Christmas in our Bubble

Social distancing. Face masks. Isolating. Six feet apart. Quarantining. COVID. Words constantly on our lips. Concepts we have learned to live with.

Family. Gathering. Feasting. Sharing. Hugging. Christmas. Words we long to express. Emotions we ache to indulge.

It’s a strange mixture, this new reality. And we all forge our own paths through the unknowns of the pandemic. After months of having to be uber-careful following Rich’s surgery, we sought relief. We launched a plan well in advance to add our daughter, Karen, her husband Matt and their four children to our bubble to spend Christmas together. As the day approached and everyone remained isolated and healthy, we welcomed them into our house and our arms for four wonderful days of normalcy.

We had no problem sequestering ourselves as a blizzard raged outside. We easily distanced ourselves while sledding down through the swirling snow, kids disappearing from sight in the raging wind and swirling snowflakes. Laughter reigned among bumpy rides and grueling walks to the top of the hill. We were alone in the storm.

Karen and kids sledding in blizzard

Inside we warmed up with hot chocolate, played games, read books and watched a Christmas movie. Squeezing into the tiny TV room, we attended our Christmas Eve church service on the big screen. There was no nursery for the little ones, but their antics didn’t seem to bother the other worshippers. And we didn’t have to wear masks.

Santa’s visit seemed a safe bet. As long as the kids stayed in bed, he was guaranteed a safe social distance. So preparations commenced per usual. A note, cookies for Santa and a carrot for each reindeer were prepared. And the kids skedaddled off to their room.

Mya writing to Santa
Kennedy Kids ready for Santa

Christmas morning began at the stroke of 6:00am. I heard little voices, and poked my head out to find the kids, lying in wait for me! I’m not sure who was more surprised!

Christmas morning surprise

Through the child-induced pandemonium of tearing through wrappings, squeals of delight and the inevitable squabbles, the quintessential Christmas unfolded. Pandemic or not. It was the most normal I’ve felt in months. The best Christmas present ever.

When things quieted down, grandson Ben begged to try cross-country skiing despite the below zero temperatures. Bundling up, he and I shared my two sets of classic skis and boots, and we fudged on the poles to set out on the trails. We easily remained six feet away from the other skiers, trading Christmas greetings as Ben took off like a pro.

Molly and Ben skiing
Ben skiing for the first time

Circling the table laden with food, we said grace, asked God’s help for those struggling with COVID, and gave thanks for all that we have – particularly one another. Gathered together. Within hugging distance. The biggest blessing of all.

Christmas Dinner 2020

We connected with other family members through FaceTime, Zoom and the good old cell phone. Safely distanced, but close in our hearts. I sincerely hope that this is the last time that being together for Christmas – or any day – is unusual.

Christmas with the Kennedys

Holiday Cheer

Amazon packages arrive by the truckload.  Wrapping paper flies off its rolls.  The sweet scent of once-a-year cookies wafts through the house.  Christmas meals fill every nook of the freezer.  Carefully crafted holiday greetings travel far and near.  It’s easy to get caught up in the trappings and “must do’s” of the season.  I should know – I’m a prime target for succumbing to holiday stress.

But the season has a wealth of feel-good experiences as well, and this year I happily overindulged my love for music and theater.  All in the name of Christmas.

Ben and Mya at the GrinchIt has become an annual tradition to take our older grandchildren to see a Christmas play.  This year we hit the big time, taking Ben and Mya to the Children’s Theater in Minneapolis to see “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  It was Dr. Seuss to the core, and so very true to the book with a very green Grinch whose mouth sparkled redness.  I knew the experience reached the kids when Ben leaned over to me mid-performance, and whispered, “This is really good!”  He took the words right out of my mouth.

