It’s that time of year when I drag out all the Christmas videos that put me in a happy, Christmas space, and force Z to watch them. I don’t always watch all of them—Little Women often gets a miss because I end up in tears when Beth dies—but, like clockwork, there will be a viewing of Christmas in Connecticut, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, A Holiday Affair, While You Were Sleeping, A Christmas Story, and eventually, my favorite, Moonstruck, which, honestly, I sometimes forget is set at Christmas because it’s also one of my favorite non-holiday movies. The script is great, the writing is tight, the scenery is wonderful, and the acting really was worthy of those Oscars back in 1988. The main thing all of these movies have in common though is the promise of a two-hour block of time when Christmas is exactly how you imagine it should be.
As you may be aware, I do my fair share of complaining about city life, but this is the time of year that while I miss home—the city…any city really—comes alive for me.
I first discovered this love for city-life-at-the-holidays in Chicago in the mid 1990s when I’d stand for an hour studying the window displays at Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott. The displays at Field’s were themed and you’d wait anxiously to see what would be revealed each year: Cinderella, Pinocchio, Wizard of Oz? I could easily get teary-eyed talking about Macy’s take-over of the main Marshall Field’s on State Street and subsequent refusal to retain the historical name and traditions and the bland, seen-it-before holiday decorations that are the new normal, or the Target logo that now hovers over the beautiful ironwork on the Carson Pirie Scott building. So don’t mention those stores to me please. Seriously. Can we just pretend it’s still 1997 and all is as it should be on State Street?
When I was in Chicago, I somehow didn’t mind the cold. I’d stand outside, purposeless, watching the ice skaters, guessing what might be in the bags and stacks of boxes people were carrying around on the Magnificent Mile as horns honked in what seemed like a less aggressive, more festive way than at other times of the year. I’d make time to go to one of the free weekly concerts at Fourth Presbyterian, staring up at the decorated sanctuary that was meant to look like the hull of a Viking ship, and listen with pleasure to carols and concertos. Then I’d get cocoa on the second floor of the now defunct Borders bookstore and stare down at the historic Water Tower and watch the carriages there, carting tourists around with horses sporting Santa hats. I was meant to be in the city for a man, but he was often at work or disinclined to venture out of his Bat Cave, so my time there was solitary and oddly delightful. I didn’t need to be doing the carriage riding or the ice skating; I was content to observe it, to walk amongst the revelers, to soak it in. There was nothing about Christmas in that snowy, blustery city that I didn’t love; even the labored breathing from the icy temperatures and difficulty walking on the snow-packed side streets seemed magical.
Chicago set the bar high. Four years ago, Z and I had a blizzard-induced flight delay when we were headed to Zimbabwe, and thus we ended up spending a few nights in New York City. For the first time ever, I finally got to see—in the flesh and electric lights—those famous windows at Macy’s, the tree at Rockefeller Center, wreaths on St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It made our interrupted—and thus shortened—trip to Africa almost worth it. Christmas in New York certainly rivals that of Chicago, but for me, it doesn’t quite win. Maybe a tie. I’ve seen Dublin, Galway, Rome, New Orleans, Harare, Seattle and the closer, Midwestern cities of my youth decorated for the holidays, but Chicago will always be the city that lives inside the flurry-filled snow globe in my brain. I try not to hold that against Seattle, which even managed to produce a few tiny patches of snow this year and get cold enough to keep little driftlets at the bases of about three trees.
But it’s no Chicago.
December hasn’t impressed me much this year. It’s my favorite month usually, but it seems like the whole world is coming unhinged. Normally, it’s the time of year when you can safely insulate yourself from the ugliness out there so long as you toss some money in the Salvation Army pot outside the door at the grocery and feel grateful for your own bounty. But it’s harder this year. People are mad and unhappy and in pain. There have been nightly protests in downtown Seattle to remind us of this. On the one hand, I want to be annoyed that the protestors made a bunch of kids at a choral concert at the tree-lighting ceremony cry at the beginning of the month, but on the other hand, I am sympathetic to the frustration of a faulty system. I am in awe of people who are inclined to let their voices be heard en masse. When I get outraged about something, I send an email and write in my journal or whine to Z, so this level of commitment and the possibility of being on the receiving end of violence—or at least pepper spray and handcuffs—is something to behold. Certainly, it’s making for a different sort of holiday season.
At the beginning of the month, Z and I made our first trip to Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony, to hear the Pacific Lutheran University choir and orchestra perform a Christmas concert. We were excited to finally get into the building that for the last eight years has only served as backdrop while we wait for the #12 bus to pick up our tired backsides and cart us up the hill. I admit that I even had some Moonstruck fantasies that I was Cher and Rick was the (pre-crazy) Nicolas Cage, decked out in our finery, going to see La Bohème at the New York Metropolitan Opera, never mind Z’s lack of tux and my clomping around in Danskos and slacks instead of high heels and red velvet dress. We had box seats which we’d been assured were “awesome” by Hudge, and we were imagining something similar to the seats Princess Di used to sit in, looking down on everyone with a clear view of the stage. The view was good, though not Royal-Family private, but my seat was not befitting a princess or any other human. Possibly a potted plant would have found reasonable purchase there. For the duration of the concert my knees were pressed against the banister, my feet had to be tucked far beneath my chair, and during the portions where the audience had to stand up to sing carols, Z had to help me over to one side so I could stand without toppling over, which made me feel even less like Cher (or Princess Diana) and more like someone’s clumsy, ancient, slightly drunk aunt.
