North Shore Notes

Holiday Images

Harry Drabik

The winter of 58/59 marked the first full year of my living in Minnesota. Nineteen fifty eight was the statehood centennial. I don`t know who was responsible for issuing souvenir centennial coins (about the size of the nearly disappeared half dollar; aka half rock) in aluminum, but on the Iron Range this was not a popular choice. To many it seemed a case of the state`s farm counties once again ignoring the resource contribution of the North East. To us iron and steel were Minnesota far more than corn or soybeans that could be grown elsewhere. Iron ore and taconite truly came from our native soil making it quite galling for the state to use aluminum for centennial coinage.

The coming year (1959) would put that behind same as the 58/59 winter marked mother’s last time accompanying father and me on the tree hunt. Back then no one I knew thought taking a roadside tree was a crime, but as the land belonged to someone (public of private), taking things from it was theft. So, yes I was a teenage delinquent corrupted by me elders into what amounted to shoplifting a Christmas tree, which on reflection seems doubly bad. But that was not a thing I worried about at the time. It was pure and simple relief to have mother stay home after her shout “There’s one” caused dad to look aside and bury the nose of our Country Squire in feet of snow. I was told to get out and push. The Squire would have been as moved had I been a sparrow. I may have weighed 120 pounds, though gained rapidly as snow melted into my flannel lined (one of mother’s ideas) jeans. Up to my rear in snow I simply sunk deeper from pushing.  Only when I was thoroughly wet with cold creeping into the crotch was my pushing duty abandoned. We sat an hour before a logger came along to yank us out and lecture my father on being better prepared than relying on a blue faced thirteen year old for motive power.

Back home I was safe the rest of that day. The flannel lined jeans (frozen solid like armor from the knee down) would take until July to dry. I wanted nothing more than stay warm under the covers until all parts were restored. Burrowed in bed, waiting for July had appeal. When hunger called me from my nest I learned Father had enough for the day, too. Tree hunting would resume tomorrow as a two-man operation. Father knew better than order mother to stay home. He asked, “Honey, why don’t you stay home? There’s nothing for you to do anyway.” Mother never went tree stealing with us again.

It’s interesting to look at old holiday images with perspective gained by time and distance. I could tell the nearness of Christmas by the ever decreasing amount of undecorated space. The appearance of knitted elf heads for doorknobs marked a threshold of no escape. I knew if I did not keep moving I’d end up flocked and have ribbons and bells hung on me. It was not a pretty picture. I’d have stayed in hiding if not for the scent of Christmas baking luring me into the open. With metronomic precision I’d devour one fruitcake cookie (mother’s specialty) after another and be gone before anyone noticed there was but a single crumb left to fill the space of cookies- many. I remember those days with humor and fond appreciation, but also with regret the weight of holiday tradition overwhelmed us. Attempting to make Christmas special became overdone and thereby burdensome. Back then it seemed mean spirited or cruel to complain about too much of a good thing. But too often it was too much “stuff” of the season that grew dominant. A chord we hear these days criticizes the commercialism (“stuff”) of Christmas. But as I see it replacing commercialism with ideology can end up with a different kind of “stuff” getting in the way.

Now mind you, I am Christian more by culture than conviction. If I set aside Divinity, Godhead, Savior, etc. I see a human event; the birth of a child. Since we humans take roughly the same route to arrive here the “appreciation” of a birth is common ground. People celebrate many things, but recalling a battle or a proclamation is less universal than acknowledging the universal nature of our individual beginnings. We share birth. I like that. If there are teachings or lessons in a theological system I think they should best point out that which is general among us. Being human should come before language, culture, or sect. There is no question about it. Language and culture are huge parts of our individual humanity. But, your ethnicity or belief does not come before humanity unless the aim (and for many that is the case) is to replace the value of being human for an abstract or theoretical value such as “ultimate good” or “paradise.” These can be uplifting and inspiring things, but what use is ultimate good if it degrades in the here-and-now and what value is paradise if it makes a hell of earth?

This holiday I happily recall wonderful fruitcake cookies and floor to ceiling decoration along with the travail of a stuck Country Squire and grim grip of an iced groin. These are parts of a story about the human condition. Your situation need not be identical or even close to mine for you to find some similar level of joy and frustration as those we love and who loved us struggled to get things right. In their unease some turn holidays into a sour-puss event; human unhappiness made palpable. I can forgive excess in that direction as I learned to do with mother’s obsessive decorating. The human side of the birth of a child is also a story of our and the lives of those we know and hold dear doing what is hoped best. This time of year we are asked to consider the true Christmas meaning; doing so needs only a calm place where we are able to listen in quiet to the heart.