In the year when we came to Alaska, a colleague invited us to his Christmas Open House. He gave us a hand-drawn map that also had the information on when the party would start and end. Of course, the invitation was not for Christmas exactly, but a couple of days after Christmas. We accepted to come, but were quite irritated about the wording “Open House” and the end time. In Europe, you only put the start date of a party on an invitation. There you expect that guests show up not a minute earlier than the given start time, but no later than 15 minutes after the given start time. However, being 15 minutes late is actually reserved to the academics because university classes typically start 15 minutes after the full hour. In other words, all guests except academics are expect to show up at the exact time.
After some discussion among each others, we decided that the times give the time frame of when the house is open like it’s the case when businesses do an open house. However, why would a private person do an open house? In Germany, only businesses do so to sell you something when you have drunk too many.
We decided to follow the German 15 minutes rule to show up 15 minutes after the given start time. The drive was on a four lane road that narrowed after leaving College into a two lane road along the Chena River. Shortly before the Chena joins the Tanana, the road turned and went up a steep hill. On this hill, there were the outlets of many little dark dirt roads as well as dark short driveways that led to middle class houses from the 70s or earlier. The light from a window or two were the only light you could see. There wasn’t even oncoming traffic. Everything seemed dark. The light of the car’s headlight were reflected once in a while from some ice crystals on the trees.
When we reached the point that corresponded to the cross on the map, we saw a wide driveway with an about 3 feet high stone pile to the left and right of it. These piles looked like the trail markers you see in Alaska. The natural stones were secured with cement. On top of each pile was a lamp that threw light onto the driveway.
We pulled into the driveway, but we couldn’t see a house. The driveway made a curve and gave view to a large open space with a house of 5000 sq ft at least (464 square meter). In front of the house was a huge parking lot with already six cars, but space for may be another ten cars or so. We parked and went to the door of the house. It was indeed open. Inside we were greeted by the smell of hot chocolate, coffee, and hot cider mixed with scents of cookies, fudge, smoked salmon, meat balls, cinnamon, and the needles of a fresh Christmas tree.
The wife of our colleague greeted us despite she had never met us before. We introduced ourselves and handed her a hostess gift. She led us in a huge living-room like kitchen. She then asked us what we wanted to drink. There was everything from Alaskan brewed beer, over Alaska vodka, Californian wine, orange and cranberry juice to said coffee, cider, and chocolate. Once she had given us our drinks, she led us thru the other door of the kitchen into a dining room. The table was full of food. Alaska smoked salmon, caribou meat balls, fudge, cookies, eggs, reindeer sausages, Alaska potato salad, noodle salad, lettuce, pickles, chips, pretzels, stollen, and chocolate. She said “help yourselves to some food. My husband is in the living room.” She pointed to the other door of the dinning room and then went back thru the door to the kitchen.
The living room had a beautiful fireplace on the northern side. A fire was peacefully burning turning the living room into a nice light romantic scene. On the southern side of the living room, a large window reflected the fire place. The window covered the entire front of the room from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. During daylight, it must have given a great view onto the Tanana River and the Alaska Range. In front of the window, there was a huge natural Christmas tree that reached from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. The tree was decorated the American way with many different colored bubbles, hundreds of little twinkle lights, and memory keepsake Christmas pieces from the good old times. Below the tree was a train that run around the tree the entire time while we were there. In the middle of the room, there were two coach tables with seating around them. Various pillows lay on the floor. On one side of the wall an antique desk with matching chair was placed. On the other side, a glass vitrine displayed a collection of the most beautiful China I had ever seen.
Our colleague greeted us, introduced us to the guests who were already there. They were all men except for one woman who looked and dressed like a man. She was about to go when we came in. My husband sat down on an armchair while I took my seat on one of the pillows. The men talked and talked about fishing, hiking, hunting, their time in the military, house repair and maintenance, canoeing, snow-machining, and a like. They only interrupted to get new food, munch on the nuts and cookies placed the plates on the two coach tables or getting new drinks.
We spent about two hours at the open house before we left. In the entire time no women were in the living room except the one who left early and me. I spent most of the time there watching the train peacefully taking its rounds around the tree and watching the fire while listening to the Christmas songs.
We got the invitation every year for ten years or so. And it was always the same scene like described above except for the tenth year. That year we were late, very late. To be precise we came about 45 minutes before the official end time. Guess what? The kitchen was full of women who were chatting there. I stayed in the kitchen after collecting some food, and there was as much food choice as there had been all the years at the earlier time. Our colleagues wife spent all the time filling up the plates and bowls in the dinning room.
In the living room, there were a handful of men talking there about the same things as they did since ten years. That year, I had real fun for the first time at the Christmas Open House. After the first year, I only had looked forward to the great fudge and incredibly delicious cider. Thus, after ten years, I was looking forward to the next Christmas open house. To have fun was all about the timing.
What are the Christmas traditions where you live? Are there things you are looking forward to? What are they? Let me know, I am curious.
Focus Alaska is a weekly series about Alaska lifestyle, curious, insider travel tips and everything Alaskan. You may also enjoy reading about a chat in an Alaska road house or about the food at Alaska potlucks.
Photos: G. Kramm
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