We reminisce. We bake and cook and eat. We reunite with loved ones, and remember those gone too soon. We listen to holiday music, decorate trees, go to church, volunteer, help strangers and support our community in myriad ways. We shop, we give and we receive.
Signs the holidays have arrived are diverse and mean something different to each of us, yet there's something universal in them that also connects us, no matter our station in life, our age or our beliefs.
For this year's Inlander Holiday Guide, we asked some of the region's best writers to share their favorite holiday memories and traditions that signal the season has arrived. They responded with heartwarming, funny and even sorrow-tinged pieces touching on everything from unfulfilled wishes and too-tall Christmas trees to creepy nutcrackers, nativity pageants and "soft pants season." (See below.)
We hope you enjoy and can somehow relate to the nine pieces within, and that they inspire you to reminisce, smile or revive an old family ritual of your own.
If you're looking for new and old traditions to share with those you hold dear, look no further than our recommendations for holiday-related events across the region, and even some that have nothing to do with Santa, jingle bells or gift shopping.
I know it's the holidays when the family goes to Swenson's tree farm. There we enjoy a coffee and head into the woods with a saw, searching for the perfect Christmas tree.
No plastic trees for us. We leave the tiny trees for Charlie Brown. We have a high, sloping living room ceiling so we hunt for the biggest tree for maximum Christmas fun.
"You sure it will fit in the house?" Amanda asked three years ago as we beheld a glorious large spruce.
"Of course! Ceiling's crazy high!" I said.
Amanda kept our young daughter at a safe distance while I sawed and sawed.
At last the tree fell. A man helped me carry it out. A minor design flaw in my pickup meant insufficient room in the bed for the entire tree, but that didn't stop us!
At home, Amanda and I endured the prickly needles and struggled to push the tree upright in the stand.
Well, it was almost upright. "Huh." I frowned at the top of the tree crunched up against the ceiling.
"I guess it's 12 feet at its highest, but slopes down closer to 10 near the windows. Hold it! I'll get my trimmer!"
"Hurry," Amanda said. "It's really heavy."
After lopping two feet off the top, the tree stood right up!
"It's so wide," Amanda said. "We can't even walk in here now."
"Easy fix!" I did a little cutting, some reshaping. "Perfect!"
Never had I been so grateful for hardwood floors as when the sap began to rain down from that tree.
Oh, that Christmas tree was majestic. It was a battle to set it up, but the branches, needles, most of the sap, and Amanda's frustration over the whole mess was eventually behind us. The fun family memories will last forever. ♦
Trent Reedy is an author of several novels for young people including Words in the Dust, the Divided We Fall trilogy and Gamer Army. He lives with his family in the woods outside of Cheney and absolutely loves Christmastime in Spokane.
"Die Nussknacker," By Kate Lebo
I'm sure my grandmother's nutcrackers did not, at time of purchase, seem like garbage that people who love her would one day be unable to throw away. In 1955 they were fist-sized, with human hair and fingerless hands holding beer steins and ski poles, a cockeyed nullity in their un-pupiled eyes, Westdeutschland stamped beneath their feet. In 1965 the nutcrackers were forearm length, and most wore military jackets. Red army, green army.
By 1975 their helmet-covered hair that wasn't human, wasn't even animal, would in fact, if grabbed during a Christmas-light-sparked house fire, melt brown or blond plastic into the skin. By 1985 the nutcrackers were knee height, bucktoothed, bought at Walmart and still dressed for war. The majority were made in China. None of them could crack nuts.
Nutcrackers are guardians of the house and symbols of good luck, square- and glass-jawed, as Fritz discovers in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, where breaking Clara's nutcracker turns Fritz into an asshole and the nutcracker into a human prince. They came from Germany in the rucksacks of WWII soldiers like my grandfather, who married my grandmother, had children, and collected objects to delight and protect their children. And so: all my life, toddler-sized nutcrackers bossed kitten-sized nutcrackers into protective formation, poised and ready for the war on Christmas.
Not long ago, my grandfather locked the keys in his still-running car and fell down walking home, precipitating a move to assisted living. They'd delayed leaving their house as long as they could. The move was agonizing. A relief.
