Growing Up Alaska: Getting Into the Holiday Spirit

As we roll into December and find our holiday spirit, I thought I would tell of my first Christmas in Alaska. To be honest, I don’t remember Christmas Day, but I do vividly remember the days leading up to it, especially Christmas Eve.

We had not come to Alaska to stay. It had become a short trip that never ended.

That first winter, when I was five, we stayed at the Arctic Circle Hot Springs Hotel where my dad was continuing renovations on the interior of the building over the winter.

As Christmas approached, the hotel manager’s wife decided that we should put on a Christmas pageant and put up a real tree. She’d been digging through the basement of the building and had come across boxes of traditional German Christmas Decorations.

The top of a tall spruce tree was brought in and set up in the lobby. The tree towered at least fifteen feet up into the vaulted reading area in the lobby. We strung popcorn on string to drape around the tree and antique ornaments were interspersed with homemade ones.

No lights were hung on the tree, but instead, tiny little candle holders were tied off to the boughs and ribbons were tied on.

All 8 of us kids of the hotel staff practiced our pageant for over a week and made our own angel costumes out of old bedding from the hotel. We would descend the steep stairs from the second floor while singing traditional Christmas Carols. Being the youngest, and may I dare say the cutest, I was to lead the procession.

Rehearsals did not go well. We went too fast. We went to slow. We missed lyrics. We sang out of tune. We got yelled at a lot. I got yelled at a lot. I was told I needed to keep focus and lead everyone. Don’t look back, just keep singing and keep going.

So on Christmas Eve, as I descend the stairs, I did just that. I kept singing. I smiled. And I kept going.

And I missed the tragedy of fallen angels as one kid stepped on another kid’s costume and sent the pile tumbling down the stairs behind me. Over the gasps and cries, I kept singing and I kept walking until one of the parents stopped me and blew out my candle.

Over the next half an hour, scrapes were bandaged, bruises kissed and tears dried. And I sat in a huff, upset that I didn’t get to finish my song and more upset that someone had blown out my candle.

To cheer everyone up, we sang carols around the Christmas tree as they lit the candles. The lights were dimmed and we each got a candle and passed the light from one person to another, then us kids got to go forward to light a candle on the tree before some adults started lighting the higher ones.

In a sudden revelation of hind sight, they realized that they should have started at the top and worked their way down, but the manager’s wife, who was decked out in antique traditional clothing from Germany (also found in the basement) decided to use a ladder to light the top candles on the tree.

We sang and watched as she leaned out and lit the top most candles. We watched as the ladder swayed under her son’s grip as it became more and more unbalanced. We watched as her dress swung out as she leaned further out. And we watched as her dress caught fire.

Screams interrupted the caroling as people tried to warn her. She flailed about trying to put out the fire. The ladder swung as she spun about and crashed into the tree. She fell six feet into the lobby and the tree fell through the large plate glass window of the lobby.

The manager’s wife landed on the floor, her dress in flames as people ran for a fire extinguisher. Someone grabbed the giant rug she had fallen onto and wrapped her up in it in an attempt to douse the flames.

Old man Harry Hughes dumped his orange drink on her and encouraged all us kids to do the same. He chuckled as he walked away saying, “Best Christmas in years!”

Us kids and the few guests of the hotel were ushered into the dining room for cake and cookies while they adults cleaned up the mess, which included cutting up the Christmas tree and putting plywood over the gaping hole in the glass. Luckily the manager’s wife wasn’t seriously burned, though her dress and the rug were ruined.

I remember it smelling of burnt hair for days in the lobby, but nothing of Christmas morning. However, that Christmas Eve will always be burned into my memory, every pun intended.

Author: matthewlasley

I am a school teacher and an author. I like to write picture books, middle grade, science fiction and short stories. I live in Alaska and I love history, so those two things often influence my creative writing.

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