” she said recently of my goddaughter. Oma is 3.

When my folks had their say over my child-rearing, we joined one of Vegas’s many melded subgroups as secular Jews who cherished and celebrated Christmas in New York but decided that it all made a little more sense in the desert.

“I know some people disagree, but I think Las Vegas is very pretty,” my mom said one afternoon, appraising the mountains and the Sphere, the super-orb now bulging from the city skyline like a municipal pimple. Then we happened upon the Erotic Heritage Museum.

But she is not wrong, particularly this time of year, when the season and the scene conspire in harmony — spiritual despite the vice, jolly despite the odds. The people-watching can be more rewarding than any wager: the children in their snowman PJs on Christmas morning, yawning through photos with their gifts in a tinsel-y lobby; costumed Grinches and Mickeys in conversation, headless, during a break from the outdoor hustle, with would-be tippers distracted by a Bellagio water show set to “Carol of the Bells.”

Even a family of inveterate oversharers can learn new things about one another. Passing an ad for the Thunder From Down Under male strip show, my mom found her memory jogged. “I went to Chippendales once,” she volunteered. “It was all right.”

By Christmas Day, her focus had shifted more squarely to her daughter-in-law — and how to persuade her to fatten (or lighten) her wallet. Already, Alexis had edged in cautiously, raising a question as we waited in line for doughnuts: What were the odds, she asked, that we would get to the register before 10 a.m.?

“See?” she said. “I’m trying!”

That night, she declared herself ready for the real thing, taking a seat next to my mother for video poker.

It began poorly. They were down $20, $40, sinking. Alexis was less discouraged than befuddled. “Is this it?” she asked.

And then, almost simultaneously, two Christmas gifts: Four sevens flashed across each of their screens — the sort of cosmic success that can, if casinos have their way, give a first-timer a lifetime of bad ideas.

“I like winning!” Alexis reported, as she and my mom admired their work, posing for pictures with their matching bounties.

“That was supposed to happen,” my mom said, beaming. “Welcome to the family.”

Alexis was in, as if that was ever in question. And she knew enough to cash out.

“I feel like this means I stop now,” she said.

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