Back in the old days, not so many years ago, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas were separate holidays. I know that this seems impossible to imagine given that one now sees holiday ads going up before Halloween and Christmas trees trimming lobbies well in advance of Thanksgiving, but it was once the case, and I miss it: not only the chance to savor each holiday for its individual pleasures, but the additional anticipation of marking each holiday fully, saying adieu to it for a year, and then approaching the next holiday. Now, at least in the culture at large, and particularly on the part of advertisers, such differentiation, and the time to absolutely engross oneself in the profound nature of each holiday, is elusive. Instead, we have Weingmas: the squished together version of the holidays, a strange hybrid beast that contains a bit of this holiday and a tad of that holiday, but is, in sum, nothing.
And how important that time to truly savor a holiday can be: time in which to stop, to relate in various ways with the dead, the living, the harvest, the darkness, a birth, a blessing. Such stopping allows one to see oneself and the world beyond, at least for a second, deeply and strangely, and to contemplate how the holidays are a time of familiar rituals for individuals and communities, but also a time for the new, as we find unknown people and customs introduced to us with each cycle of the holidays, holidays that may offer, variously, loss and addition, sorrow and benediction.
It’s true that as a child growing up in Alaska there was certain sameness, at least aesthetically, to those months of October, November, and December and the holidays within them: snow and cold. While there were indeed some early Octobers without snow, I can’t remember one without it by the advent of Halloween. This meant that trick-or-treating in the limited fashion we did it, given that we only had a few neighbors, meant donning our costumes and painting our faces, but also putting on full snow gear. For many years this entailed a zip-up snowsuit, all in one piece, with boots up to mid-leg and bobble hats and thick gloves. Our neighbors always played along, excited to see us, exclaiming at our costumes, when really all they could see was a smear of paint or a spot of glitter, as almost every inch, save for a few bare bits, were warmly covered. We had to wait for the indoor costume parade in the school gym to show off the bow for our Robin Hood costume, the long soft tail of our black cat, or a dress with long white fringe for a showy, impractical cowgirl with red leather boots and thin pigtails.
Despite the sameness of the weather, each holiday felt magically different. Halloween was about showing off to your friends, and getting a stash of candy in your plastic orange pumpkin basket that you could either gorge on immediately, making yourself profoundly sick, or save, hoarding it until it went dry and hard because even though you told yourself to remember you had it, and looked forward to the treat of a piece or two of normally-forbidden candy every day, you’d inevitably forget it and then find it had become so nasty that it wasn’t worth the effort, or discover that your siblings had discovered your horde and, discreet invaders, taken just enough over time to whittle it down to just about nothing.
Thanksgiving was about food and friends and the glory of cranberry bread, sliced thick and spread with a light pass of butter. We normally had Thanksgiving with another family, either traveling up to Anchorage or hosting them at our place. The father of the family was a practical joker, and he loved to pretend to sneak out with the bird, only to be stopped by us children, sternly catching him in the act. We played Pit, the boisterous commodities trading card game, gleefully cheating as our dog ran around the table, stealing cards and barking, and my father tried to pass me the Bear, setting me up for a loss.
Christmas was about the soft silence of snow falling, the miracle of those colored lights shining in the darkness, the crèche my mother made out of the wooden containers for mandarin oranges, another herald of the season, shipped from Japan, the oranges deep orange suns amidst their crinkling green wrappers. It was the miniature mince pies, dusted with confectioner’s sugar, gathered on a silver tray, and the foil ornaments hung up in our dusty 60s light fixtures. It was my father tracking reindeer hooves in the deep drifts in the yard, my mother carefully building the layers for trifle in a cut glass bowl, sprinkling red crystal sprinkles on top of the layer of hand-whipped cream on top, the LPs spinning the warm sherry voice of Nat King Cole, the insouciant swing of Sinatra, the sophistication and smoothness of Bing Crosby, and, as ancient counterpoint ,the singers of King’s College Cambridge with their traditional carols, the voices of angelic boys singing of virgins and holly and the chill midwinter.
Beyond home, it was a trip downtown to see the decorations: the same ones that went up every year, but that still seemed so magical to me, gloriously familiar. There was the strange animatronic Santa and penguins in the long corridor joining the stores, the displays glistening with fake snow, even though there were piles of the real stuff outside, and people wrapping presents for charity. One December the children of the local vet found a tiny calico kitten abandoned in a cardboard box in the freezing parking lot. They brought her inside and gave her to us; she was so tiny she had to be fed with a medicine dropper. Even when she grew old, her hips arthritic and her joints stiff, she’d become a wildcat at Christmas, stalking under the tree, leaping at my father’s ancient toy train, which tooted as it creaked along its metal track around the tree, swatting at ornaments, and rolling ecstatically in the wrapping paper.