Just two days later, Rich convinced me to go see the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train.  Although it travels through the Twin Cities, he insisted we needed to experience it in a small town.  A four hour drive took us to Plummer MN, where indeed we were treated to an energetic community that rallied around the arrival of this brilliantly lit train.  At 6:00pm the train slowly approached the crossing, its holiday colors reflecting against the local grain elevator as it passed.  Once stopped,Holiday Train a draw-bridge like door came down with fog pouring out and laser lights pulsating.  The country music performers where already in place and performing by the time it was fully open.  Pressing against the stage, the crowd bounced to the music, performers hand-bumped the kids up front, and we all sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with the musicians.  Thirty minutes passed Holiday Train Concertquickly, then the train resumed its journey – on to the next town.  Its whole purpose is to support local food shelves, and indeed the evening’s take from locals as well as a generous donation from CP covers half their needs for the whole year.  My heart glowed as brightly as my face in the glimmer of the retreating train.

Returning to Duluth the following day, we turned to home town entertainment.  That very night we had tickets to “A Christmas Carol” at the Duluth Playhouse.  No matter how many times I see that show, it always delights and conjures up the goodwill of the season.  Topped off with wine and Christmas cookies with friends in the light of their decorated tree, it was an evening hard to beat.

East Holiday ConcertOur finale involve another tradition – a school Christmas concert.  This year I insisted on revisiting my past, attending the East High School Holiday Concert.  Memories of my years in choir and the Choralaires came flooding back as I watched from the balcony.  But even more pronounced was the depth of talent and commitment of the young musicians and their directors.  The performance underscored what an amazing opportunity these youngsters have to participate in such excellent ensembles.  I know now that it’s something they may never experience again in their lives.  Shivers ran down my spine as the entire assembly of students closed the evening with “Carol of the Drums.”

Quite a blitz for one week.  An abundance of holiday cheer, certain to propel me through the remainder of the Christmas season.

An Empty Nest Christmas

We knew this day was coming.  It just caught us Christmas stockingsoff guard when this turned out to be the year.  All of our children were spending Christmas with their “other” families – in-laws or almost-in-laws.  Ours was to be an empty nest Christmas.  Only two stockings to hang for Santa this year.

It’s all part of the natural progression.  Kids grow up.  They get married.  They live their own lives.  We are a close family, but we also know they need to spread their wings and make new traditions.  So we set about doing the same.

We realized that adhering to the usual routine would be a guaranteed path to feeling lonely.  So we decided to take ourselves away for Christmas.  A destination Christmas, if you will.  Making reservations at Lutsen Resort on the North Shore felt right, and we looked forward to spending the night in the old style lodge.

The original plan was to spend Christmas afternoon cross-country skiing.  When the snow failed us, we changed it to hiking.  But Mother Nature nixed that idea as well, when we found the trails too icy to navigate safely.  It wasn’t too hard to accept extra time in front of the big fireplace in the lodge, and I soon found myself nodding off over my book then chatting with other guests by the Christmas tree.


Lutsen Resort – photo by Rich Hoeg

The only reservation left for the Christmas buffet dinner was at 8:00pm – an outrageously late time to eat for this couple, but this adventure was all about change, so we accepted it graciously.  With plenty of time to linger, we each drifted outside.  Rich was eager to try out his new camera, and got some great night-time shots.  I had a bonfire to myself on the beach Christmas dinner at Lutsen Resortwith its mesmerizing flames and the sound of the Lake Superior waves lapping on the shore.  It was easy to feel all the holiday tension slip away in the beauty of that scene.  Topping off our evening with a festive Christmas dinner was a fitting finale.

Morning found me running along the lake shore and Rich birding.  What else is new?  But Rich came back all excited and soon dragged me up the Caribou Trail to 337-Birds-365-Caribou-Trailfind…  SNOW!  The farther inland we drove, the deeper the layers on the trees.  Finding a road designated for foot travel only, we took a hike through the winter wonderland.  It was silent and beautiful, yet another opportunity to drink in the peace and shed life’s cares.  Another magical moment of our unconventional Christmas.

Within 15 minutes of reaching home, our children and grandchildren began to arrive.  The house soon filled with the bustle, noise and activity of three generations.  Our family Christmas celebration began.  And our nest was no longer empty.  It was worth the wait.

