As I’m sure is true for many of you, Christmastime has always been my favorite time of year. With my birthday in late November, the entire month between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been one of celebrations, good food, and the company of friends and family, culminating in Christmas Eve, which to me is the most magical night of the year.
Like my passion for travel, I inherited my love for Christmas from my mom, and she in turn had inherited that from my grandfather Brown, “Papa”. I remember him loading up his old Packard with gifts for extended family and friends and he, my mother and I would make the rounds on Christmas Eve while Grandma Brown, bless her, avoided these festivities and spent her time in the kitchen making pies for the next day’s dinner. I have many fond memories of Papa and my mom wrapping gifts, decorating the tree, and always conspiring to make Christmas extra special, like the time I found a new beagle puppy, my own living version of Snoopy, hanging in a stocking over the mantle on Christmas Eve.
Those happy memories of Christmas carried over into my adult life and even today, though so many friends and family are gone, and things are radically changed in so many ways, Christmas Eve remains one of my favorite nights of the year. Given my career as student and then a professor, I was fortunate enough to have lengthy Christmas breaks that allowed me to travel during the holiday season to visit loved ones and to soak up the Christmas spirit in many different places. This year, with the pandemic once again making headlines and limiting our ability to travel as freely as we might like, I’m staying close to “home” and celebrating the holidays in rural Rhode Island and Massachusetts with a very small circle of friends. But with the help of an extensive photo collection, I’ve been reflecting upon some of the things I’ve seen and experienced during Christmastime travels in the past.
Perhaps my most established Christmas tradition was the cross-country road trip in December, as soon as final exams were over. For at least 25 of the past 40 years, I drove across the USA from California to New England for Christmas. While my ultimate goal was to spend the holidays with friends and family in Massachusetts, I treasured the journey across the mountains and deserts of the western and southern states at this time of year. Pristine snowfalls often adorned the pine trees and mountaintops as I’d cross the Rockies or the Smokies, and at night rounding a curve on a dark, snowy road would often reveal the colorful, twinkling holiday lights of a small mountain village. The otherworldly vistas and clear, starry skies of the desert had me half-expecting to see the Star of Bethlehem twinkling in the eastern sky.
Of course, I played a Christmas “soundtrack” as I drove, with traditional carols intermixed with more modern and original Christmas songs like Tennessee Christmas, Aspenglow, Colorado Christmas, When Its Christmastime in Texas, Christmas in Dixie, Christmas for Cowboys, and even Mele Kalikimaka, a nod to my beloved Hawaii. And several versions of I’ll Be Home for Christmas and No Place Like Home for the Holidays took on special significance as I drove from sea to shining sea to get home in time for Christmas. This marks the second year in a row since leaving California in summer of 2020 that I haven’t made my cross-country journey, and I have to say that I’m haunted by the memories of those trips. I miss the feeling of adventure as I made it through a raging mountain blizzard, the comfort of a hearty meal by a fireplace in some off-the-beaten-path inn, the emotional reaction I’d experience when listening to a certain hymn, or just the peaceful, quiet time for reflection that a 7-day long, solitary drive provided.
There were several years when I had the opportunity to travel to Italy, either immediately before or immediately after Christmas, and I enjoyed the Italians’ somewhat subtler approach to Christmas. The decorations include tasteful light displays and little replicas of Babbo Natale (their name for Santa), who is typically depicted climbing a ladder to an upper story window rather than coming down the chimney. Italians also refer to Befana, an old woman who delivers presents to good boys and girls on the Epiphany, January 6. I was lucky enough to be able to share in some of the holiday parties and traditions of my friends in Italy, and from Rome to Florence to Milan and every small town in between, Christmas was in the air. Streets, piazzas, hotels, restaurants and shops were all decked out for the holidays wherever I went, but ultimately it was always Venice where the magic of the Christmas lights reflecting in her myriad canals took the beauty of the season to a whole new level.
During a Fall semester sabbatical in 2016, I managed to cross an item off my travel bucket list when I visited the famous Christmas markets of northern Europe in mid-December, making stops and doing some “comparison shopping” in Germany (Berlin, Nuremberg, and Rothenberg), France (Strasbourg and Paris), and Vienna, Austria. Christmas certainly is alive and well in all of these places, and while I was captivated by the over-the-top Christmas lights and decorations, it was the endless array of Christmas pastries and confections that held my attention here. I wanted to ask Santa for an extra stomach so that I could try each and every one of the tantalizing treats I encountered as I walked through the streets of these cities and towns and their bustling Christmas markets, all the while fueled by hot mulled wine that can be purchased at one of the dozens of booths in every city’s market. The atmosphere in Europe at Christmastime is decidedly different from here in the United States, and while I may miss the subtleties of what is actually going in the minds and hearts of our European friends given the language barrier, it just seems like there is a more old-fashioned, relaxed spirit in the air there than one finds here. I really felt as if I’d traveled back in time to a less frantic, less complicated Yuletide. I hope I’ll have the chance to experience that again sometime, or to find that same feeling here on this side of the Atlantic.
Of course, as much as I love to travel, there really is no place like home for the holidays, and despite the difficult times we’re all dealing with and the fact that Christmas seemed to bear down on me like a bullet train this year, I’ve tried to focus on simpler things: quiet evenings spent with friends over some good food or leisurely drives through the New England countryside to check out the wide range of Christmas light displays that people have created at their homes. My favorite look is the old country farmhouse with single white candle lights in each window, a beautifully lit Christmas tree displayed in a prominent window, and perhaps some tasteful white lights outlining a single pine tree or strung across a row of bushes in the front yard: classic. But then there are those homes that seem to just explode with Christmas lights of every color and configuration, strung haphazardly across each and every available surface, and in the dark of a December night, such houses never fail to make me smile.
Unfortunately, the trend toward placing larger than life-sized inflatable figures across one’s lawn is gaining popularity, and it seems that many people who do this don’t quite know when to say “enough”. I’ve witnessed blow-up manger scenes, with Mary, Joseph and the babe surrounded by Santa, the Grinch, Snoopy, Rudolph, snowmen, an assortment of penguins and the occasional dinosaur… a strange new take on the Wise Men, shepherds, sheep and lowing cattle. Worse yet are the effects of a cold snap or a particularly windy night, when these monstrosities deflate into plastic “puddles” all across the yard, looking like the aftermath of some twisted Christmas horror film! A Christmas Nightmare on Elm Street? Yuletide the 13th? It makes me shudder.
I’ve also discovered that even the local hiking trails and wilderness preserves in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts are decked out for the holidays, with beautiful stands of holly, winterberries and bittersweet adding brilliant reds to the wintery greys and greens of the forest. I am still hoping that we’ll have a even a light snowstorm or two before the holidays are over, which would add the perfect, frosty touch to what is already simple and beautiful.
As we close this year, I hope that all of you reading this are healthy and well, that your holidays WILL be merry and bright, and that the new year will bring only good things to you and yours, including the joys of travel. And finally, I want you to know how grateful I am for your readership; I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts I’ve offered this year and will be checking to see what I have in store for 2022. Merry Christmas!
P.S. Update as of December 24, 2021, 10:00AM. I finished this blog post yesterday afternoon, but today my Christmas wish was granted: I woke up to gentle flurries that left about an inch of snow over everything. I immediately put on my warm clothes and rushed out to take a drive and then a walk through the woods and the pictures below illustrate what I stated above: everything looks even prettier with a dusting of snow!