Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's From a New Perspective

We all watch television and look on the internet to see what the rest of the world is doing to celebrate New Year's.  It's the modern era, and even if we're out at a party or standing in Times Square itself, we wonder what the rest of the world is doing at midnight to ring in the new year.  So, it's not a great travel spot, but it did interest me a great deal, so I bring you two of the most unique islands in the world.  Big and Little Diomedes.  You may ask what is so unique about two frozen pieces of ice.  Well, let me tell you, coming from someone who is completely fascinated by Alaska and Russia, they are really something.  There was a point where the whole world was talking about the statement that Sarah Palin made about being able to see Russia from Alaska.  Sounded stupid, right?  Well, Little Diomede Island is in Alaska and Big Diomede Island is in Russia.  You really can see Russia from Alaska.

The native population was removed from Big Diomede Island during the Cold War and is now strictly military.  Not to say that people haven't visited there, but you would have to get permission from the Russian government.  In the winter you can ride a snowmobile over there if you like.  The Bering Strait freezes solid for a couple of months each year.  On Little Diomede Island is the village of Inalik and you can visit that town anytime.  You may need to make arrangements for a home visit, but the locals love visitors, so check it out.  About 130 people live on that island year round.  It's easier to get there in the winter than the rest of the year, so visiting for New Year's is perfect.

So, what's so fascinating about this place other than the fact that they are only 2.4 miles apart and are representing two countries that have a sordid history?  Well, the time difference, that's what.  The time difference between these two islands is 21 hours.  The International Date Line runs right in between them.  Big Diomede is called the Island of Tomorrow.  There is no place else on earth, accept some places around Antarctica where the dateline is so close to both sides.  They are far from pretty much everywhere else, but they are very close to one another.

The village of Inalik is on the west side of the island, and about four hours ago as I'm writing this, Big Diomede Island celebrated the new year.  If there were fireworks, the people of Inalik could watch.  As I'm writing this, Little Diomede Island will be celebrating the new year in about 17 hours.  If there are any fireworks there, the Russians can watch them.  It's a unique view of the world.  It's something that you can't get anywhere else.

So, on Big Diomede Island; Happy New Year!  On Little Diomede Island; Happy New Year's Eve!  I hope that I get to experience that one some day.  It's truly unique and no matter how unstable the relationship is between our two countries, they are neighbors in the Bering Strait.  I have heard stories about travel between the islands.  I bet they make pretty good neighbors.  After all, the natives that used to live on Big Diomede Island were somehow connected to the natives on Little Diomede.  So wherever you are, enjoy New Year's.  It's a great time for fresh starts and putting the past year's bad things to rest.  It's a great time of year, so enjoy![US]%20%28S%29%20^KW%20*AD&utm_term=%2Brussian%20tourist%20visa&utm_content=Russia%20%23BM

Thursday, December 24, 2015

There's No Place Like Home For the Holidays

Home has changed over the years, and so has the weather.  It's Christmas Eve, I'm sitting here getting ready to spend my last Christmas Eve closing a Walmart, and it's almost 65 degrees outside.  What on Earth happened to Christmas?  It still feels the same.  I still want to spend it with my family and friends, but the world gets in the way.  I miss all my friends from Indiana where I grew up, but they have mostly moved on too.  My family has scattered to the four winds, so we can't be together either. Thank God for Facebook, and thank you for creating it Mark Zuckerberg.  So, what is one to do?  What makes Christmas still Christmas in the family and friend kind of way?

My family has adopted new traditions.  Like my son and I go to Holiday Lights at Lake Compounce in Bristol, CT every year to celebrate Christmas.  It gives us a great evening together and we can normally work it into our busy schedules somewhere.  We also tend to take an evening and go for a drive to look at lights.  It's just one of those things that keeps us close.

But just once a year I think about home.  My home for 27 years was North Manchester, Indiana.  I grew up there, I went to college there, and I sometimes miss the place at Christmas.  North Manchester is a tiny town in northern Indiana, and it's biggest claim to fame is that Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson's Vice President, was born there.  There is a park dedicated to him, and I went to a now gone by the wayside elementary school named after him.  This strange fact is what has brought about one of my family's most important Christmas traditions.