I loved the familiar rituals of the holiday. My mother made Christmas pudding, soaking the dried fruit in brandy and hiding coins in it for us to find when we broke it open on Christmas day. My father disappeared into the driveway to spend long hours trying to shovel it, then commanding we all join in, though we quickly became exhausted with the heavy snow and the size of the shovels, moving inside for instant cocoa with tiny marshmallows, slightly dry, on top. On weekends we’d walk over to the abandoned gravel quarries to go sledding or try skating on the frozen lake, clearing the snow to find a few feet in which to circle. Taking off our boots at home, we’d cry as the cold made our feet burn and sting, my mother assuring us that the pain meant that we were free of frostbite, a comfort I found difficult to take in as my feet tingled.
The countdown to Christmas Eve meant that the church’s altar was decorated with a display of tall, thick candles, a different one lit for each Sunday closer to Christmas Eve, when all would blaze in the darkness. I loved the holiday carols sung by the choir, the sopranos always slightly too high and sharp, with the rest of the congregation joining in, everyone full of anticipation, singing loudly, if not tunefully. Then it was time for the Christmas Eve service, everyone in their best. We’d pass around the light from one of the large candles, using it to illuminate our small white candles with their white cardboard housings. At the end of the service we’d take those lights out of the church and back to our cars, trying to shield the flickering flames from the gusts of wind and snow. I remember riding home through the darkness, seeing my reflection against the window: a pale, small face illuminated by the flick of the flames, the faces of siblings moving alongside, and outside the still, the night.
Back at home, chilly from the cold ride home, we’d put on the nighties torn from the brown paper packages covered with strange English stamps and wrapped with layers of tape, gifts from our grandmother, then climb into bed, so anxious that we quivered. But before we did so we’d position the small plate of cookies—lightly-browned stars and trees sprinkled with green and red sparkles—on the stone ledge of the fireplace, ready for Santa’s arrival. The stockings, long red felt shapes with our names embroidered in colored thread, were laid out along the ledge, the bells at the end dangling off the edge, ringing softly as we touched them. We’d lie in bed unable to sleep, wishing that the moment would not end, yet wishing that time would spin on and morning would come, imagining each sound was Santa’s boots or the rumble of his sleigh landing on our roof.
In the morning we creep out much too early, seeing unfamiliar shapes in our living room, the tree still lit with colored lights, the cat bending branches with her paws, then disappearing: an invisible, purring presence amongst the presents. We’d wake our parents—poor, groggy parents—who had to wake quickly to see, see what Santa had brought. We’d open a few presents, have breakfast, open more, then clean and ready the house for our Christmas guests.
In addition to the holidays just described, familiar to most people, we also had holidays that were more informal or peculiar to Alaska. For instance, there was the fly-in breakfast to raise money for the policemen and firemen, a breakfast that combined pancakes, ham, and aerial shows: I particularly remember the thrill of the Hammerhead Stall. We normally drove to the fly-in breakfasts, but we did fly in at least one year in the Cessna, delighting in this new perspective. In other plane-related adventures, there was the short-field takeoff on the beach, as people tried to get tiny bush planes to take off in such a small space that they seemed more properly helicopters than planes. There was the 4th of July celebrations in Seward, crowned by the Mount Marathon race, a dash up a mountain that, as one might expect, started as a barroom bet way back in 1908, with the race formally beginning in 1915. The racers would run out of town towards the base of the peak then ascend, become lost in the fog at the top, too far off for us to see, then emerge, sliding down the shale to the mountain’s base, often bloody and bruised, cheered on as they raced to the finish.
My favorite celebration, however, was our other 4th of July celebration, scheduled for late November. Given the light in our summer months, we couldn’t watch fireworks, so we saved them for winter. The day after Thanksgiving, we’d gather downtown by the old sourdough cabin. There’d be a huge bonfire, so warm that you’d broil on the side facing the bonfire and freeze on the other, turned away from the flame. The darkness enveloped us, perfect for watching the brilliant points of stars in the deep and the brilliant shapes of fireworks, anticipated for many months. There was tea from giant silver samovars in the cabin and cookies of all descriptions, my favorite the almond cookies encased in their sugary snow, the sugar puffing out as you ate them, coating your tongue, your lips, a soft billowy sweet mustache forming on your face.
Now, I am grateful for those memories, and for the memories I am making now, ones that are not of Weingmas, despite the blare from my TV, but a time of holidays that are each different in their own way, each worth the time to stop and let the sounds, the tastes, the sights, and smells, various and diversely delightful, wash over me.