Surprises help connect us during the holiday season

Posted: Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Every night this December, my daughter wants me to sing Christmas songs while holding hands with her in front of the Christmas tree. I think she got this idea from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," where the kids, unencumbered by adults, find the true meaning of Christmas in front of a transformed decrepit little tree. This is OK with me.

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Most of us have a notion of a perfect Christmas season, and mine, like my daughter's, has been influenced by this show. The difference, however, is that many of my Christmases past have not fit that mold of the idealized holiday.

I once found myself teaching in western Alaska village that celebrated Christmas on the Russian orthodox calendar; there Christmas happens in January, not December. We spent Christmas Eve and Dec. 26 teaching distracted kids. On Dec. 31, New Year's Eve, as we completed our last day of school before our holiday break, we teachers looked out the window at a huge blizzard. The principal began calling Craig Air, talking to Craig himself, to see if Bethel was on our radar that day. It was not.

We decided not to miss the jet to Anchorage on New Year's Eve. So when school ended, we slithered into our outdoor layers, and soon I was wedged in a large plywood sled hooked to the back of a snowmachine, Next to me, also under multiple sleeping bags was my principal. She had her cat, in a duffle bag, stuffed between her legs. We pulled out of the village into the storm.

There were about five snowmachines caravan style of both teachers and locals creeping the 30 miles to Bethel. In normal conditions, this trail is well worn by people from the network of surrounding villages and even the hovercraft that delivered the mail, but the day of snow obscured everything but the 6-foot wands marking the trail. I cringe now to think of our leader, a man locally famous for being dragged into oblivion by his dog team. At the time I tried to ignore the number of times he had reportedly had to walk back to the village, dogless, after an outing.

Thirty miles may not seem far, particularly when you are riding on a padded seat, behind thick glass, at 60 miles an hour. Thirty miles is completely different when your main padding is your luggage and a blue tarp is serving as your windshield. And riding in this kind of sled is not a passive enterprise, like being a passenger in a car.

The sled responds to every undulation of the trail, and riders rock and sway aggressively, sometimes holding on to their seats to stay put. The idealized notion of the sleigh ride, brisk and jingling, was far from the reality of iciness and roar of the snowmachine engine.

Unlike the cat in the duffel bag, I was not good at sitting under the tarp. Every few minutes, I pulled off my sealskin mitten, pulled the tarp down, and looked around. Most times, I saw nothing but the snowmachine pulling us and endless snow. Sometimes I saw our leader, snowmachine stopped, standing up on the runners, struggling to find the trail. Soon my hands were bitter, unable to warm up.

A surge of relief warmed me when I finally saw the first house on the edge of Bethel, flooded with the knowledge that we would not succumb to our to our blatant disregard of the elements on the tundra.

This New Year's Eve sled ride did not fit the perfect Christmas notion I had held all those years. But ironically, several days before we hopped in the sled, the students in the village had performed their Christmas play, "A Charlie Brown Christmas." In their flowery kuspuks and mukluks, they transformed their own scraggly tree into something beautiful while singing carols. Just like we will do tonight before bed.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a parent and teacher in Juneau.

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