Even though this writer recognizes that not everyone is a believer in the One whose birth we celebrate this month he will never apologize for saying, “Merry Christmas.”
Even a non-believer can enjoy the colored lights that brighten the darkest month of the year. The decorations are pretty and people are smiling despite their frantic shopping forays. The practice of giving and sharing love for our neighbors can be enjoyed by all—and well should be.
He and the girl who became his bride 65 years ago have for many seasons celebrated the holiday by driving around to look at the decorated homes. We have noted the continuous growth of subdivisions and appreciate those who go all out to make their homes and yards festive. It’s not easy to forget the early years when the population was much smaller compared to today’s numbers. Even though smaller, the holiday spirit was evident throughout.
One of the first Christmas parties here was held by the pioneers who were members of Chugiak Community Club–in the days before Eagle River became the dominant neighborhood the whole area was known by that name.
On that occasion, Paul Swanson played the part of Santa. Although that special guest generally is thought of as a “jolly fat man,” the tall and slender school agent had to rely on a couple of thick pillows to fill his red suit.
A favorite Christmas memory is the one passed on by Ed Willis who told how Swanson, as postmaster, appeared at their Eagle River home Christmas Eve of 1955, his arms loaded with packages.
The kindly postmaster delivered presents that the Willis children otherwise would have missed. New to the area, no telephone and with Ed at work with their only car, the family faced a bleak holiday. Still being Santa, the kindly postmaster tracked them down in order to make sure they would get the mail-order packages that arrived at the post office late in the day.
Another heart-warming Christmas memory was often shared by Alice Briggs.
A member of the Anchorage Community Chorus, she was driving back home after a Christmas concert rehearsal. In the early 1950s, the Palmer Highway crossed the Eagle River on a log bridge suspended barely inches above the water. The Briggs home was on what now is known as Old Eagle River Road. When she crested the hill she gasped at the sight of a light in the vicinity of her home. As she got nearer, she saw that it was on a wreath placed on her front door. Matanuska Electric Association had just that day extended power lines to their home and her husband Dale had put it there for her to see as she returned home. It was something she never forgot.
In 1958, soldiers at Site Summit atop Mount Gordon Lyons erected light bulbs shaped in the form of a star atop the gate to the missile site. A decade later it was moved to a western slope. Greatly enlarged, it still serves as a beacon overlooking Anchorage. The five-pointed star made up of 350 lights occupies several acres of the Arctic Valley hillside and is clearly visible to everyone who looks to the east, as did the biblical wise men two millennia ago. It serves as a welcoming sign to Chugiak-Eagle River residents who are heading back home. Maintained by the military at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, it is illuminated from the day after Thanksgiving to the end of the Iditarod Race.
Neighborhood decorations are a thing of pride in many areas of the community.
Thunderbird Heights in the northern end has an annual lighting contest and most homes in that subdivision take part. On Jayhawk Drive in Birchwood families prepare luminaries. Blocks of ice are frozen in advance—whenever the weather cooperates—and on December 24 they are placed along the mile-long road. Candles are lighted inside the hollow blocks and are lighted after sunset, both sides of the roadway brightly lit. From the air, it resembles a landing strip. The project involves a couple of hundred blocks of ice that have to be carefully prepared and twice as many candles.
Other neighborhoods also pride themselves in decorating. This year, MEA is holding a contest, asking for pictures of lighted displays to be submitted for judging with free electricity as a prize.
Merchants join in the holiday celebration with the Merry Merchants Munch sponsored by the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce.
Businesses invite residents to stop in to sample goodies prepared by store staff. Each site has a specialty and they go all out to outdo themselves each year. The Chamber sends elves around to sample the wares and judge the entries in various categories. It is held in conjunction with the annual tree-lighting ceremony.
First National Bank’s Eagle River Branch for several years has sponsored a gingerbread house contest. Individuals are invited to bring in their creations to be judged. It is always a popular event that brings hundreds of people in to view the array of gaily decorated baked goods.
Local schools also hold celebrations, although to avoid offending anyone they now are called “holiday parties” or “winter celebrations.”
After all, the Anchorage School District is one of the most diverse in the entire country, with 99 languages other than English spoken by its students. In the early years, Chugiak-Eagle River’s population was primarily white Anglo-Saxons and Native Alaskans. That has not been the case for the last several decades.
Christian churches, of course, hold observances to celebrate Advent, the five weeks during which Christ’s birth is anticipated, and on Christmas Eve with candlelight services. It is there that the beautiful hymns of the season are sung as they have been over the past 20 centuries.
Christmas this year is this coming Monday.
Please enjoy the day, whatever your beliefs. If a Christian, celebrate His life and praise the ultimate sacrifice He endured on the behalf of all people. The message of Christ is peace, good-will, and sharing. Even if a non-believer, consider sharing with someone who is needy, even if it is only a smile and a nod “hello.” It will make them—and you—feel better.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.