The holiday season has come around again, and hope is in full bloom. Just like clockwork, the annual transition from L-tryptophan to Christmas fudge has set off a flurry of sights and sounds. Cars in the Keweenaw are topped with evergreens, drivers rushing home to deck their halls. Holiday music plays in rotation on local radio stations, and church bells chime on schedule. Along the waterfront, a frosty tree gleams a cool blue while downtown, wreaths and garland twinkle at every turn. There are ribbon-wrapped spruce tips and green Grinch cutouts. Why, there’s even a King Kong-sized elf scaling the exterior facade of a boutique hotel. Yes, there is a swell of hope in the air, set aglow by strands of Christmas lights.
In my small town, a little further up the road, the spirit of the season greets me, although a bit less lavishly. It begins with an artificial tree at the tip of Main Street. Each year at the end of November, the tree arrives on the back of a trailer. We watch as volunteers maneuver it into place and string the power cord. Along the lane, wooden light poles are wound with a single strand of multicolored lights—the old-fashioned bulbs, maybe C9s. Growing snowbanks serve as garland. Beyond that, it’s up to the residents to top off the job.
The sights of this town remind me of my childhood. They speak to me of a collective spirit, the kind I knew in my youth. Back then, there was a towering spruce in my hometown’s centre. It was strung with lights by volunteer firefighters and draped in snow by Mother Nature. It grew next to the firehall where every December, Santa held court beneath a wooden arch and welcomed us each with a brown paper sack of sugary treats.
I remember those visits to that firehall as if it were yesterday. My older sisters were placed in charge. We’d dress after supper in a clamor of snow boots and secondhand coats, hats and damp mittens, then tumble out the back door, panting. Our boots trekked the snow-blown path around the corner, down the side of our narrow home, past the slider window with a single strand of Christmas lights taped to ranch casing. The center of the strand was often drooping; the tape would give way. But did I mind? No, not at all. Those lights were a symbol. They filled me with hope. As long as they were lit, that’s all I needed.
I can still hear the crunch of snow beneath our feet, the wsk wsk of coat fabric as our arms swung to and fro. Our noses numbing. Our breath ascending in transparent Os. It all fanned my growing sense of hysteria. “I can’t wait to see Santa!” I would squeal. Then you better hurr’yup, my oldest sister might say. I would scurry ahead, the route filling my well. There were homes lit like runways and windows glowing with electric-orange candelabras. We caught glimpses of glistening trees between drawn drapery panels and full views of those beyond sheers. There were wreaths on porch doors—a touch our home did without—and the occasional Nativity scene, the Baby Jesus in the center tugging at my heartstrings.
When we’d reach the firehall, the windows were lit, the line long. It snaked around the checkerboard floor. So many kids. Raucous ones. Shy ones. Wealthy ones. Poor ones. We all lined up together, one collective body, eager to see Santa; a queue comprised of the innocence of youth. We, coughing and sneezing, our noses dripping. And he, our idol, anticipating a long night, perhaps a cold in the days to come. But he welcomed us all nonetheless, sat us on his knee, asked for our wishes. And we gushed. Did he know whose Christmas lists would be fulfilled? Did he consider those who might wake to disappointment? I certainly did not, for I believed in the power of Santa. The power of Christmas. The power of hope. And as I neared his side, in those years of naiveté, my wishes were doable. My neighbors’ wishes were doable. There was nothing beyond reach.
When at last it was my turn, I would climb aboard his crushed velvet-clad knee. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” he’d bellow. “And what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?” What does a child say to this man? On the spur of the moment? In his grandeur? With his red suit and curly white beard? This Santa-star. This celebrity. A saint known round the world! And so I’d sit, transfixed by his tall, black boots. Oh, those boots! With their single buckle. Their shiny leather—or was that pleather? Their squared heels which would soon set foot on my rooftop! What were my wishes from year to year? Was it an Easy-Bake Oven? A Crissy doll? A Mrs. Beasley from Family Affair? The world was ripe for the picking as long as I had the hope! And I did.
It has been decades since I’ve paid a visit to that beloved firehall. And certainly decades since I’ve sat on Santa’s knee. I find the years have molded me, mellowed my hope. I look upon holiday wishes differently now, my perspective matured. Though my family finds comfort in the season, I am keenly aware there are those whose stockings won’t be hung, whose trees won’t be lit, whose holidays may fall prey to financial hardship. As a matter of fact, I’ve learned that as children, my siblings and I were mere steps from that scenario ourselves, our Christmases always teetering on the brink. But somehow, we were sheltered from that reality. Our parents managed the undoable, maybe with a little help. Somehow there were gifts. Somehow, turkey. Somehow, Christmas joy. Was it their hope that fueled the magic? Or was it ours?
Perhaps it was that single strand of lights taped in our living room window.
Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. In addition to her Carrot Ranch column, you’ll find Marie’s work online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press, 2020) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan and is a recipient of the Stuart D. and Vernice M. Gross Award for Literature (Saginaw Valley State University). Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.