That is how I came into my inheritance: 100 nutcrackers in various states of limb, paint, and hair loss. My grandfather's dead now, my grandmother still alive. She's 97. Through the manic glitz of Christmas, no Lebo goes unguarded. ♦
Kate Lebo is the author of the cookbook Pie School, the poetry chapbook Seven Prayers to Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and co-editor with Sam Ligon of Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze, a collection of writing and recipes from the Pie & Whiskey reading series.
"Lost Item: If Found, Please Give Undivided Attention," By Ellen Welcker
I am seasonally possessed by the Ghost of Christmas Past, which manifests in high-priority rummaging through low-priority packages of nostalgia my mom occasionally sends me in search of an old cassette recording of my brother and me when we were... one and three? Two and four? I don't know.
It's gray, with a magenta stripe. Unlabeled. I haven't found it in a while. On this tape, if you can find a device on which to play it and turn the volume all the way up, you can hear some authentic early '80s white noise. But beyond that — if you are totally silent — and your ear is pressed to the speaker — and you want it badly enough — you can hear little preliterate me reciting "The Night Before Christmas." Even the deeply confusing "luster of midday to objects below." Even the mysterious "dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly."
As usual, my brother steals the show with his adorable baby babble, but I need you to hear me, which means, I'm sorry to say: no small talk, 100 percent attention on this shitty recording of a kid you didn't know hurdy-gurdying one of the best-known holiday poems of all time.
What's the big deal? Truthfully, nothing — it makes me laugh that I even care — but if you've ever had the experience of hearing yourself before you remember yourself, you know... there's something magical about that. Something enigmatic. Something dust to dust and nevermore. Body replacing itself every seven to 10 years and all. To glimpse that, even for a moment, even if it means forcing a room full of your friends into SILENCE so you can reach backward and forward at once toward an old and a newly imagined "you"— well, that's the spirit now. I'm filled with it. Possessed. It'll pass. 'Til next year. ♦
Ellen Welcker is the author of Ram Hands (Scablands Books, 2016), The Botanical Garden (Astrophil Press, 2010) and several chapbooks, including The Pink Tablet. Her website is ellenwelcker.com.
"Pajama Party," By Inga Laurent
I know it's the holidays when Old Navy displays panoplies of holiday pajamas.
Unfortunately, I no longer have any immediate family. My mother Rose, the light and love of my life, was the last branch of origin on that tree. In 2010, she helped me move across the country and during that last journey we did see: A rare summer rainstorm in the Badlands, that forceful Old Faithful, Mt. Rushmore, and Montana's meandering, babbling brooks. But come September we discovered cancer and by December's end, she was gone. I could scarcely imagine another year when the joy of the season would outweigh its sadness. While I'm thankful I never had to spend a Christmas alone, many thin smiles veiled aches as folks attempted to shoehorn me into existing family traditions.
Luke and Ginger, dear friends, had always demanded that I put down some roots in this town. After nearly seven years of resistance, I relented. They immediately initiated me into all family rituals not as an afterthought, but with complete integration.
Now, every holiday season seems sacrosanct. Time well-spent together, #blessed and brimming with plenty of local artisan presents, the Muppets Christmas Carol, impromptu Pentatonix dance parties ("O Come, All Ye Faithful," the front-runner favorite), Christmas Day casseroles (one gluten-free!) and even a trip to see a movie. But of all those traditions the very best might be the donning of matching pajamas, one pair reserved just for me.
Merrily grounded now here I stay, a bright sense of belonging renewed on this day.
Now you've heard my story and can certainly comprehend — when those jammies hit the shelf, I can't help but stop and smile to myself. I'll leave you with some experiential advice: Try being open and willing to admit, any love that you find in exactly the right fit. ♦
Inga Laurent moved from Cleveland in 2010 for a job at Gonzaga University and has slowly been falling in love with Spokane ever since. While she believes the natural beauty of this place is unrivaled, she's more enamored with the beautiful people in it.