Christmas al fresco

There’s a pine tree standing in our entryway.  Boy, it smells good.  Once the branches drop and stop dripping from the ice and snow, it will move into the great room.  Who ever thought of bringing the outside in for Christmas sure had a good idea.

I’m not sure I could handle Christmas in a warm climate.  The cold and snow are an integral part of what signals the season for me.  Even if it means cold toes, bundling up and heading outdoors for the season’s festivities are part of the package.

Julebyen 1The typical Christmas craft fair took on a new look recently when Knife River started up Julebyen.  That is the Norwegian word for Christmas Village, and it combines a place for celebration and gathering with music, crafts and food.  And it’s all outdoors.  In this its second year, the weather was far more seasonable than last year’s frigid temperatures, making it pleasant to wander down the shortJulebyen 2 “street” of village shops and peruse the fine wares made by local craftsmen.

The tent at the end of the row offered Norwegian delicacies, and a musician playing the dulcimer provided entertainment. In the background the skating rink hosted an active group of children enjoying the winter ice.  Combined with colorful Norwegian characters, it was a delight to the eye.

Julebyen 4Julebyen 3

Bentleyville 1For nocturnal outdoor fun, nothing beats a trip to Bentleyville. The collection of Christmas lights and surround-sound seasonal music is irresistible even to adults.  This year we went without the benefit of children and grandchildren, and enjoyed the light show as much as ever.  The “dancing tree” was my favorite – watching the 130-foot tall conical Christmas tree’s lights pulsate in patterns in time to the upbeat music was great entertainment.  We commended ourselves for spotting a few new additions, including Split Rock Bentleyville 2Lighthouse and some Tall Ships sailing near the illuminated Aerial Bridge.  It’s hard not to feel the magic of Christmas, surrounded by so much fanciful brilliance.

Yes, it’s good to have the smell of pine permeating the house, and a real tree temporarily rooted to the floor.  It will tide us over until our next Christmas al fresco activity.   Hmm, Christmas caroling anyone?

It’s a Blue Ball Year

We finally bought our Christmas tree late last week.  Our old faithful, the Duluth Farmers’ Market, came through for us, but we barely made it in time.  They apologized for the slim selection, adding that most people bought their trees Thanksgiving weekend.  We were a few weeks later than that…  But the real explanation was the snowfall.  Because of the deep snow, they have been unable to access the remaining trees on that lot that they intended to cut yet this year.  So their inventory has been frozen.  Literally.  Luckily for us, we still found a nice tree and happily carted it home.  As predicted, the Market sold out by Saturday.

Fortunately, since it is a Blue Ball Year, Rich was actively engaged in trimming the tree, and it went up quickly.  Blue Ball?  Early on in our marriage we reached an impasse over Christmas tree decorations.  I already had a collection of carefully selected ornaments that I had gathered over the years.  Many of them were hand made by me or by friends, some were souvenirs from trips, a few were from my parents’ tree, and all had special meaning to me.  But not to Rich.  He wanted blue balls.  Period.  For him, that brought back memories of his parents’ earliest Christmases when they could only afford simple blue balls for decorations.  The elegance and simplicity of the tree still resonated with him.

IMG_0622Since hand crafted ornaments and blue balls didn’t mix, we arrived at a compromise.  We would alternate years.  So every other year I get to handle my treasured collection of ornaments and memories, and continue to add to the array.  On the alternate years, Rich merrily hangs blue balls.  It has turned out to be a good system, and has kept the peace for 30 years now.

IMG_3153 trimmed

The good news is that the tree is now up and decorated.  The lowest balls are a good plastic imitation of the shiny breakable variety, in preparation for the arrival of the grandchildren.  And an active cat, who delights in denuding the lower two feet of the tree.

It now feels like Christmas in the house.  The remaining decorations are up, and I even have a few Christmas cookies made.  Soon presents will appear under the tree, and family will begin to arrive.  Ah, Christmas!

And then I will begin anticipating next year, and triggering special moments with each unique ornament I hang.