Happy New Year. This fall, Last Frontier Magazine ask me to write a homestead Christmas
piece for the Winter edition about what Christmas was like on an Alaska homestead in the fifties. After several failed attempts to write something interesting and heartfelt, I threw everything away and wrote a letter to my grandchildren. I share this with you as a Holiday greeting.
|Yes, that's me by the front door.|
Dear Sawyer and Molly,
Almost sixty years ago when I was five years old, I had my first Alaskan Christmas. In fact that holiday in 1958 was the first Christmas that I remember. It was memorable for many reasons. For one, I was finally old enough to look forward to the excitement of draping a tree with garlands of popcorn and watching the presents pile up under it. I was old enough to look forward to the sound of mom singing carols, the smell of hot cinnamon rolls, and dressing up for Church pageants. But what made it really memorable was Christmas in our own log cabin in the wilds of Alaska.
We had finished our cabin in October and moved in just in time for Halloween. It seemed like no time before snow was falling and icicles were hanging off the eaves. A whole forest of Christmas trees surrounded our cabin, and by November they were already flocked with snow. When we drove down the lane to our house on clear frosty evening, the lamps in the cabin window filled the windows with golden light that spilled out on the snow and it was as if we were living in a Christmas card. This was nothing like Christmas back in Sugar Tree Ridge, Ohio.
My brothers went out the back door and crunched across the snowy yard to a cut a nice spruce tree that they stood in the corner of the living room. It must have made our little cabin really crowded, but I only remember the rich smell of the evergreen forest as the tree warmed and the last of the snow melted from the boughs. Suddenly, we heard popcorn rattling in the pan, and Amy ran for the sewing thread so we could string garlands of popcorn. We made paper chains and cut pictures from cards and magazines for ornaments. Finally, our tree received the one store bought decoration, foil icicles that gaily twinkled in the lantern light.
In those days, there were no stores around for Christmas shopping and this was long before the Internet, so we only had catalogs to order presents from. And since we didn’t have much money there wasn’t much of that. Most of the Christmas presents we received were made right there on the homestead. In our family, there were no letters to Santa or pretending that a jolly fat elf was coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Every present we got came from some one we knew, some we loved, we knew loved us.
The only Santa we believed in was a local guy that wore the red Santa suit and showed up at the Christmas carnival just before the movie started. He arrived with ching, ching, ching, of bells and a hearty hoo hoo hoo then sat in a chair by the Christmas tree where he read our names one by one from a long sheet of paper. When our name was called, we walked up to Santa and received a gift, wrapped in green paper for boys and red for girls. On the way back to our seat, we were handed a paper lunch sack with an apple, an orange, some peanuts, and a candy cane. For some of us that was the only orange we would have all year because fresh fruit like that was rare and expensive in 1958.
After all the kids had received their presents, we sang a few Christmas carols, and then one of the dads started the movie projector, and the lights went down. The only sound for the next hour and a half was the rustle of treat bags and our gleeful laughter for we were totally enthralled by watching a movie – a rare treat in our little frontier community with no TV or regular theater.
After the movie, the Walkers headed home to their homestead cabin to build up the fire and light the lantern. And even though there was no Santa, there was still magic for under our tree we found bags of nuts, nuts of all shapes and sizes still in their shells just waiting for us. We also found a fancy tin box of candy, And this was not just any candy, it was Christmas Candy, candy in looping rainbow ribbons of red, green, and white. But, most magical of all, and still dear to my heart was a small wooden box that with a cargo so precious that each was separately wrapped in it’s own paper. These golden jewels were Mandarin oranges — what you kids now call Clementines. Today they are as common as apples, but back then we only saw them at Christmas. When we peeled one of those tiny oranges, it released the aroma of summer like a moment of sunlight had been trapped inside it. The memory of those magical mysterious fruits is so strong that their smell no longer makes me the think of summer but of Christmas.
And so, with the spruce logs crackling in the woodstove and carols on the radio, the Walkers settled down in their cabin on that first Christmas Eve and opened gifts they’d made each other. The way I remember it we drew names, so that each person made a gift for one member of the family. Of course, Mom and Dad had something for each of us. Mom had made shirts and dresses, mittens and dolls. Dad had shaped rough lumber into wooden spoons, checkers boards, doll beds and toy barns. We all went to bed wondering how Christmas Day could be any better than Christmas Eve, but it was. We spent the day playing with Christmas toys, eating once a year treats, and feasting with new Alaskan friends.
Every Christmas since that first one, we try to remember some of those traditions, and I figured out over the years that it was not all the treats, gifts, and decorations that made Christmas special; It was a family together in that cabin, sharing a great adventure and warming a winter night with our love for each other.