This is the time of year life starts running on Tradition. Everyone is making fudge, writing Christmas cards, and listening to “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” You can almost kick back and let things take their natural course. I know that Daughter is going to call and ask for the recipe for Grasshopper Pie. She does every year and I always say “Now write this down” and she always starts the conversation with “I wrote this down last year, but … .” That pie is one of our traditional desserts during the holidays, but it’s really the phone call that stirs the memories. Just the knowledge that we do this every year brings us closer at a time we can’t be together.
This holiday season has been a quiet one for us. The kids are scattered to the four winds this year, and other family and friends that we celebrate with have been side-tracked by illness or travel so we’ve just let things develop as they will but that hasn’t stopped some of the traditional goings on that just seem to happen every year almost by magic. I made mincemeat and fruit cakes because that’s what you do in November. And although we weren’t going to decorate, we pulled out all the favorite ornaments anyway. Of course we’re attending the Christmas concerts and all of the parties. We even watched Charliey Brown a couple of times, and went to the bazaars. Tradition is strong at this time of year, and not easy to let go or to change.
We spent Christmas in Hawaii one year. And even with the family there and all the Christmas music playing, it wasn’t the same. Nat “King” Cole singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose” doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact when you’re basting yourself with SPF 8 suntan lotion on an 80-degree beach with the scent of coconut oil and frangipani wafting by instead of turkey with dressing and pumpkin pie. Which is not to say I didn’t send a few postcards saying “wish you were here” and go caroling in cut-offs and sandals, but when the plane set down on the hard snow base at home a few days after New Year’s, I had a feeling of incompleteness, like I had missed something, but didn’t know what. Snow for Christmas is a tradition that is difficult to substitute, but I must admit, Santa arriving on a surf board has its moments.
I remembered that Christmas in a round about way last Thanksgiving weekend as we joined the community in celebrating Christmas Comes to Kenai (another tradition). The parade was over, the bonfire lit and the fireworks just beginning to sparkle and gleam overhead. Fireworks! The stuff of Fourth of Julys and summer evenings.
As you know, I grew up where it gets dark at night in summer, and I recall ending Independence Day watching the fireworks. Whistling pin wheels and vivid sunbursts clattered through the air spewing all colors of sparks and embers, but mostly red, white and blue. Rockets climbed swiftly, trailing fire all the way, then burst into brilliant cascades spilling into space and dissolving just as another fired into being. The grand finale was always an American flag of gleaming red, white and blue sparklers on a raft in the middle of the lake. The cannon would boom the last big hurrah and we’d all march home humming “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Of course I haven’t seen Fourth of July fireworks for years. The Christmas displays remind me less of bombs bursting in air and more of bells and tinsel. The plumes of color are blues and reds and greens with a few golds here and there, like twinkle lights. The dazzling trinkets shower the sky with fairy dust that blooms with starlight brilliance against the dark winter night and crackles like popping corn. I am always reminded of “visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.”
The first time a tourist asked me on one Alaskan Independence Day what time the fireworks would be, I casually looked at my watch and said ‘Oh, about 7 p.m. the day after Thanksgiving.” I can still see the dumbfounded expression, then the slow dawning as he realized he’d asked a “dumb tourist question.” These days, older and wiser, I’d explain that, for obvious reasons, we traditionally have fire works to celebrate the winter holidays.
The key word here is “traditionally” because that is what leads the tourist in Hawaii for Christmas to go out caroling in sandals and the tourist in Alaska on the Fourth of July to let the kids stay up until midnight so they can see the sparklers glitter just a little. Traditions keeps us all connected at the fundamental level. They grow and often they change slightly to fit the occasion. How else can you explain hiding Easter eggs in the snow or just one sparkler glittering against the midnight sun on the Fourth of July or Santa on a surf board. The little tweaks may cause individual discombobulation but they teach us respect for our differences.
Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.