Snow place like home

    I’ve always loved Christmas. It’s in my blood: I was born in Minnesota. Last Monday, when it briefly snowed in the afternoon, I had a very nice childhood flashback. I lived my first 12 years in Minnesota–northMinnesota, even–the closest to an arctic climate we get in the United States.

    For the most part, I’ve had absolutely no problem ditching my small-town Midwest heritage in favor of the laid-back, liberal West Coast. I believe some people simply are not made to live in the place they’re born, and I’m definitely one of them. Having lived over half my life in the West, I have enough years in to consider myself the next best thing to a native. For now and for the foreseeable future, Portland is my home, and I don’t really ever feel any pangs of homesickness. Except in the holiday season, because I have to admit to one lingering Minnesota prejudice: that Christmas without snow just isn’t Christmas.

    Not that it’s something Oregonians need to apologize for. We can’t help our weather conditions and have to take whatever fleeting instances of a "White Christmas" we can get. If we really want it, we can always take a trip to Mt. Hood. In places even more deprived, like California, they do what they can: hanging wreaths on palm trees, for instance. (I lived one year in a camp in Northern California, too.) But that just looks kind of weird and…Californian.

    The two things I miss most about Minnesota–aside from my family, who I think still live there–are thunderstorms and snow. The really awesome thing is that sometimes in winter back there you get thundersnow: lightning visible in the sky at the same time as snow falls. Tell me that isn’t cool.

    At the risk of sounding like a Saturday Night Live parody of Drew Barrymore, there’s something about snow in your own backyard that’s magical. I felt a glimmer of it on Monday when I looked out the window and saw the falling flakes. I really kind of feel bad for anyone who didn’t get to experience what it’s like to be a child in the Midwest when the first snow falls. Everything becomes a vast playground overnight. Schools don’t close there like they do here, unless conditions are really drastic, because people who live in northern Minnesota know how to handle snow. But you don’t have to rush to enjoy the ephemeral snowfall there, because you know it isn’t going anywhere. There’s part of me that feels the pull of it even now, and it’s the small part of me that is still, and always will be, a child. You have it too, even if you’ve forgotten, or if you’re too cool to admit it.

    The funny thing is that in the world of advertising, Christmas and snow are practically synonymous, too, which puts me into an uneasy alliance with the forces of darkness. The other day I saw a Starbucks billboard, right here in the Portland metro area, depicting a montage of Christmas images, or Christmas seen through the surreal lens of corporate advertising. You see jubilant youngsters building snowmen, reaching into snow-laden mailboxes for sheaves of heartwarming holiday letters, then running across the street for a latte, presumably to keep them awake and alert enough to endure the boredom of reading a stack of dull, tinselly platitudes from people they wouldn’t even remember they were related to if they didn’t hear from them at this one special time of year. Mmmmm, family.

    This is probably what you’d get if Starbucks ever succeeded in conquering the entire planet. It’s all real nice and pretty, except…it doesn’t really look like Portland. When’s the last time you had to shovel your driveway to get your car out, here in the City of Roses and Raindrops? Starbucks started in Seattle, right? Last time I checked, they don’t get to build a lot of snowmen up there, either. Maybe every family should have an artificial snow machine in their garage right alongside their minivan? As always, advertising is telling you how you should live, and what your world should look like, except this time, instead of critiquing your waistline, they’re critiquing our weather…something we have even less control over.

    I love it, though. I’d rather have a stack of holiday catalogs from stores like L.L. Bean, J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Nordstrom to look through than the finest literary works of the 20th century. The Lord of the Rings can’t top this for escapism! It’s highly entertaining to see how corporate executives imagine people live. I hope those stores are all sending Santa Claus fat royalty checks up in his North Pole Penthouse because he’s definitely good for business.

    But you can let all that go and enjoy it for the good things, for what it really is. With Christmas, as with everything else, I take what I like and leave the rest. Whether it’s Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, the winter solstice or any number of other pagan rituals from which Christmas originated, before it was co-opted by Christian missionaries, it’s just a pleasant time of year to me.

    You bundle up before you go out, and feel gratitude for the warmth when you come back inside, something you take for granted the rest of the year. Bake some cookies (Spritz, candy cane, berlinerkranser), hand-make a card for a friend, sip a mug of steamy chocolate while you watch the snow fall outside your window–if you’re lucky enough to have it. And if not, hey, you still have your imagination, right? That’s one thing that doesn’t cost a dime.