There's a movie called "A Christmas Story."  We've all seen it.  It runs for 24 hours on TBS starting every Christmas Eve at 8 o'clock.  Every year I miss home a little bit, so every year at 8 on Christmas Eve we watch the movie.  Although the landmarks are all in Cleveland, the setting for this movie reminds me of home.  The school that Ralphie goes to looks exactly like my old elementary school in North Manchester.  The house that Ralphie lives in reminds me of Lori Barney's house on Bond Street, and the house across the street from Ralphie's school looks just like the Leonard's house that was across the street from my school.  It brings back fond memories and makes me feel better when I'm missing my family at Christmas.  Ever since my son was little, we've also tracked Santa on NORAD just for fun.

But North Manchester was where I grew up.  There were more churches than restaurants.  The Time Out Inn was where we all went to eat and hang out.  If we felt like dancing we went to The Inn.  The Old Order German Baptist Dunkers used to come to town after church on Sundays and eat at Dairy Queen.  They now have a Kentucky Fried Taco Bell, and there's a Pizza Hut.  Hardee's moved in when it was Burger Chef, but there was no McDonald's until I was 22.  There are more college students, surrounding farmers, and senior citizens than actual residents of the town, but at one point it was Good Morning America's best small town.

A huge point of pride is the local covered bridge.  Built in 1872 the bridge has become a local landmark, and they do a lot of work on it to keep it going.  But things tend to remain the same in North Manchester, and that's what I love about it.  I remember growing up and being able to sit in the street in some places, like in front of my parents' house and not worry about cars coming.  I remember being able to wander the streets at night and not worry about anything.  It was one of those towns where all of us kids took off, our parents had no idea where we went before the invention of the cell phone, and nobody worried.  It was a simpler time in a simpler place, and sometimes I really miss it.

At Christmas time we didn't go around carolling much, but we did hold performances at the retirement homes where we sang for the residents.  It made their season, and we all loved to do it.  Peabody Retirement Home has been around as long as I can remember, and was started by the Peabody family which once ran the town.  There are a lot of things in town named Peabody.

Marshall Park isn't the only park in town.  The main city park is right up the street from there and has all the Norman Rockwell you would want with the gazebo that gets decorated and lit up every year for Christmas.  Home of some of the few hills around, it's also where the kids go to sled, if the snow ever falls this year.  I used to meet up with my friends to go sledding there, and we would get all beat up.  It was a great time.

But, not only did I grow up in North Manchester, I spent my first two years of college at Manchester College.  It's a fabulous four year liberal arts school.  It flies below the radar of a lot of people, because Indiana is also home to Indiana University, Ball State, Notre Dame, and Purdue; but it is a terrific school that is highly acclaimed around the world.  They have students from several countries and professors from around the world as well.  There are activities in town geared for the students who don't go home for the holidays to make them feel at home in the community.  It's really nice for visiting students.

So, how do you spend you Christmas?  For me it's changed over the years.  This will be the first Christmas since my dad has passed and I worry about my mother who insists on staying in Arizona for the holidays.  It will be my last nightmare before Christmas at Walmart.  It will be the last time that I miss Christmas Eve Dinner with my family.  It will be the last time I Tivo A Christmas Story so I can watch it when I get home from work.  But, I can say that I'm thankful to have a wonderful family that puts up with me being gone for all the important stuff.  I love them, and I'm so thankful for all my friends and family.  I love that I have them, and I love that I get to spend Christmas with them every year.  No matter where home is, there's no place like home for the holidays.
Merry Christmas and Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Santa Claus?

Santa Claus is part of modern Christmas and he's everywhere and does everything.  He even drinks Coca Cola in Frankenmuth, MI.  He surfs in Melbourne, Australia; he rides a pink pig in Atlanta, GA; and he flies around the world at NORAD.  Santa Claus has been the main character in stories, movies, songs, poems, myths, and legends.  He talks to kids and finds out what they want to make the very presents that the children ask for appear under their Christmas Tree on Christmas Day.  Let's face it, who wouldn't want a job that made that many children happy?  Where I live, everyone wants to be Santa.  I don't blame them.  But, where did the legend come from, and what is it like there at Christmas?

