The Christmas season has come again, and I’m not feeling the cheer you’d expect. This holiday hasn’t felt right to me for many years. It is one of my least favorite holidays. In contrast, my wife loves the decorations, the gifts, and the baking, the whole package. I do my best to play along, but Christmas just doesn’t hold the magic that I remember as a child.
We no longer have any children in the house and no family nearby, even before Covid Christmas was usually just the two of us. And I am fine with that. I prefer to stay home and cozy on Christmas. But there is no magic for me.
I grew up in Northern Minnesota with cold, snowy winters. We could expect to get snowed into our house at least once every year. Our neighbors had snowmobiles and would ferry us to the paved road to meet the school bus. Then once the snowplows finally got to our little dirt road, they would pile the snow up taller than the bus.
My best memories of Christmas are from this time.
Our little house was heated by a wood-burning stove in the basement, and the heat would rise up through a cast iron grate in the floor above the stove and up the staircase to the second floor. Many mornings we would wake to a house cold enough to see our breath. We would then crouch on the grate to warm up while we ate our cereal.
This was the 1980s! Not that long ago.
I grew up poor, much like a hillbilly living in the woods. We had an outhouse, no television, and wolves howling in the night. Most people can’t relate, but what a great way to grow up. I didn’t experience the over-commercialized Christmas that many think is the norm. There were no electronic toys, no designer clothes, nothing more expensive than a hardware store bicycle. And we could always count on getting good warm clothes or boots for Christmas.
We cut our Christmas tree fresh from the woods and dragged it home through the snow. Mom would make homemade bread and a tea ring for Christmas breakfast. I remember a big pot of chili boiling on the stove and the whole house smelling of bread and wood smoke. The smells of home.
There were seven of us; my parents and five boys. We had no television for many of those years, so we entertained ourselves with table games most Saturday nights, and Christmas was no different. We would make a pan of mulled cider and a giant bucket of popcorn and play games for hours, often until 2am. We had no other family around, and no one ever came to visit, making it a very isolated life. Winters were spent locked inside, cozy and warm.
But it is the snow and the cold and the darkness of those Minnesota winter months that I think about most. Often the nights would drop to below zero temperatures. The air would be so cold and dry it almost hurt to breathe. In the night we would hear trees splitting in the cold, like gunshots in the darkness. And if you felt brave enough to wander outside, you would find a sky alive with stars, sparkling as if on fire, the northern lights flickering and hissing above.
It is those things that I miss the most about this season.
In the years since, I have gotten an education, raised children, and moved far away from Minnesota. Yet every year, I get nostalgic about this time. Not for Christmas, not for the gifting, not for any religious significance, but for the frozen desolation and silence of the deep winter. That is what I miss the most, what holds the most emotion for me.
We purchased a house with a fireplace for the sole purpose of curling up in front of a fire on cold winter nights. That is what I look forward to more than any other aspect of this season. However, Christmas day was almost 60F with no snow in sight. Which doesn’t evoke memories of Christmas past in any way, shape, or form. It doesn’t feel right.
I haven’t been back to Minnesota in twenty years. I no longer have family there. However, I will always yearn for the bone-shattering cold of a Minnesota Christmas night.