The holidays play themselves out in many places and many ways. We visit a few of them, and our writers bring back stories of camels, carols, Christmas trees and that thing called hope.
Report from Bethlehem
The news this Christmas season from Connecticut's little town of Bethlehem (pop. 3,400) is that maybe, just maybe, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 didn't change everything after all.
With just 13 shopping days left, you could walk into the town's famous post office unannounced, and unimpeded by any security checkpoints, and have Postmaster Joan Manzi welcome you straight into her small, mail-cluttered office.
"We cancel up to 250,000 cards a year in a four-week period. This week and the next week are the busiest," Manzi said, sitting down at her desk. She was referring to the sleigh-loads of Christmas cards brought in person or sent in bulk each year to her station to be postmarked "Bethlehem, CT," before being mailed onward.
Despite the crush, Manzi, a postal service veteran who's run the Bethlehem office for the last seven years, didn't act harried. Decorously jolly was more like it. From her desktop, Manzi picked up some packages containing Christmas cards awaiting their Bethlehem postmark. "They come from all over," she said. "This one's from France. This one's from California. This one's from Virginia."
Manzi shuffled the packages, then ripped open the one from France. She wasn't wearing a HazMat suit or even rubber gloves. She was wearing blue slacks and a blue cardigan sweater over a white turtleneck, accentuated with several gold necklaces and an American flag pin. She drew out one of the cards inside and showed how it would be postmarked before being returned to France, to someone living in the town of Baillargues.
Anthrax? "We're not supposed to talk about anthrax," Manzi said, indicating privately that she rated the risk of contamination as about the same as the Grinch stealing Christmas. Gesturing toward the mail on her desk, she said, "All these have return addresses. We know where they're coming from. It happens every year."
Manzi estimated the volume of Christmas cards flowing through her post office as normal at least. "If anything, I think it's going to be more this year than in the past three or four years," she said. "I think people are just sending more cards. ... It's just a happy time of year and the additional workload is nothing compared to everyone being in happy spirits."
Manzi preferred to talk about other things than anthrax. For instance, she generously wanted people to know that her Bethlehem post office (she lives in town and can walk to work) is not the only one that gets mail from elsewhere to postmark during the holiday season.
"This happens in most of the Christmas towns throughout the country. There's not just the Bethlehems. You got the North Pole, too. I think it's in Alaska. Would you like me to look up where the North Pole is? I'd be happy to," she said.
Millions of kids might think of the North Pole as a village near the top of the world, but the U.S. Postal Service goes by a different geography. "Believe it or not the North Pole is in Lake Placid, New York, and it is the only one," Manzi said, consulting a very thick national directory with very tiny print.
Leafing through its pages she found other Bethlehems in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Hampshire.
"I don't know if there is a Santa," Manzi said. "I don't think so. In Texas we have all the Santa Fe's. Oh yes, there is a Santa, ID. What's ID? ID is Idaho. Oh, there's also a Santa Claus, Indiana," she said, sounding pleased and closing the book.
It must be reported that Manzi was not completely oblivious to security. She let slip that her post office, as do many others, answers letters to Santa it receives from local children. "We don't like people to know that," she said. "You know if you were a child and you sent a letter to Santa you wouldn't want to read in the paper that it wasn't Santa who answered your letter, would you?"
Manzi also was worried about ink stains, specifically green ones. Hand-lettered signs in the inner and outer lobbies bore warnings: "Please, no cachets on the countertops." The cachets, so far as Manzi knows, are unique to her post office. These are rubber stamps with Christmas designs that people can use to decorate their cards. The tradition was started in 1938 by postmaster Earl Johnson. Each year since then a new cachet has been designed. The 2002 cachet was created by a Woodbury woman named Nancy Berard. A local paper played the news of Berard's selection big on its front page, that also had a story headlined, "No Source of Anthrax Found in Oxford."
In early afternoon on a weekday, both lobbies bustled with people stamping cards at ink-resistant tables strewn with cachets. A Bing Crosby Christmas tape provided musical accompaniment to the rhythm of stamps being squished into ink pads then pressed on cards.
At one table an older couple who identified themselves as William and Theresa Behr of Waterbury were working in tandem. William did the hard work of choosing cachets and stamping their cards, while Theresa stood behind him, receiving the finished cards he passed to her backward, in the manner of a football center hiking a ball.