"Peace on Earth," Claire Rudolf Murphy
I know it's the holidays when neighbors gather to celebrate the season. I've been lucky to live in friendly neighborhoods most of my life. Growing up on 24th Avenue, every December Mrs. Higgins directed a nativity pageant with the kids on our block. Afterwards parents, actors, and older neighbors sang Christmas carols and enjoyed hot chocolate and cookies. One year was especially memorable. A yellowed newspaper clipping jogs my memory. A photo and article about our pageant ran on the society page of the Dec. 22, 1960, edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle.
That year I got to play Mary. In the photo I am kneeling beside the manger, my hands folded in prayer. Across from me is my big brother Jim, as Joseph. Behind us stand the angels, neighbor girls draped in white sheets, halos on their heads. Seated around us are the boys, shepherds dressed in bathrobes and holding staffs, Stevie Higgins and my brother Matt among them. The three kings are there, too. My brother John's crown is rakishly perched on his head.
Years later I recreated the Christmas pageant with our children and family friends in Alaska. Family videos and photos reveal a similar joy to my childhood. Away from shopping and holiday cards for one evening, we had such fun.
My thoughts about the nativity have evolved over the years. But no matter one's faith tradition, I believe it is a gift, a story of hope. A baby bringing peace, a brave young mother and a devoted husband, stars and shepherds, singing angels and kings bearing gifts.
Nowadays, my husband and I celebrate by gathering on the Solstice with our neighbors, sharing good food and filled with gratitude for their generous and friendly spirits.
My Christmas wish for Spokane? Community, good will, and peace on earth. ♦
Claire Rudolf Murphy is the author of 18 award-winning fiction and nonfiction books for children and young adults.
"Play it Again," Santa Kris Dinnison
I know it's the holidays when we start playing holiday music at our stores, Atticus and Boo Radley's.
We have a strict policy about holiday music: We start playing it the day after Thanksgiving and we stop playing it at close on Christmas Eve. Turkey to Jesus, it's all holiday music all the time. For some people that sounds like a nightmare, but I'm one of those weirdos who loves listening to Christmas music. I look forward to the different versions of "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." I love hearing all the songs from the old Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials ("Year Without a Santa Claus" is my favorite). And every year I sing along joyously to "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" and "I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas." I can even enjoy the Jingle Cats and Dogs for a little while.
And yeah, I'm also one of those weirdos who remembers most of the words to all the songs. Retail during December involves long hours and even longer lines. It can be tough, but mostly it's a lot of fun. We sing, we dance, we wear silly hats and ugly sweaters. We help people find gifts for their loved ones and hopefully a little bit of the joy that sometimes goes missing during a busy, hectic season. These songs have carried me through 26 years of working retail during the holidays. I can honestly say, I couldn't do it without them. ♦
Kris Dinnison writes stories and works retail in downtown Spokane. If you see her, or anyone else working retail this holiday, please be nice.
"Pressing Christmas Moments," Mary Cronk Farrell
I know it's the holidays when Mom stands on a stool to reach the high kitchen cupboard and pass down the box holding the cookie press. A dozen aluminum disks stand in their slots, but we've only ever used the tree and the wreath. The rest of the year the dough gets dumped onto the pan by the spoonful.
But for Christmas, the dough is colored green and red. It's chilled for an hour in the fridge. Mom fills the press and my sister and I try to produce something resembling trees and wreaths. It takes years, but by sixth grade they're almost recognizable.
One Christmas in my thirties, I ask Mom for the cookie press.
"Sure. Take it." Mom never cared about "stuff."
I don't press cookies with my daughters because when I take the box from my high kitchen cupboard, I see the press is broken. I put it back in the cupboard. Move it to three different houses. Until one day I see one at a garage sale.
I keep them both high in the cupboard until the next time I move, when I swap out the broken parts. A niggling voice says it's not technically your mother's cookie press anymore. But in my new kitchen I stand on a stool and put the box in a cupboard above the refrigerator.
The first Christmas after my mother's death I think about making cookies in the shape of trees and wreaths. But maybe I've lost the art, and it won't bring her back.
It won't bring back precious childhood moments, the excitement of Christmas coming, the fun of a contraption that squeezes out perfect trees and wreaths once you learn to end the "press" at the exact right nanosecond.
