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Build Your Own Tradition

Lessons from Build-A-Bear to the magical Chesapeake Christmas tree

When its lights went on, the Christmas tree seemed suspended above the Bay like magic. The suspension was an illusion. The tree stood on the solid base of the Fairhaven community swim platform in Herring Bay. But the magic was — and remains — real.
    This season marks the 30th illumination of Ed Becke’s and Mark Manders’ Herring Bay Christmas tree, which began with a real tree to light up the last Christmas in the life of a neighbor, Tommy Hoyle.

The Recipe
    A tradition wants staying power, and for that I’ve found a recipe.
    I found my recipe in the Herring Bay tree and codified it on a visit to a Build-A-Bear Workshop.
    Not just any Build-A-Bear. Westfield Annapolis is now home to one of six brand new test stores adding “innovative technology” to the 15-year-old “interactive entertainment” retailer’s brand.
    This was my first Build-A-Bear encounter, so the high-tech add-ons seemed to me just part of the package. I had experienced guides in grandkids Jack, 12, and Elsa, 11, who’ve grown up with interactive technology. “Very cool,” they pronounced the Love Me, Hear Me, Stuff Me, Fluff Me and Name Me stations.
    They were right.
    By making tradition, Maxine Clark — founder and chief executive bear of the St. Louis-based chain — has earned fame. Over 110 million stuffed animals have been made in Build-A-Bear Workshops in 45 states and 16 countries. More than bears, Clark is making tradition.
    Follow the recipe, and you can, too.

Start with a Bright Idea
    Ed Becke’s tree on Herring Bay proved a very bright idea.
    Tommy Hoyle wept when he saw that first tree. Neighbors loved it, and lights expanded its circle of influence. People came from far and wide to see it. I wrote about it nearly 20 years ago when Bay Weekly was New Bay Times. So, later, did The Baltimore Sun and The Capitol.
    Like Ed’s tree, now made of strong wire, good ideas are bright from the get-go. Often they come with an ah-ha! moment.
    Build-A-Bear began when, after a disappointment with Beanie Babies, Clark and a 10-year-old companion determined to build their own stuffed friend. Clark happened to be a corporate marketer for the May Company, so she had the skills to make her idea go big.
    Ideas don’t have to be big to be bright. They can take any scale. Bay Weekly staffer Ashley Brotherton’s grandmother’s cookie decorating party is as unifying for that family as the Herring Bay tree for my community or Colonial Players’ A Christmas Carol is for the whole capital region.

Give It a Regular Place and Time
    No time is more compelling than the last five or six weeks of each year. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, every day brings celebrations.
    Again this year, tradition awaits us when and where we expect it. Your Season’s Bounty tells you the lights have been hung and the action is starting. Walking along the beach at Fairhaven, I stumble on the wire buried in the sand that will connect the tree on the water to the power on shore.

Make It a Party
    Lights, food, drink and good company add the sensory rewards that make a tradition pull us back time and again.
    You can’t hold a party in the dark. Like Becke and Manders’ tree, parks, zoos, gardens and shopping districts draw us in with lights. We add our own to our houses and trees, indoors and out, joining the celebration of light.
    We gather evergreens when nature seems to be dying. We sweeten winter with cookies and candy and ward off its chill with hot chocolate and strong liquor. We give gifts to the Christ child in one another. We retell old stories to warm our hearts.

Invite People In
    A tradition is better with people to share it.

Assign Active Roles
    The minds behind Build-A-Bear have put thought into how to meld people in tradition.
    The recipe is part hands-on experience, part imaginative experience, according to Dave Finnegan, who carries the title Chief Interactive and Information Bear.
    Kids pick their own animal, then add characteristics to its red satin heart, which they carry in their own hands to the stuffing station. You can’t beat that appeal.
    Over in Herring Bay, the Christmas tree is eyes- rather than hands-on for most of the people who share in that tradition. But it shines in our windows every night, from dusk to dawn, and we say good-night tree.
    So we tell it our own story, just as kids do at Build-A-Bear. Shared stories put the heart in so many of our seasonal traditions. A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker and all the beloved books and pageants tell us stories we join.

Include a Take-Away
    Part of a good tradition’s take away is the experience itself. At Build-A-Bear, everybody takes home a furry friend. There’s good money in those bears. The animals cost $10 to $30. Sounds and smells add $5 or $8 more. Dress an animal, and you’re more than doubling the cost. But you take your bear home, and that makes the price worthwhile.
    We spend a lot to share in the traditions of Christmas. But many best traditions — like the Herring Bay tree — really are free.

Find Rewards in Your Tradition
    Build-A-Bear is still fine-tuning its business model; the company reported a $17 million loss last year on revenues of $394 million. Fortunately, money isn’t the whole story for this company, or so its staffers say.
    “When you see the kids looking in the windows, their eyes lighting up, when you see the smiles, when you hear Awesome! — that makes all the work worth it,” says Brandon Elliott, director of IT operations.
    Raising the Herring Bay Christmas tree has never been easy and never earned Ed Becke or Mark Manders a dime. Mostly, they do the job on their own.
    “Sometimes it’s so cold we think we’re crazy,” says Manders, 50.
    Some years there’s no water in the Bay, delaying the tree’s rising.
    “You can’t carry all the stuff out there through the mud,” he says.
    Weather has ripped out the wires, turned off the lights, blown away the tree. At 89, Becke may watch from the shore this year.
    They keep doing it. “For all the people we’ve lost,” says Manders.
    But each of us who sees it thinks it’s for us.