Grateful for the North’s Simple Gifts

I could never leave Northern Michigan in the weeks leading up to the holidays. It’s quite simple: In my lifetime, there has never been another place that continually asks me to stop, step back and see the simple beauty of the season.

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Each of us has many moments in December that define the traditions of our lives. I have always felt fortunate that many of our traditions are rooted in place no matter whether they are about giving back, supporting community or cherishing our landscape. I believe in the constancy of place and the grounding that provides as life cycles onward, and always grateful as the holidays approach.

Ben, our oldest, was 6 months old when we cut our first tree as a family at the local farm where we’d long bought amazing strawberries. We followed directions and drove down a bumpy, snow-covered two track perusing trees of all kinds. I was dead set on a Douglas Fir, even though Neal made a strong case for other species. Ben slept through it all, but we, of course, took pictures of him sleeping. We took pictures of our dog Sara, 13 years old and gamely hobbling her way from tree to tree, collapsing hopefully in the snow each time we paused. And we have many of Neal sawing that first tree.

We‘ve continued to take pictures for the next 24 years, still driving those two tracks to get to the Douglas Firs, Neal now making a show of lobbying for a Balsam Fir or Norway Spruce. Some years, we’ve plowed through snow up to our knees; other years we’ve cut trees in short sleeves. We’ve chosen trees in storms so fierce they obscured the top of the trees and on robin’s egg blue days as clear and crisp as any dream.

We buried our beloved dog Sara after Ben’s second Christmas and then Foxy, who frolicked her way through tree cuttings for 13 years. Now we keep an eye on young Toby, who has a mind of his own when it comes to what stands of trees he wants to peruse.

There were many years of watching three young boys, and our daughter, filled with a sense of purpose and daring as they earned the right to sit on the edge of the open car windows to help hold the tree in place atop the car roof as we drove back down the dirt road. That has given way to three young men who effortlessly help Neal hoist the tree to the roof, but who still sit on the edge of those open windows, turning their faces forward to whatever the day has brought.

We still sip cups of hot cocoa with a peppermint stick, sold for $1 in a little hut, and still get a kick out of watching our tree go through the binding machine. A host of young relatives now help the owners of the farm, who are still out and about in heavy coats and sensible boots making sure all is well.

We used to get our tree on the second weekend of December. Now we get it on Thanksgiving weekend because, thankfully for now, we are still able to gather then. No matter the weather, or the stage of our lives, traveling to that farm connects us to the ongoing commitment of our farming community, to the landscape, to the hopes and dreams of ourselves as new parents and to the joy experienced as our kids began to value all that comes with the search for a tree as simply and deeply as we do. That excursion, in that place, grounds us all in simple joy.

Long before I had kids or even met Neal, I loved shopping at night in one of our small downtowns in the weeks of December. I looked forward to walking through a light snow along streets glowing from light-filled trees and shops radiating welcoming warmth. I loved the displays of unique items, so many of them created locally. And I have always loved that feeling of walking back out into the crisp air with my packages, filled with an understanding that this was my joyful and for me, meaningful, road to gift giving.

As soon as the kids were old enough, we created the tradition of a downtown shopping evening. We’d eat an early dinner, then head out, leaving small shops with cookies in hand and whatever gifts spoke to their spirit and budget. As they got older, they would head out on their own, after which we’d meet up for hot cocoa or cider, their faces flushed from the night air and the treasures they were keeping secret. Every single year, as I watched them laughing and jostling their way toward our meeting place, I was so grateful to Northern Michigan that this would be the picture they would carry into their lives of what Christmas shopping looked like.

Two years ago, December was defined by my 96-year-old dad’s struggle to recover from a fall, a battle he would not win. Those weeks of holiday cheer all about felt oddly inconsequential and almost a bridge too far. We’d gotten our tree up at Thanksgiving, before his fall, and had shared a wonderful meal on Thanksgiving in which my dad went first speaking of what he was grateful for—family and the simple gift of gathering at that table, together.

For the first time that year, there was no family downtown shopping trip. And one night, feeling “behind on Christmas” I headed downtown after work to “get it done.” I was quickly surrounded by the joy of a small town Christmas and found myself slowing down to gaze at the warm scene and to listen to the high school kids playing carols in the small park. I walked the length of the downtown just breathing in the night air, punctuated by happy voices and the Salvation Army bell ringing. As I walked back, if I tried I could see my four young ones coming toward me with smiles that radiated from cheeks flushed with the night air. I stopped and stood for a moment in the middle of it all, once again so grateful for the beauty, simplicity and meaning given so freely by this place.

As I arrived home, an extra car meant Peter was home and I was flooded with that mix of joy and contentment that it had begun. I stopped before I went into the house, gazing at the patterns the white lights in garland made in the snow. I looked up at the winter sky ablaze in the way that only winter constellations can and at the crescent moon that shone off the thin layer of ice that covered the lake. I breathed in the cold, fresh air and relished for just a moment being on the outside, transitioning as I have so many times from the quiet and solitude of the landscape, that night spent with thoughts of my dad, to the joy, laughter and chaos that waited inside walls of our home. Then with a keen sense of gratitude, I gathered up my packages, opened the door and embraced the season.

I choose this place, where in the middle of life’s inevitable march and the craziness that often comes with the holidays, one can still linger a moment, wrapped in the glow of a home lit for the holidays, marveling at the stars, feeling gratitude for the unwavering, unceasing beauty and true community of it all.

I wish for each of you the simple gift of a Northern Michigan holiday season, wherever you are.

Deborah Wyatt Fellows is founder and editor in chief of Traverse. [email protected]


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