I’m grateful that our last tour in the Navy landed us in New England, where the scenery looks like a Currier and Ives dinner plate come to life. I love the frosty chill in the December air, the smell of cut timber and pine boughs, the feel of warm woolen mittens. Here, holiday spirit finds me, draws me in, and captures me. And I gladly surrender.
But it hasn’t always been this easy. For most military families like ours, frequent moves are an unavoidable part of life. And at some point, Uncle Sam stations you somewhere that looks and feels completely foreign. Since holidays are all about tradition, the absence of those traditions can leave you longing for the holidays you grew up with back home.
I was raised in an idyllic small town in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, where Christmas was traditional, classic, just like in the movies. Finding holiday spirit was as easy as waking up in my twin bed with the Kliban Cat sheets, scratching a peephole out of the intricate frost that had formed on the window overnight, and staring out at the winter wonderland right outside.
With dissolved candy canes coursing through my veins, I’d grab the parka handed down from my brother and head for the hill behind our house. The kids in our neighborhood would ruthlessly pelt each other with snowballs, eat gritty icicles broken off the gutters, and sled down the hill until our numbed cheeks couldn’t feel our running noses.
With a warm sludge of hot cocoa and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies in my belly, I’d thaw before a roaring fire, staring up at the screw-in lights on our tree. There was one bulb in particular, a transparent magenta one, which seemed to emit pure, saturated hot pink splendor, infinitely refracted by sparkling silver tinsel. I was hypnotized by its magical brilliance, and spilled over with anticipation and awe.
Four decades later, I was sitting in a North Florida Starbucks in mid-December, feeling the blues.
Our family was stationed at Naval Station Mayport, and despite the fact that the Starbucks manager insisted on setting the central air at a frigid sixty-odd degrees and I was surrounded by trendy holiday decor, it just didn’t feel like Christmas to me.
After I got my vente latte’s worth of free Wi-Fi, I moped out into the sub-tropical 75-degree Florida winter and headed for my minivan. I didn’t have to put on a coat, or scrape any ice off my windshield. I drove back to our base house on roads clear of salt and ash. At home, I opened the windows to let in the ocean breeze. After walking the dog on the white sand beach that ran along the east side of our housing area, I slumped into a lawn chair in our palm-tree-studded back yard.
“Woe is me,” I thought, and as I worked on my tan, I wallowed shamelessly in self-pity.
Later that week, I was back at Starbucks again. As I sat in the trendy coffee shop buzzing with flip-flop-festooned and Ray-Ban-bedecked Floridians, I wondered how they could stand it.
Suddenly, I heard the ring of the cash register and realized that it reminded me of jingle bells. I took notice of the lovely cranberry red hue of the Florida Seminoles t-shirt worn by the man sitting next to me. I sipped my latte, and detected a hint of cinnamon. And then, I looked up at the trendy pendant light hanging overhead, and was drawn in by the pure, saturated blue of its glowing cobalt shade. I was mesmerized.
“Merry Christmas,” the man in the cranberry Seminoles shirt uttered as he got up from our shared table to leave, snapping me out of my hypnotic gaze. In that moment, I realized that holiday spirit comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, locations and climates, but I had been too clouded by my own narrow expectations to see it.
“Merry Christmas to you, too!” I eagerly replied to the festive gentleman, relieved that I had finally seen the light.