"We've been married 54 years and we've been wanting to do this since we were married. We wanted to do it before we died," William said, drolly.
Theresa said they had stopped at the post office after visiting a son-in-law in Roxbury. "This is the first time I got to Bethlehem to mail my cards. He says it was one of my last wishes," she said, widening her eyes toward her husband. "You know how you procrastinate."
The Behrs were enjoying themselves. The eldest of their five grown children, a daughter named Susan Steward, was with them. "Oh jeez, don't get him started on that," Susan warned when her father was asked what he thought of Waterbury's indicted Mayor Philip Giordano. Susan thought other local affairs more noteworthy. She said one of her brothers is athletic director at Waterbury's St. Margaret McTernan prep school and that one of her nieces set a basketball scoring record there.
Susan's father was still bent over the cachet table, stamping the last of 60 cards. He momentarily sang softly "Toora-Loora-Loora" along with Bing Crosby. Without looking up from his holiday labor, he said, "We will have 23 people at the house this year. That's just immediate family. That's the same as every year."
- Joel Lang
A Crazy Bruce Kind of Christmas
You can tell it's the holiday season at Crazy Bruce's on Route 6 in Bristol. The liquor canes are on display. A liquor cane is a transparent plastic tube bent into the shape of a candy cane, filled with a stack of airline-sized bottles of schnapps: one each of peach, peppermint, blackberry and butterscotch, all for $3.99.
This would be an excellent gift for a frat boy, but I am too old to know any. Also weighing strongly against the purchase is the memory of an unfortunate and under-aged encounter with peppermint schnapps that ended with me vowing to join a convent. (It's still on my "to-do" list.) It is my policy to act as if I have learned from my experiences. I move on.
Besides, I have come not for liquor canes but to buy beer for somebody who has earned at least a case of Christmas gratitude. If you've ever been to Crazy Bruce White House Liquors, you know it's a beer kind of place. The wine bottles don't lie down in fancy racks at Crazy Bruce's. They stand up, and some of them have twist-off caps because, dammit, this ain't no "spirit shoppe."
This is a no-frills discount liquor warehouse, and the customers know it. On a Tuesday evening in mid-December, there are only a few people pushing industrial-sized shopping carts through the fluorescent-lit aisles, making haste past the quarts, liters and gallons of wine, bourbon, vodka, scotch and tequila over to the six-packs, 12-packs and cases of Budweiser, Corona and Dos Equis. They seem more beer-minded than holiday-minded, and they spare not even a glance at the liquor canes.
Which isn't to say there is no Christmas spirit at Crazy Bruce's. Au contraire. I'm hearing "Here Comes Santa Claus" on the tinny sound system and I realize that it's the perfect Christmas carol for drinking, because the notes are repetitive, the lyrics are nonsensical and you can skip most of them, simply singing "Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane" over and over until you pass out.
I am humming the tune when I spot the Christmas Mead, a whole stack of bottles at the end of a table covered with rows of gift-boxed liquor. The tag suggests that Christmas Mead consists of fermented honey and gives the impression, somehow, that if you drink it you will be immediately transported to a medieval castle, where a fire is roaring in the grate and a wild boar is roasting on a spit. (Comely wench optional.) For just $13.99.
But it seems I am plagued by memories of alcohol gone bad. I can't help recalling a bottle of alleged grappa given to me by a landlord who, I realized after my first sip, was trying to break the lease by killing me. It was exactly the same suspicious shade of yellow as Christmas Mead. And after I poured it down the sink I never had another clogged drain. Again, I move on, my psychic scars overcoming temptation. And that's when I see Bonny Boy.
Bonny Boy is a plastic statuette of a naked boy atop a hollow plastic pedestal, modestly priced at $9.99. The box leads me to believe that pressing a button on the pedestal causes a stream of liquid to emerge from a spigot placed in Bonny's personal regions. Moreover, if the illustration on the box is to be believed, this "liquor dispenser" apparatus is perfectly suitable for parties attended by square young men in sport coats and women wearing 1950s flip-up hairstyles.
I am transfixed. Questions surge through my mind. Why have I never been invited to such a party? Is it my hair? And, furthermore, could I ever be that desperate for a drink?
I stagger to the parking lot with a case of Sam Adams, my assumptions challenged, my head abuzz, while one overriding thought repeats endlessly in my mind: "Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane ..."