In case you've ever wondered, Santa Claus comes from St. Nicholas.  St. Nicholas was a bishop in the times of Constantine and was born in the now historic port town of Myra, Turkey.  That is where the legend began.  St. Nicholas was a rather wealthy servant of God who inherited a significant amount of money from his parents.  He decided to do good with it.  As is the case still today, there were a lot of poor people in Myra, and at that point in time a dowry had to be provided by a woman's father in order for her to marry.  That became a purpose for St. Nicholas.  He took bags of coins and dropped them down chimneys of less fortunate women so that they would be able to marry and have a family.  That was the seed that grew into the gift giving legend of today.

The man had no idea what he started.  He had no idea that his good intentions would turn into a bunch of expectant children demanding video games for Christmas.  The Catholic Church canonized him not only as the patron saint of children but also the patron saint of sailors.  His kindness and generosity made the lives of hundreds of people better.  Nobody knows when St. Nicholas really died and his remains were stolen from Myra in the year 1087 and now lie in Bari, Italy.  The English started the ball rolling with St. Nicholas becoming father Christmas and then Santa Claus.  These days, Santa is hard at work with all his helpers around the world; making Christmas special for children.  But, we should remember that it was this man, St. Nicholas that was the root of the legend that is so beloved today.

Myra still sports it's Roman Ruins today, and is an amazing place to visit.  If you can make it on Christmas, you'll get to be there when the man himself is honored.  There are services at the Church of Saint Nicholas on Christmas to remember one of  the most generous men that ever lived.

So, come and take part in remember the history before the legend.  It's wonderful to know the true story, and to remember St. Nicholas.  It gives meaning to Santa Claus and I think that children would love to hear where their beloved legend started.  I raised my son to believe that the men in red suits were all there to remind us of the spirit of giving in the name of St. Nicholas.  He's fifteen now, and still loves Santa Claus.  So, if you like to visit interesting places for the holidays; this one is a whopper.  Take a tour and include the town where Santa Claus was born as Nicholas, later to become St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Children and Sailors.

Monday, December 7, 2015

What Should We Really Do At Christmas?

As Christmas comes closer, we all tend to sweat the small stuff like did we get Timmy the right video game and are all the lights on the tree actually blinking?  I work in retail and that makes this season particularly tough.  In my world we don't have time to spend with our families, and we don't have time to do good things for people other than our families, because we are too busy helping all of you make sure that Timmy gets the right video game.  All in all, that's just sad.  It's like we've all forgotten what the holiday is really all about.  Forget about your tree.  It's nice, but it was just an attempt to get Pagans to become Christians in the early centuries AD.  Lights are great, and I love the way they look on my tree and my house, but is that really the point of the world's most important single day?  More people either acknowledge or celebrate Christmas around the world than any other single day aside from New Years.  Even NORAD tracks Santa Claus.  And we love Santa, because he brings us great stuff that we wouldn't normally have.  It's all great, but at this time of year I thought it would be nice to mention what it's really all about.

Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ and he was reportedly born in a manger in a barn in Bethlehem, Israel.  So, this is the place that I want to talk about.  We all know it's dangerous in the Middle East.  We all know that Israel is a hot spot.  But, if you want to experience the real meaning of Christmas, there is no better place to go.  There are a bunch of places that do guided tours for you to get the most spiritually out of your holiday.  The best part of spending the holiday in Israel is that you get some spiritual uplifting and don't have to worry about the hustle and bustle of work and home.  Couldn't we all do with a little spiritual healing with our families at Christmas?

While there is a lot of shopping and there are Christmas Trees in the Holy Land, the mood is a little different there.  They live in the middle of the biblical stories that we've all grown up with.  They always have the reminder of how important to culture and spirit the story of Christ is.  God gave us his only son.  That's powerful.  His son was sent here to be our Savior.  That's important.  I believe that celebrating the holiday means that we should remember why we celebrate it.  Maybe going to the land of the source is a great way to remind us of the significance of this day.

