We had our winter wonderland the first week of December, I guess. The snow hung on the trees and covered the roofs of buildings making them look soft and sparkly. A drive around town was like visiting a real life mantelpiece Christmas village. Then it rained.
When I was a little kid, elementary school probably, I remember snow on Christmas was never in question. We had several snow days during the school year and were always prepared for a day or two ‘snowed in’ at home before the snow plows could get to us. Mom pulled out the jigsaw puzzles and craft projects (how many braided watch fobs and hand loomed hot pads do you still own?). She let us play the record player and we listened closely to the radio waiting for a weather forecast; maybe even read something for the next book report due at school between forays outside to play in the snow. It was a vacation.
About junior high age, Christmastime snow was not so predictable. Winter brought snow eventually, but often just an overnight dusting, and it might be late February before we’d see significant snow storms. We’d still have a snow day or two and might even be snowed in but later in the season. By the time I was an adult, our winters were pretty open with just enough snow in the mountains to keep the rivers flowing. Not too many White Christmases, much to the dismay of the old timers. And me!
Climate change was not in our vocabulary then because it was more or less a fact of life. We studied the ice ages in school; learned that Siberia and Alaska had once been semitropical, rivers flooded and changed courses, volcanoes erupted, but more to the point, Grandpa always said we didn’t know what winter really was because “back in ‘89 (that’s 1889) we had a real winter.”
When we moved to Alaska our first homes were in the northern area so snow was a given from October to May (at least). White Christmas was not only reality, it was a way of life. There were even blasphemers who said “Hope it doesn’t snow on Christmas” — meaning they were hoping to travel and needed a little respite. But no one really regretted waking up to a sparkling new snowy cover on Christmas morning. We expected it and rejoiced.
Oh! I know there are places that don’t have snow on Christmas. We have spent a couple of Christmases in Mexico and in Hawaii, where Santa rides a surf board and wears an Aloha shirt. Dashing through the snow has no meaning when you are lying on a beach watching little kids build sand castles instead of snowmen. Hot cocoa and mulled wine give way to iced coffee and a pina colada. Mele Kalikimaka is heard more often than Merry Christmas but you still hear Bing singing “White Christmas.” It is tradition.
Which I guess is the point: tradition is what makes our holidays special. We Western Christians have some universal doings: a Santa character — be it St. Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas — gift giving, a feast, a decorated tree. Some of these even stem from the pagan traditions extant before Christmas was on the calendar. Add to this the Northern culture and we have sleigh rides, ugly sweaters, hot buttered rum and Yule logs.
Families develop traditions and make new ones all the time to accommodate the changes in the family. Special foods, funny cards, certain gifts to carry on from generation to generation. Things to remember the elders and other things to acknowledge new members (think Elf on a Shelf). Christmas becomes the institutional memory for the family.
I think each person also has seasonal things special to them that makes the holiday finally become real. Some are silly. This year the lighted teddy bear is not on the corner across from Louie’s. I found the bear just a little up the block, more in the middle of the park. I am probably the only one in town who even noticed, but that was my signal that the season had started. Not a big deal, but I felt a little let down when all the lights were on and no bear in place.
So, I’m writing this a week out, and our yards are looking like it is March with green patches and deteriorating snow as the temperatures stay above freezing. Not a lot of promise in the forecast. It doesn’t say snow. But the bear is lit, got the card from my childhood friend, fruitcakes delivered, and everyone I see says “Merry Christmas.” Tradition is alive!
But I still hope for, even expect, snow for Christmas.
Merry Christmas to All.
• Virginia Walters