- Jeanne A. Leblanc
The Sarajevo Hagadah
After deciding to join several other clergy to visit Connecticut National Guard troops stationed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rabbi Herbert Brockman had to pack.
The idea, since the trip was occurring during Hanukah, was to carry the trappings of the Jewish Festival of Lights from back home for those interested among the 250 members of Connecticut's 143 Forward Support Battalion and B Company 1-102nd Infantry. Brockman, rabbi of Hamden's Congregation Mishkan Israel, dutifully packed some 50 dreidels and a like number of packets of Hanukah "gelt," the gold-wrapped chocolates loved by children and adults at holiday time. And there was a "hanukiah," or Hanukah menorah to allow a candle-lighting ceremony for Jewish members of the Guard.
At the last minute, Brockman decided to take one other item, even though it relates to the Jewish holiday of Passover, not Hanukah. He brought along a replica of the "Sarajevo Hagadah," the oldest handwritten hagadah in the world, dating from the 13th century. Hagadahs tell the story of Passover, when Moses freed Jewish slaves from the bonds of slavery in Egypt.
The Sarajevo Hagadah is renowned for its hand-painted illustrations. It also is a symbol of the beauty common to a nation ravaged by civil war in the wake of the breakup of the old Yugoslavia.
Actually, the Hagadah was not believed to have been created in Sarajevo, but wound up there as Sephardic Jews dispersed around Europe after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. "It was very much identified with the Jewish community there because the community there was one of the most significant Sephardic communities," Brockman says. In Sarajevo, Jews lived in harmony with Arabs and Christians, a symbol of an accomplished culture.
Then, during World War II, the Hagadah was in the museum in Sarajevo when apparently the Nazis heard about it and came to take it, "as they did a lot of Jewish art." One of the museum's Muslim curators, hearing about the Nazi plan, stole the Hagadah and brought it home to protect it, returning it to the museum at war's end.
Brockman says he'd had his replica of the Sarajevo Hagadah for 25 years, so long he can't recall where he got it. Now the time seemed appropriate to part with it.
One of the hosts to the group visiting from the U.S. - a contingent that included the clergy, officials from several Connecticut communities and the media - was the commander of the Virginia-based 29th Infantry Division (Light), Major Gen. H. Steven Blum.
Brockman says he was surprised to learn that the head of the peacekeeping force was a Jew. Near the end of the three-day trip, he handed Blum his replica of the Sarajevo Hagadah as a token of appreciation.
Blum was touched by the gift. "(He) said to me, `If you can stay an extra day, we'll go down and see the real one.' I said `That would be really nice, but then how would I get home?' " Brockman laughs.
- Les Gura
A Cheap Tree Is Good To Find
It's two weeks before Christmas, early in the evening, when two women who look to be in their late 20s or early 30s show up at the Christmas tree lot on Route 4 in Farmington, ready to do business. One talks, one doesn't.
"We want a cheap tree," the talker announces cheerfully, as they approach the fire barrel where the lot attendants, Doug Boelter and Virginia Miller, are warming their hands against a growing chill.
Boelter directs the women across the lot to tidy stacks of Fraser firs, hundreds of them leaning against sawhorses, tagged at $48.50 for a standard 6- to 8-foot specimen. Delivery is $10 if it's not too far away.
As the customers poke through the merchandise, Boelter waits at the fire barrel. He's a strapping fellow who has been tending the lot this evening, trimming branches from the bottoms of the trunks with a chainsaw and stuffing the trees into car trunks and mini-vans. He acknowledges that these are not the cheapest trees around, but he says they are good ones, cut fresh in Voluntown, not hauled down from Canada on a flatbed.
They smell fresh, too, and the pine scent mixes with the woodsmoke to create an enchanting aroma. The lights strung throughout the lot are twinkling and Christmas carols are playing softly over a sound system in the background. It's a pretty scene.
Over the course of the season, LF Design Inc., a landscaping company, sells 700 or 800 trees from the parking lot of the Tunxis Fore driving range on Route 4, explains Paul Sagherian, who helps manage the business. The big trees - some costing up to $85 - sell out first, to the owners of big houses with high ceilings.
"Devonwood," explains Sagherian, tiling his head toward the upscale development on the other side of the Tunxis Plantation golf course.
The women looking for a cheap tree don't waste much time. They walk back to the fire barrel.
"We want a $25 tree," the talker explains.
Boelter and Miller send them to the other side of the lot, where $25 will buy a tree standing 3 or 4 feet tall. A shrub, really.
