(a reflection on Christmas 2021….)
Growing up in a single-parent, non-religious household, the oldest of five children, we moved from apartment to apartment during those rough years. To support us, my mother worked night shifts as a hospital admissions clerk, and for a time, we received government food stamps.
In Pittsburgh’s public schools, students performed holiday skits and most classes held musical performances, making Christmas time something extra special to look forward to. I remember standing on stage under a spotlight in junior high, a scared stiff, bow-legged kid ready to sing a small solo part in “What Child Is This?”—a moment that also abruptly marked the end of my musical career.
Families enjoyed being together to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas on television. Real, live carolers showed up in low-income neighborhoods wearing Santa hats. City sidewalks filled with shoppers rushing home from brick department stores with their treasures.
I remember the rare smile that crossed my exhausted mother’s face in the wee hours of Christmas morning as she watched each one of us pounce like a pack of wild dogs on the little somethings she made sure were tucked under the tree.
This year, chintzy Christmas products hit the shelves quite early in the box stores, though the inventory and selection seemed more limited than in recent years. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas have materially blurred together.
As we whizzed towards Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, I wondered how another holiday season during COVID-19 would turn out?
Given the major supply chain problems, coupled with ongoing COVID infections, anxieties about the Omicron variant, frenetic schedules, and overly distracted psyches, people naturally took some relief from the e-commerce god above, Amazon.
Looking back, the year 2021 began nationwide with a dose of political shock treatment. Our democracy teetered on edge with the events surrounding the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
The year ends with the recent arrival in Anchorage of up to 100 Afghan refugees. They have fled the violence and oppression in their country to relocate to the Land of the Midnight Sun, though at this moment, in late December and early January, it certainly isn’t that.
Ideally speaking, in this place of golden dreams and opportunity for all, the refugees are here to begin their whole lives anew, to find stability and peace. In the midst of a brutal upheaval, a sense of inner prosperity.
They will have to learn English, figure out the currency, find employment, be shown how to use computers, pay bills, budget and shop for groceries, and use public transportation. And hopefully, in time, they will learn about the essential meaning and fundamental responsibilities of democratic citizenship.
They have come during a time of corrosive political rhetoric. From the U.S. Congress on down, we appear to suffer from a collapse of honest, constructive and respectful public discourse. Language itself has been debased.
As the Afghans try and settle in, how will the families survive their stark transition to this quirky place where moose, lynx, and bears can be found roaming about? And where prices for goods and housing runs so steep?
The Refugee Assistance & Immigration Service, part of Catholic Social Services, is working extremely hard to coordinate federal funds and to collect enough in donations to provide refugees warm parkas, winter scarves, leggings, and thick socks.
Will the Afghans have adequate apartments with a few throw rugs to warm the floor? Will they have plenty of tea, cardamom, lamb, dates, eggplants, and other culturally appropriate foodstuffs and spices to get by? Will their little children who don’t yet speak English have the chance to frolic in the snow with friendly playmates?
Winter Solstice gatherings are a big part of outdoor holiday celebrations all over Alaska. We take headlamp hikes in Kincaid Park and hit the cross-country ski trails. Families huddle around fire pits and take drives away from city lights to gaze at the stars.
For this year’s solstice, I attended a small party for the fully vaccinated. A friend invited me into her cozy, art-filled home, where a fire crackled and guests indulged in canapes, cheeses smoked salmon, and irresistible candies. We sipped fancy cocktails in martini glasses and had Prosecco with pomegranate seeds floating on top.
All throughout the holidays, I continued my close musical partnership with Alexa. I still marvel at how she played any holiday song I requested, including Kristen Chenowith’s new Christmas album. But I was not very polite to Alexa. I constantly interrupted her by bouncing back and forth between traditional melodies such as “The Little Drummer Boy,” then to Chris Stapleton, to a little Josh Groban, and another switch to Amy Winehouse Radio on Pandora.
Even with the strands of white lights I put up, and the music magically conjured by a simple voice command, at times, it was hard to calm the jumping mind. The darker moments still arrived.
Two Anchorage families I know lost every single thing they owned when their separate hillside homes were razed and consumed by fires in 2021. I thought about family members who are gone, the two younger siblings I lost unexpectedly over the past ten years, the dear friends who have moved away from Alaska.
Through the volunteer grapevine, some good news and cheer, though: Alaskans, once again, have shown great generosity and compassion through their giving to the Afghans, as they have for the refugees from Somalia, Cameroon, Sudan, and Ukraine who arrived before them.
On this day, in this present promise of a New Year, we can also gift our new Afghan neighbors with the stunning beauty of hoarfrost, alpenglow, the Chugach Mountains and the Alaska Range. These silent, snowy peaks may be a welcome reminder of their mountainous homeland. Maybe Alaska’s mountains will help ease their minds, and ours, of the million little things.
Maybe together, in community, we will whisper a vow of wonder to not give up on the future. To believe in this country, in its basic goodness, and in its great spirit of hopefulness. To sing the best that we can.
In the words of Proverbs 8:11:“For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.”