As a kid, I loved the poetry of Christmas, the cacophony of voices from the rooms of my grandmother’s old house on Water Street in Negaunee. The basement, for me, was a haunted hell, but the first floor filled with family was a strange heaven. When people ask me for the strongest Christmas memory I have, it tends to be Christmas Eves where I was overwhelmed with cousins — the house filled with teasing and ribbons, laughter and landmines of balled-up wrapping paper, and the mix of my cousin Todd’s cerebral palsy, my uncle Paul’s skull tattoos, my grandfather’s sleeping face in his favorite chair.
The gift of the day was unity.
When it comes to describing U.P. Christmases, I turned to the region’s top poets to get their input. You need a bit of Shakespeare to adequately describe a holiday so precious to the U.S. and to us — and by us, I mean Yoopers. The memories of poets Beverly Matherne, Eric Gadzinski and Marty Achatz hit on the trinity of U.P. life — the holy beauty of the Upper Peninsula, venison and snow.
My own childhood was crammed with the U.P.’s deathly winters and vastly empty of days spent in church. For Matherne, who has only one U.P. Christmas under her belt, she explains, “I've spent only one Christmas in the U.P., so I could sing in the choir at midnight Mass at St. Peter Cathedral in Marquette. I felt sacred, huge nave and columns before me, poinsettias, priests in brocade, bishop in mitre looking like something out of ancient Egypt. It made me feel close to my family so far away in Louisiana.”
Gadzinski’s strongest Christmas memory has the feel of camouflage and the Yooper December guarantee of snow, snow, and more snow: “Once it snowed so hard so long, that it took all day to shovel the path and driveway. Woke up next morning, still snowing, like the path and driveway never happened. We went out to Aunt Jennifer's. Had venison steaks, fell asleep in front of the football game. Little Alice is all grown up now, living far away, and still swears she heard thumping on the roof.”
Achatz writes: “It was more than white Christmas. It was white apocalypse. December 24, 1996. The snow started early and kept coming. And coming. It was the kind of storm where you start shoveling, and, by the time you’re done, you have to start again. My wife and I owned one shovel and an ice cream bucket. We shoveled and bucketed all day. By the time we got to Mitchell Methodist for the 11 p.m. service, we were weary, and the world was a cataract. Cars. Fences. Hedges. Street signs. All coated in a heavy, white film.
“Pastor Bunce joked during his sermon about the blessing of snow and how we were the most blessed people on Earth this Christmas. We all laughed, lit our candles, sang “Silent Night.” As we were leaving the church at midnight, a friend handed us a loaf of homemade cardamom bread, with icing thick as the polar cap. We stepped outside.
“The sky had finally cleared. Starlight. Moonlight. Snowlight. Everywhere. And a quiet so profound it seemed like we weren’t real anymore. We’d been erased like chalk from a board. Like Pompeii after Vesuvius. Hiroshima after the bomb. A silent, holy annihilation.”