Still, the music drifted up to the rafters and the choir members sang their way out of the auditorium while holding electric candles, and we were both feeling extra Christmassy as we walked home. The flashing lights of cop cars monitoring another night’s protest were at the periphery, blending in with the other twinkling lights of the city. Everything appeared peaceable even if discontent.
The following night we went downtown with Hudge and friends of hers to experience the Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition, a yearly event in Seattle, wherein a variety of groups sing for donations that support a food bank and a senior center, and at the end of the evening the loot in the pots is counted and the “winner” determined. Though it is just a few blocks from our apartment, the streets were packed with, according to some accounts, 10,000 or more people. It was fun, in that it was nice to see so many denizens of Seattle happily bumping against each other in Santa hats, happily dropping money into buckets for a worthy cause. But it was overwhelming to my highly sensitive self. All those people! All those sounds clashing somewhere just above my ears so nothing sounded particularly melodious but more like an aural war being waged, or at least a border skirmish. The police were in full force for crowd control and also because there were rumored to be more protests (later, we learned the protestors and organizers worked out a deal since the event was for a charitable cause, so the protest happened later), but it was jarring to see so many cops at such a happy occasion. And then other little wars started happening inside of me, wherein I wanted to tell them to be safe and that I respected how hard their jobs must be while at the same time I wanted to give little smacks to the ones I thought looked most likely to be trigger-happy racial profilers. (Granted, I had no real data to determine who were the good cops and who were the potentially bad cops, but still, my brain raged to various choruses of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and I came to no solution other than to smile at anyone who made eye contact with me.)
The following day, Z and I had rented a car and found ourselves with some leftover Christmas spirit that we were uncertain how to expend. We tried eating pie, but that wasn’t enough to sate us, so at the last minute, we drove onto a ferry destined for the Kitsap Peninsula for an ill-planned visit to Poulsbo’s tree-lighting ceremony. It was so ill-planned we weren’t sure we would even make it as it was meant to happen as soon as the sun went down, and the sun was sinking rapidly as we dozed in our car, bobbing across across Puget Sound. (Ferry sleep is the best sleep you will ever have, fyi).
You may remember my earlier description of Poulsbo, the little Viking-inspired village that was founded by Scandinavians who arrived in the late 19th century for the fishing. It sits right on the Sound and has a quaint downtown with Viking murals and Scandinavian building facades and signs that are in Norse (or an English version of Norse). Z and I arrived just in time, and as we were racing down the hill to the city park by the waterfront, we saw a group of people in a wooded lot, standing around a fire in Viking headdress and furs, making plans for the ceremony. Though we knew during the day they were probably computer programmers or carpenters, it was easy enough to pretend we’d happened upon an encampment of soon-to-be marauding Vikings.
We left them where they were and continued down the hill and got to the city park, just in time to see Miss Poulsbo light the village tree. We were imagining some massive fir tree, because the trees grow big and plentiful in western Washington, but no, the tree in question was only about a foot taller than Miss Poulsbo herself, who Z briefly mistook for a snowman because she was wrapped so tightly in a white cape. We’d been imagining something much grander and briefly considered we’d made an error in choosing our evening’s destination. But there was a huge stack of wood in front of us that was intriguing and talk of Vikings escorting Saint Lucia in to light it, so we stood around with the townsfolk waiting. Compared to the night before in downtown Seattle, this group was much smaller, maybe 200 or so people, and many seemed to know each other. Some little boys dressed in skins raced around the wood and a young bulldog made friends with everyone who walked past. We’d recently binged on all seven seasons of “Gilmore Girls” on Netflix, and frankly, Poulsbo felt very Stars Hollow-esque. (Even the emcee was reminding us a little of the insufferable Taylor Doose.)
Z and I stood by the waterfront looking at the lighted houses across the Sound. And then, off in the distance, we saw flames coming towards us as the Vikings approached on the river walk, brandishing torches. (A kid behind us thought they were bringing us all giant, roasted marshmallows to help celebrate.)
The anticipation grew as they got closer and people made way for them to get to the wood that would become a proper big bonfire. As they arrived, in their midst were a variety of girls and young women, and we’d be hard pressed to tell you which one was St. Lucia, but my money is on the one with candles on her head because she looked the most regal. (The crowd surged towards the wood and we couldn’t see if Candle Head did the actual bonfire lighting, so I’m still none the wiser.)
Before the torches came down in unison to light the bonfire, one of the Vikings spoke about the meaning of the celebration, the importance of light reaching out in the darkness at a time of the year when the darkness is so vast. Even though it was a fun, silly sort of activity akin to going to a Renaissance Festival, I felt tears threaten because it seemed like the most apt of metaphors this dark, dark year when the world seems to be extra violent and angry and brokenhearted. Maybe this is why it is my favorite time of year despite the crowds and the way my eye starts twitching because I let myself get stressed about buying subpar presents or the guilt I feel that while I’m having a perfectly lovely Christmas, a score of people are depressed or hungry or victimized or not able to be with their families. Z, for instance, will be with me this year instead of in Zimbabwe with his family, and while I’m thrilled that we are together and thrilled that I’m destined for an Indiana Christmas, there is still a certain sadness that we are not with his people too.
But as the bonfire got higher and higher, illuminating the darkness around us (and some of the ash threatening to set those of us in nylon jackets ablaze), I was able to push those trickier aspects of the holiday season out of my mind and focus instead on the light, on the freshness of the impending new year and the possibility of the world getting brighter and kinder.
It was the best kind of holiday night. Maybe even better than a mid-December on Chicago’s wintry streets.