"You could put it on a table," says Miller, an elementary-school teacher who is helping out on the tree lot to earn a little extra holiday money.
The women aren't convinced. Soon they're heading back past the fire barrel toward their compact car.
"We're going to try the back yard," yells the talker, waving good-bye. Boelter and Miller smile, and wave back.
- Jeanne A. Leblanc
The U.S. Marine Corps Reserve's annual Toys for Tots drive is in full swing at local reserve headquarters on Linsley Drive in Plainville. Inside a cold gymnasium, a handful of first-time drug offenders are fulfilling their community service sentences by helping the Marines sort and bag donated toys.
Toys are dropped off, counted and organized. Then the waiting begins, either for more toys or one of the hundreds of social service agencies the Marines are collecting on behalf of to show up.
Hey, it beats jail or the caves of Tora Bora.
Two young Marines in fatigues stand together in the corner where the phone and the desk and the list of agencies needing toys are. Neither can be older than 25.
A mustached guy in a green sweatshirt and a teenager wearing baggy jeans and a green Nike visor are sorting toys for the boys. A stuffed Curious George smiles shyly atop a heap of toys, while "Mike Wazowski," the one-eyed green ball of a character from the movie "Monsters, Inc.", grins maniacally next to him.
It's almost lunchtime.
"Are you doing chow today or what?" a baby-faced Marine with blond hair and a faint band of freckles across his nose calls out.
"Yeah, we're doing Chinese," says the white-haired volunteer supervising the community service workers.
"Chinese?" The Latino man is doubtful.
Mr. Mustache walks over to the Marines. "How about a dozen chili dogs?" he says.
"There's nothing wrong with chili dogs."
"Dogs and suds."
"Yep, dogs and suds."
A round of laughter, and the door opens. In walks a buzz-cut young man wearing a black beret. He's in jeans and a leather bomber jacket, but you can tell he's military.
"January 1 is your promotion day," one of the young Marines tells him. And they launch into shop talk. Leather jacket is a reservist. The others are active duty.
"People will tell you we're third on the list to be activated," Leather jacket complains. "My buddy's making out with mad money since he got activated..."
"If we get selected, we'll go."
"They just dropped a load of tanks off in Kuwait. My buddy's Air Force, so he knows."
"Who's that guy with the mustache?" Leather jacket asks. "I know him from somewhere."
Turns out Mustache was once military, too. He was a corrections officer.
"Funniest thing I ever saw was my first week off active duty. I just came back from Bosnia," Leather jacket begins. He describes a scene of a corrections officer tossing an unruly guy in the air. It was hilarious, to him.
The Hispanic woman eyes these boys curiously.
"I'm going to see Ozzy!" one pipes up.
"I got the new Limp Bizkit before it even came out."
"How was Britney?"
"You didn't go to Britney? Who went to Britney this week?"
A U-Haul van pulls up outside. Two African-Americans come inside, a young woman and a flashy man in an electric blue jacket and dark sunglasses, feeling his way along with a red and white-tipped cane. They're here from a Hartford program for youth. They're giving a Christmas party.
"I'm Pop Lewis. You remember me from last year," the man says. Aaron "Pop" Lewis is well known in Hartford activist circles. He talks to kids about the dangers of drugs. He was blinded four years ago in Atlanta, shot as he was selling drugs.
Now he needs 2,000 toys for a Christmas party. The Marines and their helpers pile his van full of bagged Legos. He'll be back for more. There are a lot of kids counting on this party.
He drives off. Buzz-cut leaves minutes later. He's got his fancy dress blues uniform - complete with white cap - slung over one arm. He came to pick it up. He'll be back, too. There's a lot of work here yet to be done.
- Karen Guzman
Camels and Donkeys and Fruitcake, Oh My
The Commerford & Sons animal exhibition business is one that operates year round, dispatching employees like Teddy, the giraffe, and Bill, the camel, from its headquarters in Goshen to state fairs and parades up and down the East Coast. But the holiday season, contrary to what one might guess, is no slack time.
Bill, for instance, was booked to appear in January in Hartford at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church Boar's Head Festival, for which the Commerfords annually supply the animal cast. According to Tim Commerford, one of two sons in the business, Bill gets the Hartford role because he's a smaller camel and can fit through the church door.
