Burton on the Bay
By Bill Burton
For my 79th, Give Me Christmas Just Right
At Christmas I no more want a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s newfangled mirth;
But like in each thing that in season grows.
Shakespeare: The Two Gentlemen of Verona
From my viewpoint, the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon hit the nail on the head in the above lines though I’d phrase them a bit differently:
At Christmas, I no more want a moderate day with bare ground than I wish ice on the Chesapeake in June. With me, it’s seasons as seasons should be even though in old age I must admit it isn’t as easy to cope with cold, ice and snow as it once was.
As the big day approaches and I look at the 78 Christmases past, among the most prominent were three: two downright balmy, one with too much of the white stuff and too cold to boot.
The Hagerstown Almanac tells me we will have rain or snow this Christmas, and as I write the weatherman’s final prediction is yet to come. I’m hoping for just enough of a cold snap to make my surroundings white but not too deep. I prefer white to warm to a reasonable degree.
Christmas Too Warm
For spending one of two Christmases in warm weather, I have only myself to blame; after all, I agreed to observe it vacationing in Cocoa Beach, Fla. I’ll never do that again.
Between trying to convince our two young kids Heather and Joel that Santa’s sleigh could make its rounds without snow and that the jolly old man in red had been alerted to their temporary change of address, I lost much of my Yuletide spirit.
To make matters worse, there was no fireplace in our condo. The two kids had never spent a Christmas without one to admit Santa. Pinning their stockings to the arms of a big sofa only heightened their anxiety. By the afternoon of the holiday, I was rummaging through the Yellow Pages for an early flight north.
About 40 years earlier, my Christmas was spent on a balmy day in Hawaii, and I had no choice seeing that I was in a Navy hospital. World War II had ended the previous August, and to me and the other patients, Christmas was just another day before we could go home. Still, we did have a fine, big decorated Christmas tree flown in from the States courtesy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, plus the gift of a carton of cigarettes from General Motors and the Red Cross.
No stockings were hung on Christmas Eve, but after lights out I sneaked to the far end of the ward from the nurse’s station, where some Marines were toasting the holiday with what they called a Navy egg nog.
In it there were no eggs and no milk, just orange juice pilfered from the galley plus rubbing alcohol that I got in trade from a hospital corpsman for some of Aunt MiMi’s homemade chocolate chip cookies, which arrived a bit stale, but edible.
There were no carols that night, just a bunch of young men whispering about what the next Christmas would be like. We’d be home, and for me that was Vermont, with snow the way Christmas is supposed to be. No more barefoot Hawaiian girls with floral strands around their necks singing us Christmas carols, as they had earlier in the day.
Christmas Too Cold
A decade later, I learned there could be too much of that traditional Christmas amenity: snow.
That Christmas was spent in Alaska, where I was newspapering for the Anchorage Times. It was close to 10am when dawn broke. The bedroom window thermometer read 30 below, winds howled, snow was close to three feet deep, and a big moose with a wide rack was standing next to the backyard clothesline.
The day would be short, what with sundown coming before 3 o’clock and for the second time in my still early life Christmas would again be just another day to be spent before heading home to New England. I had already made up my mind that Alaska despite its spectacular scenery in the short summer and its fishing and hunting was no place for me, so I was job hunting in the states.
Of course there would be no family, and few friends either. Those days, most Alaskans were newcomers like my wife at the time and me, and most went “Outside” for winter after making their money in the warmer months.
Outside referred to the 48 states. In Alaska which was to become the 49th in a few years the winter population was small, and so were most of the homes. Moreover, newspapermen weren’t paid much in Alaska in those days; the young like me took jobs at any salary just to be adventurous, sow their wild oats and build a resume.
We were spectators at sled-dog races in the morning as temperatures rose to 10 below, which my landlord Claude Rhoades assured me was “as warm a holiday as I’ve enjoyed in 10 years.” Claude was an old sourdough, arrived in Alaska during World War II with his wife Alma.
We were invited to their home next door for dinner of roast caribou and moose, king salmon and frozen vegetables from their garden. As we were cheechakos spending our first winter in Alaska and they had already enjoyed a few egg nogs by the time we arrived, they decided to serenade us with lines from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, written the previous year.
I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was 12, or whether it snowed for 12 days and 12 nights when I was six, they sang. But their ditty didn’t worry me a bit. After all, I was from Vermont, where sometimes the temperature dipped to 35 below. What did concern me was that New England and the family were thousands of miles away.
At Grandma’s farmhouse there would be real candles lit on the Christmas tree; they were lit only on Christmas Eve and again midday on Christmas when the gifts were opened. There would be stuffed turkey with all the trimmings, including my favorites, baked squash and boiled creamed onions.
Winter hadn’t approached the halfway mark, and already I’d had enough caribou, moose and salmon to hold me for a lifetime. Frozen beef steaks and pork chops sold in markets for six bucks a pound in 1955 dollars, which was out of reach for a reporter making $110 a week where living costs were double those in the Lower 48.
Christmas Just Right
The next Christmas and 48 more would be spent in Maryland and Vermont, where the centerpiece on the table would be turkey, not wild game. I’d like a little snow this year, but nothing else to remind me of Alaska.
I’ll be thinking of the old sourdoughs who often sang about another legendary sourdough who returned Outside only to lament what he was missing north of Juneau. The only thing I minded was the frigid weather on the drive back to the States in early March.