The niggling voice says I ought to stop saving stuff. My daughters don't care about stuff. And the understanding is deep in my bones now, the knowing that moments are fleeting and never recaptured. Even those stored safely away in the highest kitchen cupboard. ♦
Mary Cronk Farrell is an award-winning author and former journalist who writes about little-known historical women finding courage and strength through struggle. Learn more about her books at marycronkfarrell.com.
"Soft Pants Season," Elissa Ball
I know it's the holidays when the cruel needle of fall-back-an-hour pops my Halloween weekend balloon and marks the start of a bleak three-month period I call Soft Pants Season. You know how in cold months it seems impossible to leave your warm, cozy couch once you've slipped into your favorite fleece sweatpants that are Jackson Pollocked with soup stains? That's Soft Pants Season. Early sunsets and the urge to veg mean it's hard to find friends who will actually zip into jeans and meet up after dark, making post-Halloween evenings extra isolating.
Soon after the fall-back sting comes a rapid ramping up of seasonal depression, cold and flu viruses, and football madness (hard to tell which annoys me most). What can I say? I equate the holidays with misery.
But Elissa! What about Thanksgiving? You love root vegetables and squash! Sure do, yet I have major problems with a tradition that distorts history and repackages centuries-long oppression and mass murder of Indigenous Americans as a friendly feast. I know I sound like Lisa Simpson. It's true though.
You can likely guess how I feel about Christmas: Can't stand it. From the showy consumerism (the more you spend, the more you care? What?!) to the cloying carols to the co-opting of the Pagan Winter Solstice celebration, Christmas irks me to the core. The hypocrisy of churches that display PROTECT THE UNBORN signs yet do not protect "born" children from their own abusive clergy sickens me.
Somehow New Year's is steeped in sadness, too. What's supposed to be a fresh start usually feels like a sulky regret parade. Soft Pants Season finally winds down once the red velvet and dark chocolates of Valentine's Day pop up and my heart starts to thaw. ♦
Elissa Ball is a poet, freelance writer, tarot reader, stand-up comic and dog mom originally from Yakima.
"Toys of Christmas Past," Kelly Milner Halls
I know it's Christmas when toys haunt my dreams.
You'd think other sugarplums would dance through the head of a woman of 62. But I've never been a typical gal. So Christmas toys were a source of frustration.
"Can Santa bring me a cap-gun?" I'd ask my very traditional 1960s mother.
"No," she'd reply. "Santa brings cap-guns to little boys. But I'm sure he'll leave you a beautiful doll."
Sure enough, Christmas revealed a delicately dressed baby in a toy stroller — one just like the one my older sister adored.
Unfortunately, even the thought of ribbons and petticoats send me running for the woods, where I shaved the doll's head. My mother was not amused.
When I asked for a banana bike like my best friend Craig's, Mom said, "Those are for boys. But Santa will find something better."
"Better" meant an enormous girl's bike I had to stand on a box to mount — an enormous bike that guaranteed I'd have skinned knees for the balance of my little kid life.
Each attempt to turn me into a proper girl failed. Then Santa pulled a fast one.
"Can I have a bug keeper for Christmas?" I asked my mother, starry eyed at the thought of the tall, plastic insect habitat, complete with a snap off bottom and top to allow for insects of every size. "Or does Santa only give those to boys?"
"We'll see," my mother answered. I prepped for a Barbie I'd ignore.
To my astonishment, the official bug keeper was tucked safely under the tree, flanked by a microscope and a book on every North American insect.
I cried that Christmas. My mom did, too. "Santa heard me this year," I said through grateful tears.
"Yes he did," my mother said, wiping my face. "And I think he'll hear you from now on."
Now I wonder... does Santa make banana bikes for senior citizens? It just might be worth a try. ♦
Kelly Milner Halls has paid a mortgage freelancing for 21 years, writing for publications including the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Denver Post and the Spokesman Review. Her stack of nonfiction books for kids is more than 50 titles high and growing. She'll never be rich, but she is happy. And that's how she defines success.