Tim himself, who's 29, has been going to the Asylum Hill festival since he was a child, a camel handler costumed as a shepherd. This year Tim also drew duty at the family's petting zoo and animal ride operation outside the Brass Mill Mall, next to I-84 in Waterbury.
"We have two camels, two donkeys, two alpacas, two goats, one cow and six ponies," Tim enumerated one unseasonably warm afternoon when business was light and he was interrupted while perusing a copy of Big Truck and Heavy Equipment Trader magazine. Two green and white Commerford animal trucks, big as moving vans, were parked next to the animal pens. They had arrived after Thanksgiving and would stay until Christmas.
Tim neglected to mention one reindeer, Tuffy, but that was understandable since Tuffy occupied a pen of his own at the far corner of the Commerford encampment. Tuffy had an impressive rack of antlers, but otherwise did not appear eager to be hitched to Santa's sleigh. He was gazing, or at least was facing, in the direction of a Sears automotive center.
The two camels, Virginia and Ely, looked more engaged. Their heads turned at the approach of a visitor and even stretched forward. Ely is a single-humped camel, a dromedary, who had come to the Commerfords' from a farm in Indiana. Virginia, on the other hand, had been born on the Commerford farm and was a mixed-breed camel. "Her mother was a double-hump [a Bactrian] and her father was a single hump," Tim said.
The visitor looked at Virginia with new interest. Only the tip of her back showed through the brightly colored riding rig she was saddled with. "One hump is a little bit bigger than the other and with the winter hair you just can't see it," Tim explained.
He said the camels were "domesticated" to Connecticut winters. "Anything above 10 degrees, on dry ground is fine with them," he said. In terms of personality, he said the camels "are just like people," that is, different.
"Virginia is a little pushy," he said. "She'll keep all the hay to herself and things like that."
And Ely? "He's just a good friendly camel. He's humble. He just wants to be your buddy," Tim said. Ely suddenly began to look more benign. He nibbled at a note pad.
Tim introduced the rest of the animals. Buster, the Holstein calf, shared a pen with Joey and Jerry, two young Nubian goats. Tim could tell who was who between Joey and Jerry just as he could between the two donkeys, Thelma and Louise, in another pen. "This one's Thelma. She got a little fat," he said.
He named the ponies: Mark, Sparky, Vinny, Beaver, Wuzzy and Mike. They looked so docile, waiting for customers, that only dim memory reminded how formidable they could appear to a child trying to choose a gentle mount.
The alpacas, Laverne and Shirley, had doe-like faces. Both moved forward and Laverne made a strange sound, somewhere between a whine and a hum. "Yeah, she's talking," Tim said. "They probably want you to put a quarter in the feed machine."
Each pen was equipped with a revenue-producing pellet dispenser. Tim said the level of the feed in the machines is monitored to make sure the animals aren't overfed during working hours. They get their main meals of grain and hay at morning and night, inside the trailers where they sleep.
"Oh yeah, they all know when it's dinnertime," he said. "They get a little antsy. It's like people going on a trip, waiting in line to go on an airplane. They're all anxious to get in there and get their seat."
Tim said the Commerfords and their animals would all be at the farm in Goshen on Christmas Day. The animals, he said, would eat twice just as they do every day, but they might get some treats, like leftover cookies, fruit or even fruitcake. Tim knew fruitcake's reputation as the Christmas food that never goes away.
"Well that's just it, the animals love it," he said. "You know any animal likes junk food. They like anything with sugar in it just like we do. If you can give a kid a bag of cotton candy you can give a 1,200-pound camel a bag of cotton candy, too. Everything's got a sweet tooth."
Finally, a potential child rider showed up. Her father, Carlos Busdello, said her name was Cindy and that she was 2½. Cindy was wearing blue jeans and a red sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over her head. From beneath the hood dangled two braids of dark hair, beaded at the end. Her father said she was afraid to ride any of the animals. Cindy was transfixed near the pen with Buster the calf and Joey and Jerry, the goats.
Who is your favorite animal, she was asked. Cindy raised her arm and pointed to Joey. It was nice to believe the young goat returned the affection. He stood with his front hooves on the lower rung of his pen, craning his neck over the top toward Cindy, who stayed a safe five feet away.
- Joel Lang
Let the Tree Be Lighted, and Let the Good R's Roll
It's a weirdly warm evening in Bushnell Park. The mellow strains of a saxophone solo emanate from the stage set up in the shadow of the illuminated Capitol dome. The lights in the cluster of office buildings and high-rises ringing the park glow like dull candles.