History is another reason to visit the Holy Land during the holidays.  The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest churches in the world.  Every year at midnight at the beginning of Christmas Day there is a service held in Manger Square outside and thousands attend it.  It is a beautiful thing and should not be overshadowed by any political problems.  Religion, no matter which one, should be respected by everyone.  Christians gather here on pilgrimages every year, and they have a magical time.

There are so many things that most of us have to be thankful for in life.  There's more to life than things, however, and we should remember that.  No matter what anyone thinks of religion, it is a powerful thing, and I think that if we all can celebrate the holiday and buy the video games, we should all respect where it all came from.  Mary gave birth to a Savior that night and she and Joseph would raise him as their son.  The history as well as the spirituality is there for all to experience, and we should.

So, take a walk through time.  Get a hold of  one of the many places that take Holy Land tours during Christmas, and take a walk through the spiritual world of a lifetime.  History is alive and well in Israel, and the real meaning of Christmas shines through whatever else is going on.  Remember the real meaning of Christmas.

Even the Middle East loves Santa, but don't forget that came from Saint Nicholas who did the gift giving that started all that.  Look to history and find the roots of the Christmas that we know.  It's fascinating and it humbles us.  Maybe you aren't even Christian and that's just fine.  History is a powerful teacher, and the more you know, the more tolerance you'll have.  Ignorance is the enemy in these times.  Ignorance makes hatred.  Hatred makes violence.  Knowledge makes tolerance, peace and understanding.  Couldn't we all use a little bit of that?

Heal the spirit this year with a pilgrimage to Bethlehem and the Holy Land for Christmas.  Remind yourself what it's really all about.  Maybe, just maybe; you'll come away from the holiday with more than just the right video game.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Christmas 2015 is Coming so Now What?

Christmas is coming again, and it's time to find that special thing that brings the family together.  In a lot of cases, that means finding a place that's festive and Christmasy to do your shopping, dining, or just enjoying things that make the holiday meaningful and memorable for you and yours.  Last year one of the things that I talked about was the trend toward amusement parks having a holiday celebration, and that has been very successful.  I make time to go to Holiday Lights at Lake Compounce in Bristol, CT every year now.  I've also done the city thing where I go to New York and see the tree at Rockefeller Center see the Rockettes and look at the windows along 5th Avenue and take a ride in a carriage in Central Park.  That's good too, as long as you stay away from that line to see Santa at Macy's.  But in the spirit of the season, I thought I would mention a list of great places to go and have a special trip for your holiday.  They are in no particular order.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is a very traditional town and they love Christmas there.  The name most certainly started it all.  The entire town is done up every December so that you can have that beautifully lit experience and the decor of old world charm.  There are programs all through the month for traditionalists and modernists alike.  It is a great place to do your shopping, and a premiere place to mail your Christmas cards from.  We have a Bethlehem here in Connecticut, and I love to send cards with the postmark from Bethlehem.

Solvang, California is the kind of place that makes me wonder what it is that has made Bavarian, Dutch and German towns feel like Christmas to us all.  This Dutch town full of windmills and traditional buildings is beautiful all year round.  When they light it all up, it's a beautiful town for Christmas.  I really don't know about this one, because it's sunny and warm.  I have the same reservations about Christmas, Florida.  Nice name and namesake, but it's still warm and there's no chance for snow.  I don't know.  They do have great shopping and food in Solvang, and Christmas for that matter, but they do kind of fall low on my list.

Helen, Georgia is yet another Bavarian town, but this one comes with mountains.  At the end of Appalachia close to Stone Mountain and Ruby Falls, this village is quintessential Bavaria, which does make for a beautiful scene at Christmas.  They have activities all season long and they also do carriage rides, which just makes it feel like Christmas.  There's plenty of shopping and festivities to go with the scenery and the best part is that it looks like that all year round.

Fredericksburg, Texas is taking Bavaria to a whole new level with a lighted Bavarian town that sports a 26 foot tall traditional German pyramid at it's center.  Once again, we are in the south here, so it is warmer than a traditional Christmas seems like it would be, but Texas is full of German towns and such, and they all lend a traditional air to the holidays.  For some reason, Bavaria just says Christmas in this country.

