Up North, please meet me under the mistletoe

Max was sitting on the potty, yelling in that half-asleep moan that reminded us why there is an old adage that says to never wake a sleeping baby—or overly exhausted four year old. The snow was falling steadily outside. Lizzie was squirming and yelping with an obvious desire to match her brother’s screams decibel-for-decibel as I stuffed her back into her fleece bunting (for the fourth time that day).

By all accounts, it was a scene that would send most parents into head-shaking, tsk-tsk mode, because my post-Thanksgiving children were clearly in no state to get schlepped back out of our house at 5:25 p.m. on a Sunday evening.

And yet, schlep we did, because the town tree lighting was happening in five minutes. The weeks after Thanksgiving are always an emotional ode to Up North for me, kicked off by standing in the middle of Main Street with neighbors and friends, counting down the tree lighting with as much excitement as the ball dropping in Times Square on New Years. Well, at least it feels like that much excitement, if you watch through the eyes of a four year old.

Earlier that day, we’d been at a family friend’s farm, choosing our own Christmas tree. Noah—at nine—walked carefully through his friend’s blue spruce stand until he found just the right tree (which, upon getting it home, Justin and I almost peed our pants laughing at…perfect= Charlie Brown and then some). We left him to sled and eat popcorn balls and peacefully enjoy cut up with whoops and whizzing snowballs the silent, still air surrounding snow-heavy branches.

When we arrived home, Max and Lizzie crashed, exhausted from the biting north wind. Justin started a fire, and looked at me with that “really, are we going to drag them back out?” face. I almost changed into my sweats and settled for a glass of tea, which would have been a perfectly acceptable thing to do on such a damp, dark night.

But still. The tree lighting is so much more than a tree lighting. As we gather to sing carols and sip hot cocoa, we also reaffirm what it means to live in a community that still has a name, a character, a voice. We celebrate what it means to live in Harbor Springs, not Anywhere, USA.

I know, I know. I’m sounding a little golly-gee, aw-shucks about this. Here’s the thing: a little bit of open gushing is good for a place that still has locally-owned businesses; a place where my children are watched after by 10 sets of eyes every time they toddle or ride along a downtown sidewalk; a place where shop keepers hold books they know I will love, or toy store owners open boxed games to be played on their shelves, just to see the look on my child’s face.

We live in a place that rallies together to take care of our own.

And so, I welcome my ode to true community, to the qualities that are becoming rare treasures in an age where malls made to look like downtowns are springing up in the middle of cornfields.

This coming Saturday, my neck of northern Michigan will come together for the Mothers Acting Up Alternative Gift Fair, a place to shop for holiday “gifts” in the form of donations to specific local non-profit organizations. Last year, our tiny town raised some $42,000 for organizations that celebrate and protect life Up North. On December 6, we will host 11 non-profits dedicated to providing basic health and human services in our county. From $5 for free clinic patient vitamins to $175 to pay one week’s worth of shelter for a homeless person, folks will be purchasing gifts that make an equally amazing difference to both recipients and strangers. Standing in the middle of that Gift Fair, watching neighbors chatting, hearing representatives from each organization describe their missions with such passion, feeling the power of collective action—it becomes another tie that binds us together. It etches the face of my community into the deepest parts of who I am.

I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. I’m a transplant to the north, and like so many of my friends who chose to call this place home, my gratitude for living with roots that run like an oak is enormous. I often wonder—and worry—if my children will grow to have that same sense of appreciation for the magic of their hometown.


Watching Max on Sunday night, his face serious and eyes glued to the still dark silhouette of the town tree, I looked to my husband with a smile. We listened to our child as he whispered a jumbled countdown (10-7-4-2-6-1!). We saw his eyes widen as green, red, and white lights popped into the reflection of his gaze. A collection of voices rose quietly, sending Silent Night from the street to the starless sky like a prayer.

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9 thoughts on “Up North, please meet me under the mistletoe”

  1. Thank you for sharing a tradition of lighting the tree affecting lives from 90 to 4 year olds every year, you describe them so well.
    Communities everywhere take notice of the Alternative Gift Fair. What a small town can do in one day to help those who are in need is amazing. This time of year there is a special sense of pride living in this small town. Thank you Kate for all you do.

  2. Well Kate- it seems I look forward to your small town flavor and appreciation every week. Not only do I enjoy your writing but it always reminds me just how lucky we really are to live in norther Michigan, Also, I want to say that your photos aee outstanding. Thanks again

  3. what a great narrative of a wonderful tradition, something you certainly won’t find everywhere. you are blessed to live where you do. thanks for sharing your town and family with the rest of us, you are a wonderful writer.

  4. I miss home! As if I didn’t miss it enough already, your writing makes me even more home sick, but the funny thing is I live in a small town, with character and beauty, the difference, the main reason Harbor Springs is Harbor Springs, the reason I am home sick is 100% the PEOPLE.

  5. This, Kate, is marvelous: “As we gather to sing carols and sip hot cocoa, we also reaffirm what it means to live in a community that still has a name, a character, a voice.” The kind of thing that I would underline twice in a book and scribble in the margin: “Yes! Yes!” Your pictures, in words and otherwise, of your place in the world, are just wonderful – makes me want to move to Harbor Springs, and at the same time reminds me of why I love where I live, too – which also hosts a very celebrated tree lighting at the square. Here’s something wonderful: Harbor Springs, and also the fact that there are, spotted throughout our country, places like Harbor Springs that make America something to be very proud of. I hope some civic organization is paying you big bucks to be such good advertisement for the region. 🙂 Love you, Kate, I really do. 🙂

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