It's Christmas tree-lighting night. On this, the evening of Dec. 6, 2001, the city will light one evergreen, a massive blue spruce trucked in from New Britain. Ribbons of light won't drape every tree in the park, as in Christmases past.
As workers trickle out of the buildings around the park, little clumps of people begin making their way over the grass. The stage is bright and crowded. The Hall High Jazz Band and the pop act Tirebiter are warming up, blending a strange medley of Christmas standards, jazz riffs and pop tunes.
The Hall High girl singer in her red party dress stands before the big band. Her voice wobbles a bit. "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas..." The temperature hit a high of 74 degrees today at Bradley Airport. It doesn't feel like Christmas, but a valiant attempt is under way here to usher in the season. A few notables - and semi-notables - have gathered to host the event, and more people are coming over the grass now.
Couples holding hands, mother and toddlers, stooped grandparents and buoyant children, groups of women friends - the gals from the office - who'll hit a few bars afterward. Everyone looking for a little Christmas spirit.
They came here seeking something three months ago, too. The night of Sept. 14, more than 3,000 stricken souls holding candles packed Bushnell Park. Flags were waved. Spontaneous chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A." broke out. A great, un-nameable grief bound us all to each other. We groped that night to find our feet, feeling our way around this unthinkable thing that had happened.
Tonight's crowd doesn't come close to the throngs of Sept. 14, but the turnout is respectable.
"Good evening and welcome to Key West. I'm Ray Dunaway and this is Jodi Rell. I'm on radio station WTIC, and she runs the state. Well, what can I tell you?" Dunaway is aglow, carrying the show. His crest of white hair gleams. His bouncy "radio" voice evokes a game show host. The one-liners keep coming.
Rell, in a plum-colored pantsuit, is a good sport, smiling, injecting a note of solemnity where she can. Dunaway introduces the Graffiti Singers of Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford. The teens troop on stage. "We need a little Christmas," they sing as one. One boy singer in front never loses the stunned, deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. They finish and troop off.
"That's it?" a woman wearing a UConn sweatshirt in the crowd hisses to her friend. "They do one song? They came all the way out here to do one song?"
Apparently, because Dunaway has reclaimed the microphone. He's introducing a special guest, Hartford's new mayor, Eddie Perez and his "lovely wife Maria."
Perez, in an olive suit and holiday tie, gives his greetings, then begins sounding his campaign themes. "Hartford's on the rise," he proclaims. "We're going to be New England's rising star and I want you all to be part of it."
"Ladies and gentlemen, Eddie Perrrrez!" Dunaway thunders, strangely rolling the "r" in Perez this time. "Feel free to get a free sample from our friends at Dunkin' Donuts," Dunaway adds. A coffee booth with freebies is set up off to the side.
A few young children approach the stage and drop money into a red Salvation Army collection kettle hanging just off stage. Dunaway takes note and approaches the kettle. "Oh now they've shamed me into doing this," he says, digging in his pockets. His loose changes clinks into the kettle.
Candles are being lit. "Although it's been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you..." the girl in the red dress is singing. When she finishes, Rell steps forward, exclaiming over the unseasonably warm night.
"Last year we were out here with earmuffs and scarves and hats and boots," she says.
"I think it has something to do with Mayor Perrrrrez," Dunaway says. The "r" is getting out of control now. It's unclear how the warm weather is linked to the mayor. But the show is going on.
Planning for tonight started just two days after Sept. 11, Rell tells the crowd. They nixed all the lights this year, she says, because no one had the heart for them.
"We want to be respectful of those who lost their lives and all of those who are grieving," she says. The 50-foot spruce represents "quality instead of quantity."
"That's 50 feet," she says.
"Fifty feet," Dunaway parrots. "Next year we're gonna come back and be brighter than ever. I love these lights as much as you do."
There is a moment of silence in memory of the dead and all the workers who've broken their backs and hearts at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. When the moment passes, the crowd remains silent. Dunaway, too.
Then Tirebiter is playing an original patriotic song, written, according to Dunaway, during the Gulf War.
It was patriotic songs the night of Sept. 14, too. "God Bless America" especially. There were tears and quavering voices. There was sorrow and a sort of fierce, burgeoning love. Defiance. A feeling that come what may, we would never abandon or forget our place.