Leavenworth, Washington is the little Bavaria that brings Norman Rockwell paintings to life.  This town goes all out on the lights, but they have the gazebo, the carolers, the ice skating, the snow, the mountains in the background and the evergreen trees everywhere that just scream Christmas.  It would be hard to think of anything but Christmas walking around this town this time of year.  Everywhere there are traditional links to Christmas and Christmas past.  You can even get roasted chestnuts at stands along the street.  This is one of the more popular towns in the country to visit at the holidays and it's not that far from Seattle, so getting in and out isn't bad either.  Just remember, there will be snow, and at Christmas time that's a good thing.

Santa Claus, Indiana is one of those places that says that Hoosiers aren't quite right, but they know how to have fun.  I can say that, because I come from there.  So, they founded a town and named it Santa Claus and the rest is history.  This whole town is built around Christmas.  Santa is everywhere all year round, and Holiday World is the amusement park for the tourists.  By the way, Holiday World, do a Christmas festival.  Get with the amusement park trends.  You're in Santa Claus, for heaven's sake.  At any rate, Christmas is crazy in this town. You can visit Santa, shop til you drop, and enjoy one of the most festive Christmas spots anywhere.

Frankenmuth, Michigan is another Little Bavaria that celebrates Christmas all year round.  This little town north of the Detroit area is a wonderland that can be enjoyed in all seasons, but all of those seasons are Christmas.  Not only is it home to amazing shopping and food, it also sports an indoor water park for year round fun, and the one and only Bronner's Christmas Wonderland.  Bronner's is the largest Christmas store in the world, and they aren't joking.  You can buy anything Christmas there.  They even have an entire section just for Santa suits.

North Pole, Alaska is probably the most intriguing spot for me.  Alaska does everything big, and this little town is no exception.  It's Christmas all year round here.  You can send your letters to Santa here and they will answer them.  Not joking.  They have a host of volunteers that answer Santa letters every year.  You can visit Santa anytime, but the Christmas season is really something.  You never have to worry about snow either.  It's Alaska.  If you can't make it to the far north in winter, check out the various websites for this town.  There are many things that they will help you do that can make your Christmas very special for the kids.

So, there are a lot of great places to spend some time at the holidays around the country.  I hope you get to visit at least one of those great spots, or you could enjoy the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, Illinois; the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee; the amazing things that they do at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota; see the Pink Pig in Atlanta, Georgia; or visit one of the Disney Parks for the holidays.  There are many things to do, places to go and Santas to see.  But, for that year round feeling that you can't get anywhere else, I bring you to New England.

South Deerfield, Massachusetts is the home of the Yankee Candle Company and it is Christmas there all year round.  This place is great because not only does it sit in New England which is gorgeous at Christmas time, but all of the festivities are inside out of the potentially cruel weather.  They have music shows by robotic performers, they have the inside of a medieval castle with thrones and all; even a drawbridge and a waterfall.  They have all kinds of Christmas rooms with trees, and villages, and trains and every tradition you've heard of.  You can get candy, cookies, chestnuts, and ice cream if you want.  It even snows inside this place.  You can visit Santa and Mrs. Claus in the middle of the toy store.  They have a restaurant, activities for the kids, and oh yeah, they sell candles.  You can spend all day inside out of the weather and still feel like you're outside celebrating Christmas in all those traditional Norman Rockwell ways.  If you get to spend some time in the area, you can also visit Historic Deerfield which is an antique town; once again, I'm not kidding.  People live there, yet they preserve the town of over 150 years ago.  If you have easily bored children, you can go to Magic Wings, the butterfly sanctuary as well.  It's a great area, and Yankee Candle is one of those amazing places that makes every day feel like Christmas.

So, there's some ideas for Christmas.  I hope that it helps you make some special memories for the year.  It's one of the busiest times of year, so don't miss the chance to spend some quality time with the family.  And you know, going to visit the family for Christmas is great, but having something special just for your little part of the family is good to.  So get out there and make some memories.  Enjoy!