Slow, snow and soul-flakes: Christmas reflections

Posted: Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Slow-flakes." That is what my tiny little eyes used to think. Standing on the couch, I would look out the front room window as they barely moved past the street lamps and disappeared into mass conformity.

Logan Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Logan Stolpe / Juneau Empire

My father would bundle me on the back of a toboggan he made with a Swedish grandfather's teachings and would tow me into the muskeg to harvest our tree. I always fell asleep tumbling about in the sled with the soft mysteries tickling my face as they melted there.

I was 8 when I learned of "snowflakes" and marveled at the basketball-sized monsters they became when thrown by an older brother to knock me over. That was the year of the Christmas stocking.

My most memorable Christmas was found deep inside the stocking hanging on our fireplace mantel. The bright red fixture bulging with treats, none wrapped, just an assortment of things ready to be enjoyed, was just as good as boxed gifts.

In that stocking were G.I Joes. Not today's miniature varieties with Cobra assailants - these were the 12-inch first editions. They came in special Japanese, British, Russian, Australian, French, German and good ol' G.I. Joe American. They had full uniforms and authentic weaponry, and yes, they had politically incorrect facial features. These were authentic, multi-national fighters!

I received two of each, but only one in the stocking. Actually, my brother also received one, but I screamed and cried so much he gave me his.

When teased about playing with dolls, I always felt more comfortable having a foot-long soldier to strike with than tiny reproductions, which could be grasped by the handful. Over time, of course, they changed the Joe. They gave him kung fu grip at first, and then started shrinking him down in size until parents exclaimed "Merry Christmas" when they jumped into the car seat and found one of the AWOL little grunts hiding there.

The Christmas stocking held other treats: One of mother's antique ornaments that we would place among the many others on the living room tree; nuts with shells so huge my father would have to crack them; chocolates, wind up toys, puppets and oddities we knew not; perhaps a sock or some article of clothing that would stay packaged; and always a tiny, folded piece of cloth that my Swedish grandmother put in, always resulting in a hug. She passed the summer when I was 10. My father didn't cry at the funeral, so neither did I. But the next Christmas he did when I handed him a folded cloth and I scrambled up in his lap with tears just as big.

A Japanese orange was always the last treat, resting deep down in the sock's toe, in its own green paper. It was always both sweet and tart, no matter how late or how early the steamship or barge carrying it arrived.

My birthday falls on Christmas Eve, so I always felt shorted that my age-day gifts were packaged in décor of Santas, and things that normally would wrap the fun that came in the morning light, after my belly of birthday cake had been complimented with visions of sugar plums dancing. So as a special gift to me, my parents inserted in the stocking directions to a specially wrapped present somewhere in the house, presumably where I hadn't already discovered it in my Christmas gift hunts.

When my father passed, I still hung his stocking. I filled it with small candles, clothes pins, pieces of tin foil and super glue. He was a man who had left formal education in sixth grade. When his father died in the great flu epidemic, he brought his mother and sister to Alaska and started fox farming. He built what was needed from the land. My crude attempts to affix the candles on the tree that year singed the tail of an antique partridge ornament, and set off smoke alarms, but surely it pleased him on high.

For my mother's final Christmas, I opted not for a traditional, single pine but turned the front room into a "living room tree." I spent the day moving furniture out, except for her favorite recliner. I harvested fresh tree limbs of Western and Mountain Hemlock, Red Alder, Sitka Spruce, Red and Yellow Cedar and Shore Pine. I attached them along the walls, ceiling, floor and around the windows. They smelled of forest and oozed pitch.

I draped tinsel and hung ornaments. We brought her home from the hospital and set her in her recliner. I brought her a Christmas stocking filled with tiny gifts, along with her grandmother's ornament to place on top of the tree. She was sometimes there and sometimes not, but she clapped like a little girl and asked if she could help mother with the tree ... then she recognized us and the day, and she just smiled and asked to play the piano.

"Its the original piano from the Red Dog," she would say. It was something my father brought home one Christmas from a job there.

Juneau has become my Christmas stocking this season. I keep peering around its edges, sneaking ever so near the mantel it hangs on, raised up on tip-toes to see what action figures and treats are there. There are a million.

G.I. Joe is now replaced with a Gov. Parnell action figure, family and a big white mansion included. And he has some pretty cool security action figures surrounding him as well. And there is Walter Soboleff, complete with Tlingit history and knowledge. And of course there are running figures, mountain models to assemble, stores of healthy foods (and stores that carry foods I consider healthy), schools that wow, and ample places to play or see plays.

And now that I have added another age-day, my slow-flakes and snowflakes have become 'soul-flakes' - big ol' soft, lazy, meandering bits of white, fluffy angelic thoughts landing on my face, reminding me that loved ones once looked upward just like I am now.

• Klas Stolpe is a reporter for the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at

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