Dunaway must be rubbing off on Rell. When Santa comes on stage to give away candy canes after the song, she asks, "Can I tell Santa that I've been a good girl?" Dunaway doesn't answer.
"Say thank you," parents remind the children who swarm around Santa.
The crowd counts down together, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and someone flips an unseen switch. The spruce comes alive. Bright multicolored points light its branches. A man in the crowd is reminded of his own bum lights at home. They're malfunctioning on his roof, and he's been climbing up and down a ladder a lot.
"They're cheap lights," he tells a companion. "As soon as I take them down, I'm throwing them out."
Never mind, Dunaway is bringing the show home now. There is a singalong, with Eddie Perez belting out "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Not a single "r" is rolled by the Spanish-speaking mayor.
There is a sense of fun and abandonment.
Let's stay and sing all night, Dunaway urges. With pizza for everyone. "All on the City of Hartford! Thank you, Mayor Perez!" he jokes. Then he repeats "Perrrrez."
Perez doesn't acknowledge the "r." Neither does anyone else. A soft, silly warmth is moving through the crowd. Strangers smile at each other. The twinkling spruce has this effect on people.
The crowd is thinner tonight, much thinner than Sept. 14. And not as frightened. Or as angry. Or as lost. But these people are still looking for something.
Peace on earth? Maybe next year. Goodwill toward all men? Be honest: That's a tough thing to muster right now. Joy? Sort of, only it may be a little too soon to ask that much. Hope may have to suffice this year.
- Karen Guzman
At the Save `N' Discount
At 4:30 p.m. Sunday Dec. 16 we realized two things: We had no red tissue paper, and we were about to run out of gift labels. After a day of driving far and wide through the Shoreline, shop to shop, and so much left to do in the way of wrapping and packing and mailing, this was no way to wind up the day. So I pulled my coat back on and made one last trip a mile down Route 80 in the dimming light, past Cumberland Farms and True Value Hardware and Rocky's Liquors to Save 'N' Discount. Where a buck counts for something.
The store is bright, colorful, clean, but tired, with that over-rubbed look of a place where everything is from some sort of salvage operation. From a boombox in the back room, where all the Christmas stuff is kept, a generic chorus sang bland versions of holiday music that seem to have lost all sense of rhythm.
There are so many perfectly practical things here: Scotch tape rolls for 99 cents, dayglo pencils and pens, green-and-red-trimmed paper plates and cocktail napkins, fleece throws, toothpaste, a bag o' bows for a buck-twenty-nine.
I never liked the Save `N' Discount. My wife loves it; she gets stuff there all the time, incredibly cheap. Like barrettes and funny makeup kits and Barbie stuff for her niece. But this is not a place I go to regularly, because to me it always seemed so shabby, so full of crap.
All around the store you can find outcasts from the retail flow. Gaudy royal blue figurines of skaters that were manufactured in Romania or China to try to catch the coattails of some now-faded Olympic competition. Two blue and white Hulahoops hanging in the middle of a wall full of plastic things to toss on the beach. Diecast metal toy tractor trailers painted with the Red Sox logo and dated for the 2001 season (if you can make the connection, drop me a line). Just below, 11 Ichiro Suzuki baseball dolls with bloated heads and thin moustaches in cardboard and plastic cases (official souvenir baseball card included), waiting for the stray Mariner fan to drop by.
The inconsistency is jarring, but somehow cheering. The Ichiro dolls make me laugh. But it catches up with me in the Christmas section, where sit bins of white tissue paper, but, alas, no red. The boombox is mounted on a half-empty shelf. Everywhere are bright, fuzzy, red and green and white things. I searched in vain among the Santa globes, boxes of tinsel, bags of lights and stacks of tree stands. But I found the gift tags, and that nicely priced bag of red and green and gold bows. I was almost done and out of there. And then the music changed.
It was Bing Crosby, with the Andrews Sisters, singing a snappy "Jingle Bells." Now we had some rhythm. Then "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Now we had some swing. I was smiling, even in the stale air and amid all the painted corrugated cardboard and plasticine and imitation pine needles. I was thinking about other stuff it might be good to buy. How much Scotch tape DID we need? How about wrapping paper? I wondered if they had any fleece socks or something good for a stocking stuffer...I had to get a hold of myself. As I headed back through the store Bing crooned into "White Christmas," and I thought, you never know where the spirit will catch up with you.
- David Funkhouser
First published December 23, 2001