Lighting the tree on Alaska time.

SnowyChristmas_EN-AU2022031457It was zero degrees when I left the house at 4:30 p.m. yesterday, but I was determined to get my nephews to the city tree-lighting ceremony downtown. Make sure they wear snowpants and wool socks and hats and that they have both mittens in their pockets, I pleaded with their mom.

That’s because at a long-ago tree-lighting I neglected to put on a hat or, apparently, to pull my coat hood up far enough. Or maybe it was just so cold that year (below zero, can’t remember how far) and my coat was so insufficient that my body had to make an executive decision: The torso is essential; the ears we can live without.

The burning throb of frostbitten earlobes kept me tossing and turning all night. Since then I’ve been more careful (usually) about dressing when I know I’ll be standing around in the cold. I also bought a better coat, essentially a small building made of goose down, for really cold trips like the Talkeetna Bachelors Auction and Wilderness Woman Competition.

I needn’t have worried about the boys, though. The first thing they did at Town Square Park was head straight for a snow pile.

At first I did the great-aunt-fussing thing: “Get out of the snow. You’re going to get too cold. Why don’t we move over to where everyone’s looking at the tree?”

Malachi pointed out quite reasonably that their views would be blocked by the hundreds of grownup bodies. The snow pile actually gave them elevation. They wouldn’t be able to see all of the tree, but they’d be able to see the lights pop on.

But like all Alaska events, this one ran on Alaska time. The lights were supposed to have been turned on at 5:30 p.m. Some 45 minutes later the concert chorus had sung, a couple of politicians had spoken, some plush mascots had wandered through the crowd and the Salvation Army tent had run out of hot chocolate, yet the tree remained unlit. We were due at Cyrano’s Theatre by 7 p.m. so I could review a play, but I also really wanted them to see the lights come on.

A couple of stoics and a dunce

My cheeks were stinging so I pulled the qiviut smoke ring up to shield them. Once again I’d neglected to bring a hat and was relying on my hood to keep my ears on my head. Dunce. At one point I thought it was snowing but soon realized it was just a shimmer of diamond dust nudged off tree branches by a slight breeze. Beautiful, but it didn’t do my cheeks any good.

My toes were starting to burn but that was my own fault since I’d worn shoes rather than boots over my wool socks. Knowing how warm the theater usually gets, I’d decided I’d rather have cold feet for a few minutes than sweaty ones for hours. By 6 p.m. I was re-evaluating that decision.

I asked Britain if he were cold. “Yes,” he said cheerfully, sliding down the snow pile. Offered the chance to step inside the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, he declined. (Note to self: When you raise kids in Alaska, you end up with stoic Alaska kids.)

When the emcee announced that we’d now be hearing a high school swing choir I apparently made a hopeless noise. “Can’t we just go?” Malachi asked.

The heck with it, I thought. We stepped indoors so I could use the bathroom (another great-aunt thing) and then headed off to the show, with a brief stop at the Kobuk Coffee Co. to see its beautiful holiday wares. Both boys sampled the house-blend samovar tea (infused with cinnamon, clove and orange peel) and pronounced it tasty. At their ages, I would have demanded sugar in the cup.

A mob in green vests

The trouble with stores like the Kobuk is that I want to buy one of everything. Oooohhhh, little tea sets in wicker baskets! Christmas crackers! Beautiful ornaments! Crystallized ginger! Quick, someone get me out of here!

We reluctantly pried ourselves away and walked three blocks to the theater, where we found a mob scene. A sizable portion of said mob wore green vests: turns out that the Girl Scouts could earn badges by seeing the show. I think there was more to it than just watching, since afterwards some of the girls seemed to be interviewing the performers. Maybe they’d read and discussed the book, too.

Since Cyrano’s is a small venue (“intimate,” to use the theater term) I feared we’d be unable to sit together and/or I’d be stuck in a side seat whereas I always prefer to watch from the main section. For the first time in my life I pulled rank as a reviewer and asked the artistic director to let us jump the queue.

She came up with a much better idea, slipping into the still-closed house to reserve a trio of seats. The boys earned this privilege because they were there to provide me with expert opinion. It sure beat having three people walk in ahead of those who’d waited patiently in line.

A late-night tree

The show was stellar, if you’ll pardon the pun: fierce actors and a director who took both the source material and her audience very seriously indeed. (If you care, my review is now up on the Anchorage Daily News website.) At times the action had the boys shifting uneasily in their seats; me, too, also, especially when the now-possessed-by-evil Charles Wallace capered and gibbered in a style best described as a hideous mashup of the flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz” and the cackling mannequin Chucky from the “Child’s Play” films.

The opening reception featured – of course – Girl Scout cookies.

I shivered as we walked the four blocks back to the car. Those goosebumps were due in part to the weather (hint: it hadn’t gotten any warmer) but also to the residual effect of the Chucky monkey. As soon as we were belted in I turned the heat on full blast and locked the car doors.

I went out of the way to drive past Town Square Park, half-fancying that politicians would still be nattering about the holiday spirit or that a baton drill team dressed as elves would be filing onstage to entertain. As we approached I instructed the boys to look to the left and see if the tree had ever been lit.

“Yes! It is!” Malachi shouted. The stoplight was in my favor so I got a good look at a deserted square and a colorful tannenbaum. The deciduous trees in the park are illuminated as well, their strings of ice-blue lights turned gauzy by more of that diamond dust. So while the boys didn’t get to see the tree light up, at least they got to see it lit. They also got to keep their ears and toes.

Related reading:

468 ad


  1. You are the best Aunt ever, even if you forget your hat!

  2. Cindy Brooks

    We’ll be tree lighting here in our little town next Friday. My feet will get cold no matter what kind of socks I wear or how heavy my boots are. Our grandson and his buddies will be throwing snowballs and then huddling with us around the bonfire while we listen to carolers and pray before the lights come on (yes, we still do that here on public property at a city function…gasp! 🙂 ) We’ll visit with Santa and then walk along the river decorated with luminaries in memory of departed loved ones. By the time it’s all over, we’ll all be cold and welcome that heat blast in the car. It’s one of our favorite nights of the year! Thanks for sharing yours!

  3. …”small building made of goose down”…too funny. I purchased just such a “building” not so long ago for DW…She loves it. Good article…Is the picture in the story of the actual tree in the Square?

  4. I am a grandmother, lovingly dragging two grandkids to all the memories I want them to have. I soooo related to this story. Things often don’t turn out quite like we expect. (I once briefly lost the grandson at Disneyland, but that’s another story.)

    My other problem is that one grandchild is a four year old girly-girl and the other is a 13 year old budding man child. So when we’re with them it’s like speaking two different languages to two different people.

    But I adore the time with them, even the “glitches.”

    • Donna Freedman

      Sometimes the things that don’t quite turn out the way we expect become the things that were supposed to happen that way. Well, except for the getting-lost parts.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  5. My two children and I have just moved to a new city. We are going to watch the city trees be lit up soon. I know there will be a lot of moaning and groaning about the cold, but I will definitely mention before we head out that hot chocolate will be served when we get home. These free memories are well worth braving the cold. Even just taking a tour of our block to see the houses and trees lit up is a good way to pass an evening and get outside!

  6. We are expected to get some of that Arctic air in Colorado starting tonight.

    So kind of you to share… No really. Very kind.

    Ah well, tomorrow morning will be one of those where I am wearing so much wool that sheepdogs follow me down the street.

    Thanks for the post, and the review of the play. I really wish I could see the play, because that is one of